In an age when the fluffiest pop acts boast of penning their own songs, jazz chanteuse Madeleine Peyroux may be a bit of an anomaly.
While Peyroux tried her hand at song writing for the first time on her latest album, "Half of a Perfect World," the thirty-something singer doesn't feel the need to attach a "songwriter" suffix in order to be taken seriously as an artist.
"I think it's a great art to be an interpreter, and it might be a little bit odd to say that in my generation," Peyroux says. "Song writing does have that enormous power to communicate things that are not being communicated elsewhere, anywhere else, but I find an enormous power in being an interpreter."
It is a skill that Peyroux has mastered quite well. With a gravelly, alluring voice that sounds as if it is channeling Billie Holiday's spirit, and an aching, melancholy delivery, Peyroux does more than sing songs — she inhabits a listeners' brain, and remains there long after the music has stopped.
"She connects so emotionally to the work that she does," says Ariana Morgenstern, assistant music director at the Los Angeles-area public radio station KCRW and producer of its famed artist showcase, "Morning Becomes Eclectic."
"She doesn't sing because she likes to be on stage, she sings because that is what she needs to do," Morgenstern adds. "It's not like she's looking for glamor or the lifestyle of the singer, it's really because of what's in her."
Peyroux was drawn to music at an early age; the Georgia-born daughter of two educators, she started experimenting with a guitar when she was just a child; later, in her teens, after her parents broke up and she moved with her mother to France, she dropped out of school and started singing with street musicians before earning the attention of a major record label.
Her debut album, 1996's "Dreamland," garnered instant attention and acclaim, and she was hailed as one of jazz's bright new faces.
"At the time, it was very different from much of the music that was out there," says Morgenstern of the grunge and alternative music scene. "When a record comes out that's really beautiful and it's a debut for an artist, one looks forward to the next recording in the next two years and a serious tour itinerary."
Instead, a vocal condition and ambivalence about the music industry caused an eight-year wait for her follow-up. But for Peyroux, it was worth the wait. The critically revered "Careless Love," released in 2004, was certified gold and made her a sensation among the Starbucks set, thanks in part to the coffee chain's skillful promotion of her album in their stores.
"I was surprised by it. I think one is always kind of taken aback when things are a little bit larger than yourself," says Peyroux.
Part of the reason Peyroux says she came back on the scene with "Careless Love" was the chance to be mentored by noted producer Larry Klein, who has worked with artists including Don Henley, Robbie Robertson and former spouse Joni Mitchell.
"I had to say, OK, I'm just going to trust this person to tell me everything that I can learn from him in terms of singing," she says.
But while she continued singing very casually during her absence, she also missed the spotlight that she once commanded.
"People who recognized me when I was playing on the street, for example, said to me, ‘Come on, we want to hear some more music from you,' so that kind of stuff egged me on, gave me encouragement," says Peyroux. "I was really excited about the fact that I felt that there was going to be an audience."
Yet, while she missed her audience and performing for the public, Peyroux is far from the typical, celebrity-seeking performer. Shy and soft-spoken, she withdraws from the spotlight once offstage and seems loath to talk about her life outside of music, leading to a mysterious air about her. Things got bizarre last year when reports circulated that her record label in Europe hired a private detective to search for her and thought she may have been kidnapped; Peyroux's camp quickly shot down the rumors and she denies she was ever missing.
While Peyroux now jokes about the experience ("I don't think anyone would want to kidnap me," she laughs), the idea that she's trying to shrink away from her fame clearly irks her.
"It wasn't true, they said I ran away and stuff like that," she says. "It doesn't really bother me, although again it's not really true if you think about it. I do a lot of interviews. I think it's just a phenomenon that's not worth a lot of time or energy to think about."
The fact that it took two years, not eight, to release her follow-up to "Careless Love" should prove that while she may not love celebrity, she's not running away from the spotlight. "Half of a Perfect World," released last fall, reunites her with Klein, and features four songs co-written by Peyroux.
While it wasn't the first time she had written music, it marked the first time she followed through in completing it: "In the past, I think I've come up with ideas that just stayed like skeletons in a closet," she jokes.
But with the help of people like Klein and Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Jesse Harris, best known for penning Norah Jones' "Don't Know Why," she was able to take her bare-bones ideas and transform them into something magical, like the classic-sounding song "I'm All Right."
Still, like "Careless Love," the album's anchors are its covers — and Peyroux's ability to make them her own, without writing a note.
"Singers, musicians, they bring themselves into what they do, and because their name is not on this publishing paper, on some credits, I don't think that takes away from the presence and performance in the art," says Peyroux. "I think performing itself is, of course, a deep art. I wouldn't even try to say one thing has more power or is stronger. I just think it's all there."