Online Exclusive: Madeleine Peyroux

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Madeleine Peyroux
By James Minchin
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Madeleine Peyroux
By James Minchin

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There’s a popular saying among aspiring wordsmiths that goes something like, “In order to become a good writer, you need to read good writers.” For her sparkling 2009 disc, Bare Bones (Rounder), Madeleine Peyroux heeded that call from a musical standpoint and wrote or co-wrote all 11 songs.

Even though glimpses of her songwriting gifts have shimmered throughout her discography, dating back to her charming 1996 debut, Dreamland (Atlantic), much of Peyroux’s acclaim arose from her masterful interpretations of songs by Elliott Smith, Leonard Cohen, Hank Williams and others.

“Writers have the focus of all of our attention, whether we realize it or not. Being a cover artist, I think I’m just doubly aware of that,” she says. “Having searched hard for songs that might fit me—and learning songs that I can’t do—became a part of who I am. Focusing on the song itself is what I’ve been doing all along.”

Peyroux goes on to explain the process of learning songs that she can’t interpret by citing an absolute jazz classic. “Dinah Washington’s ‘This Bitter Earth’ is one of the greatest recordings ever. But it would be very difficult for me to do justice to that song. I think it takes a greater maturity than perhaps I have at this moment,” laughs Peyroux. “But that’s a song that I still look up to. There are also the happier songs that I don’t think I could cover at this particular point in my life.”

After years of focusing on choosing the ideal song and slowly developing her own material, Peyroux says she began recognizing her strengths as a songwriter. “By the time I wrote one of the last songs for [Bare Bones], ‘I Must Be Saved,’ which I wrote by myself, I started to hear my voice in language. I began to recognize some of my strong points, which were being able to stay with one idea forever. I think I began to realize how much folk music influenced by songwriting—for instance, [using a] really repetitive formula and developing an idea over and over again.”

Another great asset she discovered was her penchant for crafting compelling tunes out of conversations. She cites the wistful “Our Lady of Pigalle” as the perfect example. “My songs have lots of lyrics. From [that song] I discovered that I knew how to make [a] song out of a conversation, from covering songs that do that so well: singing in the second person, for example, or singing to someone in the first person but really having a conversation. I think a lot of these songs are built around conversations.

“‘Our Lady of Pigalle’ is very interesting for me. It has a lot of musicality, a strong musical beauty. I enjoy what it’s trying to say,” she continues. “It’s a bit more cryptic, lyrically. It’s trying to propose the situation—emotional or philosophical—that exists from a secular standpoint of sexuality as salvation, and raises the issue regarding sexual repression and religion.”

As on her previous two discs, Half the Perfect World (Rounder, 2006) and Careless Love (Rounder, 2004), Peyroux worked with Larry Klein, who’s produced other stellar albums by vocalists such as Luciana Souza, Melody Gardot and, of course, Joni Mitchell. When she collaborated with him on Careless Love, she first confided in him that she wanted to hone her songwriting skills. “But I hadn’t gotten the idea in my head that I would want to make an album of all originals. Larry suggested that we collaborate and do it,” she says.

“A few months later, I think he was beginning to feel skeptical, based on some of the things I had been sending him, which were super, super rough,” she laughs. “By that point, I was already gung ho; I couldn’t be stopped. After about a year, I stopped touring, only doing little performances here and there, and concentrated on rewriting and rewriting and co-writing with a ton of other people. Many of the songs didn’t make it onto the album, but the process was extremely informative, so I threw myself into it. By the time Larry was becoming skeptical, I’d decided that there was no way we were going back.”

Originally published in October 2009

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