When she first burst onto the recording scene in 1996, with her stunning debut album Dreamland, Madeleine Peyroux was greeted with a veritable torrent of gushing reviews. Most raved about her smoke-and-whiskey vocals, often comparing her to the late, great Billie Holiday. Others wondered how someone so young could perform classic songs by Holiday, Bessie Smith and Patsy Cline so convincingly as to make them sound like her own. Time magazine pronounced the groundbreaking Dreamland “the most exciting, involving vocal performance by a new singer this year.”
Peyroux, an American who had been living in Paris as a street musician, suddenly found herself on the fast track to fame. Appearances at Lilith Fair and jazz festivals, and opening tours for Sarah McLachlan and Cesaria Evora followed, while Dreamland’s sales reached an impressive 200,000 copies worldwide. “It was great,” recalls Peyroux. “I got to perform with fantastic musicians. I got to see Nina Simone live. I could’ve kept running with it, but instead I stepped back and took a breather.”
You might say Peyroux spent much of her recent past out of the public eye.
But with many changes in the music industry in recent years, it is not unusual to find someone in this sort of position. As Peyroux concludes, "It had to do with the climate. ...A lot of artists are no longer getting the kind of attention that they used to." But Peyroux never stopped singing, returning to her busking roots with street performances and club dates around the world from Los Angeles (to New Orleans to New York City) to Western Europe before being signed by Rounder Records in 2003.
Eight years have passed between the release of Dreamland and that of Careless Love. Waiting that long to release her sophomore album is admittedly not a typical career move, but then Peyroux [pronounced like the country Peru] is not a typical artist. One needs only to listen to Careless Love to understand this. The album seamlessly weaves strands of acoustic blues, country ballads, torch songs and pop into a vibrant fabric that is both classically vintage and thoroughly up to date. Produced by Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell, Shawn Colvin), the album features songs as old as W. C. Handy’s bluesy title track, popularized by Bessie Smith in the late 1920s, and others as recent as Elliott Smith’s folky “Between the Bars.” Peyroux also covers material as diverse as Hank Williams’ “Weary Blues” and Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love.”
But one of the album’s standout tracks is the sultry “Don’t Wait Too Long,” an original swing number composed by Peyroux, Klein and Grammy Award winning songwriter Jesse Harris, best known for his contributions to Norah Jones’ 2002 hit album Come Away with Me. Peyroux’s relationship with Harris goes back many years. “I met Jesse when I was touring Dreamland,” explains Peyroux. “We started collaborating and then lost touch for a few years. We reconnected in New York as he was about to win a Grammy, and wrote that song together sitting on a bench in Central Park.” Klein later added to the composition, which serves as a kind of mission statement for Peyroux’s career. “Sometimes you’ve got to lose it all,” she sings, “before you find your way.”
Clearly, Peyroux has found her way with Careless Love. More focused and energized than Dreamland, the album benefits from the singer’s time away, as if she’s returned to recording with renewed commitment. She and Klein began working together, one on one, in California last December. After deciding on repertoire, they went into the studio with such stellar session players as guitarist Dean Parks, organist Larry Goldings and bassist David Piltch. “Larry (Klein) convinced me that I could interpret songs by Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan in my own way” she recalls. “He has a very personal relationship with these songs, and so do I.”
Peyroux also has a very personal relationship with French culture. On Dreamland, she covered Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose.” On Careless Love, she delivers a vibrant version of “J’ai Deux Amours” (“I Have Two Loves”), a song that American expatriate singer Josephine Baker sang to Allied troops in France during the Second World War. “In many ways, Josephine Baker embodied that song because she represented an alliance between America and France during the war. It has so much symbolism and it’s important to remember that in these days of strained international relations.”
Born in Georgia, Peyroux grew up in Paris and New York. Very quickly, Peyroux got hooked on French culture and began singing with groups of talented street musicians in the Latin Quarter, including the Riverboat Shufflers and The Lost Wandering Blues and Jazz Band, with whom she toured Europe. Several years later, while visiting New York, she was spotted performing in a club, by an Atlantic Records A&R rep. Yves Beauvais, who eventually signed her and co-produced Dreamland.
All of the initial reviews that greeted Dreamland focused on the Billie Holiday resemblance. “Like Holiday,” wrote Time magazine, “Peyroux has a bittersweet, brokenhearted alto; she lingers and slides off notes, finding emotion in the slow, sad, fade rather than the obvious vocal burst.” But perceptive reviewers noted that Peyroux wasn’t imitating Lady Day. As acclaimed pianist Cyrus Chestnut, who played on Dreamland, put it: “[Peyroux] has her own story to tell: with her voice, her heart, her spirit.”
With Careless Love, Peyroux is once again proving herself to be an original interpreter and an open receptor to songs from earlier eras—an artist who channels vintage jazz and blues with chilling accuracy. “I feel very lucky to be part of a tradition of songwriting that stands the test of time,” says Peyroux. “I also feel lucky to be able to go back and perform as much as I did before—I can’t wait.” Adds Peyroux, with characteristic modesty: “I’m very eager to know what the reaction to the record will be. We did something that felt good. I hope we touch a chord with people.” With its sweet, bewitching sound, there’s no doubt that Careless Love will do just that.