French Via Georgia

After a virtual absence of eight years, Madeleine Peyroux is back and climbing up the charts

Sometimes, I don't want to know too much about a musical artist, especially a good singer. Being privy to their habits, preferences, foibles and opinions can ruin the experience of close listening. Discovering which movie star she is dating, or whether he had a rough-and-tumble childhood, tends to influence the way I listen to an artist's music.

This might sound silly coming from a critic who has spent a chunk of his professional life interviewing other writers, musicians and performing artists of all stripes for your edification. There are times, however, when knowing some personal tidbits about a musician removes the mystery from the performer-audience relationship, making said relationship feel, ironically, less intimate.

Such is the case with Madeleine Peyroux, the American-by-way-of-Paris jazz chanteuse who will perform Saturday night, Feb. 12, at the eastside nightclub City Limits.

In spite of continued pleas from this side of the stage, Peyroux was unavailable for an interview because of a family emergency. Which leaves the task of charming us solely to her smoky Billie Holiday-style alto and ragtime-era arrangements.

Peyroux recently saw the release of her widely acclaimed second album, Careless Love, on which she demonstrates depth, a commanding presence and preternatural wisdom in her mostly melancholy interpretations of songs by W.C. Handy, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Elliott Smith and others. In her voice can be heard different levels of meaning, emotional tones and musical flavors.

Who needs pithy quotations from her when we can listen to her sing?

Peyroux first captured the public's attention eight years ago with her debut album, Dreamland. Because she sang a few tunes in French (most notably songs made famous by Edith Piaf and Josephine Baker), came from Paris and had a Gallic-sounding name, many of us assumed she was French.

Turns out she was born in Athens, Ga. The waif-like beauty grew up in Paris, though, with her French-born mother, and she pursued her career there, playing in cafés and clubs, exploring and indulging her love of French culture.

After the release of Dreamland in 1996, Peyroux was busy making a name for herself among old-timey jazz aficionados and sophisticated pop-rock fans long before we ever heard of Norah Jones. She performed at Lilith Fair and many a jazz festival; she opened concerts by Sarah McLachlan and Cesaria Evoria. Her debut also sold an impressive 200,000 copies worldwide--not bad for a jazz album.

In 1997, Peyroux also recorded a track for The Inner Flame, a tribute to the much-adored Tucson blues guitarist and singer-songwriter Rainer Ptacek, who died of cancer later that year. Her delicate rendition of Rainer's "Life Is Fine" is a sublime gem--but then, most of the album is at least that good.

Then, she seemed to disappear from the spotlight. Not much has been written about her 8-year-old absence, and we didn't get a chance to ask her about it. But we did find a copy of a so-called "lost" Peyroux album on eBay. Released by Waking Up Music and titled Got You on My Mind, the album is credited to William Galison and Madeleine Peyroux.

Galison is the Toots Thielemans-inspired harmonica player whose many accolades include having played on the theme for Sesame Street. He and Peyroux apparently played a series of gigs together, and the chemistry is definitely there on the tracks. The timing of the CD's release was suspicious. Certainly, it was fortuitous for someone--it came out this past September, just a week prior to Careless Love.

Released on Rounder Records, Careless Love has been picking up steam in sales. It was last week's greatest gainer on Billboard magazine's Heatseekers chart, a fair indicator of buzz-worthy records around the country. Her momentum includes a special showcase concert this Friday night at the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles.

Careless Love, by the way, is not Peyroux's latest release. Her cover of the Big Bill Broonzy blues classic "Give Your Mama One Smile" appears on the CD Sweetheart 2005: Love Songs, which last month went on sale in Starbucks coffee shops.

That disc, the second in a series, features exclusive recordings of contemporary musicians covering their favorite love songs. Among the other artists on the record are Rufus Wainwright, Neko Case, Martina Topley-Bird, Joseph Arthur, Vinicius Cantuaria, Dean Wareham and Tucson's Calexico.

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