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Friday August 01, 2014
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Madeleine Peyroux at Hill

 

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Among the singers who have reached that level, she's quite reserved; Americans, by and large, like singers with big personalities. Peyroux's reserve is of a special kind, however - she is emerging by degrees from behind a mask. And that can be even more fascinating.

Peyroux has an unusual life story to go with her creative odyssey. Born in Georgia around 1974, she moved to Europe with her mother after her parents divorced. She ran away from home as a teen and ended up singing on the streets in Paris with groups of French musicians who liked American jazz. "It was a very advantageous position to be in: to have this music and be able to share it with people - and then at the same time to be outside it all," she once said. The upshot was that Peyroux developed into an imitator. "It's like she's channeling Billie Holiday," I heard someone exclaim when I first heard Peyroux at the Ark.

But she had the creativity to realize what a box this put her into. Between Peyroux's first album, Dreamland, and the second, Careless Love, there was an unheard-of interval of eight years, during which she waited tables in Nashville, among other activities. She hasn't tried to remake herself wholesale - she still sounds a lot like Billie Holiday - but over time she has embraced the contradictions inherent in her original persona: American and French, a rebel yet a nostalgia act, a classic stylist yet an artist struggling to find her own voice, and an instant success who shunned the spotlight and disappeared. She has begun to find a path that leads between these extremes.

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