Video Premiere & Web-Exclusive Interview


Video:  “American


Madeleine Peyroux’s powerful new song “American” builds on her previous album’s themes and asks an all-important question that is necessary for 2020: What does it mean to be American?

Peyroux’s career has traveled one of music industry’s most compelling and extraordinary journeys. Eight albums and 24 years since her debut Dreamland, Peyroux continues to challenge the confines of jazz, venturing into the fertile fields of contemporary music with unfading curiosity. Her songwriting casts a sober, poetic and at times philosophical eye on the current state of the world.

Photo credit Yann Orhan

Her 2016 album Anthem was produced and co-written by Larry Klein. The album came to life during the pivotal 2016 US elections, with the writers absorbing a “constant stream of news” over many months. The “consciously not too preachy” songs fused Peyroux’s political outlook, with glimpses into her personal world. Anthem weaved colorful stories of people confronting life’s challenges in a multitude of ways.

Now “American” picks up and carries those themes deeper and further, with co-writer and producer Goldings on Wurlitzer piano, Kaveh Rastegar on bass, Abe Rounds on drums, Rich Hinman on pedal steel and Paul Frazier on vocals.

Peyroux’s powerful, thought-provoking lyrics propel the listener into introspective action. The distinctive music and crisp harmonies at times purposefully strike discord compelling us to consider the pressing questions she presents.

We talked with Madeleine Peyroux about what inspires her creative process, what keeps her hopeful in these unique times, her passion for asking questions hoping to create social change and her need to stir people into action and especially now—vote.


with M Music & Musicians magazine publisher, Merlin David

How did the idea of the song “American” come to you?

This spring, I spent time reading and researching Koans and watching the evening news and YouTube documentaries. I read and wrote ideas for Koans in the afternoon, watched the evening news over dinner and fell asleep hearing James Baldwin announce, while baring witness to the Black American experience in a debate with Christopher Hitchens, how deeply he loves this country and that his love for it is what drove him to speak up against it most strongly.

Tell us about Koans?
The Koans were for a weird idea wherein I planned to make a prerecorded concert and then combine each song with a visual thought experiment—a Koan—to drive home the idea that time and music are happening in the moment. I needed to find the right meditative idea which would involve contemporary life, in a practical way, rather than what is the sound of one hand clapping or the emptiness of medieval Japanese Buddhist alms bowls.

How did the song’s integral question come to you?
This question came to me as a Koan would, and I soon realized that not only was it a question that I could not answer, but one I had not ever really tried to answer. I realized that I never felt I had the right to define it myself. Someone had always told me what it meant to be American. I have grown to disagree with many things I have been taught—so I should reexamine it. Then, as Koans do, it became existential, rather than idealistic or any of the other things we hear people say about it. It made me set aside my focus on facts and history and arguments and perspective on those things. It started to reveal a state of being. Being existential, it insisted I acknowledge the unknown—and further still, to accept there are unknowables. But music has the key to the unknowable. If it is a good question to pose others, and if I could be so lucky as to share this question in the form of a song, then I will have made that connection to the unknowable answer, and possibly learn something about myself and my country. So the idea for the song came to me as innocently as any question you would hear from a four-year-old child.

Photo credit Yann Orhan

You’ve traveled the world with your music, and you’ve lived in Paris. How did that inform this song?
My experience of the world has been as a traveler. I was born in the Deep South, lived in Portland, Hollywood, Brooklyn and Williamsburg, Virginia. When I was 12, we moved to France. At 15, I immediately caught the gypsy bug, joined a band and traveled around Western Europe, and later the United States by car—until I was handed a career in my early 20s which sent me back on the road and quickly across oceans and continents.

That’s a lot of traveling.

Since I was about 15 years old, I have been a traveling American singer, exploring the world with that identity, defined by the music I studied and performed, inside and outside this country. This American music has been the only consistent source of meaning in my life and my identity in the world.

Did you feel a change?
Now, for once, I am home, in one place, as have we all been this year. I am part of a captive audience to the suffering. Since May 25 (RIP George Floyd), I find I am in constant mourning for Black Americans, immigrants, Native Americans and every minority who can barely survive under the American identity that has been laid on them. If there is some part of being American that I don’t understand but I should be standing for, fighting for, fighting against or learning to accept—it is my duty as a human being to try to correct that in myself and be in the proactive position where I stand.

What would you like the listener to hear?
I want this song to ask others what it means to be American. Most of all, I want this song to declare that I choose to define my American-ness as I see fit. I want this song to give the same power to anyone who hears it. I claim for us all the power to decide what it means to be American, even those of us who do not have the power to vote. And for all those who do have that right, I encourage us to claim our power to do so—and vote in the coming election.

Photo credit Yann Orhan

This powerful song poses an important question without beating the listener over the head.
This song is meant to be genuinely and naively asking a question of the listener. In the end, I just want to ask what it means. But by asking the question, I want this song to declare that I own the power to answer it for myself, and so do you. I have not decided on the answer just yet. Perhaps, I hope, this song will help me get there. However, I insist that it is my decision to make. I intend to purposefully make that decision someday. In so doing, I intend to wrest the false ideas from my definition which were laid on me, and install the perspectives I consciously choose to include in their place. In that sense, this is a song about power. I am claiming the power to decide what it means to be American to me. Having been gifted the right to vote, I will claim that power when I vote in the coming election.

In this unique socio-political climate, how do you remain hopeful?
By reading and listening to others who are hopeful—from Baldwin, Chekhov, Bessie Smith, Maya Angelou and Woody Guthrie to Dave Chappelle, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Dr. Anthony Fauci. Focusing on the outspoken hope of so many, and taking action only when I am sure that it comes from a centered place in me. James Baldwin said—one has to demand the impossible, for it is all one can hope for. Fannie Lou Hamer declared that she was speaking to the whole world, especially the international community, when she testified about police brutality in Mississippi at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. We have to keep hoping because there is no other option.

Photo credit Yann Orhan

Where can new fans get more info and stay updated?

Instagram: @madeleinepeyroux

Twitter: @mpeyrouxmusic

Follow Madeleine Peyroux on Instagram for the Reels campaign (and soon TikTok, as well) to post a video clip with the song audio—or a response of your own. She will sew all submissions together into a virtual quilt and share it with the world. Use the tags #american #americatome #madeleinepeyroux

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