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Madeleine Peyroux Biography
The third album in four years from song interpreter extraordinaire Madeleine Peyroux, Bare Bones is both an extension of the currents of 2004’s Careless Love and 2006’s Half the Perfect World and a bold step into previously unexplored psychological terrain. Produced, like its two predecessors, by Larry Klein, this fluid and enthralling new work, is Peyroux’s most personal yet, hardly surprising considering she had a hand in writing each of the 11 songs, marking the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
“This really is a new experience for me—it’s almost as if I got to make my first record again,” she says. “Larry really was the first person who ever said to me, ‘Let’s write every song on the record—you should do this.’ I’d co-written with Larry a couple of times in the past, but this was a big leap for me as a writer, and also a deep exploration as a co-writer,” Peyroux continues, “not only in the experience of writing but also the message I wanted to portray. Like the end of any event—being up all night, or when the rain stops and the sun comes out, it’s a transitional moment of getting past some kind of struggle.”
Each of these 11 songs is like a gem, revealing its myriad facets one by one as it turns in the mind of the listener. ‘Instead,’ co-written with her friend Julian Coryell, begins the album on a marvelously life-affirming note: “Instead of feelin’ bad, be glad you’ve got somewhere to go,” she purrs in her stunningly evocative alto, “Instead of feelin’ sad, be happy you’re not all alone / Instead of feelin’ low, get high on everything that you love / Instead of wastin’ time, feel good ‘bout what you’re dreamin’ of.”
The ravishing “River of Tears” (a collaboration with Klein) and the noir road movie “Love and Treachery” (with Joe Henry and Klein) evoke Leonard Cohen in their crystalline precision and sustained, gripping tension. The image-rich “You Can’t Do Me” turns on a strutting groove redolent of vintage Steely Dan, whose Walter Becker co-wrote it. A sort of postmodern madrigal, “Our Lady of Pigalle,” written with David Batteau and Klein, “is about a woman who is walking the streets late at night, being propositioned. The title makes reference to her being a symbol of salvation.” In the self-penned ‘I Must Be Saved’ Peyroux describes “the effort not to lose something, only to later realize you’re gonna lose it anyway: if I get lost in your mind, in your thoughts, then I must be saved.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise here is that every now and then the clouds break, offering a glimpse of a newfound, and hard-earned, lightheartedness—not something one would associate with this deep, deadly serious artist, whose previous outings have been steeped in melancholy.
“I’ve been working toward this all along,” she points out. “I don’t think that we can really know drama without knowing comedy. They need each other in order to be real and complete. So in a sense I’m trying to push the envelope of that subtle marriage between two opposites—happy and sad, tragic and comic or grief and renewal.”
Peyroux sees the act of lightening up as part of a psychological continuum that began with the experience of loss and the resulting tangle of grief. “There’s reference to loss in several of the songs, if not all of them,” she points out, punctuating her point with a quick laugh, perhaps realizing how much more of herself she’s revealing now than ever before.
“In a lot of ways, this record is my attempt at expressing a philosophy of life,” she elaborates. “That’s why I decided to call it Bare Bones—because most of these songs are a way of excavating the essence of what I think matters, so in that sense it’s very personal, but the question of looking at things and saying, ‘This isn’t important after all,’ is part of that process as well. Once you do get to the point where you’ve discovered that there are some things that are not just important but vitally important, that’s a positive discovery—a beautiful, pot-of-gold revelation.”
Peyroux got the song title as well as the overarching theme of the album from When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Difficult Times, a book by Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, which a friend had suggested she read. “Can’t we just return to the bare bones?,” Chodron writes in one key passage. “Can’t we just come back? That’s the beginning of the beginning. Bare bones, good old self. Bare bones, good old bloody finger. Come back to square one, just the minimum bare bones. Relaxing with the present moment, relaxing with hopelessness, relaxing with death, not resisting the fact that things end, that things pass, that things have no lasting substance, that everything is changing all the time—that is the basic message.”
Chodron’s message connected with Peyroux on a deep level. “The imagery of bare bones threw me into writing that song. My dad passed away a few years ago, and it took me a long time to grow into the next stage of dealing with that. I definitely had my father in mind when I started writing ‘Bare Bones.’” It ends with these lines: “I guess my old man was hard to read / And I don’t really know what I believe / But in these bare bones—there’s somethin’ lovely after all.”
From a structural standpoint, Peyroux’s aims as a writer involved “not having anything in the song that doesn’t need to be there, but telling enough of a story to get everything that you do need. And if a song manages to really be clear in saying something that’s practically impossible to say in plain language, that’s the goal of songwriting, as well as performing a song.”
Says Klein: “This record feels like it’s emanating from her in a certain way, more than the other two. And I think that our relationship musically has deepened with each record as well, as we’ve gotten to know each other better musically, and otherwise. We’ve come to a new place on this record, and it feels fantastic—it feels like a new high point for what we’re doing together.”
When asked to describe the sound of Bare Bones, Peyroux pauses to consider the question for several moments. “The lyrics and the sounds are both honest, so that they match each other. We’re really exploring the calm, relaxed attitude, because we tend to fall into a rhythmic pocket that is not exploited much in popular music. Everybody’s ahead of the beat, on top of the beat or trying to get to the next beat; everything is short and very repetitive; we’re just way slower than all that.”
While the writing of the album took the better part of years, the initial recording was completed in less than a week, the result of the closeness of Peyroux and the players—Dean Parks on a variety of stringed instruments, Larry Goldings on organ, Jim Beard on piano, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, Carla Kilstead on violin and Klein on bass. They nailed the title track in one take, “Homeless Happiness” in two, and no song took more than four or five. The studio band played live off the floor, surrounding Peyroux, who sang and played acoustic guitar to enhance the vibe; she later recorded her final vocals and guitar parts to the completed tracks.
Peyroux likens the process of writing and recording these songs to “opening a shade onto sunlight in the morning—it just feels good. I’m really happy that I got to write, and sometimes I’m extraordinarily surprised because I like what we ended up with. I’m really excited, because it feels like a new segment, and it’s great work. I’ve been surrounded by beautiful sounds, really honest musicians, really honest playing. It sounds like music to me.”