Madeleine Peyroux breathes new life into classic tunes
Madeleine Peyroux says it feels good to have a greatest hits album, but it's a "little bit weird" that her career is far enough along to merit such a collection.
The jazz vocalist, who plays the Ark on Monday, recalls an eye-opening conversation she had recently with a twenty-something Peyroux met on a blues cruise she was playing.
"She said, 'You know, actually I grew up listening to your music,' " says Peyroux, who is 40. "And I thought, 'Really? Is that happening now?' "
Peyroux's career ignited in 1996, when her debut album "Careless Love" arrived on Atlantic Records. The record drew critical attention for Peyroux's uncanny vocal resemblance to jazz titan Billie Holiday, and to this day, it's almost impossible to read a description of Peyroux that doesn't reference Holiday. But Peyroux, who says she "memorized" Holiday's works when she was learning to sing and play guitar as a teenager, has never tired of the comparison.
"She's definitely not ever lessened as being a hero of mine," Peyroux says. "And the more that I research who she was as a person, the more information that comes out historically nowadays just enlightens me. There's a much bigger picture of her now, I feel. She just continues to grow in different ways as part of my life."
Holiday is just one among the diverse palette of influences that Peyroux wears on her sleeve. Although Peyroux has penned original tunes, the vast majority of her work is devoted to covers. While she's tackled jazz and blues classics made famous by artists like Edith Piaf and Bessie Smith, she's also offered jazzy reinterpretations of rock, folk and country tunes by artists ranging from Elliott Smith to Leonard Cohen. Although Peyroux is American-born, she spent a significant period of her young adulthood living in Paris with her mother and she says she's realized her American heritage has given her an appreciation for a broad range of music.
"That might not be the case on the surface for a lot of people who are American," she says. "They don't realize, perhaps, but I think it's a big part of American culture, looking at what kind of variety we have in this country. Music really does tell you a lot."
Some influences turn up more often than others for Peyroux. Her greatest hits album, "Keep Me In Your Heart For A While," is named after one of two Warren Zevon songs that appear on the collection. Peyroux says her longtime producer, Larry Klein, a friend of Zevon's, introduced her to the eccentric singer-songwriter's work.
"We were looking at making a record with a string orchestra, and some of Warren Zevon's '70s recordings have these string arrangements written into them, almost like there was a little bit of a classical approach in his songwriting," Peyroux says.
Peyroux toured with a string quartet and five-piece rhythm section for the resulting album, 2013's "The Blue Room." She's downsized considerably for her current tour, performing as one member of a trio with guitarist Armand Hirsch and bassist Barak Mori. But she says her material remains as diverse as ever.
"It's very intent on quiet and listening and silence," she says. "And yet we manage to work in as much variety as we can, in the way that I usually try to do, with just three people."
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.
The Madeleine Peyroux Trio
8 p.m. Monday
316 S. Main, Ann Arbor