Madeleine Peyroux: Discreet Charm

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Madeleine Peyroux
By John Abbott
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Madeleine Peyroux
By John Abbott
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Madeleine Peyroux
By John Abbott
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Madeleine Peyroux
By John Abbott

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That was my first job, ever,” said Madeleine Peyroux to a small audience of about 30 people sitting in the tiny back room of Barbès, the French-themed bar in Brooklyn. She was referring to the woman holding an empty plastic beer pitcher to collect money for the band. Peyroux was a 15-year-old skipping school in Paris when she broke into the jazz life by passing the hat for a group of street musicians she’d befriended. In time she was allowed to sing and she’s been doing it ever since.

Peyroux was using a few unannounced evening sets at Barbès to go through material from her new album, Half the Perfect World, with bassist Matthew Penman and keyboardist Sean Weyland. Wearing jeans and sneakers and sitting with her vintage Martin guitar, Peyroux played a casually stunning set, calling out keys to the musicians and joking with the audience between songs.

It is a rare thing now for Peyroux, 32, to perform in such an intimate setting. She has been playing much bigger rooms since 2004 when she released Careless Love, her first record in eight years. Careless Love made the top-ten lists that year in Time, Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal. The album was highlighted on NPR and received heavy play on many jazz and folk stations. Perhaps most importantly, it was featured in Starbucks, Borders and Barnes and Noble stores across the country, piped through their speakers and available for sale near the cash register. Careless Love reached number one on both the Amazon sales and Billboard jazz charts, going on to sell well over a million copies worldwide.

While many have commented on Peyroux’s vocal resemblance to Billie Holiday, the striking thing is not that she can sound like Lady Day, but that she draws on the straightforward intensity of singers from the 1930s—people like Holiday and Bessie Smith and Maxine Sullivan—to reimagine jazz singing. In a sea of bland, slickly packaged standards interpreters, Peyroux is the opposite of most peoples’ conception of the female jazz vocalist. Forget range and technique and making bedroom eyes at the camera in a cocktail dress. With her straight four-to-the-bar rhythm guitar and simple but mysterious voice, Peyroux can cut to the emotional core of a song in a way that makes you believe she lived it.

In person Peyroux is charming, deeply thoughtful and a little intense. Talking about music, the words pour out of her. Asked about her life and career, however, Peyroux can be vague. She seems guarded, certainly, but also perhaps canny enough to understand the value of a little myth and mystery in an artist’s bio. Most of all, Peyroux comes across as someone who lives for the music, an old-school performer never more at home than when she is out on tour playing with other musicians and connecting with an audience.

When asked if she was frustrated by Holiday comparisons, Peyroux was quick to answer “no,” but with qualifications.

“Billie Holiday opened up a lot of doors as a technician, as someone that had dramatic and musical tools that were fundamentals for a singer. She was also an individualist. Part of her influence on me is the fact that she inspires me to keep trying to do it my own way. So it is a bit of an irony to say that I’m here to sound like Billie Holiday.”

Other jazz influences? “Can I say Aretha Franklin? Can I say Ray Charles?” She thought for a moment, then listed Louis Armstrong, Betty Carter, Ella Fitzgerald, Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone.

“Also Alberta Hunter. In the ’30s there was this crossover from blues to jazz. A lot of Bessie Smith recordings were recorded with great jazz artists of that time. The songs themselves are more complicated than standard folk blues, the harmonies are complicated; the songs have different parts to them. It’s really jazz but at that time I think it was under the radar because of the racial separation of the music industry. People like Lil Green. She recorded “Why Don’t You Do Right” the same year Peggy Lee recorded it with Benny Goodman. Big Bill Broonzy, who is more well known as a blues artist, wrote a ton of songs that are kind of in a crossover vein.”

It’s an intriguing answer from someone whose own music has always defied easy categorization but has clear echoes of the 1930s.

Growing up in Georgia and Brooklyn, Peyroux was exposed to jazz early through her father’s record collection, but her real immersion began once she moved to Paris with her mother as a teenager.

“I was familiar with ’30s and ’40s stuff, country blues and Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong. I went to Paris and met musicians that were studying this stuff and playing it on the street. It was like, ‘You know this?’”

Music was a way for the young expatriate to connect with people, “finding solidarity in jazz.” Peyroux threw herself into the life. She dropped out of high school and spent two years traveling and performing with a still-active group known as The Lost Wandering Blues and Jazz Band. In video clips on the band’s Web site (lostwandering.com) you can see snippets of a fresh-faced Peyroux playing washtub bass and singing slow burners like “Candy,” “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” and “What’s New.”

“It was a really beautiful time,” said Peyroux, “and then, of course, it’s half and half. Every day there would be a real drag and then there would also be a very personal kind of epiphany, an experience that was enriching, and a connection with another person.” One clip shows Peyroux and the band getting a bottle thrown at them on a New York street. They trudge along carrying their instruments and arguing about whether they will make enough money playing to make it worthwhile.

Peyroux left Paris when she was 18, but she has maintained strong ties to the band and their repertoire. “Even on Careless Love I was doing songs that I learned with them like “This Is Heaven to Me” and “J’ai Deux Amours.” I play with them off and on all the time, even today. They’re still a big influence.”

It was in Paris that Yves Beauvais from Atlantic Records spotted Peyroux, then 17. When they met in New York a year later he offered her a recording contract.

Peyroux felt she was not ready and put Beauvais off for four years, until 1996 when she recorded Dreamland. The album mixed Fats Waller, Edith Piaf, Patsy Cline and the blues. Peyroux was backed by musicians James Carter, Cyrus Chestnut, Greg Cohen, Mark Ribot, Marcus Printup and others. Listening to it now, the Holiday resonances are more obvious. And yet Chestnut, interviewed for a piece about Peyroux in Time, saw past them.

“A lot of singers do Billie imitations,” he said, “but this was something completely different. It didn’t sound contrived…and she has her own story to tell: with her voice, her heart, her spirit.”

Dreamland did well, selling 200,000 copies and earning Peyroux heaps of critical praise as well as a spot in the Lilith Fair and gigs opening for Nina Simone and Sarah McLachlan.

And then just as her career was rolling, Peyroux seemed to disappear. When Careless Love hit stores nearly a decade later, there were different versions of what had happened. By some accounts she had simply walked away from the pressures of a career and gone back to busking.

Peyroux acknowledged that she began experiencing vocal problems while working on a second album for Atlantic but adds that there was also “a little too much input from the label at a time when it was hard enough just to make a second record.”

She took some time off. “I didn’t disappear to myself and I didn’t disappear as a musician. I think I disappeared in the public eye because of the way that the machine of the record industry works,” she said. She remained with Atlantic until 2001, and was subsequently signed to two other major labels, but never got back into the recording studio.

“I spent a lot of time traveling around the United States mostly. I ended up at a blues bar in Nashville and they offered me a job singing five nights a week and I started singing again.”

That was 2000. The following year she was in New York singing with the JC Hopkins Biggish Band. In late 2003 she recorded an album called Got You On My Mind with her boyfriend, harmonica player William Galison. The independent release was a charming, informal mix of jazz and folk. Within months, however, Peyroux was signed to Rounder Records and was no longer involved with Galison. An emotional and legal tangle followed when, after the success of Careless Love, Galison sued Peyroux for $1 million, something Peyroux is still not free to discuss.

In the studio Rounder matched Peyroux with Larry Klein, a jazz bassist-turned-producer who had played with Freddie Hubbard, Carmen McRae and Dianne Reeves. As a producer he developed a reputation for working with female vocalists such as Joni Mitchell and Shawn Colvin.

Careless Love, released in Sept. 2004, was a near-perfect record that stood out from the first bars of Leonard Cohen’s haunting, minor key “Dance Me to the End of Love.” Peyroux’s voice, with its eerie, dark edge, sounded hypnotic. The settings felt timeless without being self-consciously retro and the material was an inspired mix of songs originally done by artists as varied as Gene Austin, Josephine Baker, Bob Dylan and Elliott Smith. Above all, the album had a mood, a gorgeous, loping melancholy that people clearly responded to.

Compared to eight years before, Peyroux took the rush following the album’s success in stride. “I think the biggest change was the type of venues and the amount of work that was out there, jumping from no work to touring all year long again. That’s where the joy comes for me, so it’s great.”

Still, a news story in August of 2005 suggested that Peyroux had again disappeared. Her English distributor, Universal Records, announced they had hired a private detective to find her after she missed some publicity commitments. Peyroux’s manager immediately dismissed the story as a hoax. Peyroux, referring to the incident as a “non-story,” pointed out that, “the label actually put me on the plane to send me home.”

When it was time to make another record for Rounder, Peyroux chose to work once more with Larry Klein and the musicians who had helped create Careless Love—guitarist Dean Parks, bassist David Piltch and drummers Jay Bellerose and Scott Amendola. Sam Yahel, who toured with Peyroux, played keyboards.

“It’s like you’ve gotten past the small talk,” said Peyroux, describing how the trust she felt in the studio freed her to dig deeper emotionally.

“To me this is an introspective conversation with oneself…The songs are much more revealing than material that I’ve done before, the kind of material that does sound like you’re talking to yourself and are willing to say those things that you wouldn’t say to other people. So I felt a little more naked on this record.”

Peyroux co-wrote four of the songs. The subjects include relationships gone awry and a life lived on the road. “I think those were the trickiest because on some level they were the most honest or caused me to look the deepest.”

At the same time, Peyroux was also thinking a lot about the voice as an instrument.

“There is a deeper level to collaborate between the vocal artist and the instrumental artist. Jazz has found a way to incorporate them together and make them completely separate at the same time. You have a very commercial vocalist that might front for a band but doesn’t really take part in the development of the song musically, then you have a scat artist that interprets things purely from a musical standpoint. I think being able to mix both of them is where it really becomes great art, great jazz. Having room for the drama of the song—the reading of a song as an actor would read a line—and also for vocal improvisation. I hear the voice as an instrument that can do probably more things than any single-voiced instrument. I’m trying not to be grandiose, and yet I’m excited about the idea that could happen.”

Watching her sing at Barbès, it was obvious what she was talking about. She stretched and pulled at the lyrics and melodies, playing with phrasing, attack and dynamics, not taking anything for granted and making the songs come alive in new ways. While Penman soloed on the bass she watched closely, listening and reacting to every note, sometimes laughing, delighted with what he was saying with his instrument. She appeared entirely in the moment, living the song note-to-note, pushing the music, the musicians and herself to get more.

“I enjoy being in the studio and I learned a lot from that experience, especially this last time through,” she said. “But touring is really the highest level that I understand. I really still feel myself as a performance artist. It’s amazing to work with the people that I’m working with now because the music really is alive. The energy is there and the spontaneity is there. The musicality is in the moment.”

At Barbès she ran through most of the songs from the new album. On the surface, the material is similar to Careless Love. There are a couple of Leonard Cohen numbers, one song in French, borrowings from the great American songbook and tunes by contemporary folk artists like Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell.

But one of Klein’s goals for Half the Perfect World was to push Peyroux as a songwriter. Careless Love had only one of her originals, “Don’t Wait Too Long,” which was co-written with Klein and Jesse Harris, best known for his writing collaborations with Norah Jones. Harris came back for this record and he and Kline co-wrote three new tunes with the singer. Peyroux wrote the single “I’m All Right” with Klein and Steely Dan guitarist Walter Becker. The new material gives the album a more contemporary, nuanced sound, and Peyroux’s voice sounds deeper, worldlier than before.

A number of guests on Half the Perfect World also help push Peyroux in new directions musically. There is a duet with singer k.d. lang, string arrangements on two songs by Mark Orton from the Tin Hat Trio and solos from alto saxophonist Gary Foster, German trumpeter Till Bonner and pedal-steel player Greg Leisz.

Peyroux’s own guitar playing is a subtle but essential part of her sound. For the most part she switches between four-to-the-bar swing-style comping and a fingerpicking technique that Larry Klein describes as “almost like playing ragtime on the guitar.” It is Peyroux’s instrumental lead that provides the core around which the arrangements are built.

The other important element on Half the Perfect World is the production. Klein described it as “a dream of a jazz record,” complaining that in most contemporary jazz recordings, “the blood has gone out of the sound. There’s this kind of clinical, pristine quality that became the criteria by which a jazz record would be measured…The way that we make Madeleine’s records is antithetical to that. I like them to feel—from an EQ and compression angle—more like old soul records than jazz records.”

Two of the most interesting new tracks are reworkings of songs so well known and so thoroughly associated with legendary artists that to attempt them is akin to tipping sacred cows.

“Smile,” written in 1936 by Charlie Chaplin for his film Modern Times, became a hit for Nat “King” Cole in 1954 after lyrics were added.

“I remember Larry Klein looking at me and saying, ‘You know Nat “King” Cole’s recording of that song has been sent to outer space to represent us to the aliens—it’s more than quintessential,” said Peyroux. “I said…‘So you think we can’t do it?’ And he goes, ‘No, I think we can do it.’”

Klein clearly enjoyed the challenge. “In the art of reinterpreting songs, and especially older songs, if you’re going to be a bear, be a Grizzly bear. The dividends are so great when you really succeed.”

Peyroux’s version of “Smile” is a perfect example of how she can convey an enormous amount of feeling without theatrics. “90 percent of what she does is implied,” said Klein.

Peyroux began playing “Smile” on the road in 2005 following the death of her father. “It’s something that I had personally invested myself in singing. And maybe that’s why it was okay to cover,” she said.

And then there is “The Summer Wind.” Sinatra. The Chairman of the Board. That night at Barbès, when she began singing it there were chuckles in the audience. It turns out there is something intrinsically funny about a woman of Peyroux’s demeanor singing a Frank tune: It’s that unexpected. But once the laughter disappeared the song took over and it was as if we were hearing it for the first time, a lovely, lilting song of ephemeral love.

Peyroux joked that she lives in Sinatra territory in Brooklyn and didn’t want to come on too strong discussing “The Summer Wind.” “It still belongs to Frank Sinatra,” she said, “but I don’t like to give him the last word on jazz vocals.”

She recalled an incident that in the retelling said as much about Madeleine Peyroux as it did about Frank Sinatra.

“I grew up in Bay Ridge, which is a very Italian, Irish, German neighborhood. I played a bar there, maybe ten years ago, and because of my childhood there I said, ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this gig. How could you bring me out to Bay Ridge? This is going to be bad.’ And then I sang “The Way You Look Tonight” when I opened the set, and all these Bay Ridgers were lifting their beer and singing along and they had a great night.

“I think it’s lovely to know there’s a key, there is a way in to making connections—to making really personal and intimate connections—with just about anybody. Sometimes in music it’s really there.”

Listening Pleasure

Louis Armstrong, Louis and His Friends (GNP Crescendo)

Joao Gilberto, Joao (I Really Samba) (PolyGram)

Lil Green, The Chronological Lil Green 1947-1951 (Classics R&B)

Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Gospel Songs (Wrasse)

Joseph Spence, The Spring of ’65 (Rounder Select)

Originally published in December 2006

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