Helen Gillet and her cello are a love story for the ages. Whether it’s just the two of them on stage or they are joined by the dizzying roster of collaborators she’s worked with over the years, there’s no anticipating what direction the music will take. If an Ornette Coleman mood strikes she leans into it, her vigorous bow sliding every which way. Afterwards she might play a French chanson, the lilting tune as sweetly restrained as her improvisations are textured and wild. Such range is growing increasingly rare, and she earned hers the old-fashioned way: by playing absolutely everything with anyone she thought was doing something interesting—and she has the stories to prove it. Gillet studied Hindustani cello playing with the legendary Nancy Lesh, has her master’s in classical cello performance from Loyola University, and spent decades proving that both women and cellos belong in jazz bands. Gillet’s music is driven by a burning, ever-evolving curiosity. She loves to play, but she also loves to listen, and her discerning ears have secured her place as one of New Orleans’ finest improvisers. Though her stage presence can be intimidating, Helen Gillet also happens to be fun—her solo performances are never self-serious, and are always well-seasoned with rambling stories and silly jokes translated from her French songs. I was delighted to sit down with her at St. Coffee to catch up about artistic evolution, self-romance, and her new album.
What’s new, Helen Gillet?
All kinds of things! Such as my new album!
Tell me everything.
The new album is an all-French album and it’s called ReBelle, which means, “rebellious” in French, but with a play on words from a quote by a Belgian poet that says, “la poésie n’est pas que belle, elle est rebelle.”
Can you translate for your Anglophone fans?
“Poetry is not only beautiful, she is rebellious.” Or, she is re-beautiful. She’s beautiful again. And I love how that is a way of honoring the cyclical process of coming in and out of creativity, coming in and out of different chapters of your life, personally and professionally. I’m a looping artist too, and I think a lot about doing something again, reworking something over and over again, until you find something that pops out. I felt like it was also a good year for honoring la resistance, the rebelliousness of holding on to what is beautiful at all costs. It’s uncompromisingly knowing what’s good for you, finding that beauty again, and holding on to that. I mean, what a wake-up call to lose Roe v. Wade after all these years, and to remember that’s a beautiful thing that we need to hold onto. We’re in this, remembering what is important, remembering what could be lost. All of that feels connected with this album.
I love how you make those political connections with songs like “Lettre à Kissinger” (“Letter to Kissinger”), which pays tribute to [murdered Chilean musician] Víctor Jara. Given your unbridled enthusiasm for all things Belgian, you must have been delighted to find a Belgian poet with both excellent taste and righteous politics.
Yeah, Julos Beaucarne is an amazing poet. He passed away last year, so this feels like the right time to honor him by making this album. And then there are also two songs by Brigitte Fontaine on the album, and she is a total badass—performance artist, singer-songwriter, spoken word poet—who has been around on the scene for a really long time. One of them is called “Dommage que tu sois mort,” which means “too bad you’re dead.” It’s about someone whose friend—that she always had a crush on when he was alive—passed away. She never did anything about it, and after he dies she starts fantasizing like, I would have loved to take you out for tea, and walk along the ocean rocks, and see the night fall… too bad you’re dead.
You heard her, folks—gather ye rosebuds. [laughs]
It’s so good. And then the other one is called “Eternelle.” One of my friends here in New Orleans recommended that I perform this song years ago, and I’m finally doing it. It goes, “I want to be loved for who I am, not for my ornaments… It’s easy to be loved for your hair, you can hide behind it. I want to be loved for my skull, for my charming occipital bone.” It’s about being loved for what’s underneath. It’s really beautiful and romantic, but also it’s sort of an epic ballad of the existential angst that is wanting to be loved for who we are, who we really deeply are, you know? That’s where I’m at personally in my life right now. I’m learning to love myself a lot more. There is wisdom—thank God—that comes with getting older.
I just bought this off-grid cabin in Vermont, and the sunset is like my new relationship, and every night it’s great.
How has homesteading been going?
Just a beautiful sunset every night! But it’s solitary. I have a piano up there, and it’s just me in my element, heating my body with a wood-burning fire, turning on a well to get my water. It’s poetic, and far away from the hustle and bustle. I’m doing it so that I can stay connected to that pure part of my artistry, the poet that we all need to be activated when we are trying to be creative. I need to feed her. So I bought her a cabin.
Alone time is such a necessary part of knowing yourself, which in turn really deepens collaborations. And this album does seem particularly collaborative, from the poet’s lyrics to all the texture brought in by the band.
Yes! The band is Doug Garrison, Alex McMurray on guitar, Jonathan Freilich on guitar, and Rex Gregory. I actually picked a group of musicians that I work with in other contexts, more rock stuff with Alex (usually), or singer-songwriter stuff, but I’ve gotten him into the French chansons. I just love his guitar playing—it’s so supportive of the vocalist because he’s such a great songwriter, and he knows how to lift up the songs. So it’s really been wonderful. And then Jonathan Freilich did some overdubs on this beautiful resonator guitar that ended up having a little North African groove. I’m looping and he’s playing the resonator guitar; and Doug Garrison, who’s just a badass of all styles of drumming, and also can lift anything. So can Rex. The very intentional band of people who are just extremely good listeners.
Your long, eclectic musical background must have given you a taste for unusual collaborations.
Yes! I’ve been working with a projection artist, Shivers, for my solo stuff and she’s a jack-of-all-trades kind of person, but we have a similar, fun energy and it just feels right when I see what she projects. It’s coming from a place within her that feels similar to a place that my music’s coming from within me, even though we’re very different too, you know? Collaborations come in all kinds of unexpected forms. I love performing in art galleries or cool, weird places where the space itself becomes a collaborator.
I remember David Byrne talking about the importance of space in his book, How Music Works, like all the little details at CBGB’s that helped his band get their start.
Right! I like to seek out spaces with the right feel. But just in case I run across one that’s a little bit uninspiring, I bring a piece of driftwood from the Mississippi on the road, and I fasten it to an easel and put this old lamp behind it, or a soft yellow antique bulb. That was my light show for the tour, so that I had some other component besides, you know, just me and the cello. The driftwood kind of mimics the shape of the cello right in the midriff curve—they complemented each other well. And you can see the Mississippi’s wearing and tearing on that piece of wood just like my handprints on my cello—on the places where I drum, the grit on my hands combines with the resin and turns [it] black after a time. After my mom died I started leaving my mark there instead of polishing it off, so that there are these “bruises” on my cello, as a Boston University poet just referred to them. And so I’m creating this art piece over time, this weathered cello that connects to the weathered wood.
What a great way to visualize all the soul that goes into playing an individual instrument.
Yeah, it’s powerful, and it’s nice to honor it. I’m honoring that at my shows more now. The line between instrument and musician gets blurrier and blurrier. It’s terrifying when I think of [my cello] because, I mean, this is my longest relationship and if anything happened to it…
How long have you had it?
I have been with this particular instrument since I was 14. It’s the instrument that took me through my master’s degree, and the instrument I moved here with. I developed my sound with this instrument.
Do you have others as well?
I have another one that is actually a “better quality” cello. It’s a pristine classical cello that I leave outside the world of amplification, so it can keep that character to it, because it does have a whole different sound.
Like if you ever want to do a little Bach?
Yeah, a little Bach, or if people ask me to do a recording session that’s just an acoustic cello sound, then I’ll bring that one, usually. It depends on the session. If it’s something a little more adventurous, even if it’s acoustic, then I’ll bring my ax, but if it’s something that has to be just a classical cello part, you know, or even folk-y but beautiful. It’s a specific type of way of playing it, you know?
That cello helps you get into that space.
Yeah, it does. It helps me get back into my classical roots.
Do you still enjoy going old school?
I do. It’s kind of like putting on a fancy dress and a pair of high-heeled shoes. [laughs]
The cello is such a beautiful instrument, and it can do so many things.
Mm-hmm, that’s been the fun part, just taking it on this joy ride. Taking the cello on a joy ride was my mom’s favorite of my taglines.
So classical is where the joy ride started? How did you get to a place where you’re doing what seems like every genre at once?
I also studied North Indian Hindustani cello playing. I used to do a lot of that when I moved to town. It was where I got my biggest training in improvised music—it was the first time I used my ears in that improvising way.
Photo by Avery Leigh White
That must have been a great way to transition into jazz when you got to New Orleans.
I played all over when I first got here. I’d saved up three months’ worth of living expenses; I swore I wouldn’t take a job outside of cello playing. There was a tango band with a Sunday night residency on Frenchmen I played with, a lot of weddings. I learned a lot. Flora’s cafe had these Tuesday night jam sessions that would go ‘til you started hearing birds chirping. Then James Singleton needed a cello player for a jazz quartet, and within a year I was starting to really play improvised music, and got the encouragement I needed to know that I could have a voice in this town. Another big turning point was working with Piety Records. I would get the call and pop over there when someone was looking for a cellist. The list of things I went and did there is endless. It was really formative for my sound. The looping I’m doing now is really on the spot live engineering. The hours I spent in the studio between 2006 and 2011 allowed me to learn from so many different musicians and engineers.
Do you remember any standout sessions?
When Cassandra Wilson was recording Silver Pony in 2008, I had been playing an ancestor to the cello in a medieval band. It has a teardrop shape with a flat bridge, so it’s designed to play a melody while droning at the same time. I was telling her about it, and she got so excited that we drove back to my house to pick it up so we could get a few takes with that medieval sound.
Who were some of your early influences in New Orleans?
On a relational level, Smokey Johnson was very important for encouraging me on the scene. Coming from playing drums in a girl punk band to moving to New Orleans, New Orleans felt extremely old-school, and it felt like there were very few women expressing themselves, ’cause I was in this instrumental jazz world. I was like, where did all the women go? I went from having this powerhouse of intelligent, powerful-ass women and then all of a sudden I was just starved for it, you know? In the jazz world it felt like it was just me and Aurora [Nealand] and then all these men. I was trying to go from classical—which gender-wise is pretty split down the middle—to jazz, so I ended up hanging out with all these guys all the time and being like, where’s my support network of strong female energy? But Smokey was the ultimate feminist, even though I don’t think he’d describe himself that way. He was so supportive of me, as a person, every day, and he was my neighbor so I saw him all the time. He was no stranger to being taken advantage of in the music world, so he was kind of warning me and trying to encourage me and also telling me: It doesn’t matter if there’s two people or 2,000; you gotta lay it on ’em! Go get ’em, killer! All these great sayings that linger in my head were more punk rock and powerful and encouraging than a lot of the other people I was hanging out with, where it was always like a, you know, dick-swinging contest of who can play faster, louder, better; who can say the smarter thing or who can be wittier, who can remember more John Coltrane albums. Like, explain the discography of the entire Blue Note label.
Yeah. But Smokey would tell me to go get paid for what I know. There was this great day where I was driving in the car and he was like, where are you going? And I’m like, oh, I’m going to the Westbank to a recording session. He was like, are they gonna write those parts out for you? And I was like, probably not. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a chord chart, and I’ll have to improvise on the chord chart and come up with a part, feel it out. And he was like, oh, so you’re composing? And I was like, yeah, I guess I am kind of composing. He was like, Composing and playing the cello, I hope they’re paying you twice. And he would zip away in his electric wheelchair. [laughs] It was his mic drop. He had this electric wheelchair, [would] say a zinger and then zip away: “I hope they’re paying you twice.” Zzzzz. And I remember then, after that mic drop, I was driving to the Westbank and just being like, wow, um, they’re not at all paying me twice. It just kind of helped me know my worth, I guess.
Yeah, it must be such tricky terrain to navigate.
I often felt like the scene I was in was like: You’re creating music and it shouldn’t be about money. And yeah, that’s true, you should be—I mean, the compositional part, the creative part, the lifetime of learning and devoting myself to music and getting a master’s degree, and practicing eight hours in a practice room for most of my youth; that’s devotion to an art form. And, OK yeah, it shouldn’t be about money. However, it should be respected, and money is just one of those vehicles to that.
It’s hard with the money and the business…
Let’s talk about money. [laughs]
Yeah. But in that story, I can see the cross-section where, on one hand there’s this game to try to squeeze as much labor as possible from someone for as little as you can pay them. So they’re like, we’re getting away with composing and we’re getting playing.
But on the other hand, art is fluid and that’s the way you want it. You don’t want to nickel and dime creativity; you want it to flow like water, so that if you need to compose on the spot, you don’t necessarily want to think about the contract.
Yeah, that’s why learning how to be a self-sufficient artist is a lot about how to support yourself and not hurt the art. You can create a framework around your work that is sustainable. That’s what I’ve done, I’ve tried to do, continue to try to do. What I find most precious, I’ve protected, and what’s popped out was my solo show. I have to honor the fact that something does happen when I’m by myself with my music. It’s great to have this art form that I do with the solo performance because, if on a dime I feel like reciting a poem, I can just do that. If I feel like stopping and telling a story, I can do that, you know? And it’s nice to have that available—my solo performance that I tour with, and then I do a lot of those gigs where I collaborate as an instrumental cello player.
Left to Right: Doug Garrison, Jonathan Freilich, Helen Gillet, Alex McMurray, and Rex Gregory
Photo by Avery Leigh White
The variety must be crucial for someone with such a range of musical interests.
The collaborations are like jumping into an art studio and sharing ideas. That’s what inspired me to start my record label, Tephra Sound Records, which is my improvised jazz label.
I feel like your vocal work is something you really have gotten to develop through your solo stuff.
You know, I like where my voice is right now, which is maybe the first time in my life. ReBelle is the first album that I think I can tolerate my voice on. I mean, I do like my other albums too but you know, you listen to old shit and it’s like, oh my God.
Yeah, it’s tricky with your own voice. The hardest part about doing interviews is when you have to transcribe it and listen to yourself and you’re like, ah! Fast forward.
Let the record state that I love Holly’s voice. [laughs] But I think the cello really taught me how to sing, with its low vibrato. I guess when you’re an artist and you devote your life to creating something and trying to keep it evolving, you do need to create a space that allows you to feel safe to express and hone, tools that are very much spiritual, too. An understanding of one’s darkness and one’s joy, and one’s emotional self and the intellectual context—if that’s important to you—of what you’re trying to do. I’m so lucky, you know? I get to perform this very ephemeral art that sometimes, no one will ever hear a piece; I compose all the time while I’m performing my solo show. I’ll just perform a brand new piece no one will ever hear again, including me, maybe.
What’s an example of an ephemeral music memory?
So many! I did Sniffjazz; that was definitely a one-off.
Sniffjazz? What’s that?
I got eight players together and had each player bring a smell, like something to sniff, and a story that went with that odor. And Paul Thibodeaux brought dried shrimp from his grandfather’s shrimp packing plant and he passed it around. It was very pungent, you know. You open up the packet and it’s like, shrimp! Shrimp up your nostrils! Then he told a story about his grandfather working in this for his whole life, and every day he’d come home and his grandmother would be like, shower. And he would tell the story while people in the audience were smelling the shrimp, and then he would go into drumming. And then he would take a drum solo, and then eventually all the seven other players on stage would join in, and we’d do a collective improvised piece.
Ultimately, what I’m doing with my songs is so personal and it’s so emotive in this different, really beautiful, precious way for me and for my audience, but the improvised stuff is also extremely precious to me and very important. It all exists as one—it’s all a part of me.
For more info check out helengillet.com.