Madeleine Peyroux's "Between the Bars"
The best decision that singer Madeleine Peyroux's ever made probably didn't win her any thumbs up from high school principals:
"I think it was actually way back when I dropped out of high school and decided to go out and play music on the street," says Peyroux in a phone call from her Brooklyn home.
Peyroux became a critical favorite with the release of her 1996 debut album "Dreamland" and, after dropping from sight for several years, has continued to win praise for subsequent albums (including her 2011 disc, "Standing on the Rooftop"). Although Peyroux was born in the United States, she and her mother moved to Paris when Peyroux was 13. There, she found something that interested her more than school.
"I could always go back to the high school, which I did. I remember thinking I should not lose the chance being presented to me at that time. At that time in Paris you could still play music on the street and not get stopped by the police. Two or three years later the mayor of Paris started fining musicians and confiscating their instruments and stuff."
Peyroux says there was a group of musicians from France and other countries who hung out at one bar in the Left Bank.
"There weren't very many incredible artists," says Peyroux. "They were playing things that were nostalgic for the audiences of Paris, mostly tourists in the summertime. But it was built on some inspired theme for me and there was something about being part of a community that I couldn't let go of."
Peyroux was steeped in vintage music, including Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday (to whom she was regularly compared early on), and singer-songwriters, including Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.
Peyroux says she performed on the street too long and became burned out on it, but she gained so much performing experience and learned so much about making music a business that it was worth it.
Peyroux has her own distinctive style that borrows from jazz, folk and classic pop music. She hasn't made wild divergences, but instead refined what she began with.
"With every record it's another level of the same challenge," she says.
Although she's best known as a interpreter of other writers' songs, she's also developed as a songwriter. Her most recent album is made up mostly of songs she has written or co-written.
"I don't believe I can tell you I'm a songwriter — I'm a singer who's trying to write!" says Peyroux with a chuckle. "I don't know if these are great songs, but I was driven to do this. But once I'm done, I realize how little I know and I appreciate the great songwriters and poets and lyricists even more. I'm learning to be an artist while I'm doing it. I could never hide in my room, do all my homework and come out and be perfect. That's just never been possible for me!"
Peyroux says she's too "in the moment" to work any other way.
Peyroux's next project is an interpretation of Ray Charles' classic album "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music," something she sees as a welcome challenge.
Peyroux says she doesn't think about regrets much.
"After asking me that question, I'll probably be thinking about them all day!" she says. "I might say that I regret not finishing a record, because I recorded an entire record back in 1998 and I lost my voice during the process and didn't finish it, but I really couldn't have done anything different at the time, because I was too young. But I learned a lesson from that experience. I wouldn't trust that somebody knows what path I'm on better than I do. I regret not being strong enough to say, 'This is what I need to be doing.' But I don't need to look back and be sad about it. I just need to look forward."
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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