“Why has this taken so long?” Melody Gardot asks jokingly, after a rare gap in her schedule allows time for her first-ever interview inKeyboard. Gardot, whose albums Worrisome Heart and My One and Only Thrill have catapulted the 25-year-old pianist and chanteuse to worldwide acclaim, is part Beat poet and part torch singer. She sings in hushed tones, wrapping her sometimes mournful lyrics around beds of impressionistic piano chords. One minute, she’s playing a string of standing-room-only dates at Paris’ famed Olympia Theater, the next she’s headlining in New York’s Central Park.
Gardot’s rise to stardom is a tale of heartbreak and hope. In 2003, she was struck by an SUV while riding her bike. The accident left her bedridden and unable to walk for a time. Gardot turned to music therapy at the advice of her doctor. A self-produced EP would soon follow, as would a record label bidding war.
You learned piano as a child, but you taught yourself guitar as an adult. Do you write differently on the two instruments?
Well, it’s funny because every instrument implies something different. Being a piano player first, my comfort is rooted in the piano. So when I go to the guitar, I write in a different way. And that’s nice, because it’s almost like I’m free. Now that I understand the guitar, I go back to the piano and play it with a different sound, not just in a formulaic way. So it’s kind of a complimentary thing. You know, they say that if you learn piano first, you can pick up any instrument in the world.
So, you’ll be picking up other new instruments soon, then?
Oh, I actually am already. I’m learning the Portuguese guitar, and I’ve started drumming.
You’re one of the few neo-jazz singer-songwriters whose main material is original. Was that intentional?
Yeah. I think that because of the way I came into music, the writing was just as important as the nature of creating sound. The only way I feel comfortable taking on a cover song, even now, is if it strikes a chord in me. I think artists who do covers have to be really careful because normally, when a song has been done, it’s been done and buried, you know? If you look at any of the Rolling Stones’ songs, there’s no need to touch them. Frank Sinatra tunes are the same way. So when you have people doing them again and again, and they don’t do anything with them that’s fresh or new or personal, it ends up being kind of everything I can’t stand about the world—the idea that everybody embraces mediocrity.
On your new album, you do a cover of “Over the Rainbow” that’s certainly fresh and unexpected. How did it come about?
That was weird for me, because I felt like that song began and ended with Judy Garland, so to do it almost seemed unnecessary. But it wasn’t as much about wanting to take on that song, as it was about accidentally finding that song while I was trying to write, and just surrendering to the fact that it was there. Because that song was such a huge part of my past, with my grandmother always playing the movie The Wizard of Oz for me, it was almost as if my grandmother was saying “You should play this music.” So it was more of a spiritual thing than a musical one. It’s funny— picking out a cover can be harder than writing a song.
Your piano playing is confident and assured, and the way you sing around it is incredibly conversational. Who influenced the way you accompany yourself at the piano?
When I first started, my biggest concern was just trying to get seated at the piano without pain. I had limitations in terms of what I could do or remember. I remember hearing so much, but wanting to leave space for the orchestra. Like in the beginning of “My One and Only Thrill,” you hear this figure [sings the rhythmic intro], which to me is like the pulsations of a clock. In fact, I even wanted it to be played on tympanies, but we had a string section, not a full orchestra. I’ve always believed that the simplest things are really nice. Some of my favorite artists are people like Chet Baker, João Gilberto, and Antonio Carlos Jobim. I think of the little piano lines that they played, and they’re really simple, but beautiful.
I hear a lot of Jobim in your piano touch. . . .
I love that. My favorites are Debussy, Chopin, Jobim, and Duke Ellington. And Erroll Garner. He kills me.
Do you have a favorite piano to play on the road?
Steinway. As long as it’s old, and it has nice attitude. It’s hard to name a brand, because every piano is different. It’s like a gentleman—you can’t just like a guy because he’s wearing a suit! But Steinway is my choice, especially the ones from right around the 1900s. There are so many colors in those pianos, and they have ivory keys. I love the ones that are actually short a couple of keys, because it was before they added them on. [Early Steinways and other grand pianos had 85 notes, as compared to the modern 88-note standard. —Ed.]
What music are you listening to these days?
I’m listening to [guitarist and songwriter] Arto Lindsay. I think he’s incredibly amazing and bizarre. His song “Complicity” is really atonal and interesting. I also just went to Morocco and fell in love with the music there—the music of Africa just kills me. Also, Youssou N’Dour and Jacques Brel. I think Brel is absolutely unbelievable. I love listening to Juliette Greco, and Bud Powell, and Brazilian music. I also think opera and classical are the most highly respected forms of music in this day and age because you can’t mess up! The thing about jazz that’s cool is, if you make a mistake and you play it twice, all of a sudden you just created a new idea!