We Wanna Be Friends With Jazz Chanteuse Madeleine Peyroux

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Break out the Champagne—our favorite Frenchie American chanteuse is making an appearance at the San Francisco Symphony this week.


The 42-year-old jazz singer-songwriter is among our generation's most recognizable songbirds, echoing the styles of Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf, but making them modern, her own. But like so many of her musical forbears—come to think of it, like the Little Sparrow herself—Peyroux hails from humble beginnings.


Peyroux was born in Athens, Georgia, and spent her childhood between New York and California, but it would be her move with her maman to Paris at age 13 that would inform her musical career. She began, much like Piaf, busking on the streets of the city's Latin Quarter. Then at 15, she dropped out of school to join The Lost Wandering Blues and Jazz Band, traveling Europe and singing the standards before eventually returning to New York in her early '20s.


In 1996, at the age of 22, the ingenue made her big debut with Dreamland (Atlantic Records), an album that included covers of a Patsy Cline tune and Piaf's iconic "La Vie en Rose" and shot her to stardom as critics heralded her a 21st Century Holiday. Since then, six albums, plus another due out this September, have cemented her spot in the pantheon designated for queens of jazz.


This week, Peyroux makes a stop at Davies Hall for An Evening in Paris, her much-anticipated performance with the San Francisco Symphony that will showcase both new and adapted compositions by Grammy Award winner Vince Mendoza. We were treated to une petite chat with Peyroux. Here she talks about her love of Paris and the opportunity to perform with "one of the world's best orchestras."


7x7: Have you spent much time in San Francisco?

MP: Well, I haven't spent enough time in San Francisco to really appreciate how great it is, but I spent some time in Chinatown and really enjoyed exploring that a little bit. But I've never lived there—never been that lucky. I think of San Francisco as another version, if not a better version, of New York.


How did growing up in Paris encourage your passion for jazz?

Being in Paris as an American, you notice what's great about America in a bigger way because you're around people who appreciate it sometimes a lot more. I think American culture and music is especially powerful around the world, and jazz is one of America's claims to fame in terms of music. I don't think jazz is celebrated in this country the way it is elsewhere, so I think growing up in Paris really opened my eyes. Being in Paris gave me more chance to study jazz and meet other people who loved jazz, who took it seriously, and worked very hard to be a part of it.


How would you describe your love of Paris?

I wonder if I could ever say anything about it that hasn't been said so perfectly before. I guess [Paris is] capable of keeping romance alive in the darkest shadows. [The city] is at capacity, and perhaps [because] it is the central city for France, it carries so much of the French identity. If you were to string out the essential things of what it is to be French, then you would find them in Paris.


Who are your favorite French musicians?

There's Renaud, and another young artist who inspired Renaud to come out of hiding—Grand Corps Malade.


A favorite highlight of your musical career?

Singing on stage with Odetta.


What's your next big project?

Well, I'm putting out a record in September and will be on tour with that, so I guess my next upcoming project is thinking about making another record! Hopefully it will be something that is a lot more consciously driven by uniting communities and different conversations—the more I think about it, that's what my newest record (Secular Hymns) is organically building to do.


Tell us about your upcoming performance with the SF Symphony.

This is the first time that I will perform with a full orchestra, so it is a totally different experience—and this is one of the world's best orchestras. I also thought the concept of the show was brilliant. It's called An Evening in Paris, so it gave me a chance to explore my French songs in my exposition, expand on them, and think what they should mean to me.


Do you have any pre-show rituals?

Well, I don't know if you should write this down, but I always have coffee and a cigarette.


// Madeleine Peyroux will perform An Evening in Paris with the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Hall (Civic Center) on July 21, 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $30-$95, sfsymphony.org


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