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Madeleine Peyroux & Her Anthem of Hope

MADELEINE PEYROUX redAnybody who was at the City Halls last June to witness Madeleine Peyroux’s return to Glasgow after a decade’s absence will remember that it was an extraordinarily moving experience; the sort of five-star concert experience that doesn’t come along very often. The American singer-songwriter with the sultry, bluesy voice held the audience in the palm of her hand and there was a strong sense of solidarity when she made reference to the political situation in the States and took the mickey out of its president.

Little wonder, then, that Peyroux remembers her one Scottish gig of 2017 clearly when we speak on the phone to discuss her next Scottish date – in Edinburgh later this month. But what is a surprise is just how much of an impression that June day in Glasgow made on her, and how it played a part in the way she approached her new album, Anthem, which is the catalyst for her current European tour.

Reminded of that concert, the 44-year-old immediately responds: “That was a memorable visit to Glasgow. It changed me. It was a big part of my growing up. Before the concert, I met some Glaswegians out on the street and they started telling me about their personal lives – two blokes, two fans, told me about some very serious tragic things that they had gone through. It was very generous of them; it was a real human connection and it made me think very deeply about how I’ve got to be open to that all the time. I have to assume that people want to talk about the hardest things; I shouldn’t shy away from it. I should be open to these conversations.”

It’s little wonder that anyone who has followed Peyroux’s career or is familiar with her recorded output through which run recurring themes about alcoholism, homelessness, falling foul of the law and romantic disappointment should feel that she is approachable and ready to listen. This is the woman who began her performing life as a busker on the streets and metro lines of Paris and who told The Herald in 2009 when she was promoting her first, painfully honest, album of original material that she had “spent a lot of time with sadness”.

So how did the Glaswegian experience impact on Anthem? “I realised that the conversation needs to be on a personal level.” The conversation to which Peyroux refers is about the current political situation, a subject which may have united her with her Scottish fans but which is a thorny topic in her homeland. The seeds for the album were sown during the 2016 US elections when Peyroux was touring the length and breadth of the States, getting a sense of her country and trying to find ways to connect with audiences who don’t necessarily hold the same views as she does.

Does she have to watch what she says about Trump in the States? “Yes. The new record was definitely inspired by concerts where I found that I wasn’t able to talk about issues properly and couldn’t find the repertoire that reflected what was in the air – especially in 2016. I’ve realised that it’s not necessary for me to say anything more about him. He gets enough attention and he thrives on any sort of attention he gets.

“The conversation needs to be on a more personal level so I decided to embrace speaking through the music only. The songs here are based on what’s happened – there’s Lullaby which was inspired by the image of a refugee in the ocean, and Down On Me was inspired by the financial paradox one finds oneself involved – one can’t get back on the horse if one falls off. Songs are meant to speak, and these are deliberately not preachy.”

The record is a group of stories of different people’s experiences and presents an intimate view of politics – through the prism of the personal. “The idea of writing new songs was at the back of my mind at the same time as I was invited to be part of a songwriting session where five of us were stuck together for a few days at a time in LA over a course of a year. It got to the point that I was really excited and wanted to record the songs right away; they felt so connected to what was going on. We recorded it last fall.”

The sessions were the brainchild of Larry Klein, the acclaimed producer with whom Peyroux had collaborated on four albums, including her 2004 breakthrough chart-topper Careless Love and, most recently, her 2013 foray into country music, The Blue Room. Peyroux found it particularly exciting to be writing the songs with musicians, “instruments in hand”, and hearing the songs – which span the musical genres from Marvin Gaye-like We Might As Well Dance to the bluesy funk of Down On Me – come to life.

Unlike her masterful 2009 album Bare Bones, which Peyroux wrote mostly with one collaborator per number, the songs on Anthem were mostly been born out of these afternoon jam sessions. She says: “I was the catalyst for those songs and I used the skills of partners, such as David Baerwald, to finish them.”

An exception to that was All My Heroes, an unblinkered but touching homage to some of the 20thCentury pop icons who have died in the last few years – “All my heroes were failures in their eyes/Losers, drunkards, fallen saints, and suicides.”

Peyroux explains: “The day after one of our former poet laureates died, David came in to the session bemoaning the loss and said ‘Let’s write something about that.’ So the song was inspired by all these great people we’ve been losing like David Bowie, Prince, Robin Williams, and also I had lost a dear friend, so it felt like the natural time to try to address this feeling of loss. So it was David’s idea and it changed form several times.” Indeed, Robin Williams was one of the heroes Peyroux said, back in 2009, “made my life bearable when it was unbearable.”

It was, appropriately, a recently deceased hero of Peyroux who provided the title number – one of only two non-original tracks on the CD. Despite being a fan of Leonard Cohen, whom she knew originally as the father of a classmate from the American School in Paris, for years – and having previously recorded two of his songs – Peyroux hadn’t heard Anthem until Klein, who thought it fitted in well with how they were feeling about the political situation, brought it to her.  She quickly became obsessed with it and with working out how she wanted to perform it.

“The stand-out line in the song,” says Peyroux, “is – ‘There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in’. It has this power of hope. He’s saying: ‘Look at how terrible this is and then live through it and come out the other side.’ It’s really become a personal anthem, and I felt that it tied together all the stories on the record so it had to be the title song.”

* Anthem (Decca) is out now. Madeleine Peyroux is touring the UK this week, including Edinburgh Festival Theatre on Sunday November 25. For tour details, visit www.madeleinepeyroux.com

*  First published in The Herald on Saturday November 17

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Peyroux’s Country Roads

Madeleine-Peyroux-TheBlueRoom-2-Photo-RockySchenck-comMadeleine Peyroux has a lot to answer for – not least this jazz critic’s closet conversion to country ‘n’ western fan. The 39-year-old singer and guitarist, whose 2004 breakthrough album Careless Love won millions over thanks to her languid, sultry, Billie Holiday-like vocals and penchant for blurring musical genres, is back with a new album. And whereas previous albums have all hinted at a predilection for country ‘n’ western, this one – The Blue Room, which is released on Monday – positively yells about it. After all, the tracks include such country classics as I Can’t Stop Loving You and Take These Chains From My Heart.

Actually, it wasn’t a love of country ‘n’ western music per se that inspired this record; it was the love of the songs from one particular LP: Ray Charles’s landmark 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. That record is regarded by most experts as one of the most important LPs of the 20th Century, not just because it fused together different musical genres – rhythm ‘n’ blues, blues, soul, gospel and country music – but because it broke down racial barriers between “black” music and “white” music at a critical time in the American Civil Rights movement.

Peyroux, who now has notched up three more successful CDs since Careless Love topped the charts, admits to being initially taken aback by her producer Larry Klein’s suggestion of a tribute album. She says: “I immediately asked if he wouldn’t rather do this with a bunch of people and make it a bigger collaboration. I was worried about how well I could represent all the things you might want to say about that album, but I was over the moon about having the opportunity to speak on MY relationship with the music that Ray Charles made, and how that’s been a part of my life.”

As a native of Charles’s home state of Georgia, Peyroux had been aware of the legendary singer since her childhood when she grew up hearing an eclectic range of music in the family home. She admits that she wasn’t familiar with Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music or its sequel – but she knew the songs from numerous compilations, and she relished the chance to get her teeth into them. “I love the fact that this is a female voice singing songs that were written for men to sing – it makes a big difference for me to experience it from that perspective,” she says.

Over the course of the year’s researching, discussing and planning her record, the singer came to the conclusion that she didn’t want to replicate the track listing from the original; that she’d like to mix in songs that were written since Modern Sounds – and represent the five decades since it shook things up musically in America. But five Modern Sounds songs are at the heart of The Blue Room – and Peyroux and Klein have done a great job of reimagining them, and Peyroux has made them her own.

Indeed, what comes across very strongly is that this album – which comprises other people’s compositions – sounds so personal, almost as autobiographical as Peyroux’s 2009 CD of original material, Bare Bones. Peyroux’s explanation is that “these might be the most intimate arrangements I’ve ever sung – they’re very naked and revealing in the way they’re constructed, in the way they support the voice and that’s one of Larry’s signatures”. But much of the personal feel is to do with the song choices. Did any of them resonate particularly with her?

“Born to Lose really hits home. I have a melancholy side and I think that’s probably no surprise to people who have heard my songs and my song choices over the years, and how I perform, and Born to Lose has melancholy in bold face definition – like this is what it’s about.”

Another one that leaps out as being a perfect vehicle for Peyroux – whose unsettled past (her turbulent relationship with her late alcoholic father; her years in Paris as a street musician living rough; her vanishing acts just after her very first CD was released back in the mid-1990s and then again when she was touring with Careless Love in 2005) has been well documented – is Randy Newman’s Guilty, about a tortured soul who’s drinking because “it takes a whole lot of medicine for me to pretend I’m somebody else”. Peyroux loves the fact that it’s a song that was written by a male singer-songwriter. “I actually think a lot of people wouldn’t imagine a woman singing those words.”

Indeed, it was an early morning session in a California bar that inspired the title of the album – a title which has absolutely nothing to do with Rodgers and Hart, who wrote a song of the same name. Peyroux explains: “I did the photo shoot for this record in a bar in Burbank. It was called The Blue Room.It was just a very old school, maybe sort of 1950s, bar, with mirrors and blue leather booths, no windows, no natural light coming in, it gave on to a parking lot – you had to drive in to because in Burbank it’s all roads and highways. I met some people that were there drinking and talked to them.

“One of the gentlemen there was from Selma, Alabama. He had been born in the 1940s and had lived through the civil rights riots in Selma, Alabama during the 1960s and then had been carted off to Vietnam where he had fought in the war under people that were from the south who were aware of his roots and gave him a hard time. When he came back he struggled to find a job, and ended up travelling around the United States as a salesman, as a clothing designer, as so many different things. He’d had a long life and he was there drinking at 10.30 in the morning and I asked him: ‘How did you end up here in Burbank? I mean, I understand you’re from Selma but why are you here?”. And he said: ‘I just couldn’t go no further.’

“It reminded me of so many American stories, stories about the United States of America and the culture here, and what it is to be American. And this whole record had a lot to do with that for me. It represents a lot of the questions that I think are part of what makes up the question of American identity because of the expansiveness of this country, the importance of the 20th century in our little history that we have here as a nation.”

Peyroux clearly also feels as if she’s been on a journey with this album, and has relished the chance to explore in more depth than before her relationship with country music. Are there any other musical interests or passions that have yet to be reflected on a Peyroux CD, I ask (after being advised to listen to more Hank Williams and Johnny Cash).

“Uh,” replies Peyroux slightly guiltily. “Well .. rap. I love a really good rap – there have been some though they’re rare!”

* The Blue Room (Universal) is out on Monday. Madeleine Peyroux plays the Cheltenham Jazz Festival on May 2.

This article was first published in The Scotsman on Thursday April 4 

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The Musical Mixologist

There aren’t many performers who can pack out venues in the same city three times in one year, especially in these cash-strapped times. But Curtis Stigers, whose popularity in Edinburgh is about to hit the legendary level, is one of them. The craggy-voiced singer, guitarist and saxophonist who made his name as a pop star 20 years ago but now purveys his own distinctive “hybrid” style, is returning to the capital next week to take up a short residency at the intimate and decadent-feeling Dirty Martini club at Le Monde, where he thrilled audiences for five nights during the Jazz Festival.

Those five “Up Close and Personal” performances, which were duo concerts with his guitarist James Scholfield, followed a one-nighter with his full band at the Queen’s Hall in March – and similar gigs at the previous two jazz festivals. So it’s fairly safe to conclude that Edinburgh and Mr Stigers have a thing going on – and that rather than fizzling out, it seems to be gaining momentum, especially now they have found a room which provides the ideal setting for close musical encounters.

“I guess I do have a bit of a love affair with this city,” says the eloquent 47-year-old. “Physically, it’s stunning. I think it’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world and one that people often overlook. And then there’s the audience. The audiences here are always very warm, and they seem to get my sense of humour – and the kind of music that I’m doing now.”

Of course, Stigers is unique in the music scene as not only does he attract jazz fans and those who have discovered his work during the 13 years since he embarked on this jazz-based, but wide-ranging, phase of his career, but he has also retained a core following from his days as a chart-topping pop singer and pin-up. “There are still people that are along for the ride from back in those days. Some of them I lost because I started experimenting and didn’t stay with the one thing, but a lot of them have stayed with me and were open to following me down some different paths – the jazz especially, and then the hybrids that I’ve been trying to create.”

These hybrids are a natural reflection of Stigers’s own eclectic musical tastes. “My record collection spans the Sex Pistols to Charlie Parker, and everything in between. I like music. I like honest, emotional music. I like great songs. I’ve come to realise that it’s not the jazz singing that attracts me to jazz singers; it’s the way they tell a story.

“Somebody like Sarah Vaughan, even though she sang a lot of notes and was a show-off, it still always came down to the emotion of the song. Even when she was swooping and diving and making all these acrobatic moves as a singer, you were still entranced and enthralled by the story she was telling, by the lyric.”

Stigers’s primary influences as a singer may be Chet Baker, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Nat “King” Cole but he also grew up loving Aretha Franklin and Elton John – and he now appreciates that the songs that Baker, Sinatra and co were singing were effectively pop songs that had been turned into jazz. “So what I’ve been tying to do is take songs from my generation, from different places – from country music, from rock ‘n’ roll, from folk music, from blues, from rhythm and blues, from soul – and then sort of reconstruct them in a somewhat jazz format.”

With his new album, Let’s Go Out Tonight, which he introduced to Edinburgh in March, Stigers has taken the idea a step further: by not just remoulding songs from diverse genres into a jazz format, but by “allowing the folk style, the pop style – musically speaking – to come into my stuff. The songs on this album were chosen strictly on the grounds of whether they were beautiful.” And they reflect the fact that his interest today lies more with singer-songwriters – among those whose work features on the album are Steve Earle,
Richard Thompson and The Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan (“a brilliant writer”) – than before.

The material Stigers has been performing this year is also very reflective of what’s been happening in his personal life – it was obvious when he introduced the Bob Dylan song Things Have Changed to the Queen’s Hall crowd in March that something had indeed changed in his outlook. “My marriage ended about a year and a half ago,” he explains. “I ended up not using any of my own songs on the record because I never can quite get to the thing that I’m going through until a year or two has passed. I’m good at looking back and then writing my experiences for material. I’m never very good at getting up in the morning and feeling like hell and then writing a song about it.”

Instead, he and his producer Larry Klein put together an album of songs which had taken on new meaning to Stigers in his new, raw, emotional state. “That Dylan song, I’d heard it 100 times before but had always pegged it to the story of the movie it came from (Wonder Boys) but then Larry asked me to consider it and I thought: ‘This is about me’.” The cynical, defiant and aggressive attitude of the song – which comes over much more strongly in Stigers’s live performances – actually helped the singer deal with what he was going through. “Up to that point, I’d been, frankly, pretty beaten up and pretty sensitive and I needed something that pulled me out of the sadness and more into the ‘alright, fuck this – I’m moving on’ stage.”

Wherever he goes next – whether it’s more hard rock (his is the voice on the hit theme song of the phenomenally successful US biker drama Sons of Anarchy), performances with orchestras (he fell in love with singing with strings – “it’s like sex” – thanks to his appearances with the John Wilson Orchestra) or more of these small club, duo gigs – it’s safe to say that Stigers will never be short of an audience. Especially in Edinburgh.

* Curtis Stigers plays the Dirty Martini at Le Monde, George St, on December 3-5 at 9pm each night. For tickets and info (or to book a dinner package), call 0131 270 3939 or email events@lemondehotel.co.uk; or visitwww.dirty-martini.co.uk/curtis.htm or www.ticketmaster.co.uk/curtis 

This article was first published in The Scotsman on November 29

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