Secular Hymns for a Troubled World
Madeleine Peyroux brings unique interpretations to songs of resilience and self-exploration
By Bliss Bowen
When Madeleine Peyroux tripped the radar of the mainstream press with her widely acclaimed debut, 1996’s “Dreamland,” she was already a seasoned performer who’d developed her chops while busking in Paris during her teens.
The tonal grain of her voice and the light way she toyed with rhythm earned her so many comparisons to Billie Holiday that the icon’s shadow almost obscured Peyroux’s individuality. Yet through subsequent albums — usually delivered after lengthy breaks from the studio — she quietly staked out her musical identity as a masterful interpreter of other artists’ songs as well as her own.
She’s since established a respected career as a concert artist, and her music remains eclectic. Her albums share a common musical feel — sophisticated and melodic, with a bluesy cast and jazzy swing — yet she digs through far corners for material.
Recorded live in an English church with her longtime tour mates, guitarist Jon Herington and bassist Barak Mori, Peyroux’s upcoming “Secular Hymns” finds her revisiting the songbooks of Allen Toussaint and Tom Waits, traditional blues, Stephen Foster, reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson and Townes Van Zandt.
Speaking from her home in New York in advance of a concert at The Broad Stage this weekend, Peyroux thoughtfully discusses singing, how to compromise with integrity, the interconnectedness of sound, and how recording “Secular Hymns” in a church was a revelation she’s still contemplating.
When you’re planning concerts and the world is as chaotic as it has been lately, do you feel the need to choose songs that calm or uplift the audience? Or do you sequence them in a way that tells a story?
Hmm. [Pause] Probably more the former than the latter. I think telling a story is quite calming and uplifting for a lot of people. … I’ve been aware that my music started off being very melancholy and ballad-focused and kind of dark. Hopefully not in a selfish way, hopefully not in a sort of childish way, but rather in genuine expression and exploration of those types of feelings.
However, I’ve always been aware that however good it might make me feel to sing sad songs, it becomes a one-sided story, and I’ve been trying to expand on that for my whole career, and I’ve recently been making jokes with the audience.
The context of the day-to-day life that we live in, in terms of our awareness of tragedy and the shock of what’s everyday now in the news — that’s extremely important to me. I don’t think it’s just a question of being uplifting; maybe more like soothing. That’s the goal in the end. To me it does reach into those issues that we are dealing with.
It’s strange how music feels more important than ever, yet certain songs or themes that once united people can now be divisive because emotions are
so much closer to the surface.
Yeah. I guess the point is to have more dialogue. Because it’s OK to have your emotions near the surface if you’re expressing what you believe in and
also listening to what somebody else believes in.
Interpreting songs is a different skill from singing them well, and you’re accomplished at both. What does a song need to convince you that you can deliver it as if you’d written it yourself? Are there any you’ve tried to perform that just didn’t work for you as a vocalist?
Absolutely. There are a lot of wonder-ful songs that I believe in wholeheartedly, that make up a big part of what I believe in and that give me solace, that are
not gonna be songs that I will, as of yet [laughs], find a way to properly do justice.
Just like we need an external dialogue in our culture, the trick for me is to have an inner dialogue between what I sound good doing, what I can do and what I want to do. They don’t always match up. So I compromise on both sides.
When I was 16, I was in a group in Paris, the leader was an American from upstate New York and he found this really old swing song from 1930something that was a little bit, I thought, disparaging. It was called “Was I Drunk, Was He Handsome, Did My Mama Give Me Hell.” Which of course is funny to some people. At the time I was like, “This is not cool, I don’t want to have to do this” — plus I was 16 and the person in the song was 16. But he insisted, and he was like my father in this band and I had really no other place to go.
I did it, and it became a huge hit that people just loved hearing, because it was a natural thing for me to sing. I knew what the words meant, what the storyline meant; I knew how to deal with it in my own way. When I found something to be disparaging, I switched it around a little bit for my own benefit so I could feel good about how to sing it. That’s a good example of the kind of compromise that comes from what you’re good at.
You’re a songwriter, yet “Secular Hymns” includes none of your compositions. Did you feel the songs you covered just fit together as they were?
I’m working on other songs, and I couldn’t get them finished for this project with all of our touring. But this project has really inspired me to work on my next project with even more intentional focus on this idea of bringing people together in music, and I say that because there was an organic piece to this record “Secular Hymns” that speaks to that.
There was a different type of crossover value — not just a business type of crossover or even a musical type, but also a contextual atmosphere in the way that we did this record, and the way we chose these songs over the last couple of years. They come from different backgrounds and they also ended up being recorded in an Episcopal church [St. Mary the Virgin in Oxfordshire, England], which is already a bit of the other side for me as an atheist. It brought a lot of symbolism up for me, and made me think a lot about why it was that this was the only place that I felt comfortable doing this type of recording live.
You know, the reverb of that church is what started it all. Yet it also was a safe haven-type atmosphere, to have that reverb, and walk into that reverb, and sit down in that reverb, and have all three of us together as performers sing within that reverb. The human voice is another fingerprint, just like reverb is. It’s a very specific resonant chamber [laughs] that cannot be anything other than that one. There’s no way to replicate that in a natural way. So that process, coupled with what’s happening in the world, did bring me to a place of looking at how to make things. I will keep that in mind as I finish writing the songs I’ve been working on. Definitely.
Madeleine Peyroux performs at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 23, at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. $60 to $95. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit madeleinepeyroux.com.
Read an extended version of this interview at argonautnews.com.