Popular songs are full of heartache, but the music of suffering feels a little different when Melody Gardot sings a line like "Come and join me in my pain," as she does on her new album, The Absence. Aside from romantic disappointments, Gardot knows more about debilitating physical pain than most who call the microphone their instrument.
Gardot's life as a shape-shifting jazz musician really began in suffering, after she was struck by a Jeep Cherokee in 2003 while riding her bike. The near-fatal accident left the 18-year-old fashion student with severe skeletal and neurological damage.
She spent a year in a hospital bed, unable to walk or speak properly. She couldn't recall things that had happened an hour before, or how to do simple tasks like brushing her teeth.
"I felt like I was 85, helpless," she says in The Accidental Musician, a 2010 documentary. At a certain point, rather than have her awareness continually dulled by painkillers, "I decided I would rather have the pain."
She had played piano in bars part-time, so her doctor suggested that music might help restore her damaged neural pathways. She learned to play guitar in bed, and began writing and singing songs, quietly, because she couldn't tolerate loud sounds and bright lights (and still can't).
A friend posted a few songs to a Myspace page, her recovery continued, and within three years she had an album. Verve rereleased the disc in 2008, and stayed with her for a second album, My One and Only Thrill, produced by Larry Klein, long-time producer (and ex-husband) of Joni Mitchell.
Gardot, who is fresh off a date at the Montreal International Jazz Festival and begins a European tour this month, may be the only figure on the jazz circuit who walks on stage with a cane while wearing four-inch stiletto heels. Her music poses a similar meeting of opposites. Her smooth cooing vocal sound can seem sultry, but it's also well tuned to the vibrations of suffering. Her lyrics feel intensely personal, but they can also take refuge in defensive distancing, as in her recent song, If I Tell You I Love You, I'm Lying.
Gardot's music finds a ready outlet on the smooth-jazz stations of the radio world, but there's something darker going on here than the desire to swing with minimal ruckus. When she's murmuring lyrics about departure, in the cheerful kiss-off tune, So Long, or the sinister cabaret number, Goodbye, you get the sense that this farewell is for keeps.
When she had finished touring with the songs of My One and Only Thrill, Gardot spent a year travelling in Portugal and Brazil. The Absence, produced by film composer and guitarist Heitor Pereira, abounds in Brazilian rhythms, and in the bluesy intonations of Portuguese fado.
The latter are most evident in So We Meet Again My Heartache, in which Gardot adopts a few of the crushed vocal ornaments typical of fadistas. Lisboa, however, slinks along above a gentle samba beat, like a transatlantic tribute to the old country.
Gardot, who grew up poor in Philadelphia, can now afford to live where she likes, which is usually Paris or one of the Hawaiian islands. The effects of her life-shaping accident (which prompted her to become a promoter of music therapy) can still flare up dramatically, as for example when she collapsed during the soundcheck for a major concert in 2009. She spent three hours with an osteopath, and crept on stage trembling. In the end, the music rescued her, as it had done before, and by the close of the concert, she was dancing.
"I really hope that life never gets too comfortable, because I believe that all art needs to come from suffering," she says, with the authority of experience, in The Accidental Musician. "If it starts to feel too good, my writing goes the other way."