If you like the smooth jazz sounds of Billie Holiday, give Madeleine Peyroux a try.
Peyroux, who seamlessly blends jazz, blues, country and pop into a lush yet stripped-down mix, performs a 7 p.m. show April 6 at The McAninch Arts Center at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn.
She will perform songs from her latest album, “The Blue Room,” a tribute to the seminal Ray Charles album, “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.”
Born in Athens, Ga., and raised in New York and California, Peyroux moved with her mother to Paris at age 13 when her parents divorced. Two years later, she began singing and at age 16, joined The Lost Wandering Blues and Jazz Band. After that, she spent a number of years touring Europe performing jazz standards.
She released six album between 1996 and 2013, covering songs from musicians as varied as Leonard Cohen, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Elliot Smith, Charlie Chaplin, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell; in addition to writing her own material.
“The Blue Room” is a collaboration with longtime Peyroux producer Larry Klein. It began as a re-examination of “Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music,” but soon branched out to other songs that would complement the album. Alongside tracks like “Bye Bye Love,” “Born To Lose,” “You Don’t Know Me” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” are Randy Newman’s “Guilty,” Warren Zevon’s “Desperadoes Under The Eaves” and John Hartford’s “Gentle On My Mind.”
Peyroux keeps a low profile, but took a moment to answer some questions via email in advance of her show at The MAC.
What initially drew you to jazz, blues and country music?
MP: I guess when I heard Fats Waller play piano. I think that was one of the first artists I heard that combined virtuosity with stories and human emotions. Music soothes the savage beast. It’s a good line. Everyone is a bit savage, and in my family music was the only time we all spent quietly together. Ironically, we think of music as noise, filling space, but really it is a way to experience silence. To listen. I think by definition a singer is just someone who wants to be heard. And music is the way to make people listen. And I am still in awe of this wonderful life that is making music for a living, and so grateful for the honor.
Did you know that “jazz” was originally a sexual word? It is not so much a style of structured music as it is an attitude toward musical focus and incorporation. It’s somewhat inherently a politically socialistic art. (For me!) So is much of the folk, blues and chanson (Ed.: a music hall or cabaret song) that exists. All of the socialist music is music that has influenced me the most. Socialist not because it is a jargon of a certain era’s ideas, but because it is about inclusivity. We are always part of a group. And I need to be reminded of that.”
You moved to France at 13. How do you feel that shaped the direction of your music and your career? How has it impacted your perspective on American music?
“I have lived parts of my life in the U.S. as well as France and Europe and I would reckon that all are incorporated in my music identity. American music and culture has a special power. New Orleans, being where my father grew up, was the most responsible for my musical education. But I could not have ever learned to play live without the inviting atmosphere of the streets of Paris.
The simple life gives forth the best music. In Paris, it was only to have money for a little food and a coffee now and then. Nothing else was as important as the experience of playing itself. So there was no need for new clothes (we always shopped at the thrift stores) and once I owned a guitar, I was set.
It is expensive to live the conventional way in the big cities like Paris and New York City, but we lived in a different way, sort of a little social network to ourselves among street musicians.”
What was your reaction when producer Larry Klein approached you with the idea to make “The Blue Room?” Why do you feel a connection to Ray Charles? Or do you?
MP: Well, I believe Larry Klein is a great thinker in his own right, and I followed his vision as best I could. We discussed all the things that were to go into this, and I think I could hear what he was describing before we recorded, which is one of the reasons I love working with Larry—he is very clear-minded—and very open minded as well.
“The Blue Room” is a tribute album, but it is not very usual in that it is a tribute to another album by Ray Charles, which was titled “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.” That record set a number of standards for people. It showed the music industry that cultures really can (and already do) collide in America, and that musical audiences cannot deny that.
It showed both “white and black” America the same thing: we are a desegregated culture, whether we can always be good enough to realize that or not. And it spoke in a very plain and “modernist” way to everything that songs do: an individual tells a short semi-autobiographical story and shows the world that none of us are alone in this mess.
The idea for “The Blue Room” was Larry Klein’s, my long-time producer. And we morphed the idea by adding songs that had been written since the original record because I wanted to really have the opportunity to explore the idea that it’s been 50 years — what can a person say about that (a person all alone, mind you, so it is not about huge accomplishments on that scale rather than taking a personal and intimate point of view of all this). As such, it is me, a young woman growing into the 21st century, and trying to piece together her American identity.
Ray Charles is one of the greatest singers, and greatest musicians in American music. Definitely top five for me. He is an American icon that I can say I almost worship. Everyone is fallible, as was he, in life. But I am grateful to him for so much, I cannot deny. I only wish Ronald Reagan had died in a different week, so that America had more capacity to grieve a truer hero.
You really made this album your own and it highlights your gorgeous voice. What was the thought process or making it your own? How do you feel the other tracks complement Ray Charles’ work?
MP: If you had asked me, what is, in your opinion, the secret of doing a good reinterpretation of an already existent song — this would be my answer:
To love people and whatever they associate with the song, and then to let go and try to love yourself and what you associate with the song, and then let go again and just live in the song as best you can. Music is a sharing with an audience for me. It is the quintessential form of communication — instantaneous, immediate, unlimited, un-entrenched, or loaded, universal and personal at once.
I chose to explore other material for many reasons; most of all that I wanted to see how to follow the path that Ray set out to build within a more contemporary context, if possible. So first of all, I looked through songs that were written after his record was made, that would fit into the themes of songs that we knew were the most well-known and therefore important to include.
Is this a fun album to perform live? Why or why not?
MP: We are playing these arrangements live (with a string quartet rather than a full string orchestra) every show this year, and these are some of the best shows I’ve ever had, with some of the most meaningful interactions with the music I’ve ever had. I can’t begin to say how much these arrangements have the ability to grow on me, and to deepen my understanding of these songs. This recording and this year of performances of “The Blue Room” around the world seem to be a pivotal point for me. And because I have gotten to perform this program all over the world for an entire year, it has gotten to be more and more fun to play the music – of course, I have a great band and we always have fun performing together!
Do you play guitar onstage? What instrumentation do you bring on tour with you?
MP: Yes, I play guitar and sing and have a fantastic band with me: Jon Herington, guitar; Jim Beard, keyboards; Barak Mori, bass; Darren Beckett, drums; Hiroko Taguchi, first violinist; plus local string players to flesh out the quartet which will include a second violinist, violist and cellist — we are a total of nine musicians on stage.
What is your concert going to be like? What can audiences expect?
MP: An evening of beautiful music, most of which everyone will already know and hopefully love!