Cellist, vocalist, and songwriter Helen Gillet is the siren of French chansons that can be found on international stages in front of many and in the corner of dimly lit wine dens right here in town in front of a few. Not only does she play her cello and sing, she uses a plethora of pedals to record and instantly loop her music to create layers of sound; it sounds as though there were ten Gillets playing in front of you. I talked with Gillet about performing at Jazz Fest for the very first time.
WYAT: What was your first Jazz Fest experience as a musician?
Helen Gillet: My first Jazz Fest, believe it or not, this is unbelievable, I played with Smokey Robinson, in the string section. Contracted job, it was like I was still pretty green in the New Orleans scene. Playing with James Singleton a lot. Because I was a little bit more of an improv-oriented string player, I got a call to be in this orchestra reading these Motown charts, legendary string parts. I could not believe that was my introduction to Jazz Fest. Acura Stage. After that, Patrice Fisher called, Mardi Gras Indians. I’ve played with the New Orleans Bingo Show.
I’ve had a really good time, going in and playing with people, but this is my first year I’m going to be doing my solo show.
WYAT: Will you have any surprise guests that you’ll play with?
Gillet: I might have some surprise guests, but for the most part, it’s going to be my solo show. I’m going to keep it there because this year has been so much about that solo show, and it’s my first year at Jazz Fest, I have the opportunity to play under my own name and I want people to hear what it is I can do on my own, with the looping and improvising and I can take the show wherever and it gives the audience the chance to see the flexibility I have as an artist. I love working with people too, but it’s so rare for me to have my name on that list, that I really want to give them me. Maybe next year I can open it up to a band.
WYAT: So you’re starting in the morning, does that changing how you’re going to attack the show in anyway?
Gillet: [The morning] Lends itself well to my solo show, it’s intimate, and the Lagniappe Stage is a great stage to be intimate. I’m definitely going to work on brining the audience in. I like doing house concerts, I like doing intimate shows, I really like the idea of just making them feel like a living room experience with me. But I also like playing in a big space , I like the challenge of making a big arena, feel like a small space. Ironically enough, when I’m playing by myself I feel like I have a wider reach. When I have a lot of people it’s a whole different energy. When do shows with my band, I usually start solo to start out with that space, and then bring out the band.
Happy it’s the Lagniappe Stage too because you have a natural sort of arena circle that is less sonically disrupted by the other stages.
On performing with the Glorioskis and the New Orleans Bingo Show on the Thursday and Friday leading up to her solo performance that Saturday:
Gillet: It actually is really good that I’m doing those first two shows, and then I get to let loose. That’s the thing, a lot of people know me in the context of other bands and they’ve never heard my solo show. It’s a platform where they can hear from what I’m doing. [With my other shows] Get to hear snippets with my other stuff, in the solo show they get to hear all of that. The audience is part of the show, live looping [equals] audience participation, no matter what.
WYAT: What excites you about this particular Jazz Fest?
Gillet: I’m actually just really excited to present the music in my head, in that arena. I have always played other people’s ideas, but I have my own artistic direction, and I get to present in the arena that is Jazz Fest in New Orleans, my home. It just feels good to present my art in a festival. I’m just pursuing my art, and this is the first time I’ve gotten into jazz fest with my art. That in itself is exciting for me. I’m hoping to lift the festival with my music; I’m hoping that it fits, and that they’re happy with it so that I can do it again. But also just to present what I really want to present musically, is a life goal no matter where I am, and to be able to do it at Jazz Fest is very, very cool.