sun 14/07/2024

Interview: Melody Gardot, Mysterious Traveller | reviews, news & interviews

Interview: Melody Gardot, Mysterious Traveller

Interview: Melody Gardot, Mysterious Traveller

How Portugal and South America inspired singer's third album

Club tropicana: 'I wanted to learn something new,' says Gardot

It was already apparent from Melody Gardot's last album, My One and Only Thrill, that she harboured a more than passing infatuation with the music of Brazil and Latin America. "I love Brazilian music, it's one of my favourite genres," she said at the time. "I love the Stan Getz bossa nova years, I love Getz/Giberto, Jobim, Caetano Veloso... "

Three years on, Gardot reaffirms her presence with The Absence, a disc on which her latin leanings have erupted into a full-scale rain forest of shimmering strings, lissome acoustic guitars, supple beats and feline melodies. At a recent showcase performance in London to promote the album release, the singer's previously laconic, jazz-clubby presence had morphed into something out of a 1940s Hollywood musical, like a big-band set piece at the Tropicana Lounge. Gardot even started lapsing into Portuguese onstage.

Portugal, it seems, has become something of a spiritual home for her. Following a gruelling schedule in the wake of the last album, "which was three years of touring and running around the world and being very tired," she wanted to go somewhere where she could throttle back to a more sedate tempo, but also learn while she went along.

"If you don't have something to do you can squander all your time, so I wanted to learn new things and find more to draw on," she explains, looking arrestingly exotic in sunglasses, diaphanous scarf and hair sculpted into a kind of blonde designer-Afro. "I went to Portugal knowing I would start learning the language and start learning some new instruments, so I would have something new to do when it came around to writing new songs. I found some really beautiful teachers to start learning Portuguese guitar, and I found out that there were two kinds of Portuguese fado music. There was fado from Coimbra and fado from Lisboa, and at first I tried the fado from Lisboa."

Gardot's initial experiments in this traditional Portuguese form didn't quite hit the spot - "the timbre and tuning of the Portuguese guitar wasn't fitting with the kind of scales I was referencing" - and then somebody suggested she should investigate the Coimbra variant, a more classically-inclined strain. It was in Coimbra that she met Luisa Amaro, the widow of the revered fado composer and guitar virtuoso Carlos Paredes (also a folk hero, thanks to his record of resistance to the Portuguese dictatorship during the 1950s and '60s).

"Carlos wrote some of the most difficult pieces to play on the Portuguese guitar, which is very different from the Spanish guitar," Gardot continues. Indeed, one critic commented that the instrument demands the dexterity of a fly and the muscles of a horse. "Luisa was the only one who could play with him because he had a very special sense of time, and so they got married. Carlos passed away a few years ago, and now Luisa is like his living legacy and plays all his pieces. She became my teacher and began playing with me, and I really loved the classical nature of the music. It reminded me of some of the great composers like Wagner and Chopin and Liszt. It's very poetic.

"In a way Coimbra is like the Cambridge of Portugal, you have a lot of poets and a lot of literary minds. Everybody plays the guitar, but they do it privately, at home for their friends. Women, surprisingly, were only allowed to play fado in Coimbra about eight years ago for the first time. So my life became studying and learning and drinking porto until all hours of the night, talking about philosophy and history. It was like getting a history lesson in Portuguese while I was still trying to pick up the language."

Further travels took her to Brazil, Argentina and Colombia (in fine jazz-boho style, she says she doesn't own a house, but just lives with whatever she can carry with her), and eventually she felt ready to begin writing the new album. Last time around she'd worked with producer Larry Klein (formerly Mr Joni Mitchell), alongside arranger Vince Mendoza. This time, she availed herself of the multiple skills of Brazilian musician Heitor Pereira, who played guitar in Simply Red once upon a time but is now usually to be found in Los Angeles writing soundtracks for children's movies like Beverly Hills Chihuahua and Despicable Me.

"I was introduced to Heitor by my friend and mentor Phil Roy," she explains. "Phil has written songs for Ray Charles and Mavis Staples and he's had umpteen record deals, so he's been my guide to the music business. The three of us first met about four years ago. We sat down in a little trio, and Heitor started to play and we were just playing music together. He's really gifted and really in tune with inspiration. He can just turn it on at the drop of a hat, which he often has to do these days when he's working in cinema." 

Gardot herself wrote the bulk of the material on The Absence, from the bustling bossa nova of "Mira" to the tragic slow blues of  "So We Meet Again My Heartache", but Heitor's fingerprints as producer, arranger, writer and multi-instrumentalist are all over it. Among other things, he introduced welcome flashes of spontaneity to the recording process. 

"Heitor made the music very animated," says Gardot. "For instance 'Amalia' [the new single] was a moment when Phil Roy came to LA and Heitor wanted me to write a song about this story I'd told him about Amalia [an Argentine novel, subsequently filmed]. "I was like 'I dunno, it's a story but it's not a song',  but he just said 'come on, we're gonna do it', so we all sat down and in 20 minutes there was a song. It was the first time I'd written in a mènage a trois, so to speak, and it was really fast and easy."

The finished disc is like a tropical reverie from a palm-fringed beach, imbued with mysterious narcotic properties. Gardot seems transformed from the fledgling artist who only took up music as a form of therapy after a near-fatal road accident in Philadelphia when she was 19, which left her with head injuries, pelvic fractures and a variety of neurological symptoms.

And now? "I'm feeling okay. It's always a journey and it's harder now to do some things, I don't know why. Flying is really tough. Recently I've been flying every two or three days which I think would be hard for anybody, but the compression on my spine has been really bad where I can't get up when we're landing. Luckily for the summer tour I'll be on a bus so there's only like two flights in a month. I see an osteopath pretty much all the time. I'm doin' alright. Dancing a little bit."

At least her symptoms give her the perfect excuse to avoid freezing East Coast winters in the States and follow the sun. The USA seems less and less like home to her.

"The perception of the USA from the other side of the world is not a very good one," she ponders. "It's a very insulated place. In Europe people have to speak three or four languages because countries are so close and it's normal, it's how business is done and how life goes on. It does no good to walk around the world offering a handshake and saying 'hello' and insisting that everybody speaks English.

"That was another thing that propelled me to leave on this journey, that I felt somewhat lacking in the knowledge I ought to have had about the world, about history and what happened in other places. I wanted to go back and correct that, and I wanted to be a little bit wiser."


'Amalia' was the first time I'd written in a mènage a trois, so to speak, and it was really fast and easy

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I’m sure her traumatic brain injury has much to do with her free lifestyle but in her future is much pain and regret I’m afraid. When fame fades and nothing and no home to be is her lot overwhelming regret. Avoiding serious personal relationships with people may seem good now in your position but a lonely end is not what I as one who is now living it would wish on my worst enemy. I just hope for her sake she finds stability before she is too old and nobody and nothing of value is left. Please Melody I’m not saying this to hurt or control you I just care to help another person not to be where I am. It is a terrible way to exist.

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