Telling a story with music and lyrics

These days, Madeleine Peyroux is interested in telling a larger story with her music.

These days, Madeleine Peyroux is interested in telling a larger story with her music.

Since her first album, “Dreamland,” appeared in 1996, the jazz singer-songwriter and guitarist has amassed a repertoire of both originals and covers spanning the last century of American music. She’s performed songs by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Elliott Smith, among others, with a voice that often gets compared to Billie Holiday.

At this point in her career, Peyroux is focused on her original music — 2009’s “Bare Bones” was her first all-original album and the recently released “Standing on the Rooftop” features only three cover versions. After recording her last album, she began to realize how all of her recorded material, covers included, frames a larger narrative. And that’s what she’s hoping to deliver at her shows in support of “Standing on the Rooftop.”

“It inspired the new songs on the record,” she said recently while visiting a friend near Troy (she lives in Brooklyn). “I could see how it balloons out and sort of develops from all of the stuff I’ve recorded, which spans the 20th century from early blues and early jazz through the swing era and then up until basically the ’60s folk revolution. But the poetry of all of those songs I’ve recorded sort of strings them together, unites them.”

Madeleine Peyroux

with Nellie McKay

When: 7 p.m. Sunday

Where: The Hart Theatre at The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany

How Much: $34.50, $29.50, $24.50

More Info: 473-1845,

Peyroux and her four-piece band head out today for a two-week tour down the East Coast, including a stop at The Egg on Sunday. She’s hoping the set list, which spans her entire career, will give audiences more than she ever has at a show before.

“I’m assuming the story line gives it a different focus,” she said. “It’s about continuity and flow, and I think for the audience — it gives the audience more options in terms of how they’d like to interpret it.”

Lately, she has been thinking a lot about different song forms in her own writing. The material on “Standing on the Rooftop,” while still rooted in her vocal jazz approach, leans more heavily toward blues and roots rock structures and instrumentation.

“I think the song form, the popular song form that we live with nowadays, needs to change,” she said. “It’s been around forever. It’s been around long enough to go through all kinds of changes, and it’s done very, very well. But it’s fascinating to explore other ways of telling a story with music and lyrics.”

The album’s title track is an example of Peyroux’s newfound experimentation with song form — at over five minutes long, it’s one of the longest on the record. The song takes a simple chord progression and layers sparse lyrics, creating tension in the arrangement.

“It’s deceptively simple — something that follows along a very simple chord change, a simple pattern,” Peyroux said. “But because there’s so much space in between the lyrics, you’re given the chance to explore. There’s a fork in the road after every couple of lyrics, and I think that’s the point. If you give the audience a chance to live within the story, you get real drama, real storytelling, and I’m excited about that.”

Part of this is due to her increased songwriting. She’s always written or co-written at least some of the tracks on her albums, going back to her 1996 debut’s three original tracks.

But the majority of her albums up until “Bare Bones” featured covers, and she built her reputation on being an interpreter of songs. As she has started writing more, she’s realized that songwriting and interpreting other people’s songs, though wildly different activities, are still tied to each other.

“I’ve always wanted to be able to write, and I’ve realized now that it’s definitely a completely different hat to wear from the interpreter, but for me it’s a continuation,” she said.

Part of exploration

“The information that I have from having learned and heard and listened to tons of songs over the years as an interpreter now informs everything, when I look at how to write a song. It’s part of that for me, part of the exploration of a song.”

The cover material on “Standing on the Rooftop” — The Beatles’ “Martha My Dear,” Bob Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away,” Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” and a poem by W.H. Auden, “Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love,” set to music by Peyroux’s guitarist, Marc Ribot — is in keeping with the Americana vein of the rest of the album. Like most of the songs Peyroux chooses to cover, all of these were songs she had grown up with.

“There are songs that have been around in my own psyche long enough,” she said. “The hardest part of being an interpreter is really knowing your own character well enough — this is my role, this is not my role. There are so many classic songs that are not really interpreted; they’re not doable. It has more to do with knowing the angles you have on your emotions; how old you are, how old you feel, and how you understand it might change.”

The album comes at what some could call a peak for Peyroux’s career. After a long hiatus between albums following her Atlantic Records debut, during which time the Georgia-born Peyroux overcame a throat condition that prevented her from singing, she returned in 2004 on Rounder Records with “Careless Love.”

New albums have followed on Rounder every few years, but “Standing on the Rooftop” marks her first release on Decca Records and also her first album with producer Craig Street, after working for many years with Larry Klein.

Recording in the city

“I wanted to be in New York City [to record],” Peyroux said. “I became aware that though a lot of musicians live in the area, most don’t record in New York; I found a lot of studios are gone. But I had a deep desire to stay home and record in New York City with people I adore in the studio. Craig Street was one of the few people I’ve been keeping in touch with over the years, and we’ve discussed doing something together for quite a while.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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