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Ten (Or So) Questions for Madeleine Peyroux

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Interpreting other folks' songs has taken Madeleine Peyroux on an adventurous road that covers miles of styles.

Covering artists as diverse as Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, and Patsy Cline since her first album was released in 1996, Peyroux has decided to take a different career path. Bare Bones, her fourth album (Rounder Records), includes 11 songs she wrote or co-wrote. Her songwriting collaborators included Walter Becker (Steely Dan), friend Julian Coryell, Joe Henry, and her producer, Larry Klein (Mitchell’s ex).

Born in Athens, Georgia, Peyroux spent her teen years in Paris, where she developed a love for jazz. But there are no musical boundaries for Peyroux, who brings her smoky alto back to Colorado to perform on the opening night (August 14) of the Folks Festival in Lyons.

Peyroux, a constant traveler on the tour and festival circuit (she recently opened for Lyle Lovett at the Santa Barbara Bowl in California), headlined a show at the Boulder Theater in March in support of Bare Bones. She took time out from her busy schedule this week to answer a few questions via e-mail.

You’ve performed in Colorado a lot over the years. Why the Folks Festival? Is it your first time at this event?

This is indeed my first time, but I feel at home in the folk atmosphere, perhaps more than one would think, since I am also very much in love with jazz festivals.

What can Folks Festival fans expect from you this time around? Anything different from past performances here?

I've been playing the newly written songs from my latest record this year, much of which is more folk leaning in harmonic structure, and even in content. In the end, my show remains very sparse, centered in the vocal storytelling tradition, a one-on-one dialogue with the audience and the band. But it does so while mixing American styles together: early blues, jazz, torch songs, with rock shuffles, and self-searching folk songwriting. We'll have a rollicking good time and fall in love, with something or someone, in the process. I bet I'm gonna love it!

Where and how do you think Colorado fits into the folk scene? Are folk musicians and fans drawn here and, if so, why?

I imagine some of the most health, environment, nature, and politically conscious people live in or would visit Colorado. And I imagine that that qualifies for much of the folk tradition. Then there's the gorgeous nature and all-around promise of a good time that would draw anyone to come out to the festival. I don't know, maybe that's more than enough, no? Perhaps the more real the content of the music, the better in a place so remote and so beautiful it is hard to feel the energy of the big cities. 

Is there a widening fan base for folk music in Colorado? Are younger people following the scene and, if so, how are folk artists able to attract them here? Is there something they should do better to make it more popular or mainstream?

I can't tell you about Colorado in detail, but the general idea is to speak to the issues at hand when you reach for an audience – whether those issues are as old as the ski slopes themselves or not. I think real good, poignant songwriting about things that are real, relevant, and honestly told, will get a crowd to stop and listen. … Sometimes much more than that.

What has been your favorite moment in Colorado?

My favorite moment was learning to ski while on tour four years ago – one whole day of falling fun. I haven't improved since, but the point was to know what it's like, and it's plain good fun. Wow!

What city do you call home these days? If you could move to Colorado, where would you want to live?

I am a Brooklynite. I don't know Colorado much. I have friends in Boulder. I guess I would live there.

How relevant do you think folk music is today, especially with younger people? How do you think it compares to the early years, when the '60s protest movement was in full swing? Has its popularity waned or do you feel it’s on the rise?

I only miss hearing great songs, since it takes a lot if sifting to get to the bottom of that. Maybe loud rock changed the scene so much that some people forgot what mattered; I mean I think it's still the songs and the unity that matters. One thing Odetta said was important and Pete Seeger lived by was the idea that everyone must sing along. Now that's a tradition that will be lost if we let it and I will much regret that. I myself, who never sing traditionals or spirituals with the audience, I sit and think nowadays about what is lost without the singalong (because of Odetta I am aware of it firsthand), and wonder if I should try it someday … (please don't request it of me just yet, I've got to work it up first).

Your music covers a lot of different styles. Do you consider yourself either a folk singer or folk student?

I might consider myself a bit of a folk student at best, though I might get left back a couple times. … I will continue to be enthralled by the tradition both for its political influence and artistry. 

How accepting is the “traditional” folk community to crossover artists or artists from other genres?

My first foray into being accepted, just as a person, and also as an artist, was by royalty: Odetta. So I can say I believe that the true folk are accepting folk.

What has been the highlight of any festival you attended?

I remember at the Appel Farm Festival in New Jersey seeing Richie Havens live [in 1997, when Peyroux also performed]. Like being zapped with a stun gun.

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About Michael

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    you have my envy, sir. I am a huge fan of Peyroux and her voice always sets me swooning. Was sad to miss her at the Greek with Lyle last Friday. You might get a seat on the Chamber of Commerce with the overabundance of Colorado-centric questions.

  • Michael

    Thanks, Gordon; actually, this interview focuses on Colorado because she’s coming here this weekend for the Folks Festival; and there will be even more from a panel of musicians discussing the event (and folk music in general) tomorrow. Hope you check that out.