"That’s the first time I’ve ever lost a gig to Lady Gaga,” Gillet said with a laugh.
But the Letterman spot was still on—only rescheduled to June—and the situation underscored just how hot Gillet’s indie music career has become.
In May, the solo cellist and go-to New Orleans-based freelancer made her first solo appearance at the New Orleans Jazz Festival, where she first played a decade earlier with none other than Smokey Robinson.
The buzz from her 2014 performance landed atop a growing list of accolades. This year, she was named Best Female Performer at the Big Easy Gambit Music Awards and Downbeat Magazine named her a “Rising Star” in its 2013 Critics Poll.
Yet in true indie fashion, Gillet continues to manage her own career, organizing tours in the United States and Europe, jumping in to play and record with artists across musical genres, and pursuing an innovative solo project. In one of the most musical cities in the world, she has made a living as a musician since 2004, when she finished her master’s degree in cello performance at Loyola University.
One job she hasn’t taken is the predictable one: playing cello in classical symphony orchestras. Instead, she plays her own music or performs with a versatile group of musicians or her own little French band. As a soloist, she uses live, “looped” recordings that she layers and then improvises to. She sings in French and English and often plays her instrument percussively while the recorded music drives her improvisation.
Gillet takes her cello to unexpected places, breaking down musical categories in pursuit of her art. “I’m just taking the cello for a joy ride,” she says.
How do you describe what you’re doing musically?
I see myself as a jazz cello player, and I also have this side that is a solo singer and looping cello player. I still do a lot of jazz instrumental gigs, and I love free improvisation.
When did you start playing cello?
I was 9. We lived in Singapore and my Filipino teacher had me hug the cello for weeks before playing a note, just to get comfortable with the feel of it. I hugged the cello, and she would play for me in the warm Singapore breeze, not unlike the New Orleans breeze. New Orleans is the great combo for me. My whole life has been adapting to foreign cultures. New Orleans is French-influenced enough and tropical enough that I thought it could be home. (Gillet was born in Belgium to an American mother and a French-speaking Belgian father, then lived in Singapore before moving to the United States as a teen).
How did you establish yourself in New Orleans?
I came here at a good time, and I’ve always been a pretty determined person, so I was willing to make a fool of myself on stage. As long as you have the balls to do it, New Orleans is a good place. People are pretty open. That’s the difference between the Chicago jazz scene and the New Orleans scene. It’s still sink or swim, but here it’s like ‘you are welcome in our end of the pool.’
Where did you get your classical training?
We moved to the Chicago area where I had a great education at Libertyville (Ill.) High School, only an hour and a half from Beloit. We had a strong musical program and a teacher who put me in a prominent position in the orchestra. It was a lifesaver because moving was a total culture shock, and music gave a grounding and focus to my life and a place of belonging with the other musicians in the orchestra.
Is your family musical?
My mom played clarinet in various symphonies in Singapore and my great grandmother on the American side was a piano teacher. My dad and all four of his siblings went to conservatory in Belgium to learn to sing and play the piano. I have 13 Belgian cousins who would get together with my uncles and aunts to sing and play and jam. That was part of growing up—singing French songs and getting around the piano.
My mom showed me a picture of a symphony and asked, ‘which instrument would you like to try?’ I was freakishly tall so I wanted to be a bass player because they looked tall, since they were the only ones standing. But she really tricked me into playing the cello because we went to the music store and she convinced me to sit down and play. I asked when I got to stand up and she said, ‘Oh, that will come later.’ It never did; although I have stood up in some of my experimental jazz gigs when I really get into it, and I play a lot like a bass player now. So it all comes around.
How did you find Beloit?
My brother was a year older and he went to Beloit. I missed him so much, I was there visiting every few months as a senior in high school. I noticed that Beloit was very international, and that’s what drew me to the school.
I was an anthropology and music double major because I wanted to do ethnomusicology. I thought that would be the right field because of my cultural background and my love of music, but I found that performance is the right place for me, not the academic world.
But Beloit was great. I met a lot of friends and I formed a girl punk band with some of them in Madison after we graduated. We were all around 21 and I was the drummer. I didn’t know how punk rock could be with a cello yet, and I was just starting to improvise. Now I drum on the cello and I’ve taken the cello all over the place.
Going to Beloit was a beautiful thing for me. I was in the U.S. and I wasn’t sure how I was going to navigate being an adult without having this amazing tri-continental existence. Then Beloit made it feel like anything’s possible. Learn how to write. Learn how to think. Be around a lot of good strong-minded people and you’re going to be good.
What drew you to improvisation?
I saw a sitar player at the Velvet Lounge in Chicago when I was 17 and I remember thinking, hey, if a sitar player can improvise, maybe I could. Then I studied Indian classical music with Nancy Lesh in Madison. (Beloit professors Max Yount and Ian Nie pointed Gillet in Lesh’s direction.) Nancy was the first to teach me how to improvise. She gave up her Western classical career to study North Indian Hindustani vocal music on the cello. After she sang to me and taught me that first lesson, I was hooked on improvising. I always liked jazz a lot, but I never thought I could do it. What she really did was open up my ears. I went home singing that scale and feeling like I had been living on one side of the world without knowing there was another continent. I realized that I could probably learn to improvise in a jazz context too. I moved to New Orleans to become an improvising cello player 12 years ago.
You were in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina?
I happened to be in Montreal visiting family. It was an incredible set of circumstances that led me to rent a car for this special trip. I put all my stuff in that car, including my cat, and dropped her off in Chicago. It was very strange because I was living in New Orleans all year, then I went away, and a week later I get the news on the Vatican radio station in Quebec City. It was very difficult to be far away. I almost felt like something was watching over me because I didn’t have many physical items to lose, but the ones I did—the cello, the cat, the computer, and the amplifier—were with me.
Katrina made me realize that New Orleans is my city, and I really wanted to help rebuild it. It was this sense of ownership and protectiveness and community that was very strong. So I came back as soon as I could after saving some money by playing in other places. I got back and started making my living playing in the streets because there were no musicians on Royal Street. Usually the French Quarter is packed with musicians, but there were none. I formed a trio with a harp and viola player and we played Christmas carols and we made a killing. All the construction workers were looking at the French Quarter as this party place and there was nothing going on. I played some night clubs by candlelight. The city was like a war zone, you know?
I used to say that Katrina was like having a really good friend that you don’t see because your lives are pushing you in different directions. But if something happens to that friend, and they end up in the hospital, all you can think about is being by their side. That’s what it was like.
To see a recent film about Helen Gillet, check her tour calendar, and purchase her music, visit helengillet.com.