Madeleine Peyroux at Hill
Finding or relocating a voice
Jazz vocalist Madeleine Peyroux has climbed the Ann Arbor musical ladder all the way to the top: she's appeared at the Ark, the Michigan Theater, and now - on Thursday, November 8 - at Hill Auditorium.
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.
On Careless Love, and especially on her fine new album Half the Perfect
World, she has searched out material that makes her into a more contemporary personality - and makes the feeling of dislocation expressed in the lyrics seem her own instead of someone else's. She performs songs by Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, and, on the new album, Fred Neil - "Everybody's Talkin'," which she makes entirely her own. Her music now features electric guitars and, sometimes, a pedal steel. And her original songs are gaining focus and edge. Applying her quiet jazz to the sophisticated songwriting of a later era, Peyroux is making listeners forget the Billie Holiday thing even as she keeps the uncanny sound of that tragic figure.
Madeleine Peyroux's cool remoteness in concert tends to put some people off, but others are plainly fascinated by the woman behind the mask. How the next stage of this story will play out in a space the size of Hill ought to be fascinating in itself.
[Review published November 2007]