Perfect Sound Forever

Whatever Happened to Madeleine Peyroux?

photo by Anna Hammond

by Mark Swartz (January 2003)

Sing me a song to make death tolerable, a song of a man and a woman: the riddle of a man and a woman. What language could allay our thirsts, what winds lift us, what floods bear us past defeats but song deathless song? -William Carlos Williams

Madeleine Peyroux's 1996 debut CD Dreamland is an incredibly tasteful work by an immature artist. Tasteful covers of Edith Piaf and Patsy Cline are beautifully sung to tasteful accompaniment by Greg Cohen (bassist for Woody Allen and Downtown omnipresence), guitar demigods Marc Ribot and Vernon Reid, and jazz style leaders James Carter and Cyrus Chestnut. Yet the cringe-inducing immaturity comes through in some of the more obvious Billie Holidayisms, the clumsy swipes at ancient gospel-blues, and the Peyroux-penned poem in the CD booklet.

 The tastefully blurred photographs of the singer in the booklet reveal a nervous if determined young woman-so young in fact that you have to wonder if this babyfat-faced 23-year-old could really be in charge of her own career. Music fans, after all, have the right to be suspicious of retrostyle singers. We see the oversize microphone, the sepia-toned photographs, the Billie Holiday comparisons, and we imagine record label honchos carefully calibrating a brand.

But what if it's not a pose? What if a singer opens her mouth in 1996 and 1926 comes out?

 Born in Georgia in 1973, Peyroux grew up in Brooklyn and Paris. By 16, she was touring Europe with a jazz group. Atlantic Records talent scout Yves Beauvais discovered her and recruited the stellar lineup for her debut. Dreamland has ample moments of brilliance that indicate the singer is for real, especially the delicious bad-girl romp called "Was I?" and two undeniably mature originals in "Dreamland" and "Always a Use"-a philosophical plea for hedonism, specifically an invitation to menage a trois.

And yes, the lady does sing the blues. Beyond all that tastefulness there's something to fear and pity in that voice, and the CD has held its own in my collection in the long hiatus Peyroux has gone on since its release. When I spot a copy in somebody else's CD rack, my first thought is: 'how did they find out about her?' My second thought is: 'this is someone who knows about music, or heartbreak, or both.'

 Then for a long time I wondered where she was. Since the release of Dreamland, she's put out exactly two songs: "Life Is Fine" from a 1997 Rainer Ptácek tribute and "(I Wish I Could Shimmy Like) My Sister" from a 2002 Montreal Jazz Festival compilation. What happened? Did Atlantic Records exchange her for another Billie-come-lately? Was there a personal tragedy? Creative block?

 Peyroux was singing blues-lite at a friend's wedding this summer when my wife figured out why that voice sounded familiar. This was an unexpected way for her to come back to my attention, a clue that the career hadn't gone the way it should have gone. Six or seven years after recording the debut, she had shed the babyfat and the big-time sidemen, but, as I saw at the Bottom Line the week after the wedding, Peyroux's got the same nervous determination, and that lovely voice has sprouted some attractive crow's-feet. The club performance was captivating, layered with pathos, abandon, and desire. The gospel chestnut "Trampin'" ("Trying to make heaven my home") still haunts me. Accompanying herself on guitar and joined by a few skilled but no-name musicians, the singer appeared to be on the brink of tears sometimes, though her disciplined exterior never slipped. Later on, she told me it was "a weird night."

 It all somehow reminded me of Luisu Cortés's part in the recent Mexican film Y tu mama también. A sexy, daring married woman joins two horny oafs on a road trip to nowhere after discovering the latest of her husband's infidelities. In the course of the journey she referees Julio and Tenoch's homosocial tussles, fucks them both (one at a time and then simultaneously), and periodically breaks down alone in her room. In case you haven't seen it, I won't say why she's crying, except that it's not the reason director Alfonso Cuarón leads you to believe.

Beyond the physical resemblance between Peroux and Cortes, there's a common resolution to meet death (or disaster or maybe only heartbreak) with its mortal enemy, carnal pleasure-a great recipe for the blues. Peroux and Cortés both hint at depths while withholding the truth-a great recipe for art. For two months I've tried to interview Peroux. She even agreed to meet me once, but then she stood me up. A few days later she left a voicemail asking me to be patient. "The more you wait," she teased, "the more story you'll have." I hope it's good news. I hope she's sung her last wedding. And Madeleine, if you're reading this: I'm still waiting.

Mark Swartz is the author of the novel Instant Karma (City Lights). He has previously written about Gram Parsons and Kenny Millions for PSF.

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