Madeleine Peyroux’s new release Anthem, finds the singer-songwriter casting a sober, poetic, and at times philosophical eye on the current state of the world. From its remarkable writing to the savvy mix of subtly topical commentary and outright irreverence, Anthem marks a defining moment in the career of this long-respected artist. ArkivJazz spoke with Peyroux as she prepares for a fall U.S. tour following the album’s August 31 release.
ArkivJazz: I’ve been listening to Anthem over and over, and it is just a remarkable piece of work. Tell me how it came together.
Madeleine Peyroux: Well, it didn’t come together in an intentional way. Larry (Klein) and I hadn’t discussed making a record at the point. He simply invited me to sit in on writing sessions, which if productive, those would become songs that I would then sing…but I don’t think there was a drive to write a whole record at the time. What ended up happening was that the context of the world, especially here in the US, changed in 2016 and into 2017.
AJ: I think I know the timespan...
MP: Yeah, I was on tour with a trio covering songs from my previous record, and we performed quite a bit in the United States seeing things from a very local level during the Presidential campaign. All the caucuses and everything was really very much in your face during that time. Being able to travel around the United States and spend several nights sometimes in the same city, there was this intimate interaction with audiences that inspired me to confront some of the things that were coming up. One of the first songs that we wrote was “Down On Me”, because it was a desire of mine to talk about the vicious circle of financial loss in this country, and not being able to get out of a hole once you’re in it.
AJ: Yeah, looking at the words, “I start to see I’m falling apart, and I used to see myself above it, and set myself apart, and now I’m stealing money from the mighty mart.” It’s not the most comedic tune, but it really gets the point across without bringing you down.
MP: Yes, it’s supposed to be lighthearted. But then, comedy is much more difficult than tragedy. It’s also relative, right? What one person thinks is funny, is not always easy on somebody else. I guess the humor is kind of dark there.
AJ: Yeah, especially on “Party Time,” which is a heck of a party [laughter]. The whole disc really captures the balance between not being too ironic, but yet, making commentary which carries through the whole album.
MP: David Baerwald was a big part of all the comedy and irony for this album. After I had asked Larry to produce this record, and these songs were in their final stages, I spent about two months combing through the lyrics. Working one-on-one with David Baerwald, and sometimes with Larry, we did our best to polish, and get all the details right.
AJ: Let’s talk about the two covers. The Leonard Cohen cover (“Anthem”) just moves me to no end whenever I hear it, but you have a great, great version of it.
MP: Yes, me too. I absolutely fell in love with that song. I had never heard it until about two years ago, and became obsessed with it.
AJ: Did you and Larry do the arrangement?
MP: I was trying to script various different arrangements and approaches to it. I would say I arranged it on the guitar, in terms of the form and chord changes. The original was in 6/8 and we also changed that.
AJ: It gives it a different feel, almost like a march.
MP: Yeah, exactly.
AJ: And what is the reed instrument on that song?
MP: That is the Armenian duduk.
AJ: It has a tremendous presence to it. A tremendous sound that comes out of nowhere and fits the tune perfectly.
MP: I remember we spent quite a while searching for a sound, and when I asked Larry for the most haunting sound that you can find, he said, “duduk”. We found out that the grandson of the first popular Armenian duduk player occasionally came into L.A., so we contacted him (Jivan Gasparyan Jr) for the recording. I love listening to that instrument now.
AJ: The whole album is, in the best sense, crafted in a very beautiful way. I’ve been listening to it constantly for the last week, and it’s gone from being very good and interesting, to being a tremendously moving experience. Which brings us to “Liberté”, which is extraordinarily constructed. It’s just so spare, and heartbreaking and beautiful. That could have easily been mishandled - how did that come together?
MP: It’s a poem that everyone hears about in school in France growing up these days, but I learned of it a few months after the November 2015 Paris attacks. Marc Lavoine had set the poem to music after the attacks, and he has also been an ambassador for the Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy charity. One of the children who suffer from this disease is the son of a dear friend, who was making the film documentary On the Tips of One’s Toes (Sur La Pointe des Pieds) telling the story of her son and their family dealing with his fatal illness. She asked me to write a song for this film, and Larry and I took the poem, re-edited the lyrics, and recorded this version. In the film, she only used the beginning of the song, which talks about childhood. So, it was not written or recorded for this record, but the whole song had not been heard or released at the time, because only the intro was featured in the movie. “Anthem” was originally the only cover that I wanted on the record, but Larry suggested that “Liberté” should be the other bookend. It just made sense to put it on there.
AJ: Well, it’s a tune that fits nicely. Thanks so much for your time. Anthem is a marvelously constructed project from start to finish. I’ve been listening to the disc for days and days, and it just keeps growing on me.
MP: That’s the best thing you could say to me today, and I’m grateful to you for seeing something in this record I was hoping was there.