A Conversation with Madeleine Peyroux

The soft-spoken singer-songwriter examines Americana this Friday at Strathmore
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Jazz singer Madeleine Peyroux is performing at Strathmore this Friday, September 30. Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark

Madeleine Peyroux may have found fame for her understated interpretations of classic jazz and blues songs from the ’20s and ’30s, but with the release of 2009’s Bare Bones, her first collection of all-original material, she proved herself to be a true singer-songwriter. Peyroux continued her development by not only penning many of the songs on her latest release, Standing on the Rooftop, but also by integrating new sounds. On this album—her fifth—she serves up an eclectic stew of American roots music.

“Looking at the more modern sounds and rock-and-roll is an extension of the early music that I’d been exploring for a long time,” says Peyroux. “It was a part of my musical education that I hadn’t been able to touch on in my own recordings.”

When she first garnered attention in the mid-’90s, Peyroux’s delivery earned her comparisons to the great Billie Holiday because of its subdued intensity. Her sound is quiet and sparse, but carries an emotional weight. Though she incorporates slightly updated influences on Standing, she says they’re part of this underlying aesthetic.

“Contrast and irony are the best tools for drama,” Peyroux explains. “Being able to sing a very intense song, or dark song or multi-emotional song—being able to do those things with a quiet and controlled reading is far more interesting.”

Standing’s twelve tracks are a mix of originals, collaborations and covers, ranging from Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” to a banjo driven rendition of The Beatles’ “Martha, My Dear.” The song that’s most representative of the album from a lyrical standpoint, however, is the title track. Built around a seductive rhythm, its observational themes of life experience pervade the recording.

Peyroux enlisted an impressive list of talent to help achieve her vision. In addition to producer Craig Street (k.d. lang, Norah Jones, and Cassandra Wilson), collaborators include guitarist Marc Ribot and bassist Meshell Ndegeocello. Ex-Rolling Stone bassist Bill Wyman met Peyroux at a festival in France and co-wrote the song, “The Kind You Can’t Afford,” assisting with its funky guitar and insistent drums.

This Friday’s concert will include several songs from Standing on a Rooftop along with a mix of earlier material. Peyroux feels the set will not only show where she is, artistically, but also where she’s been and where she’s going.

“There’s a legacy from the 20th century that needs to be brought into the 21st century, and I like to see that continuity from then to now,” she says. “But it’s still got to be that universal idea that we hope to find [in music] something that’s truly enriching, entertaining, and food for the soul.”

Madeleine Peyroux and opener Nellie McKay perform at the Music Center at Strathmore this Friday, September 30. Tickets ($35-$58) are available through Strathmore’s web site.

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