Not many musicians go from street busking to the top of the charts and then back
to the streets. But Madeline Peyroux is not your typical musician.
jazz/blues vocal stylist whose rich, smoky voice has been compared to everyone
from Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith to Norah Jones and Cassandra Wilson, has
experienced a journey with as many twists and turns as her snaky music. And it’s
far from its destination.
“At the end of the day, I just want to make
sure that I’m singing, so I don’t have very much else to say,” said Peyroux last
week from her New York City home. The 39- year-old native of Athens, Georgia
then immediately stood the sentence on its head by offering a detailed chronicle
of her acclaimed career that began on a Paris street corner, grew in 1996 when
TIME magazine pronounced her 1996 debut album Dreamland “the most exciting,
involving vocal performance by a new singer this year,” and has continued with a
steady stream of acclaimed albums and performances that have secured her place
as one of the pop music scene’s most accomplished artists.
“hippie” parents from Georgia to New York so her father could pursue an acting
career, Peyroux found herself at age 13 in Paris with her newly divorced
“My parents were definitely radical in their own right, and while
I didn’t enjoy it too much at the time, my rather eccentric upbringing did
expose me to a lot of things that I’m now glad I was exposed to – it was a big
part of my education,” said Peyroux.
Having learned the rudiments of
guitar by playing the ukulele with her mother, Peyroux became attracted to the
street musicians in the Latin Quarter of Paris, and by the time she was 15, she
was performing on her own and with a group called the Riverboat Shufflers. The
next year, she joined The Lost Wandering Blues and Jazz Band and spent a number
of years touring Europe performing jazz standards.
“There was this
special chemistry at that time in Paris where musicians were sort of sharing
this free space and the air was very liberal,” she said. “Everyone was just
exploring how to enjoy life and share ideas with people. For me as a
15-year-old, it was very impressionable and I was excited about seeing people
function as musicians.”
“The scene was joyful and supported by the
community, but it was temporary – it ended a couple years after I landed there.
In order to be satisfying, music needs to be spontaneous and organic, but
perhaps things that are truly beautiful, honest and organic can’t be forced to
continue artificially along a certain path.”
The time honing her trade on
the street taught Peyroux plenty, more about attitude and life experiences than
technical musical theory, although she was exposed to the music of Smith and
Holiday by visiting American musicians. It also taught her about performing in
front of virtually any type of audience.
“When you’re a street musician,
you’re always in the process of trying to grab someone’s attention,” she said.
“Usually, you’re living hand to mouth, and for that reason itself, it makes you
kind of driven. But I also think there’s a sincere desire there to touch
someone’s heart somehow, without it being false. So it’s a real balancing act
–‘I’m really hungry and I’d like to make some money now. But I don’t know how to
do that except by offering you what I think is important to me.’” It eventually
became important to a lot of people, after Peyroux returned to the US in her
early 20s, and based on her experience the previous decade recorded her first
album, Dreamland, for Atlantic Records, featuring renditions of Patsy Cline’s
“Walkin’ After Midnight,” Édith Piaf’s signature-song “La Vie en rose” and two
Bessie Smith songs. In addition to TIME’s gushing review, the album helped
launch Peyroux’s touring career in the US, as she began opening for artists such
as Sarah McLachlan and Cesária Évora, and made appearances at high-profile
events like the Montreal Jazz Festival and the Lilith Fair tour.
forward momentum ground to a halt when Peyroux began recording the follow-up to
Dreamland in 1998, only to discover that her voice had essentially
She didn’t make another album for eight years.
developed some kind of cyst on my vocal chords and it took me a few years to
recover,” said Peyroux.
“It’s not just the physical issue, but I needed
to figure out what the cause of it was, so I spent a long time in retreat
At the same time, changes at Atlantic Records, including the
merger of its parent company Warner Brothers with AOL, resulted in the eclectic
side of the label that embraced jazz and standards being decimated.
didn’t have any more advocates at the label anymore – everyone who I was working
with was gone,” she said. “It was a weird experience and made me question
whether it [my career] was meant to be. What I needed to learn from it was
whether I was in the right place at the right time or if I needed to look for
something else that was more honest. I didn’t want to rush after the ambition in
order to sing, because it’s just a joyful human experience and isn’t something
you can do just for notoriety.”
So Peyroux stopped singing, but after
“trying and failing miserably” at trying to make a living outside of music, she
slowly returned to performing after her vocal recovery, doing what she knew best
– busking in Paris and living a low-key existence.
Slowly she began
testing the waters of performing professionally again, and in 2002, she began
performing with multi-instrumentalist William Galison, resulting in renewed club
dates and a seven-song 2003 EP.
Moving back to the US, she ended up
waiting tables at a Nashville club until the management realized she could sing
and asked her to begin performing. Still ambivalent about being onstage, she
returned to New York and was busking on the street when a passerby stopped to
“It was a club promoter who remembered me from Dreamland and
asked me to play in his club,” she said. “I was surprised to learn that with my
own name and the notoriety I had from my first album, I could actually still
book shows and make a living. So what came out of that was the chance to
have a long-term career and it’s something I haven’t given up on
Peyroux signed with the Cambridge, Massachussetts’ rootsy music
label Rounder Records and beginning in 2004 with Careless Love, began releasing
a series of acclaimed albums, produced by Larry Klein of Joni Mitchell fame.
They featured a wide array of styles ranging from W.C. Handy and Hank Williams
songs to covers of Elliot Smith and Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of
Love.” She also began writing her own songs, a process that has been accelerated
on her most recent album, Standing on the Rooftop.
When she arrives in
Israel for the second time (she performed at the Tel Aviv Opera House in 2009)
on November 11 for a show at Reading 3 in Tel Aviv, it will be in full glory,
with a band including an Israeli bass player, Barak Mori. A graduate of the
Thelma Yelin School of the Arts, he played as a teen at the Red Sea Jazz
Festival, and toured internationally with the Young Israeli Philharmonic
Orchestra. He’s spent the past decade in New York after receiving a scholarship
to study at NYU and has become an in-demand bass player in the thriving jazz
“Barak’s been teaching me about Israeli culture,” said
Peyroux. “It’s funny, I tell him all these Yiddish jokes I learned growing up in
New York, and he didn’t understand any of it. It was only then that I realized
Jewish and Israeli culture wasn’t the same thing.”
Used to playing before
every type of audience imaginable, she shouldn’t experience any cultural gaps in
Tel Aviv. For Peyroux, performing hasn’t changed much since her days on the
Paris boulevards. “I thought, well, if I could just learn enough chords
and tricks on the guitar, then I’d be able to sing anywhere. And I think
I’m still in that same place – I’m not much of a guitar player but it gives me
the opportunity to sing what I want to sing.”
And it gives us the chance
to hear her.