There’s a hierarchy to making records. The debut introduces the artist, gives you a semblance of what he or she is about. For the follow-up, the risk of the dreaded “sophomore slump” lurks. The third album typically goes one of two ways: Either it’s a retread or a rebirth.
Melody Gardot went for rebirth. After two albums of sophisticated jazz with a soft pop sensibility that garnered comparisons to Norah Jones and Madeleine Peyroux, the Philadelphia-bred singer-songwriter took a welcome detour on her latest. “The Absence” is Gardot’s approximation of Brazilian bossa nova flecked with flourishes from a time of growth and discovery.
“I traveled for about a year and a half through the southern part of Europe, to Portugal, Spain, parts of Morocco, and then down to South America,” says Gardot, who comes to Berklee Performance Center on Thursday as the opening event of the Berklee BeanTown Jazz Festival. “I was interested in learning new instruments and languages and seeing how they all came together. It was interesting to see how every place we went, music was the shaping grounds for the fundamental joy or sadness of the public.”
“When it finally came to making this record, there was so much I had seen and so much had changed in the music,” she adds. “Before, I was living in Philadelphia and thinking and speaking of things I had experienced in one environment alone. After leaving, I started to feel like I didn’t have one home, but that my home was all around the world in these different kinds of music I had discovered.”
With its emphasis on eclectic sounds, “The Absence” is Gardot’s first album that makes you forget about her incredible back story, which was heavily promoted when Verve Records rereleased her debut, “Worrisome Heart,” in 2008. At 19, she was struck by a car while riding her bicycle. She had severe brain and spinal injuries, and during a long and grueling recovery, she turned to music. Out of her suffering sprang her career as a singer and songwriter. Her quirks abound to this day, including a speaking voice that has the faintest tinge of a trans-Atlantic accent. (A touch of Eartha Kitt, perhaps?)
Gardot made “The Absence” with Heitor Pereira, a Brazilian-born composer and musician who lives in Los Angeles. He was originally brought in to play on a few songs, but Gardot recognized his creativity and their chemistry and decided to make the entire record with him. In its best moments — such as “Se Você Me Ama,” a tender, diaphanous duet Gardot and Pereira sing in Portuguese — it evokes classic Brazilian duet records such as Elis Regina and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Elis & Tom” from 1974.
“Even though it doesn’t say it on the front of the cover, I look at it as the two of us,” Gardot says. “Heitor is kind of like that crazy kid you’d meet on the playground who took everything out of the garbage to build the most incredible castle in the sandbox. He thinks outside of the box completely, and that’s really refreshing.”
Pereira was already familiar with Gardot’s past work but wasn’t trapped by it. Even now he admires just how much she stretched on “The Absence.”
“The most important thing about this album is that it sends a message to everyone who loves her music: Expect anything from her,” says Pereira. “To me it’s a portal that’s wide open to any future choice in music she may make. I think what makes her unique is that with everything she does, she doesn’t lose her DNA. I feel that Melody evokes the value of the past and reminds you that there’s a lineage, but she’s not afraid to make it her own.”
“I wouldn’t have been able to do this record before. If you listen — and I don’t, usually — to my first two records, I sound like a baby surrounded by a beautiful orchestra,” Gardot says. “I sound so tiny and small. I hear myself filling out around the edges. I don’t think I could have written songs like this before, and I definitely wouldn’t have sung them the same way. I grew up.”
She’s cagey about her age. It’s been reported as 27, but she brushes off an inquiry with typical élan. “I’m 2 million years old,” Gardot says. (“She’s very young, but her soul is not,” affirms Pereira.)
“One of the things I realized while putting this record together is that I’ll never be that innocent again,” Gardot says, adding that the album’s cover photo — a provocative image of Gardot in repose (and minimal clothing) — was meant to capture her in full bloom. “If I didn’t do [that photo] now, in five years it’s going to be a whole different story thanks to gravity. We had to do it now so that I have something to show the grandkids.”