Helen Gillet. Photo: Elsa Hahne

After Rough Times, Cellist Helen Gillet Finds A New Ease

Sunday night at L’Extravagance, the Lycée Français school fundraiser formerly known as Fête de la Musique, Helen Gillet filled the big stage at Generations Hall with her solo act, playing her cello and loop pedal. Performing in between Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes and Galactic—all impressive acts for a school show—Gillet’s multi-layered work showed how much she’s grown as an artist in recent years. Not that she couldn’t fill and entertain a large room before—Gillet graced the OffBeat Mardi Gras cover already in 2010—but she now seems happier doing it.

Are you happier?

Yes, I think so. It was a few rough years. Losing my dear friend Tim Green, and then Smokey Johnson who was like my New Orleans dad. Also, my mother passed away three years ago in ovarian cancer. It was literally two months between the time we got her diagnosis and the time she passed.

How has dealing with those deaths come through in your music?

I’ve been working more solo lately, getting deep into my solo experience. I’m incorporating more improv elements into my songs, which are more electronic and experimental, and I’m using the pedal more fluidly, whether I’m playing rock ’n’ roll or jazz or funk or something else.

I needed to honor the pain and express myself. I had a lot of housekeeping to do in my life—figuring out my priorities in order to survive as a person on this planet as well as as an artist. Eventually, I just stopped caring about what other people thought of me, and I felt free to be more like me, becoming stronger as a performer and as a human being—they do go hand in hand—and I’m very glad that it’s coming out in my music, but mainly I’m happy that I’m feeling better as a person. Being a happier person is helping me a lot.

What have you been working on this past year?

We started recording an album in March last year with Tephra Sound, which is me and Nikki Glaspie on drums, Jessica Lurie on sax and flute, and Brian Haas on piano.

(That album, Horizon, will be reviewed by Jennifer Odell in OffBeat soon.)

And what about right now?

[Tonight and tomorrow night] I’m actually recording for a new live album at Goat’s new studio at the corner of Lesseps and Marais. I’ve always loved working with him—you know he’s a live sound engineer for Maceo Parker—and he can really capture a space, document the sound as you hear it. The studio is almost finished so we’re really kind of inaugurating it. We hope to have the album up online by Jazz Fest.

Also, I’m getting my French band together for French Quarter Fest, where we’ll be playing on April 14. And I’ll be bringing my solo show to Jazz Fest on Sunday, April 29, the first weekend.

Before all of that, I’m excited about a show at Gasa Gasa on March 22. It’s my solo show but it’s a triple bill with other artists, including a projection artist called Shivers, who is working on digital mapping on a cello.

I guess I have a lot going on, but the work is more approachable than it used to be. I’m more relaxed and I have my energy back. I’m ready to rock!