When Madeleine Peyroux first emerged in the mid-'90s with her bluesy Dreamland, she came across as a Billie Holiday analog who happened to have an affinity for Edith Piaf. She was an interesting talent, and her early years busking on the streets of Paris made for an exotic backstory. But her sources obscured her personal voice.
Thanks to vocal problems and record-company snafus, Peyroux (who headlines the Isthmus Jazz Festival on June 9) took eight years to release her next album, 2004's Careless Love. The waiting couldn't have been much fun, but the time away from the spotlight made her an entirely different artist. The languorous phrasing and taste for melancholy she inherited from Holiday were still there. But a new confidence in her own creative powers animated the set of wistful, at times ethereal covers of Elliott Smith, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams and W.C. Handy. Blending pop, blues and opiated prewar cocktail jazz, she'd fashioned a new kind of torch singing that made the bittersweet pangs of heartache cool again.
How cool? Careless Love transformed the thoughtful, interview-shy Peyroux into an instant international star.
Was she a true jazz singer? A pop singer with an attraction to light improvisation? Frankly, only purists even asked the questions. Peyroux struck a chord with audiences that had grown up on off-stream folk and rock artists and were searching for something more sophisticated.
She wasn't Norah Jones. She felt her material. She wasn't making comforting aural wallpaper. As she burnished melodies with her smoky, restrained voice, they began to glow with unfamiliar colors.
Once Peyroux began packing venues worldwide, magazine and newspaper writers chalked up the Georgia-born singer's frequent musical flirtation with heartache and loneliness to growing up in a broken academic home and moving to Paris as a teenager. Her apparent disappearance at the end of a European tour (actually, she was in New York with her manager) confirmed that the sadness in the songs was a reflection of her own fragility.
But those analyses were too easy, far too romantic. Frankly, part of Peyroux's appeal is that she doesn't simply overlay her own emotions on cover material; she takes possession of it. You can feel her ruminating on the meaning of each song as it unfolds, discovering new dimensions of the lyrics as she goes along. Even she doesn't seem to know where the next verse will lead.
Peyroux showed more growth with her most recent album, 2006's Half the Perfect World. Switching back and forth between jazz standards, covers of artists she admires and originals she wrote with a variety of collaborators (Norah Jones' songwriting partner Jesse Harris among them), she revealed a little more about herself and a whole lot about the breadth of her influences.
Leonard Cohen's "Half the Perfect World" and the darkly erotic "Blue Alert" receive especially complex treatments. In the former, she adds a female perspective to Cohen's sardonic evocation of sexual attraction and confusion. In the latter, she sighs her way through a remembrance of assignations past, losing herself in its sad ambience.
Peyroux's melancholy treatment of Tom Waits' "(Looking for) the Heart of Saturday Night" is nearly as piquant. She blends weariness and wonder with a sure hand, loping along with her band's lonesome-prairie cowboy setting of the tune.
For the most part, Peyroux's own songs are surprisingly wry and, well, almost upbeat. The lazy blues of "A Little Bit" wouldn't sound out of place at a house party, even if Peyroux offers a withering assessment of silver-spoon bohemians in the middle bars.
The album isn't Careless Love, and it may not be exactly what Peyroux's old fans wanted. But it showcases a unique singer who has no intention of flipping on the cruise control just yet. When she interprets tracks like "Blue Alert," "A Little Bit" or Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" in concert, you can bet that giving pat, romantic readings of each song will be the furthest thing from her mind.
Isthmus Jazz Festival headliner
Saturday, June 9, Wisconsin Union Theater, 8:30 p.m.
Tickets available at the Wisconsin Union Theater box office, 800 Langdon Street; by calling at 262-2201; or through uniontheater.wisc.edu. $18-$32; $10 UW students.