O.K., sing a song for me right now." The scene was a sidewalk in Paris in 1990. The challenge was issued by the leader of a ragtag touring group called the Lost Wandering Blues & Jazz Band, who was holding an impromptu audition. The wannabe was an American-born teenager named Madeleine Peyroux, who had been busking around Paris. She crooned Jeepers Creepers, snapping her fingers as accompaniment, and got the job.
It's a long way from street singing to stardom, and the intervening 15 years have been riddled with delays and detours, but Peyroux, 31, has made it. With two successful CDs behind her--the more recent of which, last year's Careless Love (Rounder), continues to sell nicely--she ranks as one of the bright talents of the jazz world. Instead of on sidewalks, she performs in festivals, auditoriums and clubs, backed by a polished combo. She still snaps her fingers (when she isn't strumming her guitar), but now plenty of listeners are snapping and tapping along with her.
Peyroux's throaty alto carries uncanny echoes of Billie Holiday. She has the same knack of languorously lagging behind the beat, bending her notes into microtones of aching and yearning. But the style, the subtle phrasing, seems natural to Peyroux--lived, not learned. Besides, it isn't Holiday's stylistic flourishes that interest her primarily. Holiday exemplified a line of female blues and jazz singers who "presented the women's side of things, the underdog point of view," says Peyroux. "It was a new form of women's self-expression."
In Peyroux's singing, what's old is new again. Born in Athens, Ga., she has a gut feeling for "the good old reminiscence of Southern music"--country and bluegrass, the blues, early jazz. In her albums and live shows, she includes tunes once owned by figures like Bessie Smith, Hank Williams and of course Holiday. At the same time, she features the work of such contemporaries as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, not to mention her originals. What is the common element in all these songs, other than the musical alchemy by which she makes them her own? "I could call it poetry," she says. "They're all written to give clarity to more than one human emotion, to tell a true story."
When her parents divorced and she moved to Paris with her mother at 13, Peyroux says, singing on the street taught her "how to enjoy music" for its own sake. But after she had moved to New York City and brought out a CD, Dreamland (Atlantic), in 1996, she lost the joy. The mixed blessings of success, the pressure to come up with a second album, the strain that required surgery on her vocal cords were all too much. She dropped out. For five years, she spent time with her family, traveled, explored Christianity and tried to "see how I really feel about things."
One thing Peyroux decided was that, for her, singing was "empowering" and "uplifting." A couple of years ago, she began easing back into the business. And now? In back-to-back performances at the San Francisco Jazz Festival recently, and with a long string of U.S. bookings ahead of her, there was no mistaking her conviction as she swung through an old Holiday number: "In a happy setting/ We're getting/ Some fun out of life." And that's a true story. --By Christopher Porterfield