Interview with Madeleine Peyroux

French-American singer MADELEINE PEYROUX began her career as one of the street musicians in Paris’s Latin Quarter. She tells Zoë McIntyre about her favourite French haunts past and present

When did you first arrive in France?

When I was about 13 years old, we moved to France because my mother loved the country and, as a French linguist, had found a job opportunity there. We moved to Saint-Germain-en-Laye, about an hour’s train ride from the centre of Paris. My first impression was at being shocked that stores shut for lunch and closed early for dinner and at weekends; it was very different from my Brooklyn life!

When did you first discover the Paris jazz scene?

When I was about 15, we moved to République in the 11th arrondissement. The same evening that we moved, I decided to go for a walk with a school friend. We strolled from Place de la République across the Seine to the Left Bank and on to Saint-Germain-des-Prés. As we passed through the little streets, we saw street musicians playing, with hats, amplifiers and weird makeshift instruments. I remember it was a warm summer’s evening and being surrounded by music, jugglers and clowns; I was in shock – it was unbelievable. It was really good music; songs that I hadn’t heard before, but spoke to my interest in the blues and in early jazz which I hadn’t been able to learn anywhere else. I immediately thought, ‘I’m going to stop here – this is it for me. So I found out about a café where all the young street musicians hung out and ended up passing the hat for a band of American musicians in Paris for the summer. Once I persuaded them that I could sing, it took off from there.

Which French-speaking singers influenced you most?

I very much like Jacques Brel, but one of my main influences has to be Édith Piaf; she is such a powerful vocal artist. I grew up listening to her records and although I enjoyed many of her songs, I finally decided to record a cover of La vie en rose, as it is pure romance. I could really grasp both the tragic and happy sense of the song which I think speaks to listeners.

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Does Paris still hold special memories?

It really does, but it’s sad for me that soon after I started singing there, a big change in Paris laws saw street musicians have their instruments confiscated and much of the performances ‘cleaned up’. It’s a shame as there were so many wonderful memories created by sharing time on the streets of Paris. I still believe in the acoustics of Paris’s little streets; there is something fascinating about how the sound works. When you’re singing there, you feel that your voice is bouncing back from buildings many streets away; it’s very romantic. Even today, walking around there, you can hear all kinds of things that are going on in the city – I like that.

Where is your favourite place in Paris?

I love Montmartre and it so happens my mother lives there, so I am lucky to be able to visit the 18th arrondissement often. I’m discovering it more and more, and believe it has some of the qualities that I loved about the Left Bank. I still find the area around the Cathédrale Notre-Dame fascinating and beautiful, and the 11th arrondissement is a great neighbourhood too.

What would you do if you only had one day left in the city?

Simply, I would like to be able to sit at a wonderful, humble terrace – not a big fancy expensive one – on a quiet walking street, watching the world go by. I could probably spend the whole day doing that.

Where do you go to escape the city?

I really love almost anywhere else in France, I just haven’t got enough time to explore. Mostly, it is because of my concerts that I get to see France. I have friends in Nice so I go down there, but I have grown away from the Côte d’Azur and don’t see it as a real escape. I have just been in Brittany and completely understand its attraction. I have also just visited Béziers – actually I stayed in a village just outside, in a lovely wine château dating from the 17th or 18th century, surrounded by amazing vineyards. I loved the provincial life there; it was wonderful and I would return at any excuse.

Madeleine Peyroux’s latest album Standing on the Rooftop is on sale now