By Brad Lopez
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In 1996, when she was just 22, jazzy vocalist Madeleine Peyroux issued Dreamland, a disc on Atlantic Records that earned solid sales, a gazillion comparisons to Billie Holiday and a slot on a subsequent Lilith Fair bill. Considering the high-profile nature of these accomplishments, not to mention the waves of hype stirred up by Atlantic, most performers would have rushed to record a followup. Instead, Peyroux faded from the spotlight as quickly as she had appeared; she waited until 2004 to deliver her sophomore full-length, Careless Love, a charming platter put out by the independent Rounder imprint. This eight-year gap allowed Norah Jones, a duller, less idiosyncratic chanteuse, to achieve the stardom many observers predicted for Ms. P.
Why the wait? On this day, Peyroux handles most questions haltingly, dispensing circular answers that frequently trail off into nothingness. She knows this particular query is coming, however, and has a wry, if somewhat awkward, comment ready for the occasion. "It was a time that wasn't necessarily in the public eye, so it's hard to make up fabulous stories about it without lying," she says, punctuating the line with a tentative chuckle.
When she's asked for more details, Peyroux seems less prepared, but the vagueness of her responses effectively keeps specifics at bay. During her lost years, she says, "I didn't stop singing, I don't think, and I didn't stop playing music, necessarily -- although sometimes it's good to take a break from the one thing that keeps you going. You can come back with a fresh perspective. For artists who do get a chance to walk away, it can be for the better."
Calculated or not, this Athens, Georgia, native's determination to maintain the mystery about her lengthy respite enhances an already rich backstory. Her parents divorced when she was in her mid-teens, and she moved with her mother to Paris, where she discovered the joys of busking. She sang with a gaggle of sidewalk crooners dubbed the Riverboat Shufflers before graduating to the Lost Wandering Blues & Jazz Band, a group that specialized in vintage 1930s material by the likes of Holiday and Fats Waller. The three years Peyroux spent touring Europe with that combo provided her with an education in essential American songcraft, and this knowledge served her well when she returned to the States.
In New York, Atlantic rep Yves Beauvais was smitten by one of Peyroux's performances, and before long, the label was grooming her for the bigtime. Dreamland, which Beauvais co-produced, sported performances by members by the '90s jazz elite, including Cyrus Chestnut and James Carter, as well as crossover artistes such as ex-Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid and Marc Ribot, Tom Waits's favorite string-bender. The repertoire, meanwhile, supplemented a handful of Peyroux compositions with ditties associated with Holiday, Bessie Smith, Patsy Cline and French icon Edith Piaf. Peyroux's renderings received largely positive notices, yet some reviewers saw the tune choices as a frightfully premature attempt to equate her with the century's finest songbirds -- a burden far too heavy to lay on someone barely old enough to legally order a cocktail in the venues she headlined.
Impossible expectations probably weren't the determining factor in Peyroux's decision to drop out, seeing as she includes songs associated with Smith and Holiday on Careless Love -- most notably the title track. She also risks being dubbed a Norah wannabe with "Don't Wait Too Long," an effort co-written by Jones collaborator Jesse Harris. However, the album is neither another trip to Dreamland nor a blatant bid for platinum sales. Producer Larry Klein relies on lesser-known sidemen such as keyboardist Larry Goldings, and the lack of mega-star accompanists, not to mention subtler, lower-key settings, bring out the best in Peyroux, whose singing is less affected and more evocative than ever. In addition, Peyroux took Klein's advice and broadened the range of her selections to encompass rock-era composers, resulting in several of the CD's high points. "Dance Me to the End of Love," penned by the famously morose Leonard Cohen, is an intriguing combination of doomy words and bright instrumentation; "Between the Bars" turns an Elliott Smith air into a regretful ode to drunkenness; and "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" draws unexpected charm from an early Bob Dylan offering. Peyroux was attracted to these songs by the complexity of emotions they conjure.
"They're capable of speaking to you on several levels at once," she says. "They recognize love in things that we don't often recognize, and they recognize other things within love that we often don't recognize.
"I really appreciate a songwriter who's willing to say love isn't easy," she goes on. "I don't want to go all out and say I love to fight. But then again, the message is that there's got to be conflict for something to be meaningful, or else it doesn't represent the things we're doing."
Peyroux's musings about her work may tend toward the opaque, but they're much more understandable than her explanations about the timing of her disappearance. "It made itself clear only because of fate," she allows. "I didn't have as much control over the situation, or at least I didn't feel I had as much control over the situation as maybe I had. I didn't necessarily know what to do, so in a way, it's hard to say whether it was my choice, or how much I could have done differently. At the time, I don't think I knew what I was doing, but I feel still that it's a natural cycle, and I'm really grateful for that."
At the end of this statement, even Peyroux seems impressed by how devoid of information it is. In her opinion, "That's an advantage, I guess -- to be able to discuss something without actually saying anything about it."
Thank goodness she usually lets her music do the talking.