When Madeleine Peyroux was 17, Yves Beauvais, an Atlantic Records VP, heard her sing at a New York City club and gave her his card. Peyroux, unsure about making a career of singing, returned to Paris—where she had been working as a street busker—and waited a couple of years to call. Now her debut album, Dreamland, with its mix of vintage blues, torch songs and country ballads, has critics comparing the 22-year-old to Billie Holiday.
Peyroux was born in Georgia and raised in Southern California and Brooklyn, but Paris, where she moved at 13 with her mother and younger brother two years after her parents' divorce, is where she came of musical age. At 15, Peyroux left school and moved out on her own; six months later she joined a street ensemble called the Lost Wandering Blues & Jazz Band. Peyroux talked with writer-reporter Lisa Kay Greissinger in New York City on the eve of a tour—of clubs and music halls, not sidewalks.
What was your first gig?
At a jazz club, Paris's Bilboquet, singing ballads. I was making 500 francs a night, about $100, and I had to be in school every morning at 8. I would get off from the club at about 2 o'clock. I decided I couldn't do both, and that I could always go back to school later. It didn't go over well with my mother.
How did you become a busker?
It started with me passing the hat for the musicians. As the hat passer, I got a smaller share. Then I asked if I could sing a song. When I started singing, I got an equal share.
Will we still see you performing on the street?
Busking was a way of life for me, and I still do it occasionally. When I was making the record in New York, the Lost Wandering happened to be in town. I had a few days off, and I needed to make some money. We played at the corner of 77th and Columbus. I got a wedding gig out of it.