Madeleine Peyroux interview: ‘We all just pine for love’
An established and widely-respected jazz singer and songwriter, Madeleine Peyroux will be coming to Cambridge later this year in support of her new album – the deluxe reissue of her best-selling 2004 LP, Careless Love.
Set for release on August 27, the collection includes the acclaimed original album, plus a previously unreleased live set, captured in 2005 at Spain’s Festival de Jazz de Vitoria-Gasteiz. Careless Love will be available digitally, as a two-CD set, and on 180-gram vinyl as a three-LP set, housed in a triple gatefold jacket.
Released eight years after her debut, Dreamland, Careless Love marked a new chapter for the then-30-year-old vocalist. Born in Athens, Georgia, in the southern United States to bohemian parents, Madeleine spent her teenage years in Paris, where she found herself entranced by the city’s busking musicians.
By 15, she was performing alongside them in the city’s Latin Quarter and soon dropped out of high school to tour Europe full-time. When she returned to the States in her 20s, Madeleine settled in New York, where she was discovered – and promptly signed – by Atlantic Records’ Yves Beauvais, who co-produced Dreamland.
In the US, the album sold more than 500,000 copies in its first year – hitting number two on Billboard’s jazz chart and eventually earning a platinum certification. Rivalling the sales of a pop record, the album was also a bestseller abroad, landing in the top 10 in the UK and earning gold and platinum certifications in Europe, South America, and China.
Speaking to the Cambridge Independent via Zoom from New York about the upcoming new release, Madeleine, whose vocal talents have drawn favourable comparisons with the likes of Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf, says: “Rounder Records was 50 years old, I believe, in 2020 and so it started with that.
“Rounder came to me and said ‘We want to do deluxe reissues of some of our records for the 50th anniversary, and so we would like to put out a deluxe version of Careless Love’. I’m just so happy to sing those songs again and I recently put together a tiny little performance here in Brooklyn, running through the record back to back.”
While the star has always been regarded as a jazz artist, her influences have spanned far beyond one genre – something which is evident when looking at the compositions selected for Careless Love. From songs by Elliot Smith, Leonard Cohen and Hank Williams, to more traditional fare made famous by Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Josephine Baker, the record offers something for everyone.
The album also included one original song, which Madeleine co-wrote, titled Don’t Wait Too Long – her signature hit. “The song choices were very important on the record,” says Madeleine, “they were never kind of A-side hits – they were lesser-known standards, lesser-known pop songs. Even the Leonard Cohen song that opens the record [Dance Me to the End of Love] was a bit of a deep cut.
“But I think what we did with those songs was we actually made a record, which was something that I hadn’t done before. I had made a record that was released – and it qualified as a long-playing record – but I don’t think that my first release had an overarching theme to it, and I think on this one we understood that there was an overarching theme. We did that in a very subtle way.”
On the album’s ongoing popularity, Madeleine says: “I think the reason people like that record is because it talks about love in a way that might be rare. I think that talking about love is an interesting problem nowadays...
“When I say the word ‘love’ what’s the first thing that comes into your mind? Is it Hollywood romance? Is it that style of love, that sort of traditional, almost superficial idea of a misunderstood or hard-to-understand thing that’s just... you hope you can get some – you get it while you can, like Janis Joplin said! Or is it tragic love, like in the Billie Holiday records?
“I think that I came up with a repertoire in jazz as a female singer being told that, if you look at the material, you’re basically being boxed into tragic love – women just pine and long for love, and if we get some we’re just so grateful, thank you so much! And men just pine and long for it. We all just pine and long for it in our own way...
“Whereas what about love as something that you generate from within yourself? You can create an aura with that and it becomes part of every relationship that you have. I might be projecting onto the past because I’m not sure if I really can tell you why things happen the way that they do, but I like to think that that’s what’s good about this record.”
Madeleine admits that she has found the past year difficult and says that music-wise, she has done “not as much as many people I’ve seen”, adding: “There are artists like Gregory Porter, who has done so much and given so much love during 2020.”
The star continues: “I’ve been very methodically doing one song at a time. I put out two songs last year – one of them I wrote and then recorded remotely with a bunch of people in Los Angeles. It’s called What Does It Mean to Be American?.
“There was a song that I had recorded and written prior to all of this that I wanted to put out called Ha Ha Holiday. I put that out by myself as a single. I’ve been writing and preparing for more of the same, but very slow-paced and very careful movements right now because there’s no use in being reckless with the world like this.”
Madeleine says she has missed singing in front of a live audience but notes: “What I don’t miss is the travel! But live performance is part of music... Live interaction with musicians in the same room and then with an audience in the same room, these are both equal parts to any music.”
Has it been nice to have had a bit of a break from performing though? “It’s eye-opening as to how tired I was,” says Madeleine, “because I slept for months – but I’m not sure how much of that was depression...
“I hope we don’t get tired of talking about how weird and how strange and how crazy it is to be isolated – that’s the most difficult thing. Now if you’re cooped up in a house with your own family, which I was not, I think that that’s a different problem.
“It’s a form of isolation but I think that that can be very traumatic in a different way and, unfortunately, I think that there’s probably been a lot of suffering that we haven’t really heard about yet, from people that were in what was already perhaps a dysfunctional situation and then were powerless to avoid it. So I would imagine that there’s a lot of ways to look at this but all of them are important.”
Madeleine reveals that she often used to “hibernate” and be away from society anyway when not on the road. “I tend to have almost like a double life,” she explains, “because when I’m travelling it’s pretty rigorous – constant motion and meeting new people, and then changing and moving to another city within 24 hours and doing that again.
“I love being by myself at home, with some food cooking and reading books and watching movies, and just isolating and regaining and things like that – but this was nothing like that. The questions that arose for me were ‘how do you want to live, if you have a choice as to how you want your days to go?’ Because I didn’t use to have that kind of a choice.
“And it’s taken me a really long time to realise I need to have a lot more discipline in order to figure out how to create a daily schedule and a regime, and certain things are just completely random in my life that I don’t want to be random anymore. But that’s because I can do it my way if I want to – most people don’t have the luxuries that I have.”
Madeleine adds: “I’ve always lived for that experience of singing with musicians, around people that are playing music, and in front of people that want to partake in it as an audience, and that’s been my experience – to the extent that I left home to go stand out on the street [and sing] because that’s where people were.
“So I definitely miss it [performing live]; I don’t feel normal most of the time and when I went outside and played a concert in the last year and a half – which was at these tiny clubs or outside or livestreaming – if it’s in front of people, or playing with musicians in the same room, my whole body felt normal again. It’s a very strange basic premise.”
Expect to hear the Careless Love album in its entirety when Madeleine appears at the Cambridge Corn Exchange on Sunday, November 14.