NEW YORK - The lights are dimmed in Melody Gardot's Manhattan hotel room. So the sultry-voiced singer, who's been sensitive to light since she was struck by an SUV while riding her bike at Second and Callowhill Streets in 2004, is getting around without her trademark shades.
It's the afternoon following Gardot's debut appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman. On television, the blond Philadelphia songwriter looked for all the world like a modern-day Peggy Lee as she scatted and toe-tapped her way through "Who Will Comfort Me" from her sophomore album, My One and Only Thrill (Verve ***).
A top hat sits on a bedside table, Tchaikovsky's Diaries are open on the desk, and the black cane Gardot calls "my stick," with which she's walked since the accident, lies easily within reach. Since she gave up her Center City apartment in the fall, the 24-year-old chanteuse has had no fixed address. Until she boards a plane later in the day for Toronto or Montreal (she's not sure which), this room at the Dream hotel is her primary residence.
Gardot says she grew up "all over the place, mostly in the East Coast region. . . . My mom changed jobs a lot, I think she's also a free spirit, like me." Now, she says, "the world is my home," and she's got the photos on her BlackBerry to prove it. London, Paris, Milan, Munich, Cologne: It's "Where in the World Is Melody Gardot?" finding her in various capitals of sophistication where her supremely confident and composed music has taken her in the last year.
"For somebody who doesn't run," she says drily, "I run around quite a bit."
Indeed, she does. With last year's rerelease of her debut, Worrisome Heart, on Verve, a subsidiary of Universal, the world's largest record company, and now with the highly touted My One and Only Thrill, Gardot is caught up in a promotional whirlwind that finds her jazzy persona as a fresh face with an old soul being marketed all across the globe.
"My life is compressed," she says. "Everything happens very quickly. Unlike my music. You need a balance. I think I need to slow down to keep everything together."
Before her accident, Gardot (Gar-DOE) had no plans for music to take her anywhere. She was a student at Moore College of Art and Design, primarily a painter who played a little piano and sometimes sang in public. Then she got hit - an experience she recalls "in segments, like a comic book. It's the same way you would put your life together after, like, 80 years. You remember certain things. It's like, 'BAM! POW! Holy pancakes, Batman!' You only keep the really important things."
Gardot, who suffered memory loss, says that as cognitive therapy her doctors "highly suggested, and nearly prescribed" that she play music to help heal. She had never written songs before, but when she picked up a guitar, a happier accident occurred.
"I was just trying to remember remember remember," she says in her hotel room, playing simple, repeated patterns on the guitar. "And then it became something bigger. One day you get tired of drawing lines and make a picture."
Her new focus led to gigs at Philadelphia clubs such as the Tin Angel and World Cafe Live, and a jazz-informed 2006 CD, Worrisome Heart, that featured standout local players such as Jef Lee Johnson and Mike "Slo-Mo" Brenner. She'll return home to the Philadelphia area to play a sold-out June 19 show at World Cafe Live, and a June 21 show at Sellersville Theater 1894.
Worrisome Heart features standouts such as the title track, which, like Gardot's best songs, has the feel of a timeless standard. And on "Some Lessons," she waxed philosophical about the near-death experience that turned her world upside down: "I'm buckled inside / A miracle that I'm alive . . . To think that I could have fallen a centimeter to the left / Would not be here to see the sunset."
In 2007, Sandy Robertson, who manages Los Angeles producer Larry Klein, heard Gardot on the XM Satellite Radio channel The Loft, and suggested Klein take a listen.
"I listened to two songs," recalls Klein, a bass player who has made a career producing classy female songwriters including Madeleine Peyroux, Julia Fordham, and Holly Cole, as well as his wife, Luciana Souza, and his ex-wife, Joni Mitchell. "I was very impressed with the maturity of her singing and writing, especially for someone such a young age."
Klein, in an interview from his home in Los Angeles, says he went to see Gardot perform at Rockwood Music Hall, a club on New York's Lower East Side. He was taken by "how absolutely sure of herself and adept at relating to an audience she was," he recalls. "She was just fantastic." The pair decided to work together, and an old-fashioned label bidding war resulted in Gardot's signing with Universal in Britain, then with Verve in the United States.
Gardot's far-flung travels are the result of a star-making strategy that's aiming for the urbane, latte-sipping audience captured by Norah Jones. Gardot's late-night and early-morning music has landed her on Jools Holland's prestigious United Kingdom television show and earned her a lengthy profile in the Sunday Times of London.
She's further along in Europe than she is in America. "Things that require a somewhat sophisticated aesthetic often do better over there," says Klein. But Gardot is also well on her way to making a name for herself at home.
Besides vehicles like the Letterman show, she scored a Chevy Malibu commercial in which she sings "I've Got You Under My Skin," which she freely admits she learned from Ol' Blue Eyes' Duets collaboration with Bono.
Gardot's own songs - two of which on the elegantly romantic My One and Only Thrill were written with frequent Jones collaborator Jesse Harris - are uncommonly elemental, with titles such as "The Rain" and "Love Me Like a River Does." They use direct language and an instinctive sense of musical economy to make patient, personalized music with universal appeal.
With "Who Will Comfort Me," and the string-adorned opener, "Baby I'm a Fool," the highlight of the album, recorded last year in L.A., is the shivering blues, "Your Heart Is as Black as Night."
"I can play a lot more than what I do," says Gardot, who refers to herself as "a dame." "But I don't need to. I can speak with seven-syllable words, but I don't need to. I don't want to be vague. I believe in specificity, and not wasting words."
Since her accident, she says, "my ears are more developed. They're more keen. I can understand what's happening when Ahmad [Jamal] doesn't play, or when Coltrane leaves the melody alone."
The idea, she says, is not to attempt to be original, but to simply be. That's why she got frustrated when, pre-crash, she was studying visual art.
As an artist, Gardot says, "your raison d'etre is just to exist. When you're tuned in to what you're doing, you don't wake up and say, 'This is what I'm trying to do.' That's the difference between someone who's genuine and someone who's full of [stuff]."
"You can't discipline creativity," she adds. "That kind of thing is based around inspiration. You don't schedule it. That's how I feel about painting and art. They deconstruct the process so much. . . . And to be expressive, you don't need those things. You learn the steps of being an individual by walking though the world."