Madeleine Peyroux plays London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire, 18 August, and RC asked her what else she’s up to?
“I’ve just finished recording vocals with producer Larry Klein for a record out next year, based on Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music. Larry and I discussed the idea over a year ago and started tracking in December 2011. We later added orchestral strings by Vince Mendoza. I grew up with Ray Charles and it’s a tribute to my favourite things in American music. Larry and I stripped things down for a more minimal approach to the Modern Sounds, but the strings kept the focus on impressionistic romantic harmony, and an unsettled feeling of 20th century modernism. I wanted to see if we could explore a few other songs too, so we have a few more recent country and folk songs.”
You’re known for your varied musical styles. How would you sum up your outlook?
I try to keep things varied as much as I can and record songs from all kinds of backgrounds, decades and styles, so that makes it tough for me. Modern attention span doesn’t encourage longer formats and, in my experience in life, it seems every day is more and more a bunch of pieces strewn together by the ticking of the clock, rather than a day’s worth of one thing. I’m going against the grain by wanting that deeper score to tie the seconds together into hours. The three-minute statement can be very powerful, full of forethought. But I still like to read books, where time has no authority, and where the best ideas can be explored. I’d still like to find a way to make that magic in a popular song.
Do you have tapes from your early days?
Yes, from the days when I played in the streets of Paris with bands like Riverboat Shufflers, Professional Human Beings, Miss Thing. They’re astonishingly good quality and some of the music is great. I’m reminded never to get too proud of being in a concert hall or club, because the greatest music is not dependent on funding or quality conditions.
What album did you think was the best ever then?
A few: Peter Gabriel So, Tracy Chapman Revolution), Paul Simon Graceland, The Beatles White Album, Led Zeppelin IV. I didn’t really have money to buy records until in the 90s, but LPs I owned on LP were like opening a book and living in it, and never having to leave.
I spent a lot of time hanging out where they played good music on store speakers, or in bars, bookstores, supermarkets and drugstores!
Did you ever write songs under the influence of any ‘substances’?
Sure, but I don’t think any of them made it into the recording space. They might have felt inspired, but I always found them lacking once I was sober!
What’s the last album you bought?
Nellie McKay’s latest.
Was anyone in your family a musician?
My father was a producer/director/actor in theatrical plays and my mother sang at home.
Have you kept studio notebooks?
Yes. There’s more of a demand for things like that to give out to labels and media. And I write in my journal as much as possible to remember what I was thinking, feeling and, especially, learning.
What would you ask your music hero?
Leonard Cohen. Is there anything he feels he has not said? He always says so much, yet never stops. He seems unreal. Scarily so!
What’s the oddest circumstance in which you’ve had inspiration for a song?
Seeing a dead pigeon while walking alone in Paris. I was obsessed with trying to write a song for that pigeon! Someone I admire with whom I later wrote music, from Giant Sand, used the song and added to it, but I never recorded it.
Who’s taken music forward in the last 10 years?
Adele. She’s a great artist, a real person, and incredible intimacy.
What record are you looking for, and what’d you swap to get it?
A good copy of the soundtrack to Gulliver’s Travels, the 1933 cartoon, and records of US blues festivals in the late 60s.
Which band/artist would you answer questions about on Mastermind?
Billie Holiday or Bob Dylan.
Who would you like to cover one of your songs?
Adele I Must Be Saved, or Sinnead O’Connor Ophelia.
Which two songs would you like to hear a DJ mash up?
DAngelo’s The Root From Voodoo and Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way or Sketches Of Spain.
Of all the people you’ve worked with, who taught you the most?
Larry Klein taught me the most about being a singer. I was allowed to try to feel what it would be like to be a great singer, even though I might never arrive there. That allowed me to do some of my best singing in the studio.
What backstage incident makes you laugh the most?
I’m very nervous about talking to my heroes and most often don’t speak to them when the opportunity arises. I failed to speak to Ray Charles in 1997, and Abbey Lincoln in 2005. The most embarrassing and funny was at the Mark Twain Prize for Humour, given to Billy Crystal. I decided I’d have to tell Robin Williams I love him so much, so I gushed like a schoolgirl in those exact words, to which he didn’t really have a reply. Standing next to him was another great comedian, who interjected,”hi! I’m Jon Lovtiz!”
What fact about you may surprise fans?
I’m the worst dancer alive.
If you were running an ice cream van, what would it play?
Sly Stone. Que Sera sera.
Who would you most like to record with?
Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock.
For more of Madeleine’s Q&A, see RC on sale 13 September.