Madeleine Peyroux is an American jazz singer and songwriter whose career sparked off from the streets of Paris. She draws inspiration from classics such as Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. Uyoloconnects dives into the world of this modern jazz icon.
Uyoloconnects: Madeleine, you have one of the most striking blues voices today, and just listening to you is like venturing into the era when Billie Holiday, Nat king Cole or Nina Simone were s0ll alive! When you migrated to Paris at the age of thirteen there were plenty of other fun musical genres out there. What stroke a chord about the blues or jazz music?
MADELEINE PEYROUX: When I moved from Brooklyn to Paris as a kid, with my mother and brother, it was 1987. I was used to hearing only the Top 10 pop charts on the radio, some of which was great: Prince, Whitney Houston, Peter Gabriel, Run DMC. But most of it was not good music to me. Then there was all the “ancient” music we had on vinyl: Fats Waller, Jim Croce, Fats Domino, Hank Williams, Prokofiev, Ravel, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash... stuff that was from another era. And as I settled into a far away land, I was just discovering the intervening stuff between jazz and contemporary pop: rock and roll like the Beatles, Paul Simon, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan... And I was old enough to start discovering a whole world of music that was not played on pop radio, something the internet generation will find a lot easier nowadays, but which was very difficult back then.
My experience was that distance made everything more connected, albeit through time or space; I became American when I moved to Paris, and I also believe I began to identify with American music as a whole, more than any one style or period of music. And when studying American music, whether you call it researching the roots of a tradition, or just looking for the legacy of a feeling, the harmony in a certain chord or the timbre in a certain voice and all the meanings we build on them, whatever you want to call it: I end up returning to folk music, the most dynamic of which is the blues. That was the way I formed my identity then, and it continues now: searching for the blues.
Uyoloconnects: What does freedom mean to you, as an artist?
MADELEINE PEYROUX: This is the sort of question that reminds me of James Baldwin’s magical statement on something that feels too complicated to address universally, in the most concise and complete way. He answered the question of the responsibility of the artist as a duty to society. More than a duty, I think, he seemed to plead that it is actually the first job of any artist, since the artist is the only member of a society in the right position to do that job: humanistic critique, analysis, exegesis, revelation.
I am persuaded that everyone is partly an artist and to some degree will need to also take on that responsibility. But for those of us who choose the moniker, the question of freedom and what it is and how to find it is probably the most urgent. As a person, I take my freedom to mean that I have choices to make as I live my life. And those choices will have consequences for other lives, and therefore to some degree, I am responsible for them.
James Baldwin and countless artistic heroes of all kinds have shown themselves responsible for others. Baldwin shows undying love and advocacy for the oppressed people of the world with his words. Mohammed Ali showed it in words and in overt actions. Billie Holiday created a whole empathetic style. Leonard Cohen honed his syllables out of spontaneous chant, as if just coming out of silent meditation. Bob Dylan seems to be singing gems out of chaos.
As for me, I don’t really consider myself that kind of great artist who has found a new form. But for me, freedom is the opportunity to show how much the human soul can be heard, wants to be heard, needs to be heard, through the human voice. In essence, I want to get people to listen to people.
Uyoloconnects: You’ve worked with so many beautiful and great musicians in the past including Bob Dylan, Michelle Johnson among many others. If you had to pick, which one singer (dead or alive) would be the ultimate duet?
MADELEINE PEYROUX: This is the most difficult question I’ve ever had!!! (LOL) Well, I guess it has to be Louis Armstrong. I can’t really imagine anything more exhilarating as sharing a song with Pops. When I listen to Pops I wonder, “What is he thinking about exactly that he can sound so pure, so unbothered, so honest, and so joyful at once?” Especially considering all that he knew, all that he cared about, all that he suffered and overcame... wow.
Uyoloconnects: Since your latest chef d’eouvre Anthem produced in 2018, you have paused on producing music. Is this to accommodate 0me for tours and concerts or have you decided to stop making new music? If so, why?
MADELEINE PEYROUX: This August 2021 I am releasing a deluxe reissue of the album Careless Love, which includes new live material. And we are about to go on a world tour with its core message at the center of our show. The core message of all that repertoire is this: the one thing I want to do is to remind people that someone cares. No maVer how bad it feels or how bad it really is, someone out there cares deeply, and cares enough to try to do something to help. Through witnessing and experiencing all the hard times of 2020, I think we can look back and see there is proof that people, the regular people out there, everywhere, really want to change things for the beVer, and no matter who you are, someone out there cares very, very, very much for you. I want our show to be a reminder of that and that alone.
Uyoloconnects: If you could change anything about the way the music industry is handled today, what would it be?
MADELEINE PEYROUX: On a positive note, the music industry is constantly changing and is no longer as monolithic as it once was, which is, in the end, much beVer for society at large and for the private consumer. But the main thing that is missing is adequate respect and financial support for artists. It is too difficult to imagine surviving as a poor starving artist now. It’s not even romantically fathomable. This has consequences that we may never comprehend. I believe musicians, performers, writers, everyone should be paid a fair wage for what they do. Right now, whether it’s through streaming music, club dates, recording dates, even union representation, it’s usually not happening.
Uyoloconnects: You moved from the United States to Paris where you officially began singing, first as an alley musician, before making your way up. What advice would you give to other aspiring singers like yourself, who are facing the hard road to artistic and personal success?
MADELEINE PEYROUX: I’ll try to do my best. Here goes. Make friends, allies, with anyone you admire, and work hard at one thing at a time. Genuine friendship leads to community and support. Focus leads to clarity. Hard work is an investment that will eventually come back to you somehow. One more thing: if you are mad at The Man: they are few, we are many.
Uyoloconnects: What is next on musical agenda?
MADELEINE PEYROUX: I’ve got a few irons in the fire. I’ve been writing and recording a little at a time, some of those tracks with my trio (Graham Hawthorne, drums and Andy Ezrin, keys). We will be playing live at Ravinia Festival in Chicago on August 10th, 2021!!