What Melody Gardot learned from making Sunset in the Blue: ‘Our options are limitless now’

Singer, songwriter and interpreter Melody Gardot has been making major waves and garnering an ever-growing fanbase since she released her first album Worrisome Heart in 2008.

Over the past several years she’s released four more studio albums as well as a live recording, has toured extensively all over the world, and continues to broaden her stylistic and musical boundaries.

Following the success of her highly anticipated fifth studio album Sunset in the Blue, Gardot has just released a new deluxe edition now available everywhere via Decca Records.

Gardot joined us over the phone to talk about the unique process of making the record.

With everything that’s happened, how are you doing right now?

As good as one can. The most important thing for all of us is to try to maintain a sense of psychological balance despite all the craziness that’s happened. Being an artist and a musician, we have the pleasure of being able to create. Everybody needs an outlet. If they can take to painting, drawing, reading, writing, cooking, dancing, whatever, it’s important to imagine something else, because what we’re faced with every day is not so easy to look at. I would try to encourage people to come up with a hobby right now, if they can, as an escape tactic.

Music is usually one of those escape tactics, but you haven’t been able to do that for a while. Add to that the process of recording an album while you cannot get together with musicians. Was that therapeutic, or was it daunting?

There’s a show-biz answer and there’s the honest answer. Look, it was absolutely amazing to see that we could do anything at all. What we did on From Paris With Love where we had an orchestra of musicians independently recording each of their parts where they were quarantined around the world then assembling that into a digital global orchestra for one track, to then going into Abbey Road and recording with the [Royal Philharmonic Orchestra] there piece by piece, it really was a bit of the dissection of the world we’re used to working in, where everybody’s together. That was new. But what was most impressive was how our team adapted. With [engineers] Al Schmitt and Steve Genewick, who are used to doing some of the greatest records we know live in a room — Frank Sinatra, any of these great orchestral records — what they do is usually work with the mics and that’s their stamp. But to be able to assemble all of it from a distance piece by piece and still make it sound great, I have to give so much credit to those guys. Yes, it was daunting. You know, anytime we’re faced with a moment where we’re forced to change … you need twice as much energy, because you’re going against the grain of your own intentions. That was difficult, but we got over that hump relatively quickly and I think with good results.

You talked about how this deluxe edition was like throwing turpentine on the canvas to reveal the painting under the work. What did you mean by that?

The first vision of the album had these sweeping orchestrations by Vince Mendoza, and they were great, but to show somebody the element of a trio or a quartet where you can really focus on what Vinnie Colaiuta is doing on the drums and the breathing of the trumpeter, or just the pauses in between… there’s something beautiful about space. When you go from such a big record that’s so lush to suddenly having a few tracks that are so barren and minimal, that’s what I meant about the turpentine. We stripped off so many of those layers to reveal the under-painting of the record.

You mentioned Al Schmitt a minute ago, who we just lost. Tell us about the experience of working with a legendary engineer like that.

I have goosebumps. I had the pleasure of meeting Al on my record, My One and Only Thrill. I met him when I had received the mixes. I had only made one prior record, and when I got them I didn’t like them. I was crying to my manager because I had no way of expressing my own emotional discontent. It just didn’t sound like it did when we were in the room. Al was in Brazil recording with Diana Krall; he came back and I think the same day he landed, he graciously offered to mix two or three of the songs, and if I liked them, he would continue to mix the record. I listened, and I bawled. I was so struck by the power of the music. He agreed to revamp the album. It took a few days and I stayed there for the entire process. I was weeping like a baby. At the end of it, I said to him, “What did you do?” And he said, “Nothing. I just took off the compression.” He made it sound so simple. As a whole, I had the enormous pleasure of getting to know and work with him. He was a true artist. We talk about musicians and their talent, but we aren’t anything without the engineers and producers in the studios. They’re like the fifth Beatle, in a way. They’re responsible for letting the world hear what we mean to say, and the way that that’s captured is incredibly important. Stylistically, I’d say my vision of music was shaped by Al. My idea of how to be professional in the studio was shaped by Al. It was an incredible thing to have such a gentleman like that, and such an artist. I definitely fell apart the day that I learned he had passed, because of how unfair it was that we didn’t get a chance to celebrate what we had created together. You know what, he was 91 and he looked like he was in his sixties. He was tough as nails. It was really a shock for all of us, and he’ll be greatly missed.

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Having done this now, what’s the biggest lesson you feel you learned?

I might have to borrow a little quote from Sting. When we were together in Italy doing an interview, he said something so poignant and so simple to the effect that this Covid thing and the way that our work is going now has changed everything, and that’s very upsetting, in a way, because none of us like change. But in all reality, the only reason we’ve been doing things a certain way is because one day somebody woke up and said that’s the way you’re supposed to do it — and that works until you have to change. Now, our job is to adapt. Part of nature is about adaptation. In this particular moment, it’s about finding the way through. Perhaps what we’re learning is that we’re not as limited as we thought. Even though there’s a great comfort in returning to that way of creating music, we can still do things in spite of distance and in spite of difference. Of course, all of us long to be together because of what that does in terms of energy and how we feel about music. Especially in the traditional sense of jazz, you need to be in the room. But music, regardless of genre, can be created even far apart. It opens up a whole new world of how we can go about creating things. I feel that our horizon is a little bit wider and our options are limitless now.

This interview has been edited and condensed.