Maybe I got a lot to learn
Time can slip away
Sometimes you got to lose it all
Before you find your wayâŠ
â âDonât Wait Too Longâ
Every great musical project starts with a feeling that itâs time.
So it was, in 2004, for Madeleine Peyroux: âwhen I got around to making Careless Love it had been a good eight years since my first album.â Eight yearsâforever in the music world. Not long After Dreamland dropped in â96, she had disappeared from the touring scene as well. Where had she been? What had she been doing, and why?
I was traveling a lot across America, rediscovering the country and re-identifying as an American. I was born here in the States but moved with my mother to live in Paris when I was young. I met family I never met before. I caught up on what was happening with the music here. It was all a culture shock for me. When I came back to New York to make that first album I was like a deer in the headlights. It was my first time in a studio, my first time back in America. Then 9/11 happened. Then George W. got re-elected. It was like the world was going crazy. After Dreamland I had signed with Sony and I was trying to make my second record. I was broke and I didnât know what I was going to do next.
Self-reflection and spiritual sensitivity are assets to any musician in the process of starting a career, of establishing oneâs musical identity and direction. They donât, however, necessarily lock into the typical velocity of career-building. There were other things Peyroux had to handle. She underwent surgery on her vocal cords. She healed and worked with a vocal coach. As the â90s gave way to the first years of a new century, she continued to question the how and, significantly, the why of what she was doing. (Her choice of the Dylan Thomas quote below, from his 1946 poem âIn my Craft and Sullen Art,â helps explain her creative motivation.)
âI put a lot of thought into what my career means,â Peyroux says, âwhat making a record and the follow-up tour representsâthe kind of music I wanted to do and the amount of work that is involved.â
By 2004, Peyroux had found the answers to her questions. She signed to Rounder Records. Her distinctively updated blend of swing-era jazz, country blues, gospel, and other acoustic forms made sense on a label with a reputation for standing by singular artists dealing in, or drawing inspiration from roots Americana. It was a good fit from the start, and would lead to a run of three career-defining albums. It also led Peyroux to work with Larry Klein, a bassist whose experience covered a wide stylistic range, from rock and R&B to jazz. He had played with Bob Dylan and Herbie Hancock. By the 2000s, he had a reputation as producer of genre-straddling vocalists like Joni Mitchell, Holly Cole, and Shawn Colvin.
Rounder had me speak to a few producers they had in mind. I remember Larry stood out because he wasnât only saying the usual things like what studio he wanted to work with. Iâll never forget thisâhe said he had this vision. He wanted to make a record that would sound like the dream of an album. Who says that?
Kleinâs explanation, and his past credits with other singers, made the choice easier for Peyroux. Weeks of preparation ensued. The two considered a wide range of repertoire, Peyroux suggesting vintage favoritesâoriginally recorded by the likes of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a chanson by Josephine Bakerâas well as more recent material by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Elliot Smith. They recruited songwriter Jesse Harris to help write an original that became âDonât Wait Too Long,â a signature tune that remains in her setlist to this day. Working with Klein also meant a major change in venue. In â96, Peyroux had recorded in New York City, where the limited number of studios requires prior rehearsal and a pressured, hit-it-and-quit-it vibe when it came time to record. In 2004, she experienced something new.
In New York, New York, the depth of a groove is deeper and things move more quickly. In Los Angeles, I think thereâs a little more lightness and a bigger range of emotion. We never rehearsed before the sessions. It was all done in the same room. We could do that because there are so many studios out there and they donât cost as much. I was so shocked at how relaxed and slow everybody was moving when we got to the studio. Itâs amazing how that affects the music, to have a studio to yourself. We had time to talk, to try out different things. The guitar vamp on âYouâre Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You GoââDean came up with that in the studio.
Guitarist Dean Parks was one member of a studio band of delicacy and appropriate taste âalso keyboardist Larry Goldings, bassist David Piltch, trumpeter Lee Thornburg, drummers Jay Bellerose and Scott AmendolaâKlein assembled from a pool of session musicians. These were players adept at elevating older songs with slight, stylistic touches that avoid clichĂ©âjazz rather than jazzyâand using musical know-how to slyly reference legacy moments: a shuffle feel on the snare, a muted trumpet, or a swing pulse on guitar. A classy touch of Western Swing courtesy of Parksâs pedal steel on âLonesome Road.â A brief piano interlude subtly suggesting the big band standard âStompinâ at the Savoyââas Goldings does on âJâai deux amours.â A haunting, legato bass line akin to the ostinato on Miles Davisâs âFlamenco Sketchesââwhich Piltch hints at on âIâll Look Aroundâ. Thereâs even a moment in which a vintage sound is supported by modern, cut-and-paste technique, as a looped celeste sample borrowed from a Nino Rota soundtrack recording sounds the church-bell pattern on âThis is Heaven to Me.â
The album took pride in its pedigree even in title: naming itself after a W.C. Handy classic that Bessie Smith and many singers of her generation made famous, including a Dylan tune that melds seamlessly with the collective, relaxed vibe, and adds one more âcareless loveâ in its lyric.
As the sessions progressed, with time for all to relax and be with each other, Klein allowed the musical stew to simmer until it was ready. They developed a group sound, playing off each other and the contours of the songs, enhancing Peyrouxâs voice, which had matured into an instrument of disarming clarity and seemingly effortless flow.
Peyroux herself is in top, mature form on Careless Loveâan apotheosis of that hushed, one-to-one affect she inherited from the likes of Billie Holiday, a stylistic bequest. By 2004, her way of conveying confessional expression was truly her own. She had developed an updated rhythmic pliability and an emotional depth that could explore the complexities lying beneath the surface of the songs. Check out how she suspends time and hovers on âIâll Look Around,â associated with Holidayâs mid-career, pop years recording for Decca. Itâs an overlooked gem on the album, Peyrouxâs phrasing more in line with a Blossom Dearie ballad than Billie, way downtempo and nakedly revealing of her story-telling skill (in which Goldings points to yet another standard, âThe Nearness of You.â) Peyroux transforms âBetween the Barsâ with a similar, open-hearted treatment, and reimagines the Hank Williams waltz, âWeary Blues,â as a prayer whispered to oneâs pillow. The albumâs showstopper is its openerâa cabaret-ready reading of âDance Me to the End of Loveââwhich bestows Cohenâs poetic imagery with a world-weariness that can only come from experience.
Dreamland had featured a 22-year old Peyroux. She was 30 when she recorded Careless Love: âWhen I made my first record I wasnât even thinking about a sense of wholeness with the music, or how to connect the songs into one overall statement.â
From initial planning to final mix, Careless Love took three months to complete. It was released on September 14, 2004. Commercially, despite Peyroux being labeled by Billboard as a jazz artist, it was a breakout bestseller matching the level of a triumphant pop music release, selling 500,000 copies within a year, and eventually earning platinum status. Overseas sales proved equally impressive; Careless Love garnered gold and platinum records throughout Europe, South America and even China. In America, its performance was certainly spurred by co-operative efforts typical of that day. Snippets of Careless Love melodies popped up on popular television shows likeÂ Nip/Tuck, Crossing Jordan, Boston Legal, and on the soundtrack to the film Failure to Launch. âDonât Wait Too Longâ helped sell Dockers trousers in a TV ad, and Starbucks helped promote the album, strategically placing the CD by registers in their cafes coast-to-coast: musical biscotti for all those venti lattes.
Careless Love received resounding support from the critical community as well, albeit with the usual second thoughts. While praising, some reviews raised the eternal question (Is it jazz or is it not?) and many made the inevitable Billie Holiday comparison, which Peyroux did not retreat from. âI felt not only akin to but encouraged by the music Billie Holiday made as a personâŠI think it is the fact that she overcomes tragedyâvery subtly,â she told the Los Angeles Times. Some writers could not resist the temptation to measure her against other jazz-guided singers of the moment, like Norah Jones and Diana Krall. The more astute reportage caught on that the album served notice that Peyroux had returned, more mature and self-assured. âThe more I listen, the more she sounds like herself,â one reviewer stated on National Public Radio. âShe makes something authentically hers out of something borrowed.â
Kleinâs Careless Love studio ensemble was not able to join Peyroux on tour. A healthy number of bookings was generated by the albumâs release, from late 2004 and well into 2005âs summer season. A consistent group settled into place but it took a while. âDuring that time, I had five different piano players come and go, two bass players, two drummers, just in order to keep musicians on the road. I was out there and the only one that was always in that picture, singing and sometimes playing guitar.â In some ways, this was familiar ground. Peyrouxâs first foray into performing was as an 16-year old, busking and traveling around Europe with a rotating troupe of players. (A personal aside: in 1991 or â92, I canât recall exactly, while tour-managing various groups in Europe, I first encountered Peyroux singing on a Parisian street and was blown away. I had the feeling Iâd be hearing her again.)
By summer of â05, Peyroux was touring with a compatible, stable-for-the-moment lineup: Amendola, from the Careless Love sessions, plus bassist Matt Penman and keyboardist Kevin Hayes; the latter two hired on the recommendation of friends. Most gigs were being regularly recorded at the house soundboard, including one evening that took place at summerâs midpointâJuly 15âat one of the older festivals on the circuit: the Vitoria-Gasteiz Jazz Festival in Spainâs Basque country. The recording of the performance, preserved by Basque Public Radio, opens with a gesture the crowd takes to heart. âBuenos noches,â Peyroux says in her best Spanish.
âYou can hear how much fun weâre having, and the people sound really happy. In fact, they sound a lot happier than I remember. I think I was pretty nervous, playing in such a prestigious festival in one of these daunting, historic looking places that was so large. At the time, a venue holding 2000 was a lot for me.â
A number of things are clear from the outset on the recording. Despite Peyrouxâs recollection of doubt and anxiety, the four sound exceedingly comfortable together, locking into a collective groove of the sort that sails unflappably from one melody to the next. They play to each other and to the audience; the applause markedly increases in intensity, song by song. Peyroux herself is a study in calm confidence, singing and revising how she approached each tuneâholding on to a syllable here, shifting an emphasis there. âDonât Wait Too Longâ is an explicit example, and impressively, Peyrouxâs rendition of âIâll Look Aroundâ reaches a deeper, even more personal feel than the studio version.
From pensive to sunny to outright giddy (âI Hear Musicâ!), Peyroux explores a satisfying mix of mood and tempi. An array of details and moments stand out in the performanceâs 75 minutes, like her tasteful guitar accents on âBetween the Barsâ and âYouâre Going To Make Me LonesomeâŠââand Amendolaâs mallet-play bouncing on the latter. Thereâs Penmanâs textured feel on upright bass, guiding the pulse (his bona fides in the jazz worldâas a member of the SF Jazz Collective and James Farmâare self-evident.) Thereâs Hayesâs skill at bringing ballads to a soft close, with just the right mood-preserving flourish on the piano. On a few upbeat numbers, with a measured touch, Hayes also weaves in the distinctive texture of the Rhodes.
The setlist derives almost exclusively from Careless Love. Peyroux brings in a few old, lively friendsâ Patsy Clineâs âWalkinâ After Midnightâ (the kick-off on Dreamland), Dinah Washingtonâs âDestination Moonâ, and Holidayâs âI Hear Music.â But the spotlight that evening was on her latest achievement, an album that in its sequence, track by track, comprises a complete performance. The two recordings together capture a special moment in time and offer both sides of a story that is still being written.
It is 2020. Peyroux is speaking via Zoom, in the middle of a pandemic that has silenced all live music. In this stark context, Careless Love continues to resonate, the music and the message of those songs more relevant than ever. She repositions her laptop to reveal a poster she has kept from that evening in Vitoria in 2005. Itâs a reproduction of a medieval etching of a building.
âThis is El Portalonâa restaurant in a building from the 1500s thatâs still standing there. We ate there after the show and they had amazing food. That whole evening is still with me. This concert represents a time when there was a confluence of great things happening in my life. It felt like all the work I had put into playing music for all those years was paying off. I was working with great musicians and had a great group of songs with great arrangements.
âI canât tell you how grateful I am that we found this recording. For me, it represents the way I understood these songs at that time, how I was making music when I made Careless Love. Itâs been more than fifteen years since that record came out, and I donât think Iâve done a single concert that didnât include at least two or three songs from it, and sometimes more. I think Iâve sung âDance Me to the End of Loveâ at every show. Itâs part of me now.â
2004âŠ2005âŠthe date stamp on any music performance can be a distracting thing. The more inspired and singular the music, the less that seems to matter. Timeless is what we call music that reaches the heart and stops the clock. Few are able to attain that, fewer with consistency. For the ones who do, it can take a while navigating oneâs career path to get there, to make timeless happen. Madeleine Peyroux achieved it on her second album.