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05 Nov

Madeleine Peyroux Interview

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French-American singer MADELEINE PEYROUX began her career as one of the street musicians in Paris’s Latin Quarter when she was just a teenager. Last September, The Grammy-nominated vocalist’s released her eighth album Secular Hymn. She talks to Jazzonline.gr few days before her performance in Athens. 

1-You started out as a busker. Should street musicians be taken more seriously?
Yes, I think I learned everything from my experiences as a busker. You set up your amp and your mike (or NOT) and get a crowd. If you keep a crowd, you’ve got a show. That’s magic stuff.
2--In interviews, you have describe your parents as"eccentric educators" who helped you pursue a career in music. What was their musical influences  and  how much that had a influence on you ?
Music was the only creative activity that my father didn't oversee in the house  He couldn't play an instrument; he couldn't sing. My mother had a baritone ukulele and I had a child's. We would sit and play together and everybody else was nice and quiet during that time. My mother and I played the chords from the songbooks together, especially songs we knew by ear so that I could accompany myself singing. And that was really the reason I wanted to play guitar. A Beatles songbook and early jazz standard books gave me opportunities to try to understand more complex harmonies than the folksongs. Then the most striking basic training I had was being instructed by a jazz guitar teacher named Cris Monen, of Holland, who taught me to play rhythm guitar arrangements in the style of Freddy Green. That became very important for me to get into the elementary playground of understanding chords on the guitar, because it is so different from the instrument we use to understand harmony, which is the piano. And I was shocked to find out that masters like Freddy Green were content with very simplified parts within a big band. It gave me a sense that I could learn this!  Once I had the epiphany that I could play with three notes at a time, or less, and hear a chord, I thought I could start to build on that and learn to accompany myself, just enough so that things made sense.

3-Which singers or artists influenced you most and have you been influenced by French artists ?
I believe that I am a singer first, and always have been. So lyrics are incredibly important to me he way that I approach any song. Therefore, I cannot deny that my songwriting heroes are the great lyricists: Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, Jerome Kern, Dorothy Fields, Woody Guthrie, all remain at the heart of why I like to so what I do, I think. But I know nothing exists in a vacuum, and neither would they without say Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Fats Waller, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Billy Strayhorn, Thelonious Monk, and the three B’s.
I have found songwriters like Gainsbourg are able to use alliteration to make an idea come across more powerfully. And I don’t really find that we use English that way in songwriting. So listening to French songwriters has helped me think about consonants when singing. I’m sure that Spanish or Portuguese songs are even more focused on the vowels than we are in English. And all that affects the rhythm too. There’s a different sort of pause that is necessary in each. Also I think that in French songs, if written in a formal tone, the lyric could go on for days, but the slang or more informal speech gets interesting because it can say more in less time. That is the most difficult way to write for me, I think, to make a conversation sound like a lyric, and the most rewarding. Then there are things that can be said more efficiently in each language, and I think that it is impossible to ever really say the same thing in a translation. So I guess above all, one can learn how much influence the music itself has on a song by studying other languages, because this is where the unspoken side of the song lives.

4-You are frequently described as a jazz singer Your vocal style has been compared to Billie Holliday. What do you think about that ?
I am not the new Billie Holiday. It would be a lovely compliment, but I cannot really accept it. There can never be another Billie Holiday, and I think secretly that is the problem that some folks have forgotten when they say things like this. I learned how to get an audience by listening to Billie, by memorizing everything she did with the original melodies and how she changed them. But I can no longer let anyone think of me as another Billie. I would like to find something that I haven’t done before. So I keep looking. And no matter what, I just hope that I am singing the best that I possibly can at any one moment in time.

5-How do you go about writing songs?
Well, the first thing about a song, I think, is that you don’t write it down. At least, the song does not exist in silence, the way that a written page does. And if you’re a singer, you try to feel the lyric, or the idea, the mood, and the vibrations of a melody in your body, your whole body. I think you mediate on something that is important to you until it is a simple act to open your mouth and express it. What comes out then is anybody’s guess, and you have to put it away, forget it, and then try again to say that same thing, the way you want to feel it said. So you rewrite, or re-create it, over and over again. And I guess if you’re lucky, you make sense, and then you have a song. But what do I know?

6-What is the best audience for you ?
The ones who come to listen, to have fun, to go deeper into themselves, to learn the truth, to be willing to hear something they don’t already know.

7-You have released eight albums, the first in 1996 and the last one: album Secular Hymns in September. You have said :“Music has been our spiritual life,”. “So I think of these as hymns, secular hymns—songs that are very individual, personal, introverted.” Could tell few words about those songs and this new album.
Personal and disarming, each song is part of my spiritual journey. In my heart, I cannot separate one from the other. If I had to look for the song that is the deepest in my memory, the one that I live with everyday, I think it would have to be Trampin’, the old traditional gospel tune. This song defines what I believe in—it gives me something to look forward to everyday—because it has hope embedded in its simple instructions—keep walking, moving forward, own only what you can carry with you and carry only what you can own. We recorded in a small, Norman church in Oxfordshire, including a free performance for the local townspeople, after which I was told that we had filled the hall with spiritual humanism. It was my favorite compliment and made me think that the album should have a title fitting the mood of that time we spent there. I hope that the title translates well.
Guitarist Jon Herington, upright bassist Barak Mori, and I had been building our trio repertoire for two years. I am always drawn to the blues and within that, vocal harmony and how much it can say without much accompaniment, which I think lead us to explore styles with unique vocal presence like the Willie Dixon tune If the Sea Was Whiskey and the Allen Toussaint tune Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky and Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Shout Sister Shout. Then there were songs that had a special twist to the vocal part, with more of a story behind it than just the musical aspect, such as Tom Waits’ Tango Till They’re Sore and Linton Kwesi Johnson’s More Time.
But some of the songs evolved out of our touring throughout the years: i.e. Hard Times was added because of a Christmas show in Detroit, Michigan
Musicians like Tom Waits, Townes van Zandt, Allen Toussaint have given us all so much it is not something I would attempt to distill now. However, I will try to describe some of what I get from them, just for me personally. I discovered the Townes Van Zandt tune from a film director ---- and when I heard this song (The Highway Kind) I felt that he was describing a sacredness in solitude, the kind that is aware of itself, and saying that there is beauty in the moral dilemma of what to do when one is really alone, and because of that I think he has taught me about freedom, the real kind, one that is willing to be mediocre, accepting of limitation. Tom Waits, I think, has taught me about chaos— he seems to be a deckhand pointing to the helm of a ship we are all on that is somehow steering itself, without a captain, and might capsize at any minute. He makes me aware of how much I want to fight chaos and then shows me that it’s impossible to control it. And as for Allen Toussaint, in my own personal way, I think of him as the epitome of gentleness. Everything he did was capable of soothing the soul, and I just wonder at his ability to do that with all my being.
 I am quite sorry that Allen has left the physical plane, though I imagine that is not the realm he ever lived in, when I think of how I witnessed his way of being. The song we picked of his is another universal idea, and in a very special way, carries that same message of self-actualization that I get from the other songs on the record. I had the honor of meeting Allen Toussaint on a few occasions. He was especially generous with me when he listened to some of the songs I was writing a few years ago and gave me a critique. He was definitely the epitome of gentleness in every sense of the word. There was a sense of royalty about him but he was utterly human and approachable at the same time. And he loved music so much that you couldn’t really separate his essence from the harmony in the spheres. He will be sorely missed.

Thank you for this opportunity to speak with you.
Madeleine Peyroux.

Interview by Patricia Graire - November 2016

Madeilene Peyroux "Secular Hymns Tour " on November 18, 2016 at Passport Keramikos

Last modified on Saturday, 05 November 2016 16:15