The Sound and the Fury

The sappy ones involve hard work and adversity ; the gritty ones, substance abuse and jail time. It doesn't really matter how your personal story goes, just so long as you have one. That is, if you want large numbers of people to buck the law of averages and buy your book, your CD, or whatever else you're selling.  

Madeleine Peyroux had one. A Salinger-esque tale about how talent and weirdness go hand in hand, it opened most reviews of her album released last year, Careless Love, which has since gone gold and sold almost a million copies worldwide. This nearly a decade after being “a star on the rise,” as the Wall Street Journal' s breathless reviewer called her. She'd made a critically acclaimed debut album titled Dreamland and then, as the Boston Globe noted, “promptly disappeared.” Peyroux, another reviewer said, “performed the ultimate 'Where's Waldo?' and disappeared from the recording scene for eight years.”

Where had she been? Peyroux told National Public Radio that she had been having “adventures,” that she'd “explored religion for a while and did a lot of reading.” There was one problem with this business about Peyroux's eight-year “hiatus,” as a news release called it. The story wasn't true.

The true story began with a career on hold so long it might never have reemerged but for a harmonica player–the same one, as it happens, who recorded the harmonica part on the Sesame Street theme song. Romance had ensued, along with Peyroux's professional rebound.

Then things took a turn. More characters came on stage, including Rounder, the Cambridge record label. Accusations gave way to counteraccusations, one album competed with another, and suddenly everyone wound up in court.

Of course, making music has proved disputatious before, in cases involving everyone from Ike and Tina to the Supremes. This time, though, the story would entail more than just a lawsuit. It would involve sex, money, Prozac, falls from grace, a stunning comeback, and a self-styled David who says he and his music are victims of a corporate Goliath.

One night three and a half years ago, William Galison was walking down Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village when he “heard this wonderful voice coming from a bar, and I walked in and there was this girl playing the guitar and singing. And nobody was listening.” She performed a “really dumb song by Buck Owens,” and because she was playing without accompaniment, “her songs lasted about 30 seconds.” Galison recognized the singer, Madeleine Peyroux, having seen her a couple of years earlier performing on the street. He offered to sit in with his chromatic harmonica, and it became a regular thing.

One night Peyroux asked Galison if she could sleep at his nearby apartment instead of trekking back to Westchester, where she was crashing with friends. She ended up staying for about six months. They became a regular act. They also became lovers. “We were pretty much a unit,” Galison says affectionately. They would brunch with his parents, visit his sister's place in the country, or work on the crossword together.

But they were very different people. For a musician, Galison has enjoyed a pretty stable existence–bourgeois, even. He grew up in Manhattan and attended exclusive schools. He's lived in the same apartment for 25 years, and runs a side business selling a watch he invented that shows the phases of the moon. Peyroux is just the opposite. Her story might have been written as a caricature of the temperamental artist. She was born in Georgia, lived for a while in Brooklyn, then moved to Paris. She left school as a teenager and was initiated into the gypsy life of the busker. Her family is scattered, voluminous, and complicated.

Galison's career is built on session work. He's played with a load of famous people, from Sting to Chaka Khan, not to mention Big Bird and company. Peyroux is more of a mystery figure, whose career until recently consisted of a hard apprenticeship, one brief and shining moment of success, and a long, difficult drought.

“She was very open with me in terms of telling me about her past and her family life,” says Galison, “and that things were basically a mess.” Which would not surprise anyone who's heard her sing. Along with her Billie Holiday voice, the layers of pain and experience call to mind a time when great singers plumbed the dark depths of the human heart. According to Galison, Peyroux would stay in bed till 3 or 4 in the afternoon, “like she just needed a year to sleep.”

It was a productive time nevertheless. After debuting at a small downtown bar in the summer of 2002, Peyroux and Galison were getting work at better venues and improving their act. They played at the Bottom Line, then a premier music club. They even performed abroad.

Around Christmas, Peyroux moved out. Though broken up, she and Galison continued playing together, and began recording an album. Eventually called Got You on My Mind, it consisted, initially, of seven tracks with Peyroux singing and Galison playing several instruments and acting as producer and artistic director. It was a collaborative work, and the CD bore both of their names. But Galison provided almost all the financing–more than $50,000, according to records he filed in court. (Peyroux would not comment for this story except to deny all of Galison's legal claims.)

Recording was interrupted as the pair left for a gig in Germany with the Dresden Philharmonic, where they sold copies of the unfinished CD. The cover photo they were using showed Galison and Peyroux with their faces turned toward each other, noses touching. “It was a really sweet time,” says Galison. But near the end of the trip, it became clear something was wrong. Peyroux seemed to Galison to be “racked with regret and remorse.”

“We made love,” Galison recalls, “and afterwards she was weeping and weeping, and I said, 'It seems to me that either you're having feelings for me you don't want to have or you're not having feelings for me you do want to have.'”

At this point Galison had already played a central role in reviving the career of Madeleine Peyroux. The recording marked her first successful return to the studio since Dreamland. Nine months earlier, Peyroux had been living with friends. Now she had more than half a new album recorded, and was regularly performing at gigs where she sold that unfinished CD.

In her deposition, however, Peyroux recalls a contentious relationship. She says Galison didn't “accept the fact that I booked the shows myself . . . and that the shows were advertised under my name, that the audiences were buying tickets in order to see me.” There was also another woman–though Galison says the fling took place while he and Peyroux were officially broken up.

Weeks after that, Peyroux and Galison were romantically involved again, though bickering, when she was driving him in her old Toyota truck north on Sixth Avenue. Peyroux wanted to talk, but Galison insisted on keeping his evening plans. During a heated back-and-forth, Galison's hand knocked the rear-view mirror off Peyroux's truck. This, she maintains, made her fear for her safety.

Another time, Galison was driving with Peyroux to a party in Connecticut. They had another argument, this one over whether Peyroux would perform a song Galison had wanted for the act. “William exploded . . . he went into this state of rage,” according to Peyroux's deposition, and said, “'I'm going to kill us both.'” He accelerated toward a sign on the side of the road, then slammed on the brakes. “I was relieved we didn't have an accident,” Peyroux said.

Galison denies suggestions of abuse or intimidation and disputes Peyroux's account of the trip to Connecticut. “I have never hit a woman in my life,” he says. He agrees that the relationship sometimes tended toward the dramatic, but points his finger in the other direction. “She can be very sweet,” he says of his ex-girlfriend, “and she can also be, I think, the meanest person I've ever met in my life.”

In the spring of 2003, Galison says, while they were recording Got You on My Mind, Peyroux told him she was negotiating a deal with Rounder Records. According to Galison, Peyroux said Rounder didn't want the recording she was making with him to be in stores when the Rounder album came out. Peyroux's contract prohibited her from selling the seven tracks she made with Galison except at live performances.

Galison says he offered to pull the joint album from stores once the Rounder record came out, so long as Peyroux toured in support of it until then. It was not to be. That summer Peyroux asked Galison not to take part in a gig they were supposed to play, and disagreements arose over payment for the cancellation. Galison found himself talking as much, if not more, to Peyroux's lawyer as to Peyroux. Later that year Galison's own lawyer informed Peyroux that Got You on My Mind –the seven tracks Peyroux had recorded with Galison, plus four of his own–was being released.

The response was swift and hostile. Peyroux's lawyer, Jeffrey Greenberg, called the recording merely a demo. He threatened legal action against Galison and any retailer or distributor who sold it. Greenberg also wrote, “We have obtained, directly and from Ms. Peyroux, evidence of numerous incidents of physically and verbally abusive behavior by Mr. Galison against Ms. Peyroux.”

Soon after that, Galison's distributor, citing Greenberg's threat to sue, refused to handle Got You on My Mind. Galison returned fire, suing Peyroux, her lawyer, and Rounder for tortious interference, and Peyroux and her lawyer for libel. Rounder has been dismissed twice from the case, though Galison is free to renew his complaint against the record company, which he says he plans to do. Rounder won't comment.

“I'm going to make these people pay, and I'm not talking about Madeleine, but Rounder and Greenberg,” Galison says. “I'm going to make them pay me for the money they lost me and for the time that they lost me, and hopefully make them pay for the real damages that they caused me, and that includes putting me into a major depression. Even though I was on Prozac when this whole thing went down, I had to increase my dose. I was in bad shape.”

At one point, Peyroux hoped Rounder would buy and release the tracks she made with Galison. But Got You on My Mind is doing okay on its own, receiving positive reviews, and selling relatively well despite its limited availability. Its not-as-hip song selection and playful instrumentals offer a sunny contrast to the dark clouds of Careless Love, itself an important album that marks a significant advance in Peyroux's career.

There's no telling how well Got You on My Mind might have sold had Peyroux finished the album and toured behind it. After all, it was the first Madeleine Peyroux album in almost eight years.