The singer who disappeared
After 8 years, Madeleine Peyroux returns with 'Careless Love'
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- Eight years ago, Madeleine Peyroux's debut album, "Dreamland," was showered with praise.
Critics swooned over her Billie Holiday-like voice, her choice of material (though pigeonholed as a jazz vocalist, her songs included Patsy Cline's "Walkin' After Midnight" and a pair of blues numbers) and her interpretive abilities. The album, despite no hits and little airplay, sold 200,000 copies, an amazing number for an unknown singer.
And then she disappeared.
"I didn't have much choice," she says in a recent phone interview from her home in Brooklyn, New York. "A lot of things happened."
Peyroux (pronounced "pay-roo") doesn't elaborate -- she merely says that "it's been a good eight years" -- but news reports note that she felt overwhelmed by her initial success. She reportedly had surgery on her vocal cords to remove a cyst, and she eventually retreated to family and friends to recharge her soul. She didn't know if she would ever return to singing.
But she has, and her new album, "Careless Love" (Rounder), picks up where she left off.
Among the songs she covers are Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love," Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," Elliott Smith's "Between the Bars" and Hank Williams' "Weary Blues from Waitin'," each a twist on the original -- Cohen more haunting, Dylan more joyful -- accentuated by an able band and Larry Klein's delicate production. Her time away hasn't hurt sales; the album is lodged in the top five on Billboard's jazz chart.
She resists the jazz label but revels in its possibilities.
"Jazz really does try to include everything. It's always been popular music," she says. "But the wonderful thing about jazz is its willingness to take chances."
Art vs. commodity
"Careless Love," like "Dreamland," is a tribute to Peyroux's varied influences.
Peyroux was born in Athens, Georgia. Her family moved to New York when she was young. Her father, a theater teacher originally from New Orleans, Louisiana, "brought a lot of music into our home," she recalls. "Fats Domino, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong. ... My father had a varied ear, from Hank Williams to Ravel."
Her parents divorced when she was a teenager, and Peyroux and her mother moved across the Atlantic to Paris. They lived in the suburbs, but once there, she immersed herself in the sounds of the French city.
"It was really a culture shock, especially at that age," she says. "But once I was in the city, I really enjoyed it. Just to experience things. There was so much new stuff."
Among the "new stuff" was music, and by the time she'd turned 18 Peyroux had joined a traveling group of musicians and toured Europe. After leaving the group, she came to New York, where an Atlantic Records producer, Yves Beauvais, saw her at a club. Though Peyroux held out for a time -- she had dreams of becoming a writer -- as she told the Los Angeles Times, "Finally, I got to the point where I didn't see why not."
But for the free-spirited Peyroux, joining the record business -- "and then it became a business," she sighs -- has been a double-edged sword.
"It's work. I recognize that it's work, and it can be hard work, so making it a commodity is not so hard to believe," she says.
Still, she adds, she tries to separate herself from the "business" end of the music industry however possible, though she's aware of the compromises an artist must make.
"I could spend my life as an anarchist, but to completely disassociate myself [from the music business] doesn't solve any of the problems," she says.
Finding her own voice
She also tries to keep the Billie Holiday comparisons at arm's length -- not that she minds the compliment.
"I listened to Billie Holiday a lot in order to learn to sing," she says. "She remains one of the extraordinary jazz singers.
"But," she continues, "my intent is to become my own voice, to be able to interpret these songs in my own way."
Klein, Joni Mitchell's former husband and producer, supports her wholeheartedly.
"She sings with no artifice. ... No wanting to be anything other than what she is," he told the Los Angeles Times. "My job was to put it into a landscape that supports it."
Peyroux worked closely with Klein to pick the songs, she says.
"I had a bunch of songs I wanted to do with him. Half of the album is those, and half are new, some of which he proposed," she says. "I'm astounded to work with him. ... It's wonderful to work with someone with mentor status."
Peyroux will spend the latter part of January in Europe, then return to the United States in February to tour the West.
And this time -- especially with the popularity of vocal music on the upswing -- she's planning to stick around for a while.
"It's great to have other people's help. Then the music gets heard," she says. "There's a lot more commercial support for that now."