Madeline Peyroux: Back where she belongs

Ahead of TA concert, jazz singer speaks to ‘Post’ about how she incorporates personal experiences into her music.

Madeline Peyroux 370 (photo credit: Mary Ellen-Mark)
Madeline Peyroux 370
(photo credit: Mary Ellen-Mark)
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.
The 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.
Following her “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 mother.
“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.
But the 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 disappeared.
She didn’t make another album for eight years.
“I had 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 mode.”
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.
“I 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 listen.
“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 since.”
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 scene there.
“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.