Madeleine Peyroux has gone from busker to a best-selling chanteuse
It was daunting enough for jazz-cafe crooner Madeleine Peyroux to do a duet with chanteuse extraordinaire k.d. lang. Adding to the challenge was that they were recording a Joni Mitchell song with Larry Klein, who used to be Mitchell's husband, producer and bass player.
"Even down to the last minute of being in studio with Larry and k.d., there were questions of how to make it work," said the Georgia-born, Paris-bred cult figure. "I was confident that k.d. had a real grasp of Joni Mitchell and would be leading the way for me, to a certain degree. She did. She showed me a lot of things because I sang both before and after she did her part."
As for producer Klein, he has "a tendency to ask for more at the 11th hour," Peyroux said, "and encouraging me and pushing me to do things I had not expected to be able to do."
She'd never even tried to cover a Mitchell song. But she wanted to do a duet with a woman ("it's hard to find duets that make sense for two women," she says) and Klein suggested "The River."
The duet is one of the highlights on Peyroux's widely praised "Half the Perfect World," which was released in August. It arrives less than two years after the Klein-produced, million-selling "Careless Love" made the 32-year-old New Yorker a favorite with the latte-loving Norah Jones crowd.
At least, Peyroux didn't make fans wait eight years for her next album, which she'd done between her 1996 debut, "Dreamland," and "Careless Love."
She said she has the freedom to work at her own pace because she records for the long-lived indie label, Rounder, though giant Universal distributes her discs abroad and always clamors for more.
For "Half the Perfect World," Peyroux (pronounced Peru) and Klein took a different approach than for "Careless Love."
"Artistically, we went into a different place by digging a little deeper into the quietness of the soul -- or trying to," she said from her Brooklyn apartment.
That meant trying more personal and introspective songs by the likes of Tom Waits and Mitchell -- and herself. Peyroux co-wrote four tunes -- one with Steely Dan's Walter Becker and three with Jesse Harris, who's best known for writing for Norah Jones.
The approach this time also meant more space in the music, a sophisticated notion that jazz musicians understand better than popsters. "Silence," Peyroux has pointed out, "is not just an absence of sound."
Her music is once again kinda jazzy, kinda bluesy and lusciously lazy. There are muted trumpet and ukulele on "Smile." She slows down "Everybody's Talkin'" (yes, the tune Harry Nilsson made famous in the movie "Midnight Cowboy") to an almost meditative pace that matches her purr of a voice. Even when she goes up-tempo, such as on her own "I'm All Right" and "A Little Bit," her vibe is late-night and low-key.
"We take a minimalist approach to the songs no matter how many people are playing (in her band)," said Peyroux, who got her start as a teenage high-school dropout busking on the streets of Paris with her Billie Holiday-like voice. "We'll try to create a little bit of an illusion so that people might feel like they're in a club."
Illusion or not, her quiet music speaks loudly. So Peyroux won't need any manufactured stories like the one by her European label in August 2005. The BBC reported that Universal Records hired a detective to find the rising star who had suddenly vanished.
"Universal U.K. has now come full circle and admitted that they made it up," she said, adding that she'd done her share of promotion in Europe and was tired. "I'm not a victim in all of this. I'm just aware that there are ups and downs."
Ms. Melancholy's music suggests that perhaps there are more downs in her life.
"It's a learning process for me to be happy," she said. "I'm getting happier and happier."
© 2006 Star Tribune (Minneapolis).