In the crowded corner of a Berlin bookstore, Madeleine Peyroux, with her acoustic guitar slung across her shoulders, seems a bit lost. Dressed in faded jeans and a white peasant blouse, she looks more like the forlorn street singer in Paris, where she spent her youth, than a woman whose last record sold more than a million copies and has concert halls booked around the world to promote a new one. "This is the worst part," she says. "This in-between time when the work is done, but the record isn't really out yet and you don't know if people will like it."
Judging by the enthusiasm of the crowd that's gathered for this unannounced concert, it's a fair bet they will. With a smoky voice eerily reminiscent of Billie Holiday, Peyroux can, at her best, fuse the accessibility of country music, the swing of jazz and the sultry sadness of a chanson into something fresh and new. Recently released on the Continent and in the U.S., and due out Oct. 30 in the U.K., her latest effort, Half the Perfect World, continues that formula, which made the American's last CD, Careless Love, such a worldwide smash.
The success of Careless Love was a sweet comeback. Peyroux gained early critical recognition in
1996 when, at the age of 22, she released her first album, Dreamland, on Atlantic Records.
After Dreamland, Peyroux continued to perform but was plagued by uncertainty about her future. She also began having trouble with her voice. She was back in the recording studio in 1998, but the sessions were disappointing and broke off. Neither she nor Atlantic were happy with the studio work. In a way, Peyroux was being forced to grow up too fast, too soon. "Up until the time of making Dreamland,
I had integrated music into my life because I was following a whimsy," she says. "Suddenly
I was making decisions for what was going to happen in 12 months or in two years."
Living in New York City in 2002, Peyroux was singing in the streets and gigging in clubs. She met William Galison, a talented jazz harmonica player, in a Bleecker Street bar. They began playing together and soon became a couple. After their romantic relationship fizzled in early 2003, they continued to play together for some time, recording seven songs on a CD that they sold at gigs at New York City clubs. Galison later released the CD, called Got You on My Mind, on his Waking Up Music label with four additional songs of his own. The record was impressive, although disagreement over the CD and its distribution has been the subject of complex lawsuits.
Near the end of 2002, Peyroux was contacted by Rounder Records, says her manager, Cynthia Herbst. Rounder teamed Peyroux with producer Larry Klein, the ex-husband and Grammy-winning producer of Joni Mitchell. He set out to twin Peyroux's roots in classic jazz and blues with contemporary songs. Klein says Peyroux is "one of those rare artists who, when she's doing her best work, is almost completely unconscious of what she's doing." But, he adds, she is "almost oblivious" to the popular music of her peers. "One time, somehow Led Zeppelin came up in a conversation and she just said: 'Who is he?'" says Klein.
On Careless Love, Klein and Peyroux honed a more contemporary sound than her debut album's, and they have carried that another step forward on Half the Perfect World. Unlike her previous efforts, which were filled with jazz standards, all but two of the songs on the new record are by contemporary songwriters. These include a forceful cover of Blue Alert, the collaboration by Leonard Cohen and Anjani Thomas, a duet of the Joni Mitchell ballad River with K.D. Lang and the lovely chanson La Javanaise by Serge Gainsbourg.
Half the Perfect World also sets out to recast Peyroux as a songwriter. Four songs are collaborations of Peyroux and Klein with Jesse Harris, a writer who has also worked with Norah Jones, and Walter Becker of Steely Dan. "I really wanted to have around four newly written original songs and have Madeleine stepping up into the picture as a songwriter," says Klein.
Although Peyroux the songwriter is still something of a work in progress, Klein says it is exciting to watch her develop this talent. "She's in a perpetual state of reconstruction," he says. Judging by her latest recording effort, it seems Peyroux is succeeding in putting the pieces back together.