By Steve Knopper
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Interesting profile of Musician Madeleine Peyroux who is best known for torchy folk and jazz covers like Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” and Bessie Smith’s “Lovesick Blues.”
In lieu of attending high school classes in Paris, Madeleine Peyroux fled to the streets, singing with jazz buskers in the Latin Quarter. “I always said, ‘I’m going to get a job in a couple of years and go back to reality.’ That never happened.
I tried, and it was horrible. I couldn’t do a job anywhere else,” recalls the veteran singer, best known for torchy folk and jazz covers like Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” and Bessie Smith’s “Lovesick Blues.” “But I happened to meet the best street musicians in Paris.”
Peyroux was 13 when her parents divorced and she left New York for France with her mother. She’d been writing songs and playing guitar in the U.S., but her career ambitions didn’t kick in until she hooked up with the American musicians, known as the Riverboat Shufflers, in Paris. “I was so in awe of them. They had a car. They drove in and out of town in this beautiful Mercedes,” says Peyroux, 42, by phone from her tour with Rickie Lee Jones in Greenville, S.C. “They had a trunkful of hats, a washtub bass, mic stands and microphones. I was like, ‘These guys are serious. This could be a way of life.'”
Even back then, Peyroux had a bit of smoke in her voice. But her worried mother had no idea her talents could turn into a career; all she knew was Madeleine was flunking out in Paris, so she sent the teenager to a boarding school in West Sussex, England. It wasn’t long before Peyroux split, with her guitar, of course, hitchhiking back to Paris.
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She was “drinking my last wine” at a local bar, as she recalls, when she looked into a nearby cafe and spotted Danny Fitzgerald, a veteran singer who led the Lost Wandering Jazz and Blues Band. Peyroux approached him about joining as a singer.
“You have to audition,” he told her. She sang “Jeepers Creepers” for him on the spot. Long story short, she became a band member at age 16. “I was thinking, ‘Ah, shoot, winter is coming.’ It’s not like ‘Game of Thrones’, for street musicians, that’s something you think about all the time,” she says. “‘The tourists are going to be gone, and I’m running out of money.'”
Traveling throughout Europe with the band, Peyroux began to attract attention as a singer, to the extent that Atlantic Records signed her to a deal in 1996. She recorded a Norah Jones album before there was a Norah Jones, “Dreamland,” a superb debut of low-key jazz and blues standards by Fats Waller, Billie Holiday and Patsy Cline. Then she toured so relentlessly that she waited eight years before putting out the follow-up, “Careless Love.”
She recorded her latest album, 2016’s “Secular Hymns,” with her trio at the rural St. Mary the Virgin Church in Oxfordshire, England, after playing a show there.
The idea came from her sound engineer, and the beatific setting, with the perfect acoustics, fit her deliberately soft approach with guitarist Jon Herington and upright bassist Barak Mori. “By the time we’d gotten into that church, we’d been playing with this trio two or three years, and working on our sound, and the sound for us was based on how quiet we were,” Peyroux says, in a 25-minute interview after spending the morning learning a duet, which Jones suggested, from the “Oliver!” musical. “We had to either fight it or embrace it, and so it became a thing.”
“Secular Hymns,” which includes Peyroux’ characteristically mannered and swinging versions of Willie Dixon’s “If the Sea Was Whiskey,” Allen Toussaint’s “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky” and Linton Kwesi Johnson’s “More Time,” grew out of the trio’s long-running live repertoire. “I’m not really sure that there’s any difference between the way that I picked the songs on this record,” she says. “(But) I wasn’t collaborating with a producer and there wasn’t a lot of planning and it wasn’t built ahead of time.”
Although Peyroux occasionally sits in with old Paris friends for impromptu street performances, her musical life today is mostly studios and concert halls, not cobblestones and tip jars. Some of her cafe haunts have closed, including one where management generously allowed performers to prop instruments against the windows and convert change into bills. “(Music) shouldn’t be in a silent room in a church or even a concert hall. It should be outside on the street, face-to-face,” she says. “It’s so human to be on that level, and it’s so not human to be watching on a television what’s happening on the other side of the world, and have feelings about it, and have no connection with anybody.
“People pay money to see something, and they enjoy it. We have a great time in my shows,” she adds. “But there’s something so magical about the street. That’s probably something that has nothing to do with music. It probably has to do with the streets.”