The Eight- Year Itch 

What took jazz siren Madeleine Peyroux so long to make one record?

Long before Diana Krall was a household name -- let alone Norah Jones CD -- there was Madeleine Peyroux, whose 1996 debut Dreamland, a twelve-song collection of blues/jazz-interpreted standards, sold a surprising 200,000 copies. Critics handed out Billie Holiday comparisons with such unanimity of force that plagiarism could be suspected.

And then, the 22-year-old disappeared.

Fast-forward to August 2004, less than a month before the singer's eight-years-in-the-making follow-up, Careless Love, emerges. Peyroux sits on a bench in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, just blocks from where she lived with her parents 25 years before. She's thinner now, and less pale than the gauzy Dreamland cover photo would suggest. Think Amanda Plummer without the psychotic sidecar.

There's apprehension, uncertainty in Peyroux's speaking voice. She tells a story of living in Los Angeles as a toddler: Late one night, her father suddenly crawled out the second-story window of their house. "Everybody was kind of really scared," she recalls. "He sat down on the roof outside and just stayed out there. And then he stuck his head in and said, 'Come on, everybody. Come on out here.' My mother just said, 'Oh God, he's so crazy.' But then he must've persuaded her or something. I guess the romance was part of this stuff. And we sat out there and sang these Johnny Cash songs. He used to listen to Johnny Cash all the time, and transcribed his stuff with the ukulele."

Peyroux shakes her head, still unsure what to make of the story, or why she's telling it.

Though L.A. and Brooklyn were family way stations, she was born in Athens, GA and moved to Paris with her mom following her parents' divorce. Initially she had a rough time of it, dropping out of several French high schools, running away from a boarding school in England, and eventually joining a troupe of American buskers, the Lost Wandering Blues and Jazz Band.

"I played music on the street before I knew you could do it for money," Peyroux says. "When I got to France, I actually went out and sat in the subway and played guitar for some reason. I didn't ask for money, and they didn't give me any money to my recollection. When I first saw street musicians in Paris, I thought that I had thought of it before they had. I saw them playing on the street and I said, 'This is amazing. They're going to do this for money? I sit around and play outside all the time.' I mean, to me it was an epiphany. I never had any professional aspirations about singing. I can honestly say that I never thought, 'Wow, maybe I could be a singer and actually make money doing this. "I really fought against it."

That mentality persisted even after Dreamland, though dwarfed by the Norah Jones supernova six years later, pleasantly surprised everyone, including Peyroux herself: "The record was selling, and I was still thinking, 'This is an illusion."

What happened next serves as ample warning to all too-much-too-soon Norah-like success stories. "I think, first and foremost, there was recognition that there was potential," Peyroux says of her label, Atlantic. "And I think that's what people said -- 'Wow, this is a really interesting thing for us to look at. Maybe she'll flourish into something.' And I think the hardest part is flourishing when you're under a lot of pressure."

Furthermore, paradoxically, success can often cost you artistic liberty. "I think it was a lot harder, once I had gotten the notoriety from that first record, to get people to give me as much freedom. It was because of the good sales that there was pressure then from people that weren't interested before, people higher up that wanted to have things that were going to be able to go to radio."

The resulting too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen debacle torpedoed initial sessions for Dreamland's follow-up. "There's even a recording of what we did when we tried to make the second record," Peyroux says. "On the song were two very different rhythms that are trying to play with each other at the same time, because the two producers in the booth were saying, 'Okay, let's try this.' That's the other thing: The producers weren't musicians, and I remember that irony. The music was showing it."

The inevitable then occurred: Peyroux's drive gave out first -- "At some point I got unhappy. I think I became overwhelmed by a few too many things, and that was enough" -- followed quickly by her voice. She got hoarse a few weeks into the sessions; doctors found a cyst on her vocal cord, and advised her to take a break from singing.

So she took eight years. Doing what? Spending time with family, going to church, waitressing, and performing on the street as she had as a teenager in Paris. Peyroux knows there's great curiosity about that gap in time, and she doesn't shy away from addressing it, nor acknowledging those still-persistent Billie Holiday comparisons. "People used to ask me all the time, 'Do you not want to talk about Billie Holiday? Or does it disturb you? Because I have to ask you what you think about the fact that you sound like Billie Holiday.' Now, if the next question's going to be, 'What have you been doing the last eight years?' Neither one of them are bad, terrible things."

But what about the finally minted follow-up? Careless Love will have difficulty duplicating the sales success of its predecessor, if for no other reason than Dreamland appeared on Atlantic, while this one's on the major minor Rounder. But artistically, it's headed in the right direction. The jazzy material is lived in, like a comfortable ache. If anything, Love is both more engaging and more personal -- the signifying adjectives "careless" and "weary" crop up numerous times lyrically, something Peyroux admits she didn't notice until afterward -- conjuring, as with her cover of Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love," a sound both novel and timeless.

"I could've made a record six years ago," Peyroux reasons. "It wouldn't have been this record by any means. I've been through a lot of struggle in order to get this record done. It might be because I wanted it more. But then again, my perspective seems to have changed so much since Dreamland. It was kind of a whirlwind at the time. It's almost as if I was really just rebelling against what was given me for so long."

Nearly a decade later, she's finally ready to accept what she's given once again. At a recent New York performance, an audience member yelled out a request for something -- anything -- Peyroux had written herself. "I didn't write this," she responded, introducing her next tune, a cover. "But it's mine anyway." She was right.


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