Interview: Singer/Songwriter Melody Gardot's 'One and Only Thrill'

MG01_credNicholasJbara.jpg
Melody Gardot / Photo by Nicholas Jbara

The sound of Melody Gardot's voice feels like a swath of dramatic black and white, evoking images of film noir and mint juleps. In describing her demeanor and jazz-tinged music, words such as vamp, moxie, sass, and verve can't help but emerge. However, Gardot's easy delivery has been hard won. Six years ago, when her involvement with music was more of a flirtation, she was struck by a Jeep Cherokee while riding her bike. The following years presented staggering challenges—such as hypersensitivity to noise and light, and unbelievable pain throughout her body—but Gardot has fought through them. In fact, her singing and songwriting career came out of the music therapy she used to reconnect the neural pathways in her brain.

On the heels of her second major studio album release, My One and Only Thrill, Gardot is touring the United States and will appear at the Troubadour Monday night. LAist spoke with her last week to chat about the new record, why she's sworn off pants and why she loves Venice Beach.

LAist: You've said that this new album, My One and Only Thrill is ambitious and more cinematic than your debut. Which song off the new album do you think best reflects that?

Melody Gardot: It's a tie between "Our Love Is Easy" and "My One and Only Thrill." The beginning of "Our Love Is Easy" almost sounds like a funeral procession. I imagine these eight-foot tall men in giant cloaks carrying love in a casket. It's like a very gray scene—like M. Night Shyamalan meets Fellini. It's romantic, but it's really scary.

Then when it comes to "My One and Only Thrill," there's something about the middle of that song that when I first heard it—and I don't listen to my own music a lot because I'm the one making it—but it gave me this feeling of Alice in Wonderland going down the rabbit hole.

The album is so intimate; it's amazing how you capture that vibe. What are your ingredients when it comes to creating that sound? Do you have a special mic you like to use?

I do have two microphones I like to use, one in particular more than the other. But I think the key to the sound is that I really like to have the whole band perform at the same time. That actually works well with my sense of time, which is really strange and very natural.

I don't work well with a metronome or a click track. My time kind of undulates a little bit, so it's not quite static, and the musicians I play with understand it. That also lends itself to a sense of intimacy because everything is just right in front of you. Plus, I'm not really a screamer.








Melody Gardot - "Baby I'm a Fool"

How do your live shows compare with your studio sound?

There's a huge difference between our live sound and the sound on the record. A lot of it is down to this un-canning of the emotions inside the songs. So the record is ultimately supine—it's from the point of view of ultimate femininity. But now as we move forward, what's happening is that I'm embracing a little more masculinity as far as attitude goes.

Our show last night in New York City is a good example. Before the show, the audience had to stand outside in the rain for an hour because the piano was shipped late. I felt bad and we tried to get through sound check as quickly as possible. The piano was breaking and the sustain pedal broke three times, but we were finally ready to open the doors.

Cover__300CMYK.jpg
My One and Only Thrill
Did the pedal hold out?

No. We got on stage and in between the first and second songs, the sustain pedal broke again. I turned to my drummer and I said, "It's broken!" and he said, "Tell them a story!"

So I started talking about being in New York for the first time and being really grateful. In the meantime, my drummer was crawling all MacGyver-like under my feet, in the dark, fixing the pedal.

Then I told the audience, "I just want to apologize to all of you who had to wait in the rain. I know how uncomfortable that can be because I'm like a cat when I get outside. But I have to tell you, if you were going to complain, don't—because you came to my show and you got wet, so it's like you got a two for one!" They all started laughing, the pedal was fixed and we went on.

I have a very dry and sort of off-the-cuff sense of humor, and that comes out in the shows. It's sort of slightly inappropriate for people under 16, but it's part of being a woman.

One of my favorite songs from the new album is "Les Étoiles." Is your songwriting process different when you write in French?

It changes the way I think, probably because although I'm competent in French, I'm not as fluent in that as I am in English. For instance, I learned how to play the piano as a child, but then I taught myself guitar. As a result, I have more freedom on guitar. And it's similar with French because when I don't have a full grasp of things, it makes me think in a more poetic way. What I try to say and how I try to say it is more expression and less language.

I think a perfect example of that is Portuguese. A lot of Brazilians speak English, but because they knew Portuguese first, the way they speak English is very poetic. They try to express something, but their language automatically prevents them from having full access to the normal idiomatic phrases that we use, so they say things we would never think of.

Who are your favorite French singers—including the modern day?

Straight off, I go to Jacques Brel. I love him and think he's incredible. Of course Piaf, Serge Gainsbourg and Trenet are amazing. Carla Bruni has a beautiful voice and she’s such a lovely woman. With the French, everything's like lace. The women are so delicate in their vocals, unless you go to cabaret.

Speaking of cabaret, as I was preparing for the interview and listening to the album, a friend walked in, and when she heard "Your Heart Is as Black as Night" she said she wanted to do a striptease for her boyfriend to that song.

That's fantastic. What's really funny is that we wanted to do a video for this song, and what I wanted was a 50-year old, out-of-work, past-her-prime stripper to be running around and dancing. But it wouldn't have been in a way that was cheesy and rude or anything. There's this really interesting enigma and you can get these really subtle undertones of comedy, sadness and darkness with a woman who is in her mid-50s and stripping.








Melody Gardot - "Your Heart Is as Black as Night"

I like that idea. And I also really loved the dancing in your "Baby I'm a Fool" video.

I love dancers. I want dancers in all of my videos. It reminds me of something I've heard in the past: That the sign of music being good or bad isn't down to notes or perfection—it's down to expression, if you can dance to it or if you can make love to it.

I really enjoyed your new spin on "Over the Rainbow." What was that process like?

I initially didn't intend to write a new arrangement for that song. I was just writing one day and found these chords, and as I kept writing I realized the song was sort of the amorphous sister to "Over the Rainbow." It was undeniable and there was no writing over the top of those changes because it was so obvious it was that song.

The chord progressions are very different because I didn't write it after listening to the music; the melody just presented itself and it was an unusual way of finding the tune. And it fits my voice. I'm sure there's some instinctive muscular reason why I went that way.

You include some scat here and there throughout the album. Was scat hard when you first tried it? You make it sound so natural.

When I was recovering from the accident [more details here], I started learning guitar, and I started singing even though I wasn't really a singer before. I had this thing called anomia which is the inability to formulate words. It's really frustrating because your brain is working but there's a four-foot gap between your brain and your mouth. So you're thinking, but you can't express.

When I sat there trying to sing, I attempted to verbally express what I was doing on the guitar. The first noises I made after the accident weren't really words; they were just like baby talk—little phrases that usually centered on the letter G. And it evolved from there.

MG02_credNicholasJbara.jpg
Melody Gardot / Photo by Nicholas Jbara
Just the other day, we were in the studio working on some stuff. We wound up doing a cover of "Smooth Operator," which was hysterical because it wasn't on purpose. I just found two chords on the piano, and then the bass player, sax player and drummer started grooving. After that, we turned it into "Summertime," "Please Don't Stop the Music," "Rapper's Delight," "Moondance," "My Funny Valentine," and it went on for 12 minutes. I just listened to it and realized that half of it is scat.

Does the type of scat vary depending on your surroundings?

It often changes with my musicians. I had a trumpet player around me for a long time and I would mimic the sound of the trumpet like a bird. I have a sax player around me now and I'm starting going to go down into the clarinet and sax range with my voice.

I play with a bassist who's aggressive and funky, and when I was listening to that recording, all of a sudden I heard myself go "UH!" (laughs) I listened to it on repeat four times and my assistant was there so I asked her, "What was that?" And she said, "You're listening to the bass so you're doing this new thing." It was like a little bear got on the microphone.

Do you have any advice for people trying scat for the first time?

Just try to be playful and expressive. It's like a sandbox. You're just making things. Eventually you have this moment where you step back and look and listen. Sometimes you start laughing because what you're doing is just ridiculous!

Do you often try out different phrasings when you're recording a song?

The phrasing is always set. The music happens the way it happens, but the phrasing is like the laces that tie up the shoes. It has a place.

You were a fashion design student before your accident. Might you ever release your own line of clothing? Or perhaps a line of eyewear?

Well, the eyewear thing is probably more likely. At the moment, the way I dress changes so frequently because my sense of aesthetic keeps evolving. I've been spending so much time in Europe, that it's going in a completely different direction.

One thing that's happened in the last couple years is that I've sworn off pants. I'll never wear pants again because I just don't like them. So I wear tights with my outfits almost every day. I've absolutely fallen in love with this one company, Wolford, that makes amazing lingerie, tights and outerwear.

Since you'll be in LA soon for your show on Monday, what are some of your favorite places to visit?

There are a couple places I really love. Down in the Venice area, there are two restaurants I often visit, Lily's and Axe. Another place I love is the Little Door. It's a French restaurant and it's unbelievable. They make the best beet salad ever. It's in a beautiful garden and they have great wine. I can't say enough good things about it.

I really dig the area around Abbot Kinney in Venice, as well as Santa Monica. I love the PCH drive all the way up, and some of the spots where you can go hiking. Venice provides the experience of running into really creative, strange, unusual and crazy people.

The Venice boardwalk is like a circus. I once saw a guy playing a piano with a bucket next to him. He was playing like a madman, but the piano was so out of tune that it sounded like it had been on a ship for six years. Yet there was still something really beautiful about it.

Thank you for speaking with LAist, Melody!

Don't miss Melody Gardot this Monday, October 26, at the Troubadour. Tickets are available here. To learn more about her music, visit www.myspace.com/melody.