Still affected by the debilitating injuries she suffered in a road crash, Melody Gardot is poised to become one of the voices of 2009. Russell Baillie reports
Talking to Melody Gardot - the young American jazz chanteuse who looks poised to break big with album My One and Only Thrill - the otherwise innocuous question inevitably arises: how's the health?
While you wouldn't know it at first listen to her breezy, breathy songs, which suggest her as a contemporary echo of classy 1950s dames Julie London or Peggy Lee, Gardot's story is one of pain and endurance.
When she was 19, Gardot was knocked off her bicycle by an SUV in hometown Philadelphia and nearly killed.
She suffered serious injuries to her skull, spine, pelvis, and nervous system which left her in bed for a year, her memory affected, and with cognitive impairments. She had to learn to walk again.
Among the many regimes to get her back to health, she took up music therapy - Gardot had played a little piano in bars as a teenager before the accident.
She learned to play the guitar lying on her back. Eventually, she started writing songs. Good songs, as it turned out, made all the more poignant by how they had come to be.
Encouraged by friends and a Philadelphia radio station, she released an independent EP, then first album Worrisome Heart which got her noticed by Verve Records, one of the great American jazz labels.
They reissued her debut Worrisome Heart in 2007 which brought her to notice and triggered an initial avalanche of Norah Jones comparisons.
Now comes My One and Only Thrill, an album which shows her increasing in confidence as a singer and writer of sad smoky string-laden tunes.
But if she's on the track to somewhere, she still has her wellbeing to consider.
As the album photos show, she uses a walking stick and her dark glasses are because of heightened sensitivity to light. Sound can be a problem too - there have been times when applause has made her dizzy. Her touring schedule can't be too demanding and she uses a Transcutaneous Electro-Nerve Stimulator (TENS) device, to assist in alleviating her neuralgic muscle pain. "I remember not being able to remember the words because my back was hurting so bad," she told Mojo about her early forays.
Which is why a phone call finds her in Maui, Hawaii, resting up between dates in the United States and Japan, but sounding positively chirpy.
So back to that first question ... and just how does she cope with the increasing demands of her snowballing career.
"It's okay. It's like mercury. I work as hard as I can and as much as I can in a situation that would normally be very difficult and then I recoil and go back to a resting pose. Much like yoga."
"I am very lucky and blessed because I have this opportunity which continues to grow and build but we are very careful about how we choose to move so there is nothing that taxes me and prevents me from being able to be at my best. It's a bit like shipping a race horse," she laughs "by the time I get to the stage, everything has been done to make it possible for me to do my best."
Gardot is 25. But everything about My One and Only Thrill - its sound, the label behind it, its recording at Los Angeles' historic Capitol studios where Sinatra once stalked the halls, its production and arrangements by Larry Klein and Vince Mendoza (best known for their work with Joni Mitchell) - suggests she was born in the wrong half of the 20th century. Does she think so?
"Ha ha ha. All the time. I'm about 800 years old."
"To do it was a dream and I never took it for granted. It is such a spiritual thing to go to a place where great music has been recorded for years by amazing musicians, it was kind of overwhelming. It was like going to the place where Beckett sat and just wrote everything or where Sartre sat and wrote. You feel this thing, it just goes right through you, it's such a spiritual thing. It's very touching and I felt that through the Capitol sessions."
The results of those recordings swing from Who Will Comfort Me? with its shades of Peggy Lee's Fever to torch tunes like Lover Undercover to the French-lyric bossa nova stylings of Les Etoiles.
Yes, predictably the songs are all about love, but Gardot says she works hard to vary her lyrical perspective on pop's perennial subject.
"Baby I'm a Fool is about two coquettish people who are very much afraid to admit they could possibly even fall in love and there is a secret between them both, so you have two Don Juans dancing around each other with the undertow that they are actually in love but never admitting it. And there are songs like If The Stars Were Mine which is way more innocent and sweet. And there are more ironic songs like My One and Only Thrill - the sentiment is very beautiful in the lyric but the music is shaded in terms of grey."
And to finish, Gardot's only cover - a little-known tune called Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
Why go there?
"I know that. I think the song begins and ends with Judy Garland. And by no means was my doing this song to suggest that it needed to be done. In fact it is so personal I have a hard time sharing it with people.
"In this case the song is particularly special - I was writing one day and came across the beginning chords of the song and continued to attempt to write until I realised the chords were Somewhere Over the Rainbow and rather than try and create something new out of something, we put an arrangement together and began playing it live. People started asking when they were going to be able to get it and when we were making this record it was the question of the day, so to speak. I put it on as a homage to my grandmother who used to make me watch the Wizard of Oz repeatedly - it's a way for me to kiss the sky for my grandmother and give to the people who have requested it."
Well someone up there would seem to be looking out for Gardot - and not just her record label who is giving My One and Only Thrill the big push. Tell Gardot it's shaping up to be her year, though, and she brushes it off.
"That's a sad thing. I only get a year? The 15 minutes of fame, huh? I don't know if I want just 15 minutes. I don't know if I want somebody timing how long I have. But if so, it's going to be a beautiful year. That is great too."
If nothing else, one day soon she is sure to hear someone playing one of her songs in a piano bar just like she did before the accident. "That would be amazing. That would make me probably lose it. I would probably go sit down next to the player and play along."
Who: Melody Gardot, jazz-pop singer-songwriter and survivor
What: Album My One and Only Thrill, out now