Two years ago, a car making an illegal turn struck 19-year-old Community College of Philadelphia student Melody Gardot as she peddled through Old City on her bicycle. Physically and mentally debilitated, the New Jersey native searched for diversion between daily medical appointments and endless paperwork -- doctor's bills, insurance claims. Before the accident, Gardot had entertained in Philadelphia piano bars with her bluesy, mature voice, and one of her doctors suggested that she take up music again as a way of coping with her condition.
Gardot began recording in her bedroom on a friend's eight-track recorder. Musical friends stopped by to add instrumentation, and in time, the project became her first EP, Some Lessons, also known as The Bedroom Sessions. Since the album's release, Gardot has become a favorite with local radio station WXPN, where she was featured as a Local Pick of the Day. She also won City Paper's award for Best Rocky Impression. According to the Philadelphia weekly paper, "Nobody's a more inspiring, more talented fighter than the young singing-songwriting phenomenon."
But Gardot never thought her rehabilitation experiment would make her one of Philadelphia's most beloved local artists. "I didn't even intend to make a CD," Gardot explains, speaking bashfully. "I just started playing and saying, through music, what was on my mind."
The songwriter's music is a meditation on all that has befallen her in the past few years. The backing trio offers tactful support, but Some Lessons is strongest at its more sparse moments -- when Gardot's voice hovers over tactful, jazzy piano and nothing more. The ballad "Wild Ride" alludes to Gardot's traumatic experience, and is one of the most palpable moments on Some Lessons.
The songwriter knows that her condition has become central to the public's perception of her -- and yet, one doesn't have to know her history for the music to resonate.
WXPN radio show host Helen Leicht stumbled upon Gardot when she played at World Cafe Live. "From the first song," Leicht says, "I fell in love with her. I heard her voice and thought, 'This woman is amazing.'" At that point, Leicht knew nothing of the singer's past. She was struck, simply, by the intensity of her talent.
After the accident, when Gardot was bedridden and depressed, music allowed her to express herself. "Music was the only thing that could rebuilt those pathways," she says. "It was a great opportunity to vent."
Speaking from British Columbia, Katherine Wright of the Music Therapy Association explains, "Music enables a person to reminisce and reconnect with her sense of identity. Songwriting is an excellent tool to use when working on concentration and other cognitive issues." But it can't cure all that afflicts the young singer.
"When I go to the doctor," Gardot says, "I bring labels with my ailments already printed on them -- they take too long to list." Her pelvic injury forces her to walk with a cane, and she can't sit in one place for long. Her autonomic nervous system dysfunction requires her to wear earplugs to block out ambient noise. And for her photosensitivy, she wears dark sunglasses everywhere.
Gardot also suffers from short-term memory problems, frequently forgetting parts of her own songs during shows. "When I write something, I have to record it right away, or I'll forget it," says Gardot, laughing.
Her condition continues to baffle doctors, and she lives every day in pain. Because of the physical strain involved, her public performances are limited to one or two per month. And at age 21, her body limits her social possibilities. Chance has forced her to grow up much faster than she might have wanted. "I feel like I paid a fairly decent price for a piece of wisdom," Gardot says. That wisdom? "You can lose the best thing you think you have, and you'll still be okay"