The cellist/singer/improviser has a new album that she's ready to show off.

helen gillet photo by greg miles for my spilt milk
Helen Gillet, by Greg Miles

Helen Gillet’s Jazz Fest shows present a fascinating challenge. How does she represent the breadth of her musical interests in one solo 55-minute set? She succeeds largely by gesturing toward some parts of it—her improvised music side—while pulling her interests in pop music and art songs together in cello-based, loop-heavy compositions that build efficiently with a sense of drama. Before she’s finished, Gillet displays musical and artistic gravity, but her sense of humor and fun is also evident. Her music isn’t thinky, but it rewards thought. 

This year, she plays Jazz Fest Sunday at 1:50 p.m. on the Lagniappe Stage.

What’s new?

My latest recording, Helikiase—a new mostly live album recorded at the House of 1 kHZ with engineer Andrew "Goat" Gilchrist. Helkiase is the name of a medicine invented by nuns at the Notre Dame a la Rose Hospital in Lessines, Belgium in the 19th century to treat all types of ailments. I say “mostly live” because I have added a few vocal overdubs and touched up some percussive and cello elements in post-production.  

This recording includes premieres of my songs: "Slow Drag Pavageau", "Vautour," "Skin," and "You Found Me," a cover of PJ Harvey's "Angelene" and X-Ray Spex’ "I Live of You," a variation of my 2012 song "Kibi," and the Moog-inspired title track, “Helkiase.” On this album, I am singing and playing cello, loops, Moog synth, E.V.I.,  a sampling a 7-inch of General Charles de Gaulle, and a Roland Drum Machine. Goat sings backgrounds on a few songs.  

You can make so many different kinds of music. What do you try to do or say in a Jazz Fest set?   

My solo set has a life of it's own. It's a world that allows me to synthesize all the styles of music I play—the volumes, textures, rhythms, timbres of sound I hear when I play with others etc..  

I love it when listeners have told me they have heard me play my 2012 song "Julien" three or four very different ways over the years. I continue to evolve older songs into new versions of themselves and write new songs that reflect my current musical sensibilities. My Jazz Fest set will hopefully reflect my growing facility with the loop pedal, which has opened new doors rhythmically as well as texturally, exploring details in the patterns of cello layers as I lay each track on top of the next. I've been inspired to write new songs for this new sound.  

Recently, you and Aurora Nealand collaborated with Animal Collective when it played the Music Box Village. What can you share about that experience?

I am fascinated by the common ground between the worlds of synthesized sound and looped cello. Animal Collective shares this fascination and was happy to have an acoustic instrumentalist who understands synthesized sound perform with them. It was an honor for me as I have been a fan of their work for over a decade. I am always striving to work with people I respect and who get what it is I am trying to say musically. This was most definitely one of those moments!

I also enjoyed how professional this Music Box show was and was happy to share my solo work with their fans. And I was blown away by Jane Cassidy's video projection work.

helen gillet photo by greg miles Helen Gillet, by Greg Miles


You have 12 gigs during the Jazz Fest period. Do you run out of musical steam at some point, or do the number of gigs and the amount of playing help you get to an inspired space? Or does something else happen? 

I am an improviser at heart and draw much inspiration from chaos and the unknown. I also need downtime to absorb it all. I find balance in the ebb and flow of improvisation, performance and collaboration with times of calm, reflection and synthesis. The trick for me is that my solo show is a place where I can combine my introverted, thoughtful, creative brain with my extroverted, dramatic, performer brain. So even though I give my all to the audience, I am simultaneously recharging myself and fueling my future musical ideas. Solo performance has been a way to show people a more complete picture of who I am.