Melody Gardot: An accidental musician

After an accident left Melody Gardot immobile, a doctor suggested music therapy. Now she has two acclaimed albums, and is performing at the London Jazz Festival. By Elisa Bray
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The Independent Culture

Melody Gardot is sitting in a New York bar swilling a glass of Cognac. A bartender dims the lights, but Gardot keeps her dark glasses on. "The only thing I long for," she says, stroking the large black cat curled up on her lap, "is warm weather. I'm really no good here. I've had more pain in my body in the last nine days than I've had the last six months".

The pain she is talking about is the after effect of an accident five years ago, when she was 19. Cycling back to her home in Philadelphia, she was hit by a car jumping the red right. Her pelvis was shattered and she suffered severe head and spine injuries which left her unable to walk for two years. It's why the shades stay on – light hurts her eyes – and why she walks with the cane that has become part of her look on stage, performing as a jazz singer.

Traumatic though it's been, if she talks so openly about the accident that's because she recognises that if it hadn't happened, she wouldn't be sitting here talking about getting to number 12 in the UK chart with her second album My One And Only Thrill, a seductive collection blending emotive, introspective jazz and blues, and travelling the world playing shows. When she performs at the London Jazz Festival this weekend, it will be the culmination of an impressive year that has also seen Gardot score a Mobo nomination. And all this because during her recovery, a doctor suggested music therapy could help reform the pathways between the neurons in her brain and improve her short-term memory. Until then music was just a hobby.

"Music is everything", she says today. "It's the reason why I have joy now, but, more importantly, it's the reason why I am who I am. It's given me purpose and it's taken me around the world. In a way I feel that music is the man who walked along and swept me off my feet and now we are on a journey together. I don't know how long it will last; if it's anything like my other relationships I better start talking fast... it could be over soon," she chirps, "but it's beautiful."

It took two years following her accident for the relationship to build. Gardot learned to play guitar from her bed, supine. Before the accident, her main passion was painting; she was studying fashion and art at the Community College of Philadelphia.

Afterwards she had anomia which she describes as her brain struggling to connect to her mouth, leaving her unable to formulate words. "It was frustrating because I think fast and I talk like molasses – very sweet, but with very little movement. I remember that feeling of frustration as if you needed a drink and you hadn't had one in so long your tongue stuck to your mouth." She may not have been able to formulate words, but she could sing wordless forms, and to help her short-term memory, she started recording songs to track her memory progress. "I was doing simple patterns on the guitar and listening back, hoping I would remember things. I thought if I made a noise, it would be another way to remember them, and one day, the first song came."

Within two years she had put together her first collection of songs on an EP "Some Lessons: The Bedroom Sessions", and by 2007 she had signed a record deal with Decca and begun recording her debut album Worrisome Heart with Grammy-winning producer Glenn Barratt. When she is writing, it's the cat who first gets to hear her songs. "Maestro is my judge. If he jumps up on the piano bench then I know the song's good and if he stays on the other side of the room, it's not."

What is most striking in meeting Gardot is that she seems older than 24; the life experience has made her wise. "I see myself as really old," she agrees. "I value life in the same way as most people do in their twilight years.

"The people that are inspirational to me are those who are truly struggling. One of my friend's sons in Japan is three and has cancer. His strength when you meet him, it's like he's 80 years old. What you see in the eyes of someone who has gone through something and overcome it is a sense of vigour, something you can only attain through challenge." It's reflected also in her style of song-writing – jazz style songs that speak of an older age – and her taste in music. "I listen to anything that has groove and soul but most of the music that I like is by people who are dead or dying." It also stems from her upbringing with her grandmother and mother, who listened to Perry Como, Carole King, Janis Joplin and James Taylor.

Throughout her youth, Gardot travelled with her photographer mother who would become her primary carer. Does she remember the accident today? "Not really. It's like a comic book, I remember bits and pieces and the parts I remember aren't pretty." She adds: "I heard about this guy recently though who got hit by a bus. He was in a wheelchair crossing a street and the reason he was in the wheelchair was because he was hit by a bus," and laughs. The comedy, you presume, is the result of finding a way to deal with trauma. How does she deal with the pain? "Privately. Today I asked for a quiet space with low lights. Ideally, the music would be really soft and there wouldn't be people talking, it would be serene. And music is self-soothing. That's why it exists for me."

She finds time to respond to her fans through messages on Twitter, Facebook and email. One of the latest messages is a heartbreaking story from a mother about her 17-year-old daughter suffering a similar accident, asking for some words of comfort. "It's touching that people find something in you, they look for a light, and I feel it's important to share wisdom because it's all you've got. There wouldn't be a reason I have it if it wasn't to share it."

Melody Gardot plays the Royal Festival Hall at the London Jazz Festival on Sunday. A special edition of 'My One & Only Thrill' including previously unreleased tracks is released early next year on Verve