Twenty years after her recording debut, Dreamland, Madeleine Peyroux continues her musical journey of exploring beyond the ordinary with Secular Hymns, a spirited and soulful masterwork of loping, skipping, sassy, feisty and sexy tunes delivered in a captivating mélange of funk, blues and jazz. With her trio that had been touring together for two years—electric guitarist Jon Herington and upright bassist Barak Mori—Peyroux set out to record in a live setting a collection of songs that have their own hymn-like stories of self-awareness and inner dialogue, a communal consciousness and a spiritual essence.
“Music has been our spiritual life,” she says. “So I think of these as hymns, secular hymns—songs that are very individual, personal, introverted.”
With her seductively expressive voice, Peyroux intimately renders tunes by seminal blues artists (two penned by Willie Dixon and one by Lil Green), the classic gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the under-the-radar dub star Linton Kwesi Johnson, three renowned contemporary composers (Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt, Allen Toussaint), the 19th century composer Stephen Foster (considered to be the first great songwriter in America) and ending with a traditional African-American spiritual.
What’s remarkable is the unique way in which this recording came to life. The story starts with a concert in an old church in the rural Oxfordshire countryside of England. Celebrated French chef Raymond Blanc had purchased an old manor in the tiny village of Little Milton and renamed it Belmond Le Manoir where he hosts events, including a nine-course meal in his Michelin-starred restaurant. As a part of the whole experience, people are invited before dinner to go to the nearby 12th-century Norman-styled church, St. Mary the Virgin, to attend a concert of live music. Last year Peyroux and her trio were invited to perform.
“At the sound check, I was singing Randy Newman’s song ’Guilty,’ and it was amazing the way my voice sounded in the cavernous room,” Peyroux says. “It has a wood ceiling that gave my voice a reverb. My live engineer Doug Dawson told me I should make a record there.”
Fresh from the rarefied experience of performing their songbook there, a few months later, they all returned to the church with Peyroux wanting to document the secular hymnal she and her band had been developing on the road. “We had all become very close, and we were stretching to come up with new sounds,” the acoustic guitarist says, noting that she had added a guilele (an acoustic, nylon-stringed tenor ukulele) to the voice of the band. “Jon became very versatile on the guitar and Barak was good with the bow. Plus they both like to sing. ”
Peyroux booked the 200-seat church for three days—first day for set up and sound check, second for a free live show for townspeople that was recorded, and third to recut new live takes sans audience if needed. “It was a blast playing with Jon and Barak and so much had to do with the interplay among us,” says Peyroux. “It’s a recording that reflects the organic way we had been working as a trio on the arrangements of these songs.”
While noting that she veers away from being “the normal jazz trio,” Peyroux nonetheless brings her jazz sensibility into roots music territory in such a moving way that she captures the celebration and praise implied in the songs—a special ten-song collection of bona fide Secular Hymns.
Over the past decade, the New Jersey born (now dividing time between New Orleans and the mountains of Vermont) vocalist/writer/musician/producer has been bestowed with many awards and praises, including being named the Female Songwriter of the Year by the National Academy of Songwriters. Norah Jones and Bonnie Raitt have raved about her in interviews, and she's performed on such high-profile radio shows as World Cafe, Mountain Stage and NPR's Morning Edition and Tell Me More. She's toured and opened for the likes of Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, Mavis Staples, Rufus Wainwright, B.B. King, Dr. John, Richie Havens, Keren Ann, Chris Whitley, and the Blind Boys of Alabama. Festivals that have asked Dayna to perform include the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the French Quarter Festival, Celebrate Brooklyn, Lincoln Center Out of Doors and Roots on the Rails.
Dayna’s new disc (Here, Vol. 1 released March 2017) is a live record with career spanning tracks, culled from her 2016 Dutch theater tour with guitarist Robert Mache. It manages to capture the heart-stopping edge-of-your-seat mesmerized silence that Dayna Kurtz seems to magic from her audiences. “I began my career as a teenager as background music in crowded Jersey Shore beach bars,” explains Kurtz, “and I used to make a game of seeing what it would take to shut people up, and I got kind of good at it. Although there’s some tricks to it, it was really more a kind of witchcraft than anything - I learned to draw whatever power and attention there was in the room being sent my way and send it back out again. Other people got caught in the loop and started paying attention too. And as long as the crowd wasn’t shitfaced or distracted by a TV I could usually get them. It was good training, even now that my audiences are more inclined to listening already anyway. A lot of my music requires some attention, so it was a good skill to learn.”
On her work and friendship with Robert Mache (Continental Drifters, Steve Wynn) Kurtz says, “I’ve loved Robert’s playing for such a long time, and we’ve been friends longer than we’ve been touring partners – he was one of the first musicians to befriend me in New Orleans. That we had such undeniable chemistry has been one of the greater recent gifts of my life, and I just wanted to document it somehow, and quite a few people in my life have suggested a live record. I’d been hesitant, only because there’s only a few live records I listen to with the devotion I’d give a beloved studio record. It’s notoriously really difficult to capture the feeling of being there in the dark experiencing it. Then the challenge of it intrigued me.”