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Speaking With ... Madeleine Peyroux 04.05.13

Madeleine Peyroux | ROCKY SCHENCKCOM

Madeleine Peyroux | ROCKY SCHENCKCOM

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Updated: April 5, 2013 4:44PM

Madeleine Peyroux is feeling blue these days. But in this case, that’s a very good thing.

The jazz singer/musician is enjoying the success of her recently released CD “The Blue Room” (Decca), on which she revisits Ray Charles’ legendary (and also considered controversial in its day) “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music,” completely reinventing selected cuts. Along for the ride on the musical journey is her longtime collaborator/producer Larry Klein, who calls Charles’ 1962 album “a cultural landmark.” The new disc also ventures into like-minded offerings such as Peyroux’s reimaginings of Randy Newman’s “Guilty,” John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” and Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire.”

Much like Charles, Peyroux — whose voice is most often compared to that of the late Billie Holiday — easily traverses myriad genres. The result is a jazz sensibility that is uniquely her own.

Peyroux talked to the Sun-Times about paying homage to Ray Charles.

Question: Why did you want to revisit this particular body of work by Ray Charles?

Madeleine Peyroux: It just feels like it’s the right time because it’s been 50 years. Larry had the idea and called me with the concept, and as it turns out, I discovered things about it that made a lot of sense. But I didn’t want an album of covers. That didn’t interest me. For example, replicating a little of the lush atmosphere that the choir did on the original, we accomplished with strings instead.

Q. What kinds of things did you discover?

MP: American culture continues to be a mixed bag and so fascinating. It was exciting to look back at music that still has so much to offer.

Q. Back in1962, Ray Charles’ album was considered controversial for many reasons. What did it say to you about the times in which Charles was recording and releasing his music?

MP: I admire him all the more. Ray woke people up to the integration of American society in ways that people saw both sides of the issue in terms of what was going on. He was bold. I appreciate being able to go back and look at the music in depth. As a singer, singing these songs and seeing how they enrich our perspective of universality, what makes us all really tick, is powerful.

Q. I’ve read in several places that you were adamant this would not be a covers album.

MP: It really is about reinventing the songs. The work that we did is about understanding the process of telling a story. So whether or not it’s been told before doesn’t diminish the experience of the artists who sing it again years later. Songs have a life of their own.

Q. Did these particular songs say something special to you as an artist?

MP: There were some of them that I felt were absolutely necessary to pay homage to [Charles’] record. And because Ray had made the definitive versions of the songs only made it a little more daunting to take on. In the end, we found there’s a way to do this that’s based on the honesty of who we are today and what we were trying to do musically. “I Can’t Stop Loving You” or “Bye Bye Love” or “Born to Lose,” for example, they were more tricky than others to sing them in a different way than he did, to reinterpret them from his definitive version. I love singing them now because I’ve fallen into something very fulfilling musically. Q. Were you a fan of Ray Charles before this project?

MP: Absolutely. I grew up with his music in a lot of ways. It’s always been a goal of mine to some day publicly pay homage to him and to remember what he accomplished musically across so many genres. What he did informs what I do, more. He created this bridge between cultures and music within the context of American history. I don’t know that you listen to “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and think of the ’60s necessarily. I know I don’t. It was so much more universal than that. I’m just touched by the combination of the music and drama and humanity in the song. That’s what I look for in all songs.

Q. You also took on another larger-than-life track with Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire.” What was it like to dive into that song on top of all the rest?

MP: That song is something I have hoped to make a part of my repertoire for a long time. It’s one of my favorite songs. It carries enough storytelling weight to define a huge amount of our American persona. I don’t know if it’s fair to say that. In the end, though, it’s an American record. It represents the same issues that I think are America. It’s the greatest self-awareness, self-examined life.

Q. Looking back on your musical journey, from your teen years on the streets of Paris to the height of contemporary jazz, does it seem real?

MP: It’s all about the ability to survive or rather be reminded how to enjoy life, what music brings to every situation. It’s been at center of so many wonderful relationships I’ve had. It’s a bit spiritual. Singing Leonard Cohen songs like the ones I do is testament to who I am. It keeps you encouraged.

Q. You’ve been compared to Billie Holiday throughout your career. Does that bother you?

MP: I wouldn’t say I’m tired of it. But it’s a question of carving out my own voice. I have found my own voice, but I’m still compared to her. I’ve matured as a person and an artist. I hope people discover me for who I am.

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