I recently interviewed Ms. Melody Gardot for a podcast episode regarding her amazing journey from a devastating accident to a successful music career. For those not aware of her background, Ms. Gardot was struck by an SUV while riding her bike at the age of nineteen. She suffered brain trauma and multiple fractures of the pelvis. As a result of her injuries, she remained bed-ridden for more than a year, endured pain that was at times excruciating, suffered short-term memory issues, she has acute sensitivities to light and sound, and continues to walk with the aid of a cane.
As a last alternative to the numerous pain medications that her doctors had prescribed, Gardot turned to music therapy. "I brought all of my medicine in and said, 'I really don't want to take any medicine anymore," said Gardot. "I was upset and frustrated. I had gotten very, very ill from the large amounts of medication I'd been given. I decided I would rather be healthy and in pain than sick and not," said Gardot.
Her doctor advised her to find something that makes her happy, and her mother suggested music. The doctor concurred. He believed that music would provide the best alternative, because in addition to the ephemeral joy that music brings to the participant, music has the power to reconnect neural pathways in the brain and can facilitate improvements in cognitive function.
Four years later, Ms. Gardot has a critically acclaimed debut album on Verve Records and has toured the world sharing her talents.
There were many elements of her story that were well documented prior to our discussion. What I didn't know was that she had visited New Orleans some eighteen months earlier to participate in the post-Katrina recovery. Of course, her duties were limited to light-handed activities such as painting. As a native New Orleanian, this writer is humbled by the legions of people who have come forward to participate in the recovery effort. The fact that someone so recently affected by such traumatic physical challenges would lend a hand is simply overwhelming.
Yet, Gardot echoed the sentiments of many of the other recovery volunteers regarding their visit, namely that they get back as much as they give. The parallels between her comeback and the New Orleans recovery were striking. "I went down about a year and a half ago to New Orleans to rebuild houses," she said. "It struck me because, much like the situation that I went through, you as an individual have your own take on anything. And the city of New Orleans has its own take on what happened through the last few years. No matter who's telling the story, it's never truly portrayed as well or as personally unless it was you who sat down in a room when it actually happened."
"In walking into the city of New Orleans, I was a bit blown away by two things actually," she recalled. "Number one, the amount of complete destruction that ripped through the city. And number two, the spirit of the people despite that. Amazing spirit. There was no one that I met who had a sense of pity. That to me was the spirit of New Orleans."
"As a city that is so enriched and touched by music, it made sense," she added. "Musicians are the kind of people who, when you go through a hard time, you use it as a creative drive to pull forth to something that's better and stronger and more capable than you were before."
Gardot vividly recalled her visit to some of the most devastated areas of the city and a message she saw painted on one of the houses. "One woman, two children, and one dog found dead under house," she said. "Just seeing the words on the face of the house, I can't explain to you what that felt like. I never thought language could feel so physical. And yet when I finally got to a place where people were, that devastation really wasn't in their eyes."
"It just surprised me how quickly they picked up and made it their point and their goal to just continue on with not like a heavy weight on their back, but with a sense of joy and a sense of 'We're going to continue on despite this."
"That was something I related to," said Gardot. "I had a car blow through my energy and my life, and you guys had a gigantic force of nature. I have the minute parallel."
For both the residents of New Orleans and for Gardot, finding a balance between reflecting on past events and putting those painful memories behind is sometimes difficult. "Because I've written most of these tunes from personal experience, some of them can be quite difficult (to perform live). It takes a lot out of me and it also calls upon a need for me to go back to a place where it was a very real thing that I faced on a daily basis," she said candidly. "In some ways I find it beneficial to look back in order to learn from what we've done, but in other ways continuing to look back is not allowing you to look forward. It's hard for me to constantly go back there."
(Above: Rockwood Music Hall, Photo Credit William Kates)
Gardot considers performing to be a cyclical experience. She drives an equation for her daily routine that will allow her to gear up for the duration of the show. The physical and emotional demands of a live show can be a draining experience, but she finds that her cup is once again filled by the gratitude of her audiences. While Gardot's music certainly stands exquisitely on its own merits, against the backdrop of her journey back from physical devastation it is understandable that the appreciation for her performances is acutely heightened.
She recalled the last of three sold out performances in Montreal where the audience's response was somewhat overwhelming. "We all lined up on the stage to bow, and I had this pain in my heart," Gardot described. "The only thing that I can liken it to is the way you feel on Thanksgiving, when you've eaten so much that you can't move. I had that in my heart from everyone being incredibly generous and so appreciative of what we were doing."
As New Orleanians and as human beings, we all lost something through the Katrina experience and its aftermatha loved one, a home, a neighbor or a neighborhood, a business, our possessions, an heirloom of sentimental value, our innocence, our faith in our leaders, our serenity, or perhaps a way of life. Yet every day since is a struggle to provide a mental framework for those events that will allow us to make sense of the tragedy. And we must move forward in a way that channels our energies toward a future of renewal and hope, or those sacrifices will have been inconsequential.
Melody Gardot has been changed by the events of the last four years. Her newfound success comes with a greater appreciation through the lens of her recovery. The deliberate pace of her day brought on out of necessity is seen as a blessing compared to the frantic pace of her life before her accident.