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An Interview with Madeleine Peyroux

Image © Madeleine Peyroux via Facebook

Now the proud curator of eight studio albums, singer Madeleine Peyroux has never forgotten her formative years busking on a Paris street corner. As she prepares to bring her unique jazz-blues blend to Oxford’s New Theatre on 3 June, Madeleine discusses how the county proved crucial to the recording of her latest record, Secular Hymns.

Though an American by birth, Madeleine Peyroux’s love of music stems very much from her teenage tutelage in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Even three decades after she busked for change in the cultural heart of Europe, the tricks of the trade Peyroux learned in those winding French streets continues to inspire the songstress every time she sets foot on stage.

‘Singing on the street is like guerrilla theatre,’ the 43-year-old enthuses. ‘Spontaneous gatherings. Community organizing. Social media in person! Everything about it is visceral, personal, simple, concrete, and acoustic! It is at its best the very essence of music. At its worst, it is being locked in jail or attacked by vegetables or glass bottles… it is not always perfect!’

Such romanticism is part and parcel of Peyroux. At her gigs she hopes to attract an audience made up of fans ‘who come to listen, have fun, go deeper into themselves, learn the truth, and be willing to hear something they don’t already know.’ On 3 June, Peyroux will be hoping to seek out these eager souls as she heads to the New Theatre, with a set-list packed full of sultry jazz numbers from her latest album, Secular Hymns.

Of all her dates in Britain, the New Theatre gig represents a musical homecoming of sorts. After all, Secular Hymns was inspired in no small way by the county in which the City of Dreaming Spires resides.

‘This is a very special project for me – one that is very close to my heart,’ she says of Secular Hymns. ‘We recorded in a small Norman church in Oxfordshire, including a free performance for the local townspeople, after which I was told that we had filled the hall with spiritual humanism. It was my favourite compliment, and made me think that the album should have a title fitting the mood of that time we spent there. I hope that the title translates well.’

Like most of Peyroux’s musical back catalogue, Secular Hymns rarely strays too far from the singer’s lasting attachment to iconic musicians like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Carole King.

‘I am a singer first, and always have been,’ she agrees. ‘So lyrics are incredibly important to the way that I approach any song. Therefore, I cannot deny that my songwriting heroes are the great lyricists.

‘A song does not exist in silence, in the same way that a written page does. The first thing about a song, I think, is that you don’t write it down. And if you’re a singer, you try to feel the lyric, or the idea, the mood, and the vibrations of a melody in your whole body. I think you mediate on something that is important to you until it is a simple act to open your mouth and express it. What comes out then is anybody’s guess, and you have to put it away, forget it, and then try again to say that same thing, the way you want to feel it said. So you rewrite, or re-create it, over and over again. And I guess if you’re lucky, you make sense, and then you have a song. But what do I know?’

Self-depreciating rhetoric aside, it’s been clear from the moment Peyroux joined the long tradition of continental troubadours in the City of Love that no other career would satisfy her thirst for creativity.

‘I have tried other things, especially when I lost my voice fifteen years ago, but I have never found myself to be any good at anything else. Sadly, I am a terrible waitress and could not survive with that job. I am eternally in awe of people that do it for their livelihood!’

But even for someone as experienced as Peyroux, there is another side to fame – one which the singer eschews in favour of just enjoying making music and forging a lasting connection with her fans.

‘There really is nothing to recognition in and of itself,’ she nods. ‘You know, we have a joke in New York. Fame goes through four stages: Who’s that girl? Get me that Girl! Get me somebody like that girl! Who’s that girl?’

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