Madeleine Peyroux: ‘Not asking questions is like not being alive’

Madeleine Peyroux. Picture: Yann Orhan
Madeleine Peyroux. Picture: Yann Orhan
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American jazz singer Madeleine Peyroux’s new album reflects current events in her homeland. Duncan Seaman reports.

During the presidential election year that brought Donald Trump to power Madeliene Peyroux was on tour across the United States.

“I found myself continually trying to inject comments in order to speak of the elephant in the room that was just everywhere,” the jazz singer reflects, two years on. “The context of the environment of every show was enveloped in what was happening in the United States at that point with all the debates.

“I would have to create a back story behind old songs – for example I really like that song I Ain’t Got Nobody which was an old standard, almost in the public domain by now, and we worked up an arrangement of it and I found the best way to introduce it was to say, ‘We’re going to dedicate this next song to anyone who feels under-represented by their government’ then I’d sing I Ain’t Got Nobody and I’d change some of the lyrics here and there and I had huge reactions. I got great laughs in much of the United States. I went down to Brazil and in Rio they started chanting immediately, so much that I couldn’t start the song. But here they are now they’re much worse off than they were at the time.

“The point of all this is I love being able to connect with the audience and what is going on in our personal lives and try and make that an event, and I just thought for the sake of the show, I need to write some songs.”

Her new album, Anthem, is thus peppered with observations on the state of her homeland. “I didn’t write any of the songs alone but I definitely had the desire to talk about contemporary issues that we are all aware of, things that my friends and I or the audiences and I will be to connect on, and so why don’t we try to sing about them instead of talking about them, which makes it, by the way, a lot less controversial.”

Madeleine Peyroux. Picture: Yann Orhan

Madeleine Peyroux. Picture: Yann Orhan

Peyroux and her collaborators are probably at their most overtly political in the song The Brand New Deal about the disconnect between large parts of society and the system of government. The 44-year-old, from Athens, Georgia, sees some hope in the resurgence of the Democratic Party and the growing involvement of people at a grassroots level in the political process. “There’s also all the governorships and the judges and district attorneys and things like that that nobody paid any attention to for a really long time, or I certainly didn’t. It’s changed my life for sure, but I’m also just getting older and are more interested in learning about these things. Of course there’s got to be something good that comes from bad because that’s the only way to move forward. Humans are adaptive geniuses, really, because we will figure out a way to make something out of something else, no matter what it is.”

The central image in the song Lullaby is of a migrant woman aboard a boat possibly singing to a distant child. As someone who as spent much of her life “as sort of a travelling gipsy, before I ever heard of live concerts I was travelling around with my family and I was always a bit of a misfit”, Peyroux found she could empathise with others who have been uprooted from their homes. “I have had some crazy experiences of losing everything that I own and feeling completely destitute. Having that feeling for a day is huge, it really changes you, it becomes existential, and these are people that are forced to take it on and have that feeling and rare really in serious danger for months or years, so this was just an attempt at trying to understand what that’s like.”

The album’s title track was written by Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer, author and poet who died in 2016. He is someone with whom Peyroux felt a close affinity, having recorded several of his songs during her 20-year career and met him two or three times. “I suppose that everybody goes and with Leonard he had lived into his 80s and so it’s a natural time for the body to break down, it wasn’t like a shock, there was some preparing for that,” she says. “It wasn’t devastating for me but I was just sad because I wouldn’t see him any more in life. I still feel that his legacy is just as powerful and beautiful and important, he was a guide for myself, so I can still go back to thinking of him as if he were here.”

Among the highlights of Peyroux’s new album is a setting of Paul Eluard’s poem Liberté to music. Originally recorded for a documentary film by “a dear friend of the family whose son is terminally ill”, Peyroux explains: “We thought it would be a great song to do to talk about what the definition of life is, what the point of it all is. [Larry Klein and I] put together this recording for the film score in January 2016 then I was out in California writing these songs when she screened the movie for the first time and these songs just fit into the same context, this is a personal, intimate definition of politics.”

I definitely had the desire to talk about contemporary issues that we are all aware of, things that the audiences and I will be to connect on, and so why don’t we try to sing about them instead of talking about them, which makes it a lot less controversial.

Madeleine Peyroux

Ultimately Peyroux hopes her record will inspire listeners to be inquisitive and effect change. “Not asking questions is like not being alive,” she says. “It’s hard to keep that youth and that energy but it’s vital. I know that’s what Leonard [Cohen] did. You can tell that his self-effacing lyrics came from years of self-examination.

“But I think more than anything what the record is trying to do is to invite us into some kind of unity. I hope so. I like to think that it has that quality.”

Madeleine Peyroux plays at Leeds Town Hall on November 26. madeleinepeyroux.com

Madeleine Peyroux. Picture: Yann Orhan

Madeleine Peyroux. Picture: Yann Orhan