24 | November 21, 2013 | cambridge-news.co.uk | Cambridge News
“I didn’t like being arrested in New York City, that was not fun.”
As the American jazz sensation brings her latest tour to Cambridge Corn Exchange, she tells Ella Walker about darkness and joy, the thrill of busking and meeting her heroes. ᔡ Madeleine Peyroux, Cambridge Corn Exchange, Saturday, November 23 at 7.30pm. Tickets are £25 (plus booking fee) from cornex.co.uk or (01223) 357851.
S languorous on the phone as she is on record, it feels as though we ought to be drinking too much red wine and chain smoking in a candlelit booth in a seedy bar under a railway track, circa 1963. That’s just the kind of voice American jazz singer, songwriter and guitarist Madeleine Peyroux has. Instead, we’re divided by a phone line and the Atlantic Ocean. And for Peyroux it’s breakfast time, so red wine
might not be the best idea. The 39-year-old is readying herself for a string of dates on her latest tour with new album The Blue Room, and is set to stop at Cambridge Corn Exchange this month. The album itself began as a tribute to Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, a record Peyroux grew up listening to: “It’s a record that I think breaks a lot of ground,” she murmurs. “Music industry people have been aware of that for a long time but I don’t know that people in social history contexts are aware of how important that record was in the United States [when it was released]”. However, after working on covers such as Bye Bye Love and the heartbreaking Born to Lose, she decided to expand her version to include newer pieces by the likes of Leonard Cohen, Warren Zevon and Randy Newman (“We picked songs that were really part of [Ray’s] spirit.”) This time around though she didn’t feel up to writing her own songs to nestle in among the greats: “I don’t believe that I had the. . .” she falters. “It’s very inspiring but no, I’d rather not write for a record that is going to be that important. I think at least for now.” Her long-time producer Larry Klein described the album as ‘cheerful on the surface’ with a ‘dark undercurrent’. “I would go the opposite way,” Peyroux laughs. “I would say it’s dark all the way through and it’s really joyful at the bottom.” That sounds more like it. With ﬁve previous albums to her name (including the winsome debut Dreamland and follow-up Careless Love, which really made her name in the world of jazz), New York-born Peyroux’s career had a rather romantic start.
Although, maybe it just sounds romantic: busking in Paris as a teenager just does, doesn’t it? It’s not exactly the same as a grubby pavement spot outside Dorothy Perkins on Petty Cury. . . Was it a thrilling way to live? “Busking is a way to learn for me, you know, and money, that’s thrilling, I could tell you that much,” she barks with a raspy laugh. “Going from nought to 30 francs or 50 francs or 100 francs, that was thrilling, but it was more scary. “It was thrilling to start by myself with a little guitar; walk up to a group of people seated at a café in Paris,” she admits. “I was so nervous I wasn’t going to pass the hat, a friend of mine did it for me a few times and then I got better, and then I started just passing the hat because that was actually the most difﬁcult part.” It must have been strange being hurled from small, scattered audiences on sidewalks to venues throbbing with fans, but Peyroux
Cambridge News | cambridge-news.co.uk | November 21, 2013 | 25
LOADS MORE ONLINE at cambridge-news.co.uk/whatson
BUSKING AND ALL THAT JAZZ: From modest beginnings as a busker in Paris, Peyroux is set to embark on a tour showcasing her latest album, The Blue Room, which features covers of artists including Ray Charles
didn’t ﬁnd the development too disconcerting. “No matter where you are you can be removed from your audience, you can be on a stage and have the fourth wall there, whatever it is, wherever you are. But wherever you are I think you can create a stage, in your mind, in everyone’s mind. “I liked [busking] very much, I liked it when it was nice, I liked it when we had good acoustics, I didn’t like it when we were not allowed to carry our instruments around Paris anymore, they changed the laws. And I didn’t like being arrested in New York City, that was not fun,” she says, making it sound like rather a lot of fun indeed. “I think it’s a shame because really the bottom line is that real busking is a fabulous – can be – a fabulous way to live. And it can be great for everybody else. I love it – I still love it.” She adds hurriedly: “I mean I love seeing people doing it, I haven’t been busking myself for a while.” Typically humble, whether it comes to her songwriting abilities or her stamina for life on the road, you get the sense Peyroux is rather fragile underneath that voice; her vocals pinpoint the strange bite between
jaunty and haunting. She slurs and drawls her words and stumbles frequently in her answers, and much is made of the fact she was known for disappearing from the spotlight for clutches of months at a time (on one memorable occasion, her record company had to hire a private detective to track her down). “I think it was a bit odd when everything happened because it caused me a lot of trouble,” she acknowledges, referencing the fallout that would occur with her ducks from fame. “But I know who I am, I don’t think there’s a lot of issues. It’s not very difﬁcult for me to talk to you for example, as you can see, I’m blah blah blah blah, so I’m ok with it, I‘m very friendly with people and stuff like that, and I don’t have any grandiose issues about being a recluse.” And she is chatty, even if the chat is a bit fragmented. On her inﬂuences and heroes however, there is no hesitation, even though outside of that, much of her life is a mystery. “Well it’s both,” she says, on whether it’s ﬂattering or a burden to be compared to one of her idols, Billie Holiday. “It’s a great compliment that I really shouldn’t be deserving of, and that’s the bottom line.”
And her proudest moment careerwise so far? “Oh gosh, singing with [singer and civil rights activist] Odetta Holmes.” The pair performed together on several occasions before Holmes’ death in 2008 – just a few months short of Obama’s inauguration which she was booked to sing at. “She conducted me in a way a singer would, in other words she showed emotion and she raised her hands up and she got excited, and for me that was a mindblowing experience,” Peyroux buzzes. “She was so generous as a human being, so incredible; from that moment on I wanted to be around her more and more.” They had plans to get in the studio together but, “we never did because she was getting on and I suppose it’s my fault that never happened.” Peyroux spends most of her time looking forward though, and next year she has quite a few new projects lined up, including one that’s going to be ‘very experimental’. “I don’t even have much more I can tell you,” she explains, hinting: “The sound of it will be completely different, using only two musicians and myself, but we’ll bring a lot of toys with us on stage, so it’ll be very, very different.” And then she may disappear once again, but this time to write.