The music of Madeleine Peyroux can best be described as a timeless exploration of history, herself, collaboration and the spiritual force of music. Last year, the release of her third album, Half the Perfect World, found her at ease among all these themes.
"I think that was very clear, that I was going to open a whole can of worms," Peyroux says. "That's definitely the general feeling on this new record, there's more—there's more to me. There was, in a sense, a logical expansion from what we had done on the record beforehand."
Her debut album, Dreamland, appeared in 1996 shortly after she'd returned from an educational experience, playing and, to an extent, living the blues on the streets of France. The album had a carefree, happy feel about it and featured many up-and-coming jazz musicians of the day. With three original compositions amid a sea of well-picked covers, Peyroux laid down a general form for her two following albums.
The next album release for the singer and guitarist came eight years later, with the carefully crafted Careless Love. Peyroux didn't stop singing or performing but used that time to explore the country, meet family and discover herself spiritually.
"I realized that freedom was really that important to me," says Peyroux. "I also had a very strong feeling that I still wanted to record."
Careless Love lacked a musical roster as enviable as its predecessor's, but Peyroux began two new fruitful studio relationships. First, she finally wrote a song with longtime friend Jesse Harris, of Norah Jones fame; the result was the aptly titled "Don't Wait Too Long," the one Peyroux composition on the album. She also tapped producer Larry Klein, who had been at the helm of many albums by her heroes.
The album characterizes Peyroux's current smooth style, rounded out neatly by layered organ work. But the folky, troubadour approach to jazz standards found on Dreamland wasn't the only thing missing on its follow-up; the songs of Careless Love largely reflect a pervasive melancholy.
With the natural progression to Half the Perfect World, Peyroux introduces a few more originals, including new collaborative efforts with Harris and Klein, and continues from the sound of her second album while delving into the joys of the first. "[By] singing songs from a philosophical point of view [rather] than a character point of view," she says, "I was hoping to explore happiness, to step backwards into my thoughts, to have a larger perspective on these love stories and bittersweet emotions."
Walter Becker and k.d. lang were brought in to share songwriting and singing duties, respectively, on a song each.
"For one, I look up to these people immensely, and I'm [always] very excited to be watching them work," Peyroux says. "I get a lot from their feedback, and that's the same for musicians I play with in the band or in the studio. It's definitely an organic experience, I think what I'm doing is a small part of what everybody's doing to create this fusion of energy—and to perform a song together has to be a collaboration."
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Peyroux also treats us to a new share of her favorites songs, taking on two more Leonard Cohen tunes in addition to those of Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits and Serge Gainsbourg. The earliest written selections may seem equally disparate, coming from Johnny Mercer and Charlie Chaplin.
After all, while she was cutting her teeth as a teen in France, playing jazz and torch songs by Billie Holiday or Edith Piaf, she never abandoned a love for the master songwriters of the '60s and '70s or contemporary musicians from different realms. Peyroux possesses a certain timelessness that breaks down the barriers between Hank Williams and Elliot Smith.
But Peyroux maintains this is nothing new or unnatural. Bob Dylan, whom she covered on Careless Love, "was learning from the blues and folk players like Leadbelly and [Woody] Guthrie," she reminds. The learning process for Peyroux, though, was largely inspired by the pre-Civil Rights era stories of her father's life. She soon found that music provided one way to learn about the 20th century and the potential for this in live performance. "[It] keeps everything unified," she explains. "It's all coming from a certain spirit.
"I think of [my music] as kind of a lifetime work. It's a historical discovery, rather than just a musical discovery. That's why we're related to each other, it has to do more with what [we] believe in than the styles we wear."