Philly songbird Melody Gardot flies far on new disc

Melody Gardot’s 2009 breakout, "My One and Only Thrill," has sold millions of copies abroad. Shervin Lainez
Melody Gardot’s 2009 breakout, "My One and Only Thrill," has sold millions of copies abroad. Shervin Lainez
Posted: May 30, 2012

Listening to the impeccable, irresistible new Melody Gardot album, "The Absence," it’s hard not to be struck by the set’s daring, worldly nature.

Wow, has our fragile Philly songbird "flown" far and wide!

Yes, the set holds true to the whisper-light (yet often heavy of heart) cabaret-jazz persona (and biopic-worthy backstory) that first drew fans to Gardot’s coos with the 2008 release "Worrisome Heart," and then to her 2009 international breakout, "My One and Only Thrill."

Although both albums have proved mildly successful in the U.S., the latter’s sold "millions of copies abroad [and] made Melody a star in France, Germany, Sweden and Japan," said her good friend, mentor and sometime collaborator, local singer/songwriter Phil Roy.

The pop chanteuse has long touched international ears with a little jumbled French/English lyric-slinging, "kind of the way Frank Sinatra might get away with it," Gardot shared recently with a laugh. Oh, and she also dabbled in bossa nova on the last album, in a Gardot-goes-Getz kinda way.

But her audacious new album also extends Gardot’s reach to other lands and cultures she’s since been absorbing firsthand — the sensual tango rhythms of Argentina, the magnificent sorrow of Portuguese Fado and the cacophonous street-party rhythms of Morocco — all places where "music is a central expression of life," she said.

A wandering heart

Gardot has been a bit of a nomad, "living out of suitcases" since her childhood, she related the other day in a chat from London. She was largely based in New Jersey as a child, but her photographer/artist mom moved around a lot, often entrusting Melody (or whatever she was called back then; she won’t reveal her real name) to the care of her grandparents. Today, this "citizen of the world" is partly driven by popularity abroad and partly by her inquisitive nature to get inside the world’s music and learn the local language as best she can.

"There is no English translation," she said, "for a concept like saudade," an emotion at the core of Fado music and of new Gardot gems like the amazing, bitter-blue "So We Meet Again My Heartache." "Saudade is not sadness. It’s an emotion that you can feel in the eyes of people you love. It’s an emotion that means ‘I’m happy to miss you.’ It’s a different way of being."

Her big breaks

Although the artist prefers to concentrate on the positives, Philadelphia delivered both the best and worst of times for Gardot. She started playing piano in local restaurants and bars — strictly standards, with no singing — while she was studying fashion design at Community College of Philadelphia.

And she was discovered here and embraced by Roy, who’d feature her as his opening act, and by WXPN-FM’s midday host Helen Leicht, the first to play Gardot’s music on the radio.

But in between was a dark period. Gardot was severely injured in a 2003 accident when her bicycle was struck by a Jeep in Old City. The then-18-year-old suffered multiple broken bones and brain injuries that left her unable to remember things and extremely sensitive to light and sound.

Music therapy was recommended, and as she couldn’t play piano on her back, Gardot took up guitar and started writing autobiographical songs that would later resonate with Leicht at an open-mic night at World Cafe Live, Leicht related recently. "I asked her if she had a CD and she did — literally one — from a homemade recording. So she ran me off a copy and I started playing her music on my ‘Philly Local’ show."

Gardot connected first to Roy via a fan letter telling him she admired the quiet intensity in his music, a concept that would also become her mantra. "It’s not a stylistic device," Gardot told me. "It’s that I no longer have a taste, a desire for anything else. The good thing is that my [hypersensitivity] has made me extremely conscious of details, sensualities, subtleties. That’s why my music has become what it is."

For the new album, she’s been aided and abetted by the Brazilian-born producer/arranger/guitarist/film scorer Heitor Pereira, a kindred spirit she met through Roy.

The circle game

One of the best and probably most radio-friendly tracks on "The Absence" is a perky, Afro-folk-pop-flavored ditty called "Amalia" that was written by Gardot, Pereira and Roy "in an old-fashioned, one-day, almost-by-chance songwriting session in L.A., where I was briefly visiting to play a gig with my chef friend Marc Vetri," Roy said. "It’s funny how those things come full circle."

Gardot has also come full circle with Leicht. "When my mom was very sick with lung cancer a couple years ago, Melody came to her hospital bed in Delaware County and sang a few songs — like ‘Over the Rainbow.’ Then when I got sick [with ovarian cancer], she was on the phone, very gracious and sweet. And then a flood of care packages started coming from Amazon — macrobiotic cookbooks, which Melody has found very helpful with her own issues."

How’s Melody’s health today? "We take every day with a grain of salt," she said. "A body is a peculiar entity. Sometimes it does you a favor. Sometimes it doesn’t do you justice. … Flying puts a lot of compression on the spine. I need to take great care. Sometimes we’ve had show delays [because of] my therapist working on me backstage. But I’ve only missed one concert, and that [was] because my voice was shot."

"I saw her a couple months ago," said Leicht. "She looks great, very glamorous. She’s still wearing the dark glasses because of the light sensitivity. And she’s got a cane — a very fancy one — which I think she mostly carries ‘just in case.’ The thing is, she was also wearing very high heels. I asked ‘How can you do that, Melody?’ ‘I’m not giving up my shoes, Helen,’ she replied. ‘I’d die first.’ " n

Contact Jonathan Takiff at 215-854-5960 or takiffj@phillynews.com. Read his blog at philly.com/philly/blogs/gizmo.

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