A runaway success

 

ON HER first night after moving to Paris, a 13-year-old Madeleine Peyroux set out with a friend from her mother’s apartment near Père Lachaise cemetery and walked south through the city, across the Seine and towards the Boulevard Saint-Germain.

What was she looking for? She doesn’t know, she says, more than 20 years and six albums later, but what she found that night on the Left Bank changed her life.

“We saw these musicians performing and some of them were phenomenal. It was a new and exciting discovery. There was one group I later ended up joining, with amps, and wacky instruments that fascinated me.”

She came back the next night, looking for the same music, and was directed by a hash dealer to the Cafe Mazet, where the buskers would gather because the barman could always be relied upon to change money for them. The Mazet is still there, next to the pretty arcade of the Cours du Commerce Saint-Andre, but these days it’s a British-theme pub, flying the Cross of St George under its obligatory Guinness sign. Such are the streets around the Latin Quarter nowadays, but they retain their charm for Peyroux and hold dear memories.

Soon, she was passing the hat for one of the busking groups. A few years later, she was singing with the Lost Wandering Jazz and Blues Band on the streets and in the clubs of Paris. She dropped out of school, but had a musical education that has made her the artist she is today: with a voice like an ethereal Billie Holiday, steeped in blues and folk jazz.

“I was brought up with early jazz and blues,” says Peyroux, who was born in Athens, Georgia, to parents she describes as hippies, and moved to Paris with her mother when they divorced. “But with the band I was introduced to artists like Bessie Smith and I got a huge education when it comes to blues, ironically not while in the States.”

Peyroux’s repertoire has grown from her first album, Dreamland, in 1996, which showcased a young singer unafraid to make standards her own, to her emergence as a songwriter on later albums, mixing interpretations with her own, usually melancholy, meditations. Her hallmark jazz-folk style has broadened its musical palette, too, over the years. Of course, it’s always been a smooth blend, and for a certain type of music fan, Peyroux will always be damned with faint praise for her crossover appeal and placed, with her millions in sales, alongside Norah Jones.

Yet, she is more interesting than she’s given credit for – witness the backward-looking reinventions of songs such as La Javanaison her 2009 album Bare Bones, a Serge Gainsbourg number written for Juliette Greco in the 1960s but transported back a couple of decades by Peyroux, with added delicacy and poignancy. Ditto her version of Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me to the End of Love, which makes a 1980s classic sound like it was first sung in a smoke-filled 1930s jazz club.

Peyroux’s abiding fascination with a retro sound comes from her admiration for women like Holiday who were “pioneers of their style”. For her, these artists are “not as straightforward and traditional as we maybe have come to believe. When I go back to those early songs, I see they are more complex not just musically, but in their story, in their drama.”

Peyroux doesn’t hesitate to call her songs pop, but she aims to bring to them the broader perspective of folk. She instances her 2009 song Our Lady of Pigalle, about a Paris streetwalker, as an example of how she tries to capture that “personalised, emotional complaint you find in pop but also give an individual, emotional voice to social commentary”.

So, is there something of the left-wing bohemian still lurking in this successful, world-touring artist? “Well,” she says, “I’m not excited about going out busking now. I am mature – by which I mean I’m tired! But I am still looking for that special place, where we can be bohemian and survive. I think in that life in Paris we did fall into that make-your-own-way-of-life philosophy, and I wish I could find that again. I still look for it.”

It’s tempting to wonder if she’ll find it in Ireland, but she’s already searched the place. Her grandfather came from Co Clare and Peyroux has traced his footsteps. She even carries an Irish passport. Martin Malone was her grandfather’s name, she says, and in the 1920s he went Awol from the British army to catch a ship to New York. There’s a little laugh: “He was the only person who seemed proud when I ran away from school.”