Helen Gillet: A Good Fit

Helen Gillet steeled herself against the January chill as she stood on a bright Marigny street corner right down Dauphine Street from Hubig’s bakery. Despite the cold, Helen was having too much fun trying out various costumes for a photo shoot to complain. “I really love dressing up,” says Gillet in a faux French outfit, her soft brown eyes shining out from under huge eyelash extensions.

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Photo by Elsa Hahne

“I did a show in Kansas City wearing a body suit by Lady Gaga’s designer,” she says, laughing through silver lipstick after changing into a black and white Mardi Gras costume to pose with her electric cello. Her long, flowing auburn hair is tightly crammed under a platinum blonde wig, and she has donned a corset with black and white vertical stripes that clash effectively with the horizontal stripes on her hosiery.

“What you wear can affect the whole performance, even the mood of the audience,” she adds, now dressed in the formal black attire you might expect a classical cellist to wear. “It doesn’t effect how you play, but it can affect what you play.”

With Mardi Gras only weeks away, Gillet has a full schedule for the season, but don’t ask her what she’s going to wear on Fat Tuesday.

“I always wait until the last minute to decide on a costume,” she says. “It’s part of the fun. Last year I put together a costume and called myself Bath Time. I collect Bath Buddies, washcloths with pictures of animals on them.

When I was growing up in Belgium, these particular washcloths which you wore on your hand like a glove were very popular. I got this red pinstripe pantsuit and cut the legs off so it looked more like a dress, then I attached the Bath Buddies to it with safety pins. I wore fish glasses and put sponges in my hair. The whole thing took a couple of hours to put together.”

Gillet’s Mardi Gras activities include marching with the Krewe of St. Cecilia.

“The late Hart McNee was involved with that. He put together the music and his wife Kate organizes the parade,” says Gillet. “We meet at Feelings Cafe on Mardi Gras morning and parade from there to Canal Street. I don’t know what I’ll be playing yet; it might be drums or clarinet or trombone, but I’d really like to figure out a way to march with the electric cello.”

Last year, Gillet began a couple of new Mardi Gras traditions, both involving Mardi Gras Indians.

“I live next to Smokey Johnson in the Musicians’ Village,” says Gillet. “Last Mardi Gras morning indians came to his house to serenade him. I woke up to the sound of people chanting and hitting tambourines. He was sitting on his porch, surrounded by them. It was wonderful, so I’ll be looking forward to that again this year.”

Gillet helped begin another Mardi Gras tradition last year when she played at the Hi Ho Lounge as part of the Mardi Gras Indian Orchestra. That was the first time this fascinating gathering of New Orleans musicians backed Mardi Gras Indians with bold new arrangements of traditional material featuring the string section of Gillet and Mark Paradis in addition to a souped-up funk band led by guitarists Papa Mali and Camile Baudoin.

“Our first gig was Mardi Gras day,” she says. “The orchestra part has to do with the fact that there’s cello and violin up there along with clarinet. I love learning new music, and I love taking the cello out into different places. The cello offers different things in different contexts.”

In the Mardi Gras Indian Orchestra, Gillet’s long, broad bow strokes accent Reggie Scanlan’s bass lines and add a fascinating drone to the bottom end of the groove.

“As a cellist, I don’t often have the opportunity to play in a funk band setting, especially in front of an audience that is dancing,” she says, “and I definitely got into the spirit. It was so much fun. It’s definitely influenced by some of the more rhythmic cello players I’ve listened to, like Abdul Wadud of the Julius Hemphill Orchestra. It’s a very rhythmic style of playing cello.”

Gillet may look a little unusual playing cello in such a setting, but her performance entirely justifies the premise. Her playing is suffused with soul.

That quality of soul is in evidence in the rest of her work as well, whether she’s playing with the James Singleton String Quartet, the New Orleans Bingo! Show, free improvisation sessions with the Open Ear and Scatterjazz programs, as part of the Naked On the Floor Orchestra, backing up trumpeter Leroy Jones, playing with neighbors like Schatzy and the Happy Talk Band or leading her own group, Wazozo, through a set of French chansons.

Gillet traveled a long and convoluted road en route to becoming a New Orleans musician. Born and raised in Belgium, she lived part time between the ages of 3 and 12 in Singapore. In Singapore, she sang musical theater, invaluable training for the constant role-switching her eclectic music career requires.

Gillet went through an upheaval in her family life that still seems to trouble her years later. “My whole world changed when I was 12,” she says. “My family broke up, and my mother and brother and I moved to Chicago while my dad stayed in Belgium. I got much more passionately into music at that point. The one thing that traveled with me over three continents was my cello. It was a really clear companion for me. I learned very well in Chicago playing classical music with orchestras. There were great programs there. I went to college in Madison, Wisconsin and after a year being in a girl punk band and taking odd jobs, playing classical music, it just wasn’t doing it for me. I started hanging out at the Velvet Lounge in Chicago. I needed to get more involved in musical freedom.”

Gillet moved to New Orleans at age 23 and enrolled in graduate school at Loyola, but her real goal was to grow as a musician and become part of the community here.

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Photo by Elsa Hahne

“My technical skills were good and I could read, but I wanted to be involved with improvising. I wanted to learn how to improvise full time,” she explains. “I sensed that this city had something to offer. I had to get out of the Midwest. I needed to go somewhere where I could live my life as an adult. During my first year at Loyola, I did a lot of wedding jobs. There is a need for classical cellists who can read music, so I was able to survive until I started meeting other musicians like James Singleton who were interested in playing with me.”

Gillet credits her work with the Astral Project bassist, who was assembling a string quartet, as the turning point in her New Orleans life.

“I have to thank James Singleton for what he did for me,” she says. “When I moved here, he was looking for a cello voice for his string quartet and he gambled on me. He welcomed me into that ensemble even though I was very green. I had played Indian music and done workshops, but I was still very new at it all. He allowed me to spread my wings and take big risks, make mistakes and learn and learn and learn. And also he introduced me to Johnny Vidacovich. I feel like I’m getting so much out of the New Orleans tradition.”

Soon Gillet found herself playing in other settings as well.

“Since I’ve gotten here I’ve run across a lot of people reaching out and saying things like, ‘Could you read this chart?’ On my first tango gig, I had to transpose my parts from the violin. I was scared but after I managed to get through my first gig at the Blue Nile, I realized what I had accomplished. People are willing to take risks on me in public at a gig. By being in the music community here, I feel like I’ve been able to explore all these different types of music. I don’t know of any other city that can really happen in, where you just know you’re going to fit in. People welcome you. You don’t have to prove yourself every minute. I feel like I really fit in as a musician and artist; I’m able to really explore a lot of different styles of music.”

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Photo by Elsa Hahne

Gillet was briefly displaced by Katrina but was back in town within weeks, playing at the Sound Cafe with Daron Douglas on violin in an early version of Wazozo they called Christmas in the Trenches. Gillet sang in French, an idea that came to her after she learned a song as a birthday gift to her father.

“For my dad’s birthday five or six years ago, I learned a song by a Belgian folksinger named Julos Beaucarne. He’s a very interesting man; he’s also a sculptor and a poet. He lives in a farmhouse not far from where I grew up. When we left for Chicago, my dad was very alone and he became friends with Julos Beaucarne, so I learned ‘Le Petit Royaume’ to sing for my dad’s birthday. He loved it. I could tell he loved it, so I decided to start learning more of these old French folk songs.

“They were comforting to me because they were kind of nostalgic and they also helped me keep up my French. It’s always been an interest to me in my adult life to try to incorporate my French upbringing into my life in the states. So I thought I’d learn to sing these songs. I don’t have a guitar player, so I’ll just accompany myself on my cello and I taught myself how to sing and play which was really fun. It opened up another world of understanding about song from the bass line up to the melody. It’s a great thing to do, to sing and play at the same time. Georges Brassens came back in the picture. He’s a singer/songwriter from France. His words are the most beautiful poetry in French; it’s like reading some of the best French poets. A lot of his lyrics go over my head, so it’s a continuous objective to try to understand his beautiful lyrics. That’s how the band started.

“When I came back to New Orleans, I met up with Daron Douglas. I was still practicing really, and Daron would have my back. She filled out the melodies so I could take a break from singing, and then the band grew from there. We added guitar and then my dear friend Luke Brechthelsbauer from college moved down here. He was a clown in the Barnum and Bailey circus and he decided to come here and play the harp. So we started playing these songs together and I decided to record them. It’s an all string band. There’s no drums. The band’s obviously not a typical New Orleans band; it’s gone through a lot of permutations—not to say it won’t change in the future.”

Gillet and Douglas still play together every Thursday night at Yuki, magic acoustic gigs that evoke the image of Parisian café music from the 1920s. It’s not hard to imagine music like this being played in early 20th Century French Quarter cafes when the city was still strongly connected to French colonial culture. The shows are often frequented by other musicians. Clint Maedgen asked Gillet and Douglas to play with him on one of his projects after seeing them perform, an association that led to Gillet playing with the New Orleans Bingo! Show. Gillet was the band’s special guest at this past Voodoo, where she was the cello playing zombie in the band.

Like a lot of struggling artists around the city, Gillet lived in various apartments until she qualified for a house in the Musicians’ Village, the final step in her quest to call New Orleans home.

“Owning a house given the lifestyle I have—it’s important to have a place that stays the same especially when you’re involved in so many different projects,” she says. “Also to get the support from elder musicians who look out for me. I’ve become close friends with Smokey Johnson and I don’t know if I would have ever met him if I didn’t live in the Musicians’ Village. He’s out there in his wheelchair all the time looking out for me. He talks about his career and the history of New Orleans music. He has all these great stories and really he encourages me. ‘Go get ’em, killer,’ he always says when he sees me going out to a gig. I feel really inspired by him, and there’s a lot of security in being part of a community.”

When she moved in, Gillet thought the Musicians’ Village was going to be a musical hotbed but so far that hasn’t materialized.

“I don’t want to break anyone’s bubble, but we don’t share our music on a day-to-day basis at all,” she says. “The last time I checked, the Marsalis Music Center was still scheduled to be built, but something is holding it up. They’ve got the lot cleared. I think they’re waiting for the financing. If it’s built—when it’s built, I should say—the plan is for a community center with office rooms, a performance space and a teaching space. I think there’s a potential recording studio, too. I’m really looking forward to something like that happening because we could use a place to gather, even a small coffee shop where we could put up a bulletin board. We talked about having a block party.”

Gillet is part of a generation of young musicians from around the world who were called to New Orleans by its music and culture and decided to make the city their home. These musicians respect and learn from the city’s traditions while bringing new ideas and attitudes to its historically multicultural mix.

“I definitely am very passionate about making New Orleans my home,” she says. “It’s a place that makes me feel like I can be an adult, and a place that kind of ties together a lot of what I’ve been through in my life. This is my place for life. I moved my grandmother’s piano in here. I waited to move it down here until I knew I had a place for it where it could live.”