For someone with the varied background of Helen Gillet, New Orleans, with its mix of cultures and musics, seemed like a natural place to call home. The 40-year-old singer, cellist, and songwriter — who plays the first day of the New Directions Cello Festival June 21-23 at Berklee College of Music and the Boston Conservatory at Berklee — was born in Belgium, raised in Singapore from the ages of 2 to 11, and routinely shuttled between the homelands of her Belgian father and American mother.
“New Orleans has a history of embracing all kinds of eccentric personalities,” she says on the phone from New York, where she’s playing a gig. “So if you have the guts and the chutzpah to get up on the stage and play with soul, you’re in.” After years in the upper Midwest (her mother is from Chicago, and she went to Beloit College in Wisconsin), what also appealed was the “tropicalness” of the city, familiar from her years in Singapore, and the prevalence of French.
Over the years — working in New Orleans with musicians of all stripes, from avant-garde jazz and classical to pop and funk — Gillet has developed a singular polyglot style. The core of her work is solo performance with live looping, layering cello parts and vocal lines. Rhythmic figures emerge with bowed or plucked ostinatos or a variety of rubbing and slapping on the body of the cello, then enhanced with melodies played or sung in her haunting alto.
Her mixed musical vocabulary is commensurate with her disparate travels — French chanson of the 1940s, Belgian folk tunes sung in Walloon, a mix of rock and punk from the likes of PJ Harvey and X-Ray Spex, and her own affecting originals, like audience favorite “Julien,” sung in a mix of French and English.
Trained as a classical cellist, Gillet took a turn during her junior year of college, when another cellist suggested she take a lesson with Nancy Lesh, a cello player who specialized in North Indian Hindustani music.
“She changed my life, because she taught me how to improvise for the first time,” Gillet says. “She just sang to me, a little Indian raga motif, which I played back to her.” The “deep level of listening,” says Gillet, slowed everything down, opening new sounds and ideas. “I was very happy after our first lesson, and I knew this was my future. I just didn’t know what it was going to look like.”
She began to explore jazz — especially jazz cellists like Abdul Wadud and Erik Friedlander. In Chicago, she hung out at the legendary Velvet Lounge, an epicenter for the city’s avant-garde jazz scene. A master’s degree program at Loyola University brought her to New Orleans.
Singing entered Gillet’s vocabulary almost by accident, when she decided she would sing a birthday song for her father by one of his favorite Belgian poets, Julos Beaucarne, which led back to the French chansons familiar to her from childhood. Following Hurricane Katrina, like a lot of New Orleanians, she found herself stranded in Texas. In isolation, she began to teach herself how to sing along with her cello.
The looping came about because of necessity, as a compositional tool, given the limitations of the cello. “I’m not that great a piano player, or guitar player,” she says with a laugh. “I wanted to create more harmonies and a melody with a chord structure underneath.”
Still, “I didn’t think I’d ever become a live looping artist.” But she began to enjoy hearing multiple cellos together. She found the layers of cello creating other timbres — banjo, didgeridoo, bongos.
She also grew more confident with her own singing. “The cello range is my vocal range. . . . The vibrations of the cello come through my voice and vice versa.”
For Gillet, the layering of voices is also another way to make sense of her life — “lots of airplanes, lots of tumultuous moves, my parents’ divorce,” and immersion in diverse cultures.
On her website, she describes herself as a “surrealist archaeologist,” which also explains some of the startling lyrical and musical juxtapositions, but also a sense of what Gillet calls “musical strata.”
“I now have enough facility with looping that I don’t have to worry about the technology,” she says. “At first you just sound like a little bit of a robot: Here’s layer one, here’s layer two. . . . It’s very obvious at first what I’m doing. But after a while there’s this moment where the music transforms and becomes something else. Now I just want it to be as fluid as possible singing a song and telling my story.”
With Matthieu Saglio and Rufus Cappadocia
New Directions Cello Festival, venue TBA, June 21 at 7:30 p.m. www.newdirectionscello.org