In a world of noise Madeleine Peyroux both instils and demands silence whenever she performs. She can quiet the rowdiest bar with just her voice, her acoustic guitar and two musicians playing piano and stand up bass."I love silence," says Madeleine, 30. "Somebody told me when I was a little girl that silence is golden. It is rare because it is uncomfortable."In a music world of hype and plenty Madeleine Peyroux has succeeded on her own terms. She works on word of mouth. She's survived living on the streets of Paris to headlining her own shows, picking up critical plaudits for a voice that both echoes and reinterprets jazz and blues greats Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. She has, at last, released her second album "Careless Love" - a mere eight years after her critically applauded debut."Careless Love" is one of those special albums that defies genre categories becoming a secret you just have to share. It weaves acoustic blues, country ballads, classic jazz, torch songs and French Chansons into a vibrant exciting mix that is both timeless and of the moment, with Madeleine's startling, compelling voice always at the centre.On her new song Don't Wait Too Long Madeleine sums up her life story in a single couplet. "Sometimes," she sings "You've got to lose it all before you find your way."Madeleine Peyroux (it's pronounced Peru like the country) was born in 1974 in Athens, Georgia. Her father, who grew up in Louisiana and Texarkana, taught drama and film at the university. Both parents were radicals, who had met in Canada during the Vietnam War. "They were eccentric thinking people," recalls Madeleine, "who didn't want to be part of the mainstream." The family moved around from Georgia to Southern California - where her dad tried to pursue an acting career - and then to Brooklyn where her mother Deirdre, a French teacher, determined to put down roots and got a job with a bank .In an itinerant life music has always been a constant. She has always sung and first picked up the guitar when she was a child. "A lot of the songs that I am playing now on this new record is music I grew up with as a kid," she says. "My dad's record collection was full of New Orleans jazz, Hank Williams and Fats Waller. When we lived in Brooklyn I liked Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Whitney Houston. I discovered the folk music of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen when I was in my early teens. I was just learning to play guitar when Tracey Chapman came out. She wrote these songs, she played them by herself and I so admired her for that."
"Moving to Paris in 1987 after my mother was offered a job there was the big leap for me. Suddenly I was taken away from that American junk radio which had a real lack of sensitivity towards the music they played. I got me jazz, there was a real warmth there."
However moving to a new country initially unsettled her even more "It was a raw experience," she says, "I was a hormonal teen and my parents had just got divorced. I was already starting to cut school." The rebellious Madeleine was finally sent to an all girl English boarding school in Littlehampton. She hated the strict regime and after six months literally "hopped the wall, borrowed some money from a friend in London for the ferry and hitchhiked from Calais to Paris."
Soon after her return she saw a group of street musicians busking in the Latin Quarter. It was the pivotal moment in her life, an epiphany. She knew what she had to do. First she started cutting school again to hang out with the musicians. Then she left home
"I was such a determined, big teenager," she says, "that my mom couldn't stop me. I was resourceful , I had my guitar and some talent so that I could make friends with intelligent people and could talk my way out of difficult situations .
"The greatest thing was that while I was often in danger I never got into any trouble. I feel like Buster Keaton in having survived so many close calls, leaving home at 15, living on the street, travelling around Europe with people who weren't necessarily trustworthy, constantly putting myself at risk in crazy jeopardised situations."
Madeleine started out as the hat-passer for a community of musicians called the Riverboat Shufflers. She eventually convinced them to let her sing the only song in her repertoire - "Georgia." Soon after she gave an acappella, street corner, audition for Dan Fitzgerald, the leader of The Lost Wandering Blues & Jazz Band. She snapped her fingers, sang 'Jeepers Creepers' and got the gig.
For the next three years, Madeleine toured the world with the band learning about performance and poverty. Fitzgerald, an expatriate American, who plays the washtub bass and is still working as a street musician in his seventies taught her the history behind classic blues songs by Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey - whose song Lost Wandering Blues had inspired the band's name. She extended her repertoire singing Fats Waller, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald numbers.
Sometimes when Madeleine talks of her days on the streets she appears to regret leaving them behind. "If you're playing a blues song on the street, you have more to sing the blues about than if you were sitting at home trying to make sense of a piece of sheet music. It's a whole other world. I believe in it as a social statement. It is a necessity not just because it doesn't fit in the gears of a machine but because it is under appreciated . It is necessary to our hearts and minds."
"By the time I was 18 I was done. I didn't want to live the life any more," she says. "it really took its toll on my psyche. It wasn't obvious to me while I was living it . I wanted to do something else and I didn't care what. At a certain point you are going to stop growing as a street musician. An artist needs support, you have to be able to go home into a warm place, eat food, have a bath, feel secure enough to explore humanity from other sides rather than the cold harshness of the street. It was a really crucial experience but I wasn't able to live like that anymore. I wanted to but I couldn't. "
Fortunately Madeleine had been spotted and signed to Atlantic Records. Her debut album Dreamland , produced by Yves Beauvais and bassist/arranger Greg Cohen (Tom Waits' collaborator for nearly 20 years) was released in 1996 . It stunned listeners who couldn't believe that a 22 year old white girl possessed a voice that appeared to channel the spirits of long dead black blues and jazz icons.
"Dreamland" mixed old classics like Patsy Cline's "Walking After Midnight", Edith Piaf's, "La Vie en Rose" sung in perfect French, Bessie Smith's "Reckless Blues" and "Lovesick Blues" and the Billie Holiday standard "(Getting Some) Fun Out of Life" with three originals . Time magazine described Dreamland as "the most exciting, involving vocal performance by a new singer this year. Like Holiday Peyroux has a bittersweet, broken hearted alto; she lingers and slides off notes, finding emotion in the slow, sad, fade rather than the obvious vocal burst."
In America Madeleine found herself the flavour of the moment. She was invited onto Lilith Fair, the women only touring festival. She shared a bill with Nina Simone, then opening for Sarah McLachlan - which she describes as "the most scary experience of my life" - and Cesaria Evora. Stardom seemed inevitable.
"It was great," recalls Madeleine. "I got to perform with fantastic musicians. I could've kept running with it, but instead I stepped back and took a breather."
Eight years passed before Madeleine recorded Careless Love. She doesn't talk much about those years, though some of them were spent reconnecting with her family. She never stopped gigging, returning to her roots with street performances and low key club dates around the world
There were a few false starts. Tracks were laid down but not completed. She got entangled in record company politics before eventually signing to the independent Rounder records in 2003. "A whirlwind happened in the record industry and it took about five years to turn around" she admits, "it was a struggle for me to make a second record. Second records aren't usually very good. Even Bob Dylan's was a bit disappointing."
"Careless Love" is worth the wait it has the focus and an understated energy that its predecessor lacked. The album was produced by Larry Klein, who had previously worked with Joni Mitchell, Shawn Colvin,. "Larry only works with singers and that is a rare breed" says Madeleine. ""Larry convinced me that I could interpret songs by Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan in my own way. He has a very personal relationship with these songs, and so do I. The album took three months to record. Three quarters of that was spent sifting choices down to twelve of my favourite songs and favourite songwriters. The songs are very well written, with a lot of perfectionism, their timelessness is already there and it is a question of feeling that out. "
Once again she has chosen an eclectic mix of timeless songs and given them her unique folk blues twist. W.C. Handy's title track was popularised by Bessie Smith in the 1920s, while Hank Williams' "Weary Blues" sits easily alongside Elliott Smith's "Between the Bars", Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love " and Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go".
Her love of French chanson is apparent in her tackling Josephine Baker's showstopper "J'ai deux amours." Although she has been writing there is only one original song "Don't wait Too Long" which she wrote with Klein and Norah Jones collaborator Jesse Harris. "We had lost touch for a few years," she laughs, "but we reconnected in New York as he was about to win a Grammy for Come Away With Me and wrote that song together sitting on a bench in Central Park."
Since the album's release Madeleine has been touring constantly in America and Europe, accompanied only by Sam Yahel on the Hammond organ and piano and bass player, Matt Penman. "Live performance is where I feel the most comfortable," she says, "The place where I feel the magic as if the music had become three dimensional, something you can feel and smell. Being able to do that every day is just wonderful."
"I think of singing as another language. When you get fluent in another language and start to think in it you take on certain freedoms because you can construct ideas, create things in that language to get yourself out of trouble. Singing gets me out of trouble."
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