NEW YORK - Madeleine Peyroux walks about with a guitar case strapped to her back, ready to make music, as she's done since her teenage years when she busked on the streets of Paris singing old-style jazz and blues songs.
But she's no longer just playing a guitar or singing: On her new CD, Bare Bones, she had a hand in writing each of the 11 songs.
It's a daring high-wire act for the 34-year-old singer who for the first time is working without the safety net of covering songs associated with Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, among others.
That approach helped launch her career in 1996 with the critically acclaimed debut album Dreamland, followed eight years later with her second CD, 2004's Careless Love and then 2006's Half the Perfect World. Her last two CDs sold more than two million copies worldwide.
While she cowrote four songs on Half the Perfect World, she said at the time that she wasn't overly interested in proving herself as a songwriter, and felt comfortable in her role as an interpreter of others' songs.
Still, she always had a desire to write, and with Bare Bones, her songwriting dreams were completely realized.
"It's almost as if I were doing my first album over again," said Peyroux, very much the un-diva, dressed in black, her long brown hair parted in the middle, and wearing little or no makeup. "It feels like I have a clean slate to work with artistically. ... I think it's what's going to keep me going."
Peyroux credits producer Larry Klein, the ex-husband and longtime collaborator of Joni Mitchell, with encouraging her to develop her songwriting skills since they first worked together on Careless Love, which had only one original song. As producer, he enlisted such songwriting talent as Norah Jones' collaborator Jesse Harris, Steely Dan's Walter Becker, Joe Henry, Julian Coryell and David Batteau to help chisel Peyroux's music and lyrics for Bare Bones.
"At the very beginning, on 'Careless Love,' Maddie was very clear that her dream was to sing the songs that she wrote ... and I could tell she had the seed of being a great writer inside her, because . . . she knows what makes a good song," Klein said. "I think this record has really given her the confidence to dedicate herself to exploring songwriting in a committed way."
Musically, Peyroux says she's working with the same palette as on her previous three albums - a blend of jazz, Americana roots music and especially the blues, all filtered through a contemporary prism. Although she's not singing any Bessie or Billie songs, Peyroux says black American female blues singers still help shape her identity. She dedicated the album's one entirely self-penned song, "I Must Be Saved," to her "spiritual grandmother," Odetta, who died in December. She toured with her in 2006.
"The song really reminds me a lot of my own life," said Peyroux. "It doesn't matter, somehow we always get through, we lose and then we continue."
Bare Bones is Peyroux's most revealing, personal statement to date, but its songs resonate more broadly in these troubled times. The opening track, "Instead," is a retro blues with an uplifting message that sounds as if it could have been sung during the Great Depression. The CD closes on a hopeful note with "Somethin' Grand," which she wrote "in support of the new era with Barack Obama."
In between, Peyroux mixes tragedy with comedy - sometimes in the same song as on "You Can't Do Me" - as she deals with darker themes from her tumultuous life story. Songs such as the title track and "River of Tears" explore her troubled relationship with her father, an alcoholic and aspiring actor, who died in 2005.
"I would say that the central theme of the record is that you can survive anything," Klein said.