Madeleine Peyroux is one of those artists whose music defies genre placement. I believe when I discovered her music, she was listed under the heading of jazz. But there is no scatting, no wildly unending solos by every member of the band, no swing dancing to this beat. But her voice! Rich and smoky, the warbling vibrato is basically Billie Holiday in the 21st century. And her phrasing! So relaxed and behind the beat, tossed out as easily as conversation. That is very much jazz. Her latest album, Bare Bones, brought to light another important quality of her music: the lyrics. So maybe she should be categorized as singer-songwriter. A sort of Joni Mitchell meets Billie Holiday meets Édith Piaf. I think I’ve nailed it.
Peyroux got her start while living in Paris, recording her first album at age 22 in 1996. 2004 brought us the album Careless Love, and two years later a follow-up, Half the Perfect World. All three albums established Peyroux as a distinct voice with a specific sound. But it wasn’t until her latest album that she delved fully into the writing of the songs. Working with producer Larry Klein, Peyroux was involved in the creation of every song and the result is impressive. I was not surprised to discover that Klein also produced Joni Mitchell, whose brilliantly crafted lyricism must have had an influence on Peyroux. “He could sit and drink a way a monk could pray,” she confides in the song “River of Tears.” And in the song, “Damn the Circumstances,” she writes, “My heart is like a hand-me-down made soft by older brothers/ My body’s like my father’s house, the sin of generations.”
Despite a few songs to the contrary, Bare Bones is not a chipper album. The lyrics are deep, honest, and often spoken from a place of loss. The instrumentation is a lovely compliment to the lyrics: often relaxed, spare, and intimate. I saw Peyroux perform live several years ago and she seemed perfectly at home in that element, telling stories with her voice and guitar.
I am glad to hear the result of Peyroux’s venture into songwriting. If there’s one thing jazz needs, it is more talented songwriters. And if there’s one thing singer-songwriters need, it is a voice like Billie Holiday’s. Here you have both.