The original impetus behind singer-songwriter Madeleine Peyroux’s new “The Blue Room” was to create a contemporary homage to Ray Charles’s 1962 “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.” Which makes sense. Charles’s album was a groundbreaking fusion of genres — the king of R&B delivering an album of country standards, replete with strings and swooning female backup choruses. Just as genre-bending — if less radical these days — is Peyroux’s reflection of contemporary folk and pop through a lens of old swing and blues. So now, with “The Blue Room,” she’s laid her own fusion on top of Charles’s.
If that sounds a bit meta, don’t be alarmed. “The Blue Room” is, in part, Madeleine Peyroux covering Ray Charles’s covers of country tunes, but it’s also distinctly a Madeleine Peyroux album. So even though there’s a full string section backing most tracks, all the Peyroux markers are here: the swing and shuffle rhythms, the spare backing band of guitars and vintage keyboards, and Peyroux’s laid-back, Billie Holiday purr of a voice. And what’s more, there are three post-Ray covers (by Leonard Cohen, John Hartford, Warren Zevon) and a dash of Buddy Holly.
There’s another of element of “The Blue Room” familiar to fans of Peyroux (who plays the Berklee Performance Center Sunday with her band and a string quartet) — her pervasive melancholy. She takes tunes like “Bye Bye Love” at daringly slow tempos, and even the Buddy Holly song, “Changing All Those Changes,” shuffles along with a sense of ironic resignation (“I’m changing all those changes that I made when I left you”). And ending a Ray Charles homage with a song by Warren Zevon (“Desperadoes Under the Eaves”) makes a statement that’s more woebegone than bittersweet. Songs of heartbreak were Ray Charles’s stock-in-trade, but in his unparalleled delivery, anguish was exalted, projected on a big screen. Peyroux’s version of “Born to Lose,” with strings and muted trumpet obbligato, brings the song down to a domestic intimacy, and it’s somehow sadder. Considering these performances and the other songs covered here — like Newman’s “Guilty” and Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire” — the album might have been called “The Darker Side of ‘Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.’ ”
“Absolutely!” says Peyroux reached by phone in New York. “That’s exactly what it is!”
This is Peyroux’s fourth album with producer Larry Klein, and the idea for a Ray Charles homage came from him. After two albums of mostly originals, Peyroux knew she wanted to try a covers album and was inspired by Klein’s work with string arranger Vince Mendoza on the Joni Mitchell album “Both Sides Now.”
“We weren’t trying to do anything outrageous; we were just trying to give a real, heartfelt representation of this music and see what it means to go back to it 50 years after the original record, and to look at the stories and songs from a different angle.”
To Peyroux’s credit, she can get you to listen anew to extremely familiar material, like Cohen’s iconic “Bird on the Wire.” With Mendoza’s backing chorus of strings, lightly twanging guitars, and the soft swish of brushes, the song has never sounded prettier. If your impression of it comes from the charismatic croak of Cohen’s original, then Peyroux’s deliberately paced phrasing and affectless tone can get you paying attention to the lyrics again.
“Finding another way to do that song was all I wanted, really,” says Peyroux. “I think it’s one of the greatest songs ever written. My role was to find a way to meet the challenge of filling space without filling it up . . . and let people fill the space themselves.”
As for the beauty of the production, she says, “I think the person who’s speaking in that song is not a beautiful character. And perhaps that’s the irony we were going for: to make this beautiful backdrop and let you think about what might be beautiful in that ugliness.”
Before her 1996 Atlantic Records debut, “Dreamland,” Peyroux had cut her chops as a teenage busker in Paris, where she, her mother and brother had moved after her parents separated. It was there that she immersed herself in the world of Billie Holiday and early swing and blues. Peyroux has identified her work with Klein on the Cohen song “Dance Me to the End of Love” (from her 2004 Rounder release, “Careless Love”) as a kind of personal breakthrough in merging folk and jazz.
“Larry gave me an entire book, I think, of Leonard Cohen songs. And that song was one that I sat around playing by myself — the swing rhythm came from the way I approached it naturally.”
She says Klein also shares her dark sensibility, even in the choice of the Zevon. “I think the trick for me,” say Peyroux, “is to make sure I don’t get too dark. Because I’m there already, and I’d like to kind of get through it!” She laughs. “Not getting into it, but getting through it!”Jon Garelick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jgarelick.