The first thing that strikes you about MADELEINE PEYROUX’S new album, ‘Secular Hymns,’ isn’t the Georgia singer’s gorgeous, honey-toned voice or the captivating vulnerability of her emotional delivery – though these two qualities are certainly evident in abundance – but rather, her music’s sense of space and the conspicuous absence of a rhythm track. Indeed, drums are off the musical menu for the chanteuse’s seventh long player – which is also her first for the reactivated jazz label, Impulse! – with Madeleine preferring a stripped-down trio sound (two guitars and a stand-up bass) – over an ensemble with an orthodox rhythm section.
“A lot of people think of drums as being absolutely essential to most music,” explains the 42-year-old French-American singer/songwriter, who delivers the whole album in the company of long-time collaborators, Steely Dan guitarist Jon Herington and bass player Barak Mori. “I think perhaps because I played music on the street without the luxury of having a drum kit was part of the attraction of this approach,” Madeleine says, alluding to her teenage years before she had a recording contract when she busked her way around Europe. “I feel like there’s a lot more musical freedom with just the three of us and there’s something very important to get from that intention of the beat without it actually being expressed – and maybe it’s also the fact that having a sense of rubato and silence is more musical in a way.”
Clearly, the album’s ambience is also an intimate one, with Madeleine putting her own distinctive spin on songs from a variety of sources – there are blues tunes (ranging from Joe Greer’s 1952 R&B hit, ‘Got You On My Mind’ to Willie Dixon’s ‘If The Sea Was Whiskey’ and Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s ‘Shout Sister Shout’) to songs by Townes Van Zandt (‘The Highway Kind’), Tom Waits (‘Tango Till They’re Sore’) and Allen Toussaint (‘Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky [From Now On]’). Intriguingly, Madeleine also covers Caribbean dub poet Lynton Kwesi Johnson’s ‘More Time’ and turns her voice to interpreting 19th century American songwriter Stephen Foster’s ‘Hard Times Come Again No More,’ which was written over 150 years old but whose message still has a profound resonance for denizens of the 21st century. It’s an eclectic mix of material but without doubt the unifying factor is Madeleine’s unique interpretations.
Despite its emphasis on American songs, ‘Secular Hymns’ was actually recorded in a 12th century Norman church (St Mary the Virgin) in deepest rural Oxfordshire, England – the result of a chance visit to the village of Great Milton – and represents the singer’s debut as a producer. Defined by a minimalistic, rootsy approach, the new album is a far cry sonically from the lush, orchestral opulence of her last studio album, 2013’s Larry Klein-helmed ‘The Blue Room,’ which just from a logistical and pragmatic perspective means that ‘Secular Hymns’ is a far easier – and less expensive – project to tour and promote.
For those wishing to catch Madeleine and her trio in concert, the singer starts touring in November and lands in the UK on Sunday 20th of that month, when she plays the Royal Festival Hall as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. A day later, on the 21st November, she can be seen at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall and then on November 30th at Saffron Hall in Essex.
In an animated chat with SJF’s Charles Waring, the singer talked in detail about ‘Secular Hymns’ and the musicians that helped shape it…
You’re bringing your trio to the UK in November. Do you know this far in advance what your set will include or is it something that you leave until nearer the time?
I have some ideas of things we might be adding to the repertoire that already exists. When we get together in October, which I can’t wait to do, we’ll probably be exploring some new things but we’re definitely going to be playing some of the record as well. That’s because those tunes and the record really are a documentary of what this trio has been doing. I think we’re just trying to keep our fingers on the pulse of what we’re doing and stay up with the world. Gosh, by November 20 we’ll know who got elected over here (in the USA). I’m scared of that. So I just feel like there’s so much going on. I definitely wish I could tell you more about the character of the show in London but it’s a bit far in advance because there’s a lot going on in the world… and with me.
Is there a story or a concept behind your new album, ‘Secular Hymns?’
I don’t think there’s much more of the story than what I try to explain in the booklet that goes along with a record, which is a little paragraph about how this trio is the main influence behind this record. It’s a documentation of how we’ve arranged the songs and how we have explored silence along with the three of us as far as those arrangements are concerned. The songs for the most part are songs that have lived with me for quite a long time. There’s a lot of blues influences there as well as songs that just stood out completely, like the ‘Trampin” song, or the Linton Kwesi Johnson song (‘More Time’) and, also, the Allen Toussaint song in a way. As much as all of those artists have huge repertoires that are extremely rich, I think that to some extent I picked the easy ones (laughs). I’m thinking out loud with you right now but it does seem when you look at it that those songs are kind of light-hearted and I do think that I’ve been searching for a more light-hearted repertoire in general. That doesn’t mean to say that I’ve achieved that but it just means that I been looking deeply into less directly sad material – although that’s not true for the Towne Van Zandt song (‘The Highway Kind’). That song’s pretty dark, but it’s another one that just stood out to me. I just loved that song – what amazing lyrics – and so the album’s just a hodgepodge in a way but it all comes together perhaps in simplicity in terms of the repertoire of the record.
How long did it take for everything to come together?
The music was built up during our live tours for two years together. Some of the blues songs we started adding because we were invited to go on a blues cruise in the Caribbean and it was fantastic. ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’ (by Stephen Foster) was a song I’d always wanted to do and we’d been invited to play for a Christmas show in Detroit so I thought this would be a great opportunity to break out something special just for them. And just some of the songs I wanted to do and always wanted to try them. Allen Toussaint’s ‘Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky (From Now On)’ was something we’d been doing a long time before he passed. Then we just started doing what we’ve been doing and we ended up on this little church in Oxfordshire last October, which is right next to a restaurant/B&B owned by (celebrated French chef) Raymond Blanc. So that was the story behind the recording in the sense that we were inspired to go back there and play live and just get it down on tape because the acoustics in that room I found to be inspiring and special. When I heard my voice in there, it was one of my favourite reverbs.
So you used the natural reverb of the place rather than any studio trickery?
Right. This was just us in a room and we were responding to the reverb in real time and responding to each other in real time. I don’t think I’m a purist or anything – I don’t think that this is my reason for being and the absolute way to make a record – but it was something that was natural and organic for me and the three of us. I think I was extremely lucky because of Mr Stuart Bruce (the sound engineer) because without ever having met me or heard much of what I do, he showed up to the church in January in the cold and set up the live mics in a very careful way and then went ahead and mixed and mastered it as well. I think he’s a huge part of the reason that I’m so happy with the sound. It’s just a great sound and I think sound is always fun if you can have something nice. It’s pretty much just like a blanket. We’re not reinventing the wheel but I’m just very grateful that I got a chance to do this with him and Jon and Barak. And like I said, there’s more to come from this place of the trio, so yes, when we do come out and do our shows in November, I think we’ll have some more stuff to show.
‘Secular Hymns’ is also the first album where you’ve produced yourself, isn’t it?
Well, I suppose you could say I produced it. Another way to put it is that we had no producer and just got through it (laughs). But yeah, it’s absolutely true, I do think this the first time that I’ve ever done that.
How did it feel taking sole responsibility for the record?
I felt like I was unable to really think ahead for all the things that somebody could have thought ahead for. But I felt grateful that everybody I worked with were capable of thinking ahead for themselves. So was I just very lucky to be surrounded by great people and we just got through it, honestly (laughs). In the end, one of the jobs of a producer or at least, a job that a producer will oversee, is the sequencing of the record. I really couldn’t do that by myself so I got somebody else, a dear friend, Yves Beauvais, who actually co-produced my very first record (‘Dreamland’ in 1996). He went ahead and gave me the sequence that he preferred and that ended up being our sequence, so it’s a real collaboration and I doubt it’s really fair to say that I was producer but I definitely got us through it all and just said, ‘okay, I’ll make a decision that nobody else is taking and we’ll see what happens’ (laughs). But having that foresight is something that a producer would have had that I didn’t. I remember we were all exhausted at the time. We had a terrible travel experience for some reason and then we had to go in there (in the studio) and all I wanted to do was sleep. On the first recording day, all I wanted to do was sleep (laughs heartily). I hadn’t had any sleep, so, the next time we record I won’t do it that way (laughs).
Anyway, it’s all worked out well in the end, hasn’t it?
I think so, I think we’ve got something to show for it.
How long have you and Jon Herington and Barak Mori played together?
It’s 10 years this year since I first started working with them in various scenarios, bands and groups on the road. I heard Jon Herington playing with Donald Fagen, in about 2006, while I was making my second record. I was in Los Angeles and I remember seeing him on stage and thinking this is maybe one of the best guitar sounds I’ve ever heard – this guy is so careful but he feels like he’s got a lot of freedom and a lot of spunk behind it. I hate the fact that I don’t have the right words to describe his playing (laughs) but he really fascinated me right away. And ironically, my second record had a whole lot of guitar parts that made us talk about hiring a guitar player to come on the road to turn the band into a quintet. At that point, my producer, Larry Klein, suggested Jon Herington. Ironically, I had just seen him but for years Jon thought that Larry Klein told me to hire him and I finally reminded him, “no, no, no, you don’t understand, I heard you play and I had a reaction to it.” So he only found out a couple of years ago. He said “I never even knew that you’d see me before.” With Barak Mori, it was a similar experience. I heard him play with different people in jazz clubs here in New York City. But Jon Herington was my musical director by the time I hired around him, so Barack always thought that Jon hired him (laughs). Then I had a job to convince him too that I had heard him and had my own personal experience. Anyway, regardless, that was about 10 years ago and we’ve played as a quintet, and a quartet together but always with a drummer and usually with a keyboard player. Then we also played together with string sections and string quartets for about a year and a half-worth of touring with a record called ‘The Blue Room.’ Right after ‘The Blue Room,’ which was a bigger production, we suddenly started booking these shows in France in April of two years ago and I said “well, we can’t bring the string quartet and we can’t bring all of these people, we can’t do this bigger production, we can’t afford it.” And at the same time we were thinking, “let’s just see if we should just go for smaller, make touring light and enjoy the little things, you know, and have more time to sip a couple of wine or something.” So we tried it, just Jon Herrington, Barak Mori and me.
Do you think that you’ve know each other so well now as musicians that you’ve established a kind of musical telepathy between you?
Oh yeah, the trio atmosphere is more open to that. I was just saying to someone earlier, that not only is there more intimacy with the audience and more intimacy with silence itself, but there’s also intimacy between the three of us. There’s intimacy on the stage that you can’t really have when there’s a bigger group. And there’s more responsibility too, so it’s not just me that’s given more space and more room vocally to say what I want to say it’s also this nakedness for the other two players as well. A lot of people talk about how special trios are, possibly for that reason that it takes a certain kind of person to show up for that. And that’s what’s so fun about it. I don’t know. There’s lots to discover ahead of me I hope.
You’ve been making records 20 years now. What have been the main highlights for you so far?
The people. Absolutely. The people I’ve met, the artists that I’ve met in person, like Odetta and Allen Toussaint: characters that are aware that this is not just a career actually and how deep they feel connected to people. That’s probably been the biggest thing that I’ve been able to experience: to feel connected to a group of people who it feels like I’m socially involved. That’s the takeaway, really, and being connected to something socially is so powerful. There’s also just the music itself in that same social atmosphere, you know. The days after the Paris attacks last year, for example, the amount of music there was in the streets there with the old street musicians that I knew or the next generation, that was a connection. That was extremely important. I could feel, tangibly, how great music really is and how important – that’s not the word – how essential it is to all of us. And how inclusive it is too. So that’s something definitely to take away.
‘Secular Hymns’ is out now via Impulse!/Universal
Catch MADELEINE PEYROUX live in the UK:
20th November LONDON EFG London Jazz Festival, Royal Festival Hall
21st November BIRMINGHAM Birmingham Town Hall
30th November ESSEX Saffron Hall