Beginning her career purely by accident

Boston Globe, August 8, 2008

Were it not for certain wrenching circumstances, it might sound like a run of absurd good fortune: A young woman from Philadelphia, an amateur musician with career aspirations elsewhere, writes and sings a few songs for personal use. Reluctantly she shares the recordings with a friend who, unbeknownst to her, sets up a MySpace page to show off her work. A gig ensues, and then another …

Next thing you know, 23-year-old Melody Gardot is the new sensation in sultry vocal jazz, a sophisticated chanteuse with a fast-selling album, “Worrisome Heart,” that has earned instant comparisons to Norah Jones and Madeleine Peyroux. The tour schedule and festival invitations have followed. Gardot plays the JVC Jazz Festival in Newport, R.I., tomorrow and visits the Regattabar Aug. 23.

That’s the happy part. But inextricably woven into the blossoming of Melody Gardot is the horrific accident that nearly killed her four years ago, when she was 19, riding her bike in Philly to the college where she was studying fashion. An SUV driver made an illegal turn and rammed into her, leaving her with shattered bones and severe neurological damage.

She sings about it, soberly and elegantly, on “Some Lessons.” It’s the first song that came to her after she turned to music to help rebuild cognitive function, struggling against drastic short-term memory loss to remember the briefest pattern of notes, strumming a guitar while lying on her back to keep the pain at bay: “Remember the sound of the pavement, world turned upside down/ City streets unlined and empty, not a soul around … Some lessons we learn the hard way.”

“It’s very difficult to perform,” Gardot says of the song. “I often don’t play it live because it’s hard to go back there. I do it when I’m in a place that feels really comfortable.”

She’s speaking on the phone from Los Angeles, where she has spent much of the past few months, when not on the road, working on her next album with famed producer Larry Klein. The voice on the phone is relaxed, thoughtful, happy. “I’m on a patch of grass looking at the ocean, with palm trees,” she reports. “Lying with daisies around me.”

She even, just recently, got back on a bike. “I only ride it along the beach,” she says, though she can still feel the sinister memory: “The ghost of the front end of a vehicle. It’s a feeling in the back of your neck.”

Her recovery is amazing, but no day is easy. Gardot, who is blond and attractive in a film-noir, vampish way, is hyper-sensitive to sound and to light. She wears tinted glasses and performs on dimmed stages, which fortunately suits her material and image. She uses a cane and employs an electric device that gives her small shocks to help manage her body’s chronic pain.

All this can only add poignancy, intended or otherwise, to the themes of regret, acceptance, and elusive love that inhabit Gardot’s self-penned lyrics. “I would be lucky to find me a man who could love me the way that I am,” she sings on the title track. In a voice blessed with just the right level of husk, she flashes whimsy and not a little seduction, but the undercurrent is melancholy.

But this is a classic aesthetic as well, toward which Gardot seems to have been disposed all along, accident or not. She admits an affinity for retro song and style; it surfaces in turns of phrase, like when she calls herself a “dame” out to “have myself a time,” that float by here and there, never enough to coagulate into cliche.

“Nothing is contrived,” she says. “There’s never a moment when I go, I want something to sound like that [era]. It’s more creating without an end in sight – I have a vision, not a storyboard.”

Instead the songs come to her in a rush of lyrics, melody, and music. “My fingers can’t move fast enough,” she says. Racing against memory loss, she grabs what she can, like writing down a dream before it fades: “And then I try to play it again and make charts.” Her accompanists, a spare and sympathetic unit anchored by bassist Ken Pendergast and trumpeter Patrick Hughes, help her figure out what she’s doing. “They hold me up,” she says simply. “They’re my backbone.”

Now Gardot is catching up to what her self-made luck has wrought: the unlikely fruit of those bed-ridden days spent plucking and humming just to rebuild her cognition and stay sane. It’s still all very strange, like when she filled a hall three nights in a row at the Montreal Jazz Festival recently: “I’m like, what? Someone needs to tell them I’m not Celine Dion!”

But beneath the wonderment and the genuine humility at fielding invitations to prestigious events – “I don’t take it for granted. It’s intimidating,” she says – is a woman with unmistakable confidence and nerve, growing quickly at ease as she mingles with the icons of the music.

It’s the character of a survivor, every day thankful for what she’s got.

“To do music, at the end of the day, is a total blessing and a joy,” she says. “The world has kissed me.”