Madeleine Peyroux (48) is an American jazz singer and songwriter. Born in Athens, Georgia, she grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where she now lives. When her parents divorced, her mother moved the family to the suburbs of Paris, where she began to busk and meet kindred spirits. And so Peyroux’s career began, her distinctive voice often compared to Billie Holiday’s.
I was a bit of a terror, stubborn and bull-headed. When I was 11 years old I started smoking cigarettes, wearing make-up, cutting class and hanging out at the pizzeria. I rebelled many times.
Choose three-ish words that describe yourself.
Happily argumentative, lucky and a good woman.
How did your mother influence you musically?
She sang songs with me all the time and she taught me to play the ukulele.
Meanwhile your father was an alcoholic and suffered from depression. Did music somehow become a balm?
There was a violent atmosphere at home. If my mother and I started singing a song, it was almost the only time everything else would stop. My father would stop arguing. Music can’t hurt you.
How did moving to France affect you?
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I didn’t speak the language so I became more introverted. My mother gave me a guitar when we got there. My lack of speaking the language gave music more of an immediate power, because if you can’t say anything, you say it with your guitar.
And yet this difficult period was the making of you, in a way.
I was still this rebellious person. I wandered around with my guitar, this wandering misfit in the suburbs of Paris. I found my way into the city, and I found other musicians. That’s when I dropped out of school. I was 15.
What was busking like?
Busking is an interesting school where you discover who you really are. There is a sort of spiritual aspect to it because you create your own life.
How were the Americans there different to those back home?
I met so many Americans in Paris who played music that nobody ever listened to in New York — early jazz and blues. It blew my mind.
Best advice you’ve been given?
Odetta, the singer, once looked at me and said: “Sing your soul.” She meant it with so much encouragement and love. She knew that I wanted to do the right thing, and find the right path.
Best advice you give?
Don’t do anything if it’s not fun.
Who are your role models?
Danny Fitzgerald took me in when I was destitute in Paris. He was a black American, a gay man from Upstate New York. He started a band when he was in his 50s and he created a whole way of life. He was his own type of hippy. He had this barge on the outskirts of Paris and if you were homeless, he would let you stay on his boat.
What is life like now?
I live in Brooklyn. It’s invigorating and exciting. New York City has a lot of the democracy that I need in order to feel like I am part of where I want to be. On the other hand, sometimes it’s very depressing because there is so much noise and dirt and struggle to get things done.
Did Covid change your life?
I got to do some things that I never got to do before because I’ve always been away. I’ve a couple of pets now, a ton of plants and I’ve spent a lot more time with my mother and family. My personal life has expanded.
What are you reading?
I was a keynote speaker at the Folk Alliance International and there was a complaint about my performance because I sang a song that was deemed to be inappropriate to be sung by a white person. So I’m reading some books on identity politics.
Do you have any pre-performance rituals?
A lot of them are practical – making sure my voice is warmed up and that I’ve had some quiet time. I try to focus, to find some direct connection with the audience, so that we have a great concert together, something meaningful.
Madeleine Peyroux plays the 3Olympia on September 24; madeleinepeyroux.com
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