​Madeleine Peyroux: Music with a little bit of pain

CBS News

Not all that long ago, singer Madeleine Peyroux was an American in Paris, performing on the streets with hat in hand. Today, she performs on stage to sold-out crowds. Her story comes from Terrell Brown, a former CBS News colleague now with station WLS in Chicago:

"If I were to close my eyes and I heard you, but I couldn't see you, I would think that you were an old black soul singer," said Brown. "What do you think about it?"

"Well, I think it's cool!" replied Madeleine Peyroux.

Listen to Peyroux, and you'll hear echoes of some of the greatest singers of all stripes: Patsy Cline, Bessie Smith, Bob Dylan, Edith Piaf. Then there's the legend she's most often compared to: Billie Holiday.

To hear Madeleine Peyroux perform "Don't Wait Too Long," from her new album, "Keep Me In Your Heart For a While: The Best of Madeleine Peyroux," click on the streaming audio player below. The album, on sale October 14, is currently available on pre-order from Amazon.

"You've been called jazz, you've been called folk," said Brown. "Some have even said a little bit of country. When you think about it -- what are you?"

"I'm a blues singer, I think," she replied.


Her 2013 recording, "The Blue Room," was a tribute to a groundbreaking Ray Charles album released half a century ago, "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music." But it has a Madeleine Peyroux touch . . . which is?

"Silence," Peyroux laughed. "Lots of silence and just a little bit of pain. You know, it's a joke we have with the guys I was playing with recently; it's just so it hurts just a little bit. That's what I like."

The roots of that "little bit of pain" run deep.

Peyroux grew up in Georgia, with stops in Hollywood and New York. Her father was a college professor, and she says she was deeply affected by his struggles with depression and alcoholism.

When she was 11, her parents divorced, and her mother was offered a job in Paris. Madeleine, her mother and brother took off for a new life overseas.

"It was a big dream for her," she said. "She was ready for a new start."

Madeleine's mother, Deirdre Westgate, still lives in Paris. She told Brown she had naively thought that "we're going to be the one big happy family.

"Oh God. How naïve!" she laughed.

Madeleine came immediately with a big chip on her shoulder: "I went off and became wild in my teenage years, and I did my share of drinking and just raising hell, as we used to say. "

"Would you say that was because of Dad?" asked Brown.

"No, but, you know, I probably knew how to do it 'cause I'd seen him do it," she laughed.

Peyroux found solace playing her guitar -- and she needed it, because she wasn't fitting in at the strict French schools. And when she was put in an English boarding school, she ran away.

"There were bars on the bathroom window in the upstairs where the girls lived," recalled Westgate. "And she unscrewed those, left all her things, got her guitar, jumped out the window and hitchhiked to a friend's house. I get a call saying, 'Your daughter's disappeared.'"

Her mother's patience had run out. "I gave her an ultimatum," said Westgate. "'You either stay in school or, you can go back to New York and live with your father. But this is not a hotel.'"

Peyroux said, "When it was finally clear that I was no longer going to go to school, you know, really my mom had kind of gone to the bottom of that pit with me, it was like, 'Now, well, that's it. You're done.'"

Westgate continued, "And she simply took her guitar because that was her buddy and she went out to the street to find where the music was. She was only 15."

Madeleine was living on the streets of Paris. You could say she was homeless, or you could say she found a new family: street musicians, who pushed her to develop her singular voice.

"I never thought she had real talent until she would sing out in the street; I thought it was a teenage rebellion," said Westgate.