Much like songbird Edith Piaf, Madeleine Peyroux spent her teenage years busking the busy streets of Paris. Just like the ‘little sparrow’, Madeleine befriended the city’s street musicians and made its Latin quarter her first performing stage. Years later, Peyroux would cite iconic Piaf as an influence on her music and record a rendition of the classic La Vie En Rose, soulfully capturing the tune’s romanticism and melancholy.
Born in Athens, Georgia in 1974, Madeleine “grew up in a house filled with music” and from an early age “instinctively realised music’s soothing power” but it was her teenage years in the French capital that turned the childhood notion into an all-consuming vocation for life.
Young Madeleine moved to Paris with her mother in 1987 following her parents divorce. “To soothe me during the upheaval”, she recalls, “I was given a guitar and took to playing in the streets almost immediately.”
The curious teenager started skipping school to frequent the city’s Latin Quarter where street musicians dwelled, keen to learn about their music and way of life. At 16, the fearless teen joined the Lost Wandering Blues and Jazz Band with whom she toured the streets of Europe, discovering Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday while “voraciously picking up all the songs and all the guitar playing” she could.
The two-year touring adventure set Madeleine on a creative path for life and proved to be a gateway to greater things. In 1991 the band travelled to New York where Madeleine’s unique talents were spotted by Atlantic Records’ Yves Beauvais. The young singer declined the music executive’s initial record deal offer but relented several years later and in 1996 her breakthrough album Dreamland was released.
Dreamland sold a striking 200,000 copies and Madeleine’s dusky voice was likened to that of Jazz greats Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Featuring top musicians Marc Ribot, Vernon Reid, Cyrus Chestnut, Charlie Giordano, Greg Cohen, Kenny Wollesen, Regina Carter, Leon Parker and James Carter, the album included Madeleine’s renditions of Holiday’s Gettin’ Some Fun Out of Life, Bessie Smith’s Lovesick Blues and Fats Waller’s I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.
The new millennium signaled new hope with a return to the Big Apple and a Sony Records deal but the collaboration was short lived. Madeleine was dropped from the label in a move she remembers as casting a “big blow” to her ego.
The defiant artist rolled up her sleeves, continued playing on the street, booked herself in New York clubs through local promoters who remembered her Dreamland heyday and began collaborating with William Galison.
Madeleine’s never-say-die spirit bore fruit. In 2003 she signed to Rounder Records and embarked on a game-changing, lifelong collaboration with multi Grammy winning producer Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell, Walter Becker, Herbie Hancock).
The prolific partnership has now spanned many years and created universally acclaimed albums, hailed by many as timeless classics.
Madeleine might attribute her success to “mostly luck” but to the industry and loyal fans alike, it is the immense talent and utter dedication to her craft that shines through. “Peyroux is a tremendous talent and almost a total intuitive” reflects Larry Klein, “she has the capacity to get the magic. When she sings and plays her guitar, great things happen.”