Helen Gillet in a loop: 2012 solo album serves as perfect stoner music

Helen Gillet’s 2012 self-titled album broke into the alternative-jazz conglomerate with looping cello and multi-lingual vocals. CREDIT: Zack Smith

In a Robert Hannant film about her career, cellist Helen Gillet said the classical orchestra would never consider her, because she contaminates her instrument. She can’t help herself. Gillet is a multi-media artist who has never walked the straight line in her entire life. She grew up all over the strangest parts of the world — Belgium, Singapore — as far from the traditional white picket fence as possible.

When she took up the cello at age nine, her Filipino teacher made her hug the instrument for a month before allowing her to strike a single note. She said she was hooked after that. Playing the cello is never a task Gillet takes for granted, which is why she plays every note on fire, and as if she’s searching for deeper meaning. This is a musician who could never sit still for the formal classical orchestra anyway. She needs to be in the driver’s seat, going full tilt, seeing if she can fly off that approaching cliff.

Onstage, she corrupts the air with the strangest of sounds recorded then looped in an arrangement of a song shaped on the spot. After she fell in love with New Orleans in 2002, she stayed, absorbing its unique, cross-cultural, label-defying music scene. Her 2011 trio album Running Of The Bells with saxophonist, the late Tim Green, and drummer Doug Garrison, naturally fell out that Creole inspiration.

Her award-winning 2012, self-titled, follow-up is a solo effort of mostly originals Gillet wrote and arranged, recorded in Kansas City, MO by Chad Meise. When it first came out, audiences and critics embraced the folksy forlorn mix with sharp, distorted edges. Three hit singles came out of the release: “Atchafalaya,” “Julien,” and “Hidegen Fujnok A Selek.”

Gillet employs several technological advances to her cello-based music: a phaser, Fuzz Distortion pedals, digital delay, Boss Rc 50 Loop Pedal, and a Steiner-designed Electronic Valve Instrument. When she sings, she does so fluently in English, French, and Hungarian.

New Orleans cellist pours herself in a loop for 2012 album. CREDIT: Zack Smith

All the technology and languages aside, Gillet’s is the perfect stoner music. It’s unchanging, as enhanced and elusive as the artist, whether the listener is higher than a kite or stone cold sober.

Helen Gillet doesn’t so much tell you who she is or what she’s getting at, so much as gives a gist, lingering on a threadbare series of movements, a certain poetic stanza, rattling some obscure, staid convention. She will play the beauty of the notes for only so long before fragmenting into shattered glass on a string.

Her voice strains at “Carolina’s” 200-year-old, untouched beauty, before corrupting the cello’s indigenous inclination toward classical posture at the 2:21 mark. Bowing and scraping that beauty into man-made armor, a two-river collision.

“Run” is basically Gillet’s personal philosophy. She also said in that documentary that she prefers to go where she’s most uncomfortable. Her music is this way, finding the discomforts, distorting and repeating them on a hypnotic loop. In this song of nothing but choruses, she dispenses everyday errands — like paying the rent — as she’s chasing an undefined, unrefined escape somewhere out there. The chorus plays on in a neverending fast-paced loop, as she tries to cut through the clatter with various implements at her disposal, her extended “You move so slowly” bridge, the hoof beats off her cello, the tremendous synth storm at the end.

Of all the songs on this album, “Atchafalaya” is Gillet’s most fetching. Glorious in its folkloric upward string and vocal movement, but utterly lonely and sad — as is her tendency — the song takes an unusual subject with unusual syllabic lines, and turns into a poetry waltz unadulterated by electronic interloping.

Gillet shows her harder side in the Hungarian folk song covered once by the Dutch punk band, The Ex. In “Hidegen Fujnok A Selek,” she razzes and jazzes up her cello strings, removing all sentiment in her vocal aperitif in a defiant death march.

“Understood” captures a lonely stroll down cobblestone streets, perhaps after a late-night gig, as the first sleek, ruddy dawn appears — captured in her bow.

“Julien,” a sweet tale about the loss of a lovely one, is known more for the amplified metallic distortion than the lyrical story (“You were so small and young, you’re headless and in the sun. We laughed as we watched you play, as you kicked the ball astray”). Yet the story remains elusively charged.

If this is contamination, let’s have more of it.

Review originally appeared in Examiner Sept. 2, 2014.