Madeleine Peyroux: I could sing these songs over and over again

Categories: Interview
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When Ray Charles first released his seminal album The Modern Sounds of Country and Western Music in 1962, the record was considered at the time by music executives to be more than risky -- it was a career-killer. No one thought that country and folk songs could be reimagined in blues and jazz contexts and still be successful songs. The Modern Sounds of Country and Western Music went on to be both a commercial and critical success, a defining album in American music history. With her new album The Blue Room, jazz chanteuse Madeleine Peyroux -- our own modern Billie Holiday -- and her longtime collaborator, the producer Larry Klein, pay tribute to Charles' classic.

The Blue Room lifts six songs from The Modern Sounds of Country and Western Music, along with five other well-known like Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire" and Randy Newman's "Guilty." Far from just a covers record, The Blue Room features richly rearranged and original takes on these songs, guided by the expert taste of Klein and Grammy Award-winning composer Vince Mendoza. Peyroux's warm voice flows easily over sumptuous string arrangements, at once recalling a past era in music and setting standards for a new one. This is an album where subtlety is king, and Peyroux wears the crown as effortlessly as though she was born into it.

Ahead of her two-night-stand at the Dakota Jazz Club, Gimme Noise caught up with the singer to talk about the new album and what it means to take a classic and apply it to the modern music landscape.


Gimme Noise:
This new album pulls heavily from Ray Charles' classic album The Modern Sounds of Country and Western Music. Tell me about why you were drawn to this subject.

Madeleine Peyroux:
I have been a big fan, as they say, of [Charles], and grew up listening to this music, and it seems like a very natural thing to me, so I don't have a real specific answer for that. Perhaps it's that it's a big time for that album -- it's 50 years since that album was made, and it's a very interesting moment for that. I think it's a great album. I think it's relevant. We're dealing with that today, the cross-genres and the blending of styles, and the album still makes sense today... The music that is American is so intertwined. It's a very complicated web, and I think it's a fascinating thing about who we are.

Was this a challenging album for you to make?

I think it was, but I also found out that I was working with people that were much less daunted by a lot of this than I, as it turns out. [Laughs] [Producer] Larry Klein had very clear ideas, and I love what we ended up doing, even though I had not foreseen any of it. [Klein] had very clear ideas, too, about the lush string arrangments with [composer] Vince Mendoza, and how that might echo or contrast my voice in the same way that Ray Charles had meant to contrast with the choir in the original recording... It was challenging, because I was going to learn to do these songs my way and reinterpret them.

What are you most proud of about this album?

Oh, God... [Pause] Well, I'm proud of the songs. They're not mine to be proud of, but I'm most proud of the songs. I really love them, you know? And I am playing them live now, and I'm having such a ball, being able to do these songs live. They're great songs, and I feel like they're eternal, and I feel like they're going to be eternally important for me. I could sing them over and over and over again.

Our show is so much fun. I really feel like these are intense, beautiful songs. We have a string quartet as well as a rhythm section, so there are a lot more people in this show than I've had in the past on stage. It's bigger, it's larger, it's got more atmosphere... It's sort of like looking at the sky. You don't have to pinpoint it.

You've built a career out of reinterpreting classic songs in your own original way. You talk about the eternal nature of some songs... What is the draw for you there? How do you find the magic in songs that predate you?

The biggest draw... is in that they're great. I think that you have to realize that the great songs are not taken to be great until you've had to live with them for a while, and I think that's true for a lot of different things. I think it's normal for it to take a long time for people to realize that it's great. I think with this record, there's more of an argument to be made for looking back--the fact that there is an actual record that we're paying homage to.

I think that's a really important question, and I wouldn't feel that way if the songs were being explored for nostalgia -- I don't believe that's the point in all this. It's realizing who you are today and what does that mean: Why are you who you are? That's the question. What does it mean to do a covers album, and is there anything wrong with that? People could do an 80's album, and it could be a covers album, and that's okay. I think that's the point in some ways, that we get a chance to look back at something that was great. We don't question playing Shakespeare, and to do it well we question it even less. I think that's where I'm coming from--especially with this record, do great material justice in today's world. I don't see anything lacking or unartistic in that. I don't see anything wrong with that. I think it's an experience.

This is a small tour for you -- just the Midwest, New York and Toronto. Minneapolis is lucky enough to get two nights with you. How did that happen?

That's a good question! Let's see... The gentleman that runs the Dakota is a music lover, and I love that club. It's a wonderful venue. The food is fantastic, by the way. It's nice to go back to a place that feels like home. I'll be going over to the west coast in June, I'll be going to Europe after Chicago... it's a short tour through the U.S.

Madeleine Peyroux plays two nights at the Dakota Jazz Club on Tuesday, April 2 and Wednesday, April 3. Shows are at 7 and 9 p.m. 18+. Tickets are $50-$65. Info here.


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