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Madeleine Peyroux prefers to keep a low profile. "I love hibernating," says the American jazz singer. "When I come home off the road, I don't go out during the day or visit friends at night. I just stay within my tent and read tons of books, listen to records and spend a lot of time sleeping."
The 39-year-old, whose tent is actually her Brooklyn home, has long drifted in and out of the spotlight. After her debut album, Dreamland, was released in 1996 to considerable acclaim, she spent several years out of the public eye, busking around Europe as she had done as a teenager when she moved to Paris with her mother at the age of 13.
Peyroux has not pursued fame, but it has eventually caught up with her. A singer with a remarkable tone, perfectly controlled and rich in emotion and nuance, she alternates freely between interpretations of standards and original compositions that have revealed a songwriter with a distinctive take on emotional turmoil.
Across six solo albums, the most recent of which was 2013's The Blue Room, she has left busking behind for concert halls and theatres, culminating in a show she will bring to Wellington after almost a year of touring internationally. It features nine musicians on stage, including guest string players and a rhythm section.
"It looks like I want my act to be bigger and bigger and bigger, doesn't it? But I don't think my goal is to do that," she says. "The reason the show has grown and grown is that we've added musical elements as the repertoire has grown. I'm going back to a trio in May to relax, actually."
A supreme talent sometimes turns artists into dictators. They feel the need to direct every facet of what they do, down to the most minute detail. Peyroux has no time for micro-management, and doesn't feel the need to portray herself as a gifted dictator pulling every lever.
"I couldn't do that and have the energy to sing," she laughs.
"I know there are geniuses who have that energy, but I bring a concert master first violinist with me who plays with three local string players, while John Harrington, who plays guitar, handles the rhythm section, so I have two people to help me. If there's anything to be proud of, it's that I delegate properly.
"I would be suspicious of someone who does everything, unless they're Ray Charles, who wrote every arrangement, could hear every single part and knew exactly what each musician was playing.
"But it's hard to be Ray Charles and he was notorious for being tough on his musicians. To the very end, he would fire them in the middle of a concert if they made mistakes." His landmark 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, forms the foundation of The Blue Room. Peyroux revises classics from the record, such as Bye Bye Love and I Can't Stop Loving You, and places them alongside tracks from revered songwriters such as Warren Zevon and Randy Newman. Throughout, the intent is palpable, but the tone is never hysterical or unhinged.
"We play these songs with strength live and we realise that there's so much in the deeper water beneath the surface of the songs and that's what we want to have access to as performers.
"You have to have an open mind about how people live, to live with tolerance, and you have to be the same way with the emotions in these songs," Peyroux says.
Her father was a drama teacher who struggled with alcoholism, and she has often approached her art as way of both soothing her own unruly voices and answering those of other people. She is friendly, but never superficial and, when she talks about her music, there is an uncertainty to her answers, as if she is still wrestling with what her voice unearths in each song she performs.
"Recently, with these shows, the reaction has been very different. I've played this show since March [last year] and the words free and freedom come up a lot on the record and I didn't appreciate that until the touring started," she says, "so the show has these classic lyrics with the emphasis on freedom.
"It's hard to describe what that word means to our culture, because we take it for granted.
"There's got to be some mystery to make it magical."
Madeleine Peyroux performs at the Michael Fowler Centre on Sunday, 7pm, as part of the New Zealand Festival.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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