Melody Gardot Sings About Society’s Unsung Heroes

MOBO presents the UK premiere of Melody Gardot's powerful visual for her new track, 'Preacherman'. The video was created by Melody as a poetic tribute to the story of a 14-year-old black teenager in 1950’s America, whose racially motivated murder marked a landmark moment in the Civil Rights movement.  

Watch the moving video below followed by our interview with the soulful jazz singer. 


In advance of the June 2015 release of Melody Gardot’s fourth studio album, Currency of Man (Decca), I caught up with her at the Soho Hotel in London, to hear Gardot reflect on city life, human relations and music’s redeeming role.


Can you tell us a bit about how the music video collaboration for the future single ‘Preacherman’ on the album came about?

This is a really from-the-heart song. It’s a true story about a young 14 year old black boy called Emmett Till from Chicago who was brutally murdered in Mississippi while on holiday at his grandmother’s in 1955 because he supposedly flirted with a white woman. It was big news at the time but not many people seem to know about it now.

When I first found out about Emmett Till a couple of years ago, I was shocked that I didn’t already know his tragic story. I wrote Preacherman as a response to it, and later I realised I also wanted to make a music video that would be a poetic tribute, because Emmett’s death was really the start of the Civil Rights movement in the States, and yet very few people know that. I thought if we could just portray Emmett’s spirit and legacy - not in the violent way in which he was actually killed, but by making a beautiful piece of cinematography - we could bring the whole issue some fresh attention. I wanted to work with this visionary guy, Calum Macdiarmid, and make a moving film together that would show how Emmett’s mother found the body of her only child, and carried him to the local preacher. He had a lot of cool ideas about shooting the video in a part of Mississippi that is now a heritage area so it still looks like it’s the 1950s, and to do it all in black and white. We did a local casting call, and it turns out the actress playing Emmett’s mother is carrying her own son from the river and through the town; you can really feel her pain. The whole time we were shooting, it never stopped raining, but it really adds to the atmosphere of the video.


We are delighted you’ve chosen our MOBO Awards website for the UK premiere of Preacherman. What do you hope the video will achieve when it is released?

We need to re-educate people about race issues, so my hope in putting together this video is that it will show people what happened to Emmett Till, because this boy’s life story sparked widespread outrage and inspired Martin Luther King’s own mission to bring about change.

But it’s not just about an event in black American history; Preacherman is intended to remind us that we’re still seeing the same things happening today - like with Trayvon Martin - there are still race hate crimes happening all over, and just like Emmett’s killers who were not punished, neither are the guys who are doing it now. I hope it will make people ask themselves how many times we have to repeat the same mistake before we learn from it. We are not born racist, and that’s the point of the video: there is no room for racism when there’s only one race - the human race.

The Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, which is run by a bunch of great people including Emmett’s cousin ‘DR Jay’ (who also appears in the video), does an amazing job. They go into schools and show children what racial hatred leads to, and that we are not really free so long as this is still going on. I want to do a lot more with the Foundation because I love DR Jay’s spirit and what she stands for. Like with anything we do, I hope releasing this record will create a ripple effect.


Is Currency of Man your most political album to date?

I wouldn’t say political, but it is a socially conscious album about things that are happening every day to ordinary people - it’s basically an ode to Everyman. As a writer you can't avoid noticing and being affected by what’s going on around you - as a human being you’re a part of it. So I think with this record, I wanted to go beyond writing about my own small world. It was the first time in years that I’d spent an extended period of time in the United States, and coming back after being on tour elsewhere for so long, it was really shocking. I don’t want to sound like my grandmother, but I noticed straightaway that things had really changed for the worse in the city, and it was not the place I remembered. Ninety-nine per cent of these songs were written as I was walking away from a situation that I’d just seen happening in the street, they’re a reaction to something that got me thinking, so it’s kind of like music journalism. I’m not a politician and I’m not trying to beat people over the head with it - really it’s just a commentary - and that’s what music is supposed to be about.

(c) Gavin Bayliss


You’ve used some great pieces of field recording of people in the city on some of the tracks on this album. What struck you most about how their lives had changed?

It seems to me that when I look around everybody has this great big selfish agenda to try to get as rich as possible as quickly as they can, without considering the person next to them - and that’s not what we as human beings are meant to do. Something has happened in the last hundred years - maybe as a result of our increasingly technology-driven, urban lifestyle - but we’ve become so totally self-absorbed that we forget important events too soon after they’ve happened - like with Charlie Hebdo - and it drives me mad! So I think for the first time with this album, the world really woke me up, and I felt I needed to sit myself down and write about what I was seeing.


It’s got quite a different sound to your previous album, ‘The Absence’, it’s more raw and bluesy. How did you develop the material for this one and choose who to work with?

This record with Decca is really thanks to Paris - I bumped into Larry Klein again there in the bar of the hotel where I regularly stay, and we reconnected. And while I was working on this Nina Simone record in Paris, I also met Clément Ducol, a very talented young arranger and his friend Maxime LeGuil, who was this really cool sound engineer that knew a ton of stuff about analogue recording, and it was just serendipity - the right people being in the right place at the same time - and I knew I wanted to get them all together and record with me in LA. All the records that I’ve done have been an organic thing - there’s no A&R person saying I had to do it a certain way.

So we got to LA and there was this young guitarist I’d discovered there called Reese Richardson who I wanted to work with, and we put him together some of my homies from Philly - Philadelphia, where I grew up - like the bass player Dan Lutz, and Pete Kuzma on organ. It’s great playing with people from Philly, because they all lay back the same way when they play. It’s all about timing, your sense of time in the music- it’s not even an East coast thing, because musicians from New York don’t play like that. I never noticed it until I’d spent a long time away from Philly, and one night I was at a gig at Catalina’s jazz club in Hollywood, and although I didn’t recognise the bass player, I knew he was from Philly just by the way he was playing - and it turned out I was right! Of course, when you play with LA musicians it can be beautiful too, but it’s a little bit like Mingus, Roach and Ellington - you’re playing alongside one another but sometimes not really with each other. It’s got to be a team effort, a collaboration - it’s not just my record.


Judging by your substantial following here in Europe, your music has already had a strong ripple effect. What’s your particular connection to this part of the world and what do you think is the root of your music’s appeal for European audiences?

It has a lot to do with how many concerts you’ve played and where, so I would say that if we had done the same amount of touring in the United States as we have done in Europe, we would see a similar following over there. I play over here because I’m asked to and there are things that I love about being here, especially in Scandinavia for example, where people have a hunger for culture and art that is very active. In France too they really love artists, and they love them forever the way you love the greatest love of your life, so that even if the artist does something bad, they still love them to the ends of the earth - I remember seeing that with say (Edith) Piaf. Americans seem to want to consume things that are cheap but that don’t last very long, so in general in the United States everything, including fast food, is a very short-lived experience compared to other parts of the world.


Have you called this album ‘Currency of Man’ because you think that ultimately music is the best currency we’ve got to share with one another?

No, I think music has always been just a way to share stories. Blues music was about people getting together and playing for one another to express themselves. But in terms of a currency which creates the greatest resonance between human beings, it’s got to be love, period. Not to go all ‘John Lennon’ on you, but if you go anywhere in the world and you go into a school, and you spend some time with the kids there, and then one of them hugs you, you finally realise what you’ve been missing for years, because the way a kid will hug you is full of love and without fear. As adults we’re so caught up in being formal, but we need to be more loving.


What would you say to a young woman in her teens who’s trying to find her place in the world, who maybe aspires to becoming a top female recording artist like you one day?

If I was speaking to myself at that age from where I am now, it would probably be something along the lines of, you think you’re so important but you really know so very little! And that’s the same for anybody that age. There are exceptions of course, but generally speaking, you’re still trying to figure out simply how to walk in the world. As a teenager, you have a sense of yourself it’s true, but that’s bound to change a million times. Even if you’re convinced your path is music, you might wind up somewhere else altogether, so the important message is to always follow your heart, and don’t worry about the things that don’t make sense right now.


It’s always interesting to see how an album is received. What do you think people will make of this one?

I guess I’m saying with this record that a city can be a monster, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I think when people hear it, they’ll hopefully feel the same way that I do; they’ll say ‘I get it’, and that’s what music is supposed to be about.



Sarah Chaplin @jazzsez [Contributor]