COMPOSING MELODY: THE ENIGMATIC MELODY MARDOT BY ANDREW GOLDMAN
Behind the doors of a suite in Barcelona’s Hotel Alexandra, Melody Gardot talks on the phone in seemingly perfect French while tapping on her iMac, a cigarette with a perilously long ash between her lips. Although she was raised in New Jersey, you might guess that she grew up abroad, considering the unidentifiable, almost stilted manner in which she speaks. Her official photographer and all-around aide-de-camp, Shervin Lainez, who has ushered me in, hands Gardot a large bottle of hairspray. Judging from her snug black Lanvin skirt and blouse, lethal patent leather spike heels, matching deep red lips and nails, black leggings that shine like sealskin, and platinum blond hair, appearance is very important to her, even on travel days like today—she is in the midst of her European tour, en route, somehow, from Spain to London and a show at the Palladium, if only an Icelandic volcano would cease belching a massive cloud of dust into the sky. Her most distinctive accessories, and what really pull the look together into what might be described as Boris-and-Natasha-retro-spy-chic, are dark Wayfarer-style shades with gold-accented stems and a cane with a pink pearl handle, neither of which she is ever seen without.
There’s a famous line often attributed to Thelonious Monk: “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” Writing about it isn’t any easier, but I was so in love with Melody Gardot’s voice before I’d learned a thing about her remarkable story that it literally stopped me in my tracks and sent me scrambling for pen and paper to write down the name of the singer on the radio who had so magnificently covered the Beatles’ “Because.” The first thing that hit me was the elegantly baroque flamenco-sounding vocal flourish that she tosses in before the first verse. The Beatles’ original, with its lush harmonies, is obviously gorgeous, but in Gardot’s hands, a woeful longing emerges in the song. You sense that the big, belting notes would be available to her if she wanted them, but, as in all of her music, restraint rather thanAmerican Idol–ish vocal pyrotechnics is the objective. Her voice is pristine yet telegraphs great wisdom and experience—it’s almost like hearing the singing of a 70-year-old woman who’s been on vocal rest for the past five decades.
And then a simple Google search reveals that not only does she have amazing talent, but she also has a jaw-dropping backstory. Seven years ago, at 19, she was hit by a car while on her bike and suffered devastating injuries, especially to her brain. After months of going through all the traditional therapies for the brain-injured and still being unable to read, still struggling to speak and walk, she was encouraged by her doctor to try playing music, since she’d played piano as a child and teenager. The reintroduction of music to her life affected a kind of miraculous awakening. Lying on her sickbed, she taught herself to play guitar, began to sing for the first time, and even started writing songs, which unbeknownst to her a friend posted on MySpace. It turned out she could sing like an angel, and her songs were good by any measure.
Naturally, the media flocked to her. The Times of London, The San Francisco Chronicle, Le Monde, The Korea Times, National Public Radio, The Sydney Morning Herald, The New York Times, and CBS Sunday Morning, to name a few, tell variations on the Only Music Can Heal Her story. I flocked to Gardot too, hopping a plane to Spain to interview this amazing singer, a walking example of the healing powers of music.
Musicophilia, the 2007 book by the neurologist Oliver Sacks, illustrates the ways in which music is a therapeutic boon. Aphasics, he writes, cannot locate words, but they’re often able to sing the words to songs. A Parkinson’s sufferer, unable to speak or move, can, when listening to music, actually get up and dance gracefully.
But the Melody Gardot case represents success on an entirely different scale. Music therapy didn’t just allow this young woman to enjoy a relatively normal life after a traumatic injury—it brought out such a gift that she has actually become famous. She has sold more than half a million albums in jazz-friendly Europe. Before coming to Spain, she played three sold-out nights at Paris’ famed Olympia theater, the favorite venue of Edith Piaf (to whom she’s often compared) and host also to the Rolling Stones and Madonna. In America, her 2009 major-label debut, My One and Only Thrill, has hovered atop jazz charts since its release. She performed on Letterman and has found an unlikely fan in NFL quarterback Brett Favre, who reportedly liked to play the album in the Vikings’ locker room last year. I had to meet the miracle.
“I remember one of Melody’s people said to me, ‘When are we going to look at Melody’s music separate from her injury?’ ” says Dr. Richard Jermyn, the New Jersey specialist whom Gardot credits with masterminding her rehabilitation. “I thought about that and said, ‘You know, you can’t, because this changed her forever.’ You can never separate the Melody of today from the brain injury, because it changes you. Not only does it change your brain and your brain chemistry—just living through that amount of pain at such a young age will change you forever. You’re never going to be the sweet young person you were before. You’re going to be a person who has lived a life in two years that most people haven’t lived in a lifetime.”
Or, as the 26-year-old Gardot herself puts it, “The crux of it is that I’m very much a young woman and an old woman at the same time.”
As she settles down on a sofa in her Barcelona hotel, lights another cigarette, and adjusts a burning stick of Nag Champa incense in a tumbler full of soggy cigarette butts, I ask why a TV set in the room is covered in vibrant fabric. “That’s a Tibetan wall hanging that was a gift from a piano tuner in Strasbourg,” she says, explaining that as a touring, practicing Buddhist, she usually turns hotel TV sets into altars. Gardot says she is a follower of a Buddhist sect called Soka Gakkai that has attracted a disproportionate number of jazz musicians. “Herbie is Soka Gakkai. Wayne is Soka Gakkai,” she says, first-name-checking legends Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter in a manner that suggests that the trio might have shared the stage at the Village Vanguard back in ’65. For all she can remember, she was there with them. “Understand that I had a massive head injury, so in a way, my life before the accident is like a past life,” she says, when I ask her to recall certain details of her childhood. “It’s like a sense memory. I have a sense of it, but I don’t remember it.”
Some of the memories that Gardot does retain (ironically, about forgetting) come across less like actual memories than stage yarns or between-song set pieces. “I forget everything,” she says. “I forget what time I’m supposed to do things. I forget lovers.”
he’s actually forgotten lovers she’s had since the accident? She nods. “We were in New York and there was a gentleman who came up to me after a gig at some club and he called me ‘Baby.’ I said, ‘I’m not your baby.’ He said, ‘Don’t you remember? We had this beautiful night. We went to dinner, blah, blah, blah.’ I said, ‘Well, frankly, darling, it must not have been that wonderful, because I don’t remember a damned thing.’ And he said, ‘Well, let me refresh your memory.’ So we went out that night and sure enough, I remembered the reason I forgot him.”
It’s a slightly destabilizing experience spending time with Gardot, not only because stories tumble from her at a galloping pace that’s hard to follow, but because they sometimes feel like they could have been culled from a Tallulah Bankhead memoir or film script. I find myself wondering: Am I getting the real Melody Gardot, or shtick?
“You interviewed a brain-injured patient. That’s why you’re feeling a little overwhelmed and not so sure what to take away from it,” Jermyn explains. It is common, he adds, for an injured brain to spackle between gaps in memories. “The brain will naturally try to fill in memory, and one won’t be able to distinguish between what’s considered reality and what is actually real. If Melody did tell you anything that wasn’t a true story, or if something seemed a little out there, I can tell you, Melody believes it wholeheartedly.”
To re-create Melody Gardot’s pre- accident years is to wade through every interview she’s given since her 2005 rise in the Philly music scene, collect threads, and hope to fashion something that resembles a rope, because Gardot herself confesses to being an unreliable narrator. “You have to understand,” she says, “my life was re- explained to me completely. People were reintroduced to me.”
She has said she was born in New Jersey. Her name was not Melody Gardot—something that I learn only because her doctor says he knows her by another name that patient confidentiality prevents him from passing along. Gardot says she was “pretty nomadic” as a kid, never mentions a father, and says that she was raised by women. She lived for some time with an aunt as well as her late grandmother, who spoke with a Polish accent and introduced her to The Wizard of Oz—she often garners a mention during Gardot’s performance of a syncopated version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The musician is close to her mother, who still lives in New Jersey and is a painter these days. Gardot refuses to let me speak with her. “I’m onstage,” she says, “my family’s not.”
She has said that she took piano lessons as a child and that by the time she was 16, she was good enough to make a few bucks playing in piano bars around Philadelphia, but only covered others’ songs and never opened her mouth. “I never sang before,” she says. “I can remember goofing off and singing along to stupid songs in the car, but nothing with intention, you know?”
By fall 2003, Gardot was 19, studying fashion at the Community College of Philadelphia, which is when her accident happened. Considering her failure to remember so much, her memories of it are remarkable. She was pedaling south on Second Street, a busy thoroughfare on the fringes of Philadelphia’s historic Old City. At the intersection of Callowhill Street, an SUV made an illegal turn and hit her. “I remember two lights out of the corner of my eye, and I knew what kind of car hit me because JEEP GRAND CHEROKEE was the last thing I saw. The letters looked huge,” Gardot says. She’s said that she recalls hearing the sound of her body hitting the pavement, as well as a horrible screeching noise
, which she eventually realized was her own screams. The last thing she remembers is opening her eyes and seeing the world in panorama, her vision widened and flattened into a long, thin rectangular strip. She was alive, though her pelvis was broken in two places.
But it was her brain that may have suffered the most. In a grisly real-life example of Newton’s First Law, Gardot’s body absorbed the SUV’s force and was propelled to the pavement. The ground stopped her body, but her brain kept traveling forward. “With this kind of injury,” Jermyn says, “the brain flops against the front part of your skull, then hits the back part of your skull, and also actually rotates inside the skull.” Brutally simplified, the front of the brain handles speech and cognition, the back coordination and sight, and the sides hearing.
Perhaps even more significant than the trauma of Gardot’s brain rattling around inside her head was the damage to her midbrain. Jermyn says that if you think of the central nervous system as a lollipop, with the brain as the candy top and the spine as the stick, the midbrain is where the stick and candy meet. The jerking of Gardot’s brain caused the tiny nerves in that area—tasked with, among other things, tactile sensation and limb movement—to shear in ways imperceptible on the MRIs.
Roughly a year after the accident, Gardot’s mother brought her into the NeuroMusculoskeletal Institute in Stratford, New Jersey, which is part of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. By this point, the situation seemed desperate: Gardot had been in and out of the hospital, dosed with ever increasing amounts of pain medicine, and visited by countless doctors—all to no avail. At the institute, she met Jermyn, the director and a physiatrist, an osteopath who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation.
The soft-spoken, clean-cut then-38-year-old had certainly seen worse cases come through the doors of his institute and during his brain-injury residency at Philadelphia’s MossRehab, where he treated many patients in persistent vegetative states. Gardot was actually able to speak, though slowly, and occasionally had anomia, or trouble locating words. She also spoke very softly, because the injury had caused an extreme aural sensitivity; at the time she said that just hearing ambient street noise could overwhelm her to the point that she’d pass out; even the sound of someone doing dishes in the same room was intolerable.
She had also become extremely photosensitive; without sunglasses, she wrote at the time, the world appeared to her “as if I’m looking into heaven all the time (white and blurry), not to mention painful.” She could walk only with difficulty and spent much of her time in a wheelchair. She couldn’t read. “My eyes were unable to focus on words,” she says. “The words actually looked like they all ran together and fell right off the page.” Her short-term memory was totally gone, so she might eat three apples a day, thinking each was her first. Time seemed to move much faster, a common symptom of brain injury; Gardot might take a 90-minute shower and emerge to notice that she’d only shaved one leg.
To add insult to injury, she says her friends abandoned her. A cell phone she was carrying at the time of the accident had 85 numbers programmed into it, but “my phone never rang once in about a year and a half,” she says, tartly. “It’s an indication of where my life was. I was surrounding myself with people who I thought were genuine friends, but the truth is, they were just a matter of convenience. A lot of people couldn’t deal with [me].”
Jermyn had no idea how much better Gardot could get, but he viewed his primary goal in treating her as lessening her excruciating pain. He tried everything in his quiver, both traditional and holistic. He prescribed various heavy-duty painkillers and assorted creams and pads. She received osteopathic manipulative therapy and cranial sacral therapy (two treatments that involve manipulating the muscles and skull in hopes of increasing mobility), in addition to cognitive remediation therapy (a standard for helping brain-injured patients recover their writing and speech). From the start, Gardot wasn’t easy—“always very challenging” are Jermyn’s words; he knew that on days when she had an appointment, he’d invariably get behind schedule because she demanded so much time. Nothing was working. One day she marched into the office with a shopping bag that contained every single product he’d given her. “Now what?” she asked, dropping the bag at his feet.
“That was a career-changing moment for me, one of those moments where you’re as desperate as the patient,” he says. He asked, “Well, what did you do for fun before the accident?” Gardot told him she played piano.
Jermyn thought back to his training, to the patients in persistent vegetative states who when they were wheeled into a room where someone was playing piano would perk up and turn toward the music, maybe even move a tambourine. “The spoken voice couldn’t do it, but music touched them,” he says. “I don’t think there’s any other modality that can light up that limbic system, that center of our brain that feels enjoyment and pleasure, as quickly as music can.”
Like many doctors, Jermyn thinks of the injured brain as an intact but inaccessible hard drive; reestablishing access depends upon finding the combination of keys to push, and every patient’s combination is unique. Because he reads music, he knew that there were two essential musical components that might help Gardot. Music is time. Conversation can be like an erratic tennis match of questions and answers being lobbed back and forth, but a piece of music will proceed through a steady period of time that is identical for both the injured brain and the healthy. Music is also mathematics, the division of measures into beats, the division and multiplication of beats into notes.
Then and there, Jermyn told Gardot to forget about her cognitive therapy and all but the bare minimum of pain drugs. Go home and play your piano, he told her. Four weeks later, she showed up smiling—the first smile Jermyn had seen on her face in the 18 months she’d been his patient.
“It’s there,” she said. “The music is there. And I don’t have to think about it. It’s in my head.” The music, Jermyn says, “was the bridge that allowed us to get to the other aspects of her brain.
” Though the areas of the brain responsible for playing and enjoying music are distinct from areas that deal with writing and reading comprehension, the introduction of music seemed to unlock the rest of her brain. This breakthrough allowed Jermyn to design a therapy regimen that would help her heal cogni tively. “The fact that she remembered music,” he says, “was huge for us.”
The night before our interview, Gardot plays Barcelona’s famed Palau de la Música Catalana. The 1908 building is typically art nouveau, in that every line in the place curves. In fact, the room seems to be undulating, like Barcelona itself, with its ornate, almost hallucinatory Antoni Gaudí architecture. No surface in the Palau is left undesigned: A mounted Valkyrie in bas-relief gallops out from the ceiling above the stage; a massive stained-glass skylight glows in a million colors above. Many performers might feel upstaged by the room, but Gardot comes bearing tricks. A minute before her entrance, the smoke machines start up. Then she clicks onstage in all black and in her shades and, looking a bit like the bride of Dr. Strangelove, sits at the grand piano, leans into the belly of the instrument, and with her hands on the strings, begins bashing out a cacophonous introduction to her song “Your Heart Is as Black as Night.” To look at her, you’d never know she’d been in a nearly fatal accident, though she often says that her hours onstage are the only ones without pain. At one point while introducing her band she does a deep-knee bend to the ground. Two bright banks of canister lights flashing behind her make me wince, knowing that being in the same room with a 25-watt bulb not long ago was agonizing.
From her first moment onstage, it’s clear that she has an aesthetic vision much closer to that of Lady Gaga than to the languid artist to whom her music is most compared, Norah Jones. Gardot is not just a great talent; she’s a star. Following an hour and a half of songs that reveal the influences of Astrud Gilberto, Nina Simone, and Piaf, she is whistled and applauded into two encores and leaves the stage to a standing ovation.
Two and a half hours later, after 2 a.m., I see her again, in the Hotel Alexandra’s lobby, though she doesn’t appear to notice me when I wave. She’s deep in discussion with Irwin Hall, her saxophonist. It seems serious, their conversation. I over
hear her mention “Summertime,” which was part of her set. “What happened with that?” I hear her say with concern.
Glenn Barratt, who owns Philadelphia’s state-of-the-art MorningStar Studios and produced her first album, Worrisome Heart, says, “She was almost like James Brown. She rehearsed a small group of guys over and over and over, and she expected them to play specific notes at specific times. It seemed like in her head was every note that she wanted to hear. She was very specific about certain things she wanted to have happen.” The producer Larry Klein, who produced My One and Only Thrill, concurs with Barratt. “She has a very discerning and specific taste, and also the capacity to be quite sharp-tongued,” he says. “In fact, there were times when I took her aside and told her, ‘Listen, you need to temper the way you speak to musicians, you know.’ ”
Jermyn says both bluntness and meticulousness are typical of brain-injured patients. “When you get a frontal-lobe injury, you lose your inhibitions,” he says. “That’s classic with brain injury. You say what you think, do what you want, tend to be impulsive sometimes, and you don’t care about what others think. There’s a lot of that in Melody. No one can tell Melody that her music isn’t good.” As for the obsession with detail, the therapy for brain-injured patients actually encourages them to be “very, detailed,” he says. “Imagine if you have no sense of day or night, or timing. So basic brain-injury training—Melody’s training—was schedule, schedule, schedule, and to write everything down and follow it to a T.”
In spring 2005, Patrick Rapa, a music writer for the Philadelphia City Paper, an independent weekly, noticed an odd e-mail that arrived in the editorial department’s general mailbox. The letter writer, who introduced herself as Melody Gardot, “a 21 year old singer songwriter in Philadelphia, PA,” wrote, “Excuse the length, but this is as abridged as I could get.… You might want to grab a coffee for this one.” And then in the next 1,400 words she laid out the fascinating story of her accident and inspiring recovery.
“I have had to take it easy as I am currently disabled, but I don’t let that stop me from making music,” she wrote. She included the odd symptomatology of her condition: “On top of the hearing problems I am photosensitive so I have to wear these super dark large sunglasses everywhere…even now while typing on the computer.… I will get visual disturbances when sound is too loud. If you are talking to me and you are moderately too loud for me, I will begin to have both ears start ringing and then I will see an aura and eventually I cannot hear anything at all. My hearing shuts down and I begin to spin (vertigo). If the music is too loud I can pass out. My entire system shuts down in what is believed to be a protective mechanism.”
But the e-mail, the intent of which was to get the paper to write about her, was also suffused with hope and optimism. “I feel [my story] would inspire and comfort those who are suffering…as well as show musicians and [others] in…Philadelphia [that] no matter what, you can get by,” she wrote. Rapa checked out Melodygardot.com, which still exists, and listened to a couple of the songs she’d posted. Impressed, he interviewed her in the lobby of a Philadelphia hotel and listened as the frail young woman sang and played her songs on the hotel piano until the management asked her to leave. When Rapa’s feature on her ran, along with photos of Gardot as she was then, an adorably round brunette in a hippie skirt and a denim shirt, it marked the beginning of the Melody Gardot legend.
But even before she reached out to Rapa, she e-mailed Phil Roy, a respected Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter. She complimented him on a song he’d just released called “Nobody Has to Know,” telling him she loved how the song was quiet and intense at the same time. Roy listened to a few of her songs, and “right away I realized this was not just another hummer and strummer,” he says. He met with her, started inviting her to open for him at clubs, even had her record the backing vocals on a track on his album The Great Longing. “Did I fall in love with her? Of course I fell in love with Melody. A lot of people fell in love with Melody,” Roy says. He still marvels at the young performer’s discipline. “She had one guy film every show that she did. And she would go back and look at her shows and try to improve it. Honestly, I wish I had a little more of what Melody brings to the game.”
While performing, Gardot met local singer-songwriter Lizanne Knott and told her that while on her sickbed, Knott’s 2002 song “Jesus or Elvis (Revisited)” had inspired her to write her first song. Knott told her husband, Glenn Barratt, that he had to hear this girl who had great songs but a crappy-sounding homemade demo. Barratt approached Gardot after a show and told her he wanted to record her. Soon Gardot and her mother showed up at MorningStar Studios. “We’re on limited funds,” Gardot told him. “The money will take care of itself,” Barratt told her. “Let’s make a great record.”
At the suggestion of Roy, Gardot sent the CD they made, Worrisome Heart, to the influential radio host Mike Marrone. Marrone played her songs on his show and touted her as one of his favorite unsigned artists. Sandy Roberton, who is perhaps the music industry’s most influential manager of producers, heard one of the songs and immediately called Larry Klein, the Grammy winner most famous for producing, and having been married to, Joni Mitchell. Roberton then put out the word to labels that Klein was interested in working with her, and soon her shows were being attended by obsequious A&R guys from various labels. Plane tickets were bought, cars were sent, and meetings were taken. In the end, in July 2007, Gardot signed with the British arm of Universal, the biggest label on earth.
That’s the backstory, as best I can make out, but some of Gardot’s tales seem hard to confirm, and she doesn’t offer me much assistance in Barcelona. I was curious to talk to the friend who had posted her first recorded songs on MySpace, even though Rapa doesn’t remember hearing anything about the guy—he only remembers being directed to her website.
“Oh, that was one of the cats that disappeared with the phone,” she tells me, referring to the friends before the accident. “He hung around for about maybe a year and a half or so, and then I think he fell in love with me and I didn’t fall in love with him, so he had to leave.”
So if he was one of your cell phone contacts, does that mean you knew him before the accident? I ask. “I think we had met maybe days before I got hit, actually. But I don’t even know where he is,” she says. When she tells me, “I spoke at Penn not too long ago to a panel of neuropsychs from all around the world,” I ask her what the name was of the neuropsychiatrist who approached her and invited her after seeing her perform. “Oh, God. This was like, three years ago, so I don’t remember his name. But he gave me his card and told me he was the director of something.”
The essence of Gardot’s story is the miraculous before-and-after, how trauma turned a teenager into a prodigy; how a brain injury, ironically, may have unlocked the tools and talents to become a famous singer. But I can’t contextualize the miracle without knowing more about the pre-accident Gardot. I plead with her: Is there one single person who knew you before the accident with whom I might be able to speak?
She gets up, starts fiddling on her laptop, shrugs apologetically, as if she’d love to help but her hands are tied. “Like I said, no,” she says firml