The Interview: Diana Krall

Jazz singer and pianist Diana Krall on touring with her kids, paying to see Oscar Peterson and her late father’s legacy

Kacper Pempel/Reuters

Kacper Pempel/Reuters

Diana Krall isn’t the type of artist to have a musical mid-life crisis. The two-time Grammy-winning jazz singer and pianist is content doing what she feels she does best—swinging with the legends. Her latest disc, Wallflower, focuses on just that, as she records tracks plucked from the ’60s (the Eagles, the Mamas and the Papas), ’70s (10cc), ’80s (Crowded House) and today (an unrecorded Paul McCartney cut), with producer David Foster.

Q: What criteria did you have for choosing Wallflower’s tracklist? The songs look like they could be bookmarks of your 20s, 30s and 40s.

A: I don’t [often] get to sing songs that people of my generation grew up with. I can’t sing anything without a personal association.

Q: How did your eight-year-old sons affect Wallflower?

A: I’m making different choices now that my children are older. If it’s my choice to have a drink and a meal after a press day, I go home and and read to my children and put them to sleep. iChat is not like cuddling.

Q: Are you planning to take them on tour?

A: It’s important for me to bring my kids on tour. We need to be near each other. My role model in life as an artist and a mother is Sarah McLachlan. She does things with grace. During the challenges, I always think, “How would she do this?”

Q: Rufus Wainwright’s memories of being on the road with his mom, Kate McGarrigle, prompted him to make his own music.

A: You are talking about someone I hold in the highest regard. The reason I don’t have a Rufus cover on this album is I don’t have the range to sing anything he’s written.

Q: Wallflower opens with a cover of California Dreamin’. Michelle Phillips once said the song was about overcoming bad circumstances by “listening to the call of opportunity.” Do you feel that using your Canada Arts Council grant to move to Los Angeles when you were 19 echoes her interpretation?

A: That’s an eloquent way of putting it. I really wanted to be a jazz musician. I wasn’t singing at that time. I was at Berklee College of Music and came back home to B.C. I figured I’d go back to school. I finally got a scholarship to another school in Boston and then I got the call to study with [jazz musicians] Jimmy Rowles, Ray Brown and John Clayton—people I’d listen to on vinyl as a kid. So I remember talking to the [registrar’s office] about the fact I had this opportunity to go to L.A. to learn from [musicians] who used to play with Billie Holiday. She said, “I’m sure this will be much better for you.” Who would say that?

Q: If one of your twins becomes a musician, do you think you’d approve?

A: Now, as a mother, if my kid was doing what I was doing at that age I would freak out! I drove down with my father and I rented a room in a house in the suburbs of L.A. It didn’t even have a door. Before I got the grant, I had to fill out all these forms. Ray Brown wrote my letter of reference on a cocktail napkin. Jimmy Rowles doodled a little animated character of himself on my application form! I sent it all in. Thank God there was somebody who understood it didn’t matter if my references weren’t typed out formally.

Q: Once there, was the education just as frantic as the application process?

A: I was driving around like a crazy character out of [the film] Bridesmaids. I was playing at the same kind of country club Kristin Wiig pulled up to in her car. When I saw that movie, I actually said, “That was me” out loud. I was doing anything I could to play gigs so I could learn from my heroes and see them play live.

Q: Jimmy Rowles made a lasting impression.

A: I still have the manuscript paper where he wrote out all his voicings and chords for me [on] songs like Poor Butterfly. I’d sit on his couch and mostly ask him about Billie Holiday. Recently I was driving home and heard Jimmy on the radio and it hit me. I have the same feeling about him I did when I was a 16-year-old kid. Somehow we were extraordinarily connected. No matter what I’m playing, even if it’s Wallflower, I still sound like him.

Q: You cover 10cc’s I’m Not In Love, also covered by Tori Amos when she was the age you are now. She said, “I’m not going to wear 50 the way the media says I should wear 50.” Can you relate?

A: It reminds me of that skit on Saturday Night Live by Molly Shannon. “I kick and I stretch! I’m 50!” That’s me. I don’t feel like it. I don’t worry about age appropriateness. My kids think my only job is to make them laugh.

Q: You’ve always felt at odds with being a jazz singer but not a jazz pianist. Why?

A: As a jazz pianist, I was born to swing but I’m not a jazz singer. When I worked with Ray Brown, he tried to get me to scat. I told him straight out: “I. Do. Not. Do. That.” I’m not good at it. I just like to sing the melody.

Q: Have you received flak for not being at the keyboard on this disc?

A: I have. But David Foster is badass and he plays better than I can. This is his wheelhouse. He made my voice sound darker because he put everything in difficult keys: D, E and A. I’m cursing him now.

Q: Your father was a serious collector of sheet music and he’s left you such a legacy. Have you been able to sort through his archive yet?

A: I felt like I did some of that with Glad Rag Doll when I took all the songs I heard from the 78s and [the family’s] gramophone collection and put it into a show. My father died a month ago, so you can imagine that it’s very soon to be speaking about him. It’s very raw. I feel grateful I was able to honour his love for sheet music while he was here and able to enjoy it. He was at the first Glad Rag Doll show and I had his gramophone on stage with pictures of our family. His [death] has left me and my sister shattered. This new album is not my father’s collection, but I’m not doing a 180-degree turn when it comes to performance. I won’t leave him behind.

Q: How was it sharing a stage with Neil Young?

A: I felt like a student watching him talk about Phil Ochs and Gordon Lightfoot from side-stage. I was sitting there taking mental notes. Neil pushed me. He wanted me to figure out the audiences and take a risk. I’d try a Buffy Saint-Marie song! I was putting my ass on the line in front of Neil Young fans in Calgary. I had to play this broken piano that he had and every night I did the Tom Waits song Take It With Me and that piano made me play differently.

Q: It sounds like you tailor sets to your venue.

A: When I was with Neil Young, we were in Regina with a lot of flannel shirts in the audience. I wasn’t going to sing Peel Me a Grape then. C’mon! So since Neil started talking about Gordon Lightfoot, I sang If You Could Read My Mind. I went on to record it and it will be on an EP soon.

Q: The CBC wrote about your version of Peel Me a Grape and claimed your version has dominatrix undertones. When you are singing live, are you having a 50 Shades of Grey moment?

A: Maybe when you’re 28. Now I sing that song because fans want it and I’m such a ham, I’ll stop between [lyrics] and say, “I really don’t believe that line—I’m a mom with two children.”

Q: You did a duet with Rosemary Clooney on an amazing version of The Boy From Ipanema.

A: She was like a second mother to me. She taught me to be myself. I don’t mean that in a [trite] way. She told me to not be afraid.

Q: At 70, Clooney was out on the road for 300 days. Is that an act you want to follow?

A: I would want to be Tony Bennett. I’d do what he did with Lady Gaga instead. Thank God they did that record. It gives me hope.

Q: The most humbling lesson you learned?

A: I came from a place that was not entitled. I remember Ray Brown was going to play with Oscar Peterson at the Blue Note and the tickets were $60. I was hoping he’d give me a free ticket. He said, “You can buy a ticket so you can learn what it’s like to work really hard to pay for a ticket . . . just like the rest of the audience.” So I did.

Q: You’ve stated that on your Live In Paris disc, you weren’t happy with your interpretation of Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You. Why?

A: I feel like I needed more time with it. Every night on tour when I do it, I try to find my way into it. It will be on a Canadian EP, which will be out soon. Live In Paris represents a favourite time in my life. My parents were there and it was at the peak of record-selling and you weren’t worried about streaming and Spotify. My mum had had a bone-marrow transplant and she was well and we were all able to have a big party.

Q: Are some songs best sung at a certain age?

A: Most certainly. Hearing Dylan sing [Frank Sinatra’s] Why Try to Change Me Now was hard. I’ve recorded demos of it and I couldn’t get to a certain passage in the song: [sings] “Don’t you remember I was always your clown / I’m sentimental so I walk in the rain.” I’m fine until halfway through and then it doesn’t represent anything that I am. It suits a 73-year-old like Dylan. He knows it and he’s lived it.

Q: Many artists don’t have that sensitivity when it comes to covers.

A: If I’m hard on myself, it’s because I saw Sinatra sing Angel Eyes and I heard Oscar Peterson—who I could never touch now.

Q: You can’t touch a Peterson song yet you produced a No. 1 selling album for Barbra Streisand?

A: She recently posted a picture of the two of us and said I was a good gin rummy player. My sister had to show me because I’m not a social media person. Anyway, when there was a lull in recording, she’d say, “Why is everybody not doing anything?” And I’d [explain] that microphones needed to be tweaked and so on. So I thank my nana for teaching me how to play cards because I was able to distract her from all the waiting.

Q: In an [old] interview with Jazz Times you were quoted as saying you are embarrassed by applause. Has that changed?

A: Of course. There’ve been a lot of changes over 20 years in this career. I want people to come to my shows. Björk just did a really good interview with Pitchfork. She talks about how you want to have humility and be grateful and thankful—I think I’ve expressed that I am—but I am also a realist. I know what my strengths are. I may not be the greatest piano player in the world but I can swing real hard.

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