Madeleine Peyroux's style was shaped by that of classic jazz vocalist Billie Holiday, and her singing uncannily resembles that of the famous Holiday. "I think it was in my early teens that I really paid attention to her for the first time," Peyroux told the Buffalo News. "She actively told a story in a song that I needed to hear and that I needed to be able to say." Many of Peyroux's fans, intensely loyal despite Peyroux's slender two-album output, identify her closely with Holiday's music. "The references to Billie Holiday have carried me very far," Peyroux admitted to the Toronto Star. "Any resemblance to her sound has been the center of my success."
Yet Peyroux couldn't be called a Billie Holiday imitator. She played the guitar, and there was a folk singer's attitude in her music. Like Norah Jones, whose success paved the way for Peyroux's reemergence in 2004, Peyroux recorded not just jazz and pop compositions, but also songs from other sources such as classic country and folk-rock—and from her own pen. Her stage presence, a deadpan, slightly distant slice of California cool, differed greatly from Holiday's world of sophisticated hurt. And this contradiction—Holiday channeler yet independent artist—was just one of several that Peyroux embodied: she was American and French, retro yet something of a rebel, a classic stylist yet an artist who agonized over finding her own voice, and an instant success who seemed to flee from the spotlight.
Peyroux was born in 1974, in Athens, Georgia. The last name that served her well during the French-influenced phases of her career came from her father, who had a Louisiana French background; she pronounces it "Peru." Peyroux grew up partly in Brooklyn and partly in southern California, but after her parents divorced she traveled to Europe with her mother, a bank employee. She studied at an English boarding school for a while but ran away and moved in with her mother in Paris, France, when she was 13 or 14. But even living under the same roof with her mother didn't keep Peyroux in school. Soon she was singing on the streets of Paris with French musicians who loved classic American jazz and blues. "It was a very advantageous position to be in—to have this music and be able to share it with people. And then at the same time to be outside it all." Peyroux told the Buffalo News.
Peyroux signed on at age 16 with an otherwise all-male group called the Lost Wandering Blues & Jazz Band, after impressing its members with her rendition of "Jeepers Creepers." She spent three years traveling around Europe, sleeping on floors or couches, and performing wherever the group could talk its way onto a stage or a street corner. Visiting New York when she was 17, Peyroux was spotted by French-born Atlantic Records executive Yves Beauvais while she was singing in a club. He offered her a recording contract, but she turned him down in favor of her street-musician lifestyle.
Beauvais, however, didn't give up. "He visited me in France. I'd say no. And then he'd call again," Peyroux recalled in conversation with the Los Angeles Times. Peyroux had dreams of becoming a writer, but finally she gave in. Her debut album, Dreamland, produced by Beauvais and Greg Cohen, was released in 1996, when she was 22. The album featured Peyroux's version of Holiday's "Gettin' Some Fun Out of Life," along with Fats Waller's "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" and other jazz-inspired tunes. But Peyroux also included Hank Williams's "Lovesick Blues" (a country classic with jazz roots), Patsy Cline's "Walkin' After Midnight," French vocal star Edith Piaf's "La vie en rose," and several of her own compositions. Peyroux was backed by several jazz instrumental stars, including reedman James Carter and pianist Cyrus Chestnut.
Audiences were electrified. Peyroux joined the Lilith Fair tour that featured top female rock and folk artists of the day, opened for pop star Sarah McLachlan and Cape Verdean diva Cesaria Evora, and was in heavy demand at jazz festivals and nightclubs in 1997. Dreamland sold over 200,000 copies, an impressive total for a jazz album, and Peyroux went into the studio with Beauvais to record a follow-up.
Then, seemingly on the verge of the mass success that Norah Jones would find a few years later, Peyroux dropped out of sight and returned to her wandering ways. Vocal cord surgery that interrupted work on a new album provided Peyroux with the opportunity to drop out. "I think I lost myself intentionally," Peyroux explained to the Buffalo News. "I spent some time trying to hide. That ends up working after a while." She immersed herself in religion and spirituality, lived in Nashville and waited tables, and occasionally sang in small clubs and on the streets. Beauvais arranged a contract for Peyroux with the Columbia label in 2001, but a recording project there fell through as well.
Then, in 2003, Peyroux was signed to the small, folk-oriented label Rounder and returned to the recording studio. Her new album, Careless Love, was produced by Larry Klein, best known for his work with the jazz-influenced folk songwriter Joni Mitchell. It followed in the mold of Dreamland but featured an even wider range of songs, including covers of two folk classics, Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" and Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love." For a piece of French-language material she turned, not to Edith Piaf, but to a French performer who was American-born like herself: the 1930s African-American expatriate star Josephine Baker.
On tour in 2004, Peyroux attracted the same level of praise that had greeted Dreamland eight years before. "She emits a heady aura of places lived and music absorbed that floats around her like a ghostly multiple exposure of faces and voices from the past," wrote New York Times critic Stephen Holden, who called Peyroux "a quiet but stalwart rebel against the tawdry glamour and brazen sexual provocation of much contemporary pop." Whether because of Rounder's limited marketing muscle or because Peyroux now faced competition from Norah Jones, Diana Krall, and other female jazz vocalists with a classic sound and a contemporary outlook, Careless Love started out more slowly than had Dreamland. Yet it seemed that there was still more to unravel in Peyroux's mysterious musical message.
For the Record . . .
Born in 1974, in Athens, GA; moved to Paris, France, with her mother, a bank employee, c. 1987. Education: Attended schools in England and in Paris, France.
Sang on Paris streets with Lost Wandering Blues & Jazz Band, c. 1990; signed to Atlantic label; released Dreamland, 1996; performed on Lilith Fair tour, 1997; worked as waitress, Nashville, TN, late 1990s; signed to Columbia label, 2001; signed to Rounder label, 2003; released Careless Love, 2004.
Addresses: Record company—Rounder Records, 1 Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140. Website—Madeleine Peyroux Official Website: http://www.madeleinepeyroux.com.
Dreamland, Atlantic, 1996.
Careless Love, Rounder, 2004.
Boston Globe, October 28, 2004, p. H6.
Buffalo News, September 12, 2004, p. G1.
Los Angeles Times, November 14, 2004, p. E67.
New York Times, September 23, 2004, p. E3.
Ottawa Citizen, October 23, 1997, p. C6.
Seattle Times, January 27, 1997, p. E3.
Sunday Telegraph (Sydney, Australia), December 5, 2004, p. 132.
Toronto Star, March 27, 1997, p. H3.
Madeleine Peyroux Official Website, http://www.madeleinepeyroux.com (December 19, 2004).
"Madeleine Peyroux," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (December 19, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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