Is Peyroux the '90s Billie Holiday?

When Madeleine Peyroux takes the stage, a picture begins to form. The robust 22-year-old chanteuse wears dangling street-fair earrings and baggy pants, and cracks jokes with her backup band. As she steps to the microphone, you expect to hear something folksy, fulsome, down-to-earth. Then she begins to sing.

The voice is an absolute contradiction to the picture. Suddenly it’s 3 a.m. in an empty apartment, and it’s been raining for a month. It’s a voice that could wring tears from a Pentium chip. It’s a voice that, following a guest performance by Peyroux at New York City’s Lincoln Center, prompted The New York Times to say, ”She might as well have been channeling Billie Holiday.”

Lady Day material is indeed in her repertoire, as are songs associated with Patsy Cline and Edith Piaf, in addition to some original compositions. (Peyroux’s debut CD, Dreamland, is sizzling up Billboard’s Heatseekers chart.) ”Every singer adds something personal to the songs they sing,” says Peyroux. ”It may be what they’ve lived through, or what they’re longing to live through, but the voice carries it all. You don’t have to be down-and-out to sing the blues.”

Though a newcomer, Peyroux has already been selling out shows in low-key venues like New York City’s Knitting Factory and chic cafe Fez. As Greg Cohen, one of Dreamland‘s producers, explains, ”Madeleine’s performing style [makes] people feel like they’re listening to someone’s soul.”

After a childhood spent moving from city to city while her father sought work as an actor, Peyroux relocated to Paris with her mother at 13. ”Only when I saw street musicians did I think of singing professionally,” she says. She took off from boarding school in the 10th grade, spending a summer passing the hat as a street musician in Cannes. At 16 she was singing folk songs in Paris cafes — but her tastes had changed.

”Old jazz was a big part of the Latin Quarter scene,” Peyroux says. ”I needed someone I could trust to be able to express myself. Billie Holiday had the emotions I had, and that’s why she stuck.

”If I’m going to grow as an artist, I need to grow out of what I learned from Holiday.” She then lets out a husky laugh. ”I suppose I’ll just have to sprout.”