Diana Krall

For entirely selfish reasons I have been trying hard to like Diana Krall. I go to see her in concert, you see. I have all her albums. And the next time I go to see her in concert, or play one of her albums, I don’t want to have it ruined by a voice in my head saying: ‘What a cow.’ But the fact is, from the moment she turned up late, pointedly ignored me while she poured herself a coffee, and then greeted me with a crusher handshake, the world’s bestselling jazz singer and pianist has been in a foul mood. Ominously, when I try to melt the permafrost by congratulating her on her pregnancy (her first, at 41, baby due in December) and asking her the standard jokey question about whether she has developed any odd cravings or caught herself behaving erratically she glowers at me, actually glowers, and says in a flat voice: ‘You might just find out.’

After five minutes of her blocking my questions with defensive, one-sentence answers delivered in a Canadian monotone, I consider throwing in the towel. Upon reflection I wonder whether I shouldn’t just ask her if she wants to reschedule. But then I remember how tight her schedule is: she flew into London from LA last night to begin a three week tour of Europe — and so jetlag may partly account for her charmlessness. Anyway we have already rescheduled — the interview was originally going to happen in Italy. So instead I smile and say: You don’t like being interviewed much, do you? It seems to help.  She sighs. ‘I don’t like talking about myself.’

So why did she agree to meet me? She shrugs, rubs her bare arms and complains about the air conditioning being on too high.

Does talking about Diana Krall make Diana Krall feel self conscious? Silence. ‘It’s not my favourite thing to do. It’s boring.’ Another silence. ‘I’m quite shy.’ (The default excuse of rude people.) ‘And people have preconceptions about me.’

Such as? ‘You know, from the photographs.’

She refers to her album sleeves, the ones that made her the poster girl of the jazz world — Diana in tulle by moonlight; Diana barefoot and swathed in sarape on the shoreline; Diana all sultry, blonde and puffy-lipped in a little black dress that shows off her long legs (she’s 5ft 8in) and stiletto heels.

She is a seriously talented jazz pianist. She wins Grammies. She gets asked to play at the White House. Did she worry that she might be taken less seriously because of those photographs? ‘No I never thought of that. It was my choice. The record company didn’t make me do it.  I love fashion and I love photography. But I know a lot of people who put pretty pictures of themselves on their covers and the records don’t sell. My records always sell. My tours always sell out. I think I deserve more credit for that as a live performer. I’m not saying the pictures didn’t help. But just because you have a pretty girl in a pretty dress it’s not going to change people’s mind about whether they like your music or not. I had to apologise for those record covers for a while, I won’t do that any more. Get over it, people. That’s all petty stuff.’

Now this is more like it; something approaching passion; and delivered in a torrent, with the words almost eliding one into the other. Not wanting her to lose momentum, I suggest that, anyway, the photographs complement the music. “Yeah, there is a sexuality to the music. It’s sexy.’

They complement her singing voice, too. She shrugs. ‘Yeah, the smoky voice, Scotch and cigarettes, all that crap.’ I’m beginning to feel some sympathy for her, having to endure such clichés — because the point about Diana Krall’s singing voice is that it is not clichéd. It is completely original, partly because of its androgyny and almost tenor depth, and partly to do with a crack it has. It is husky, slow-burning, breathy; almost lisping at times. And her phrasing manages to be both languid and supple: bending notes, stretching them expressively, fading to a whisper. It’s as subtle as dark chocolate, her voice. It’s like, yes, Scotch and cigarettes, all that crap. I’ll stop now.

And yet… some jazz purists talk dismissively of ‘The Diana Krall crowd’, meaning musical tourists who would shy away from John Coltrane, Charlie Mingus or Thelonious Monk. The reason she has sold millions of records, they sniff, is that her music is unchallenging. But anyone who thinks her music bland and easy just isn’t listening attentively. Part of the snobbery, I suspect, may have arisen because she made her name recording popular standards from the Great American Songbook, rather than more obscure pieces.  After all, it was not until her third album, a homage to the Nat King Cole Trio recorded in 1996, that she really hit her stride. Since then she has become a peerless interpreter of the likes of Gershwin, Cole Porter and Bacharach imbuing their slow songs with a bluesy swing, or bringing an unexpected melancholy to their more upbeat songs. ‘I never tried to copy anyone vocally,’ she says. ‘People have compared me to Peggy Lee but actually Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Louis Armstrong were much more of an influence. I was born listening to Bing Crosby, I knew all the lyrics by heart by the time I was 15. It sounds boring and nerdy but there was something about his phrasing that I loved. I felt I had a head start.’

The place she was born listening to Bing was Nanaimo, British Columbia. Her father was a chartered accountant there, but he was also a keen amateur stride pianist and something of an expert on 1920s and 1930s pianists such as Fats Waller and Earl Hines. I ask if it’s true she was playing the piano at the age of four? ‘Bout then, yeah.’ And was that because she had pushy parents? ‘No they didn’t push. I wanted to from the beginning. My piano teacher played boogie woogie piano for me after my lessons and I loved it. I can still see myself as a four year old looking forward to that. I knew already at that age that I had a feel for swing music, music that had that…’ She clicks her fingers three times.

How did she stay focused on jazz when all her peers at school were getting into rock and pop? “Well I was into that, too. I listened to bands with my friends. But I heard a jazz concert quite young, and this is boring stuff,  but I joined a jazz band at school and started improvising when I was around 13. I began studying chord structures and jazz theory. Then I heard Ray Brown play and that was it for me…’

Krall was certainly precocious. At 17 she won a scholarship to study piano at the prestigious Berklee College of Music  in Boston but left after 18 month when she was ‘discovered’ by her hero the bassist Ray Brown (once married Ella Fitzgerald). He was so impressed by her virtuosity he convinced her to move to LA and ask the legendary  jazz pianist Jimmy Rowles (who used to accompany Billie Holiday) for lessons. ‘I quit college and knocked on Jimmy Rowles door,’ Krall recalls. ‘By myself. It was quite lonely. He said he didn’t teach. I wouldn’t accept no for an answer. He said you can come over, but I don’t know what I’m going to teach you.’

What did he teach her? ‘Everything musically, but it’s important to hang out with people like that and absorb the atmosphere and listen to the stories; listen to their struggles. Same thing when I hung out with Oscar Peterson last year. We told stories and listened to  his records. He asked me to play with him and I thought: “Try not to freak out, enjoy the moment.” We ended up singing Nat Cole songs together and it was one of the highlights of my life. What can I say? I wanted to tell my grandkids I’d played with Oscar Peterson.’

Did he rate her as a pianist? ‘Yeah.’ For he first time in the interview she smiles. Hers is a lip curling smile, like Elvis Presley’s. It exposes white, white teeth.

We talk about her new album ‘From This Moment On’. I tell her I liked the way she slowed down the tempo of one of the tracks, Irving Berlin’s ‘Isn’t this a Lovely Day’, so that it was as if hearing the words for the first time. ‘Thank you,’ she says. She’s good at breathing new life into familiar songs, I add.  ‘So I’m told.’

Actually, it is unfair to characterise Krall merely as a interpreter of standards. In 2004 she moved into darker, more introspective territory with the release of her album ‘The Girl In The Other Room’. There was no photograph of her smouldering on the cover. In tone it seemed to be influenced by her fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell, indeed it included a cover of Joni Mitchell’s Black Crow. But for the most part Krall co-wrote the  songs herself, with her husband Elvis Costello. They had married in December 2003 —  a first marriage for her, a third for him —the wedding taking place on the estate of their friend Sir Elton John.

When I ask if she had tried to reinvent herself with that album she shakes her head. ‘It wasn’t a conscious effort. I couldn’t do anything else. I’d lost my mother.’ Her mother had died of cancer of the plasma cells in 2002. ‘I’d also lost my mentor Ray Brown and my friend Rosemary Clooney. It was the loss of a parent followed weeks later by the loss of a father and mother figure. I was devastated. I was not feeling  like singing ‘Deed I do’ [one of her more upbeat songs].’

Does she find it painful to listen to that album now? ‘I don’t listen to any of my records again, ever. It’s cathartic finishing them, then I don’t want to hear them again. There are some songs I never play live because it would feel false, because if I’m not in the mood, I can’t lie that I am. I can’t be forced to do something I don’t want to do.’

No kidding. Perhaps her reluctance to enter into the spirit of this interview is just that, an inability to lie. As such it could be seen as a measure of her integrity. And yet she’s a performer. You would imagine she could fake being nice and polite for the sake of PR. Apparently not. ‘There’s this big joke about ‘Peel me a Grape’,’ she continues, referring to one of her more flirtatious songs. ‘My tour manager has never heard me sing it, yet people always shout it out, requesting it. I haven’t heard that song in six years. I just can’t do it. Not feeling that. A lot of The Girl in the Other Room songs I’ve put to one side, too.’

Working with her husband; what was that like? ‘It was fun writing with him. It worked well.’ She stifles a yawn.

Had she listened to Elvis Costello’s songs as a teenager? ‘I remember hearing Watching the Detectives on the radio.’

Her husband is someone who has transcended genres, I note: punk, folk, country and western, classical, jazz. ‘Uh-huh.’

I guess being pigeon-holed is the curse of the artist? ‘Uh-huh.’

Does she feel frustrated when fans want her to keep covering the standards? ‘Uh-huh.’

It occurs to me that her feisty manner might be a compensation for those lazy accusations that her music is bland. This may explain the way she constantly dismisses herself as boring, as a topic of conversation at least. But it could also be that she finds the concept of press interviews hypocritical, especially after the annoying time she had with the media a few years ago when her name was linked to Clint Eastwood, Hollywood’s biggest jazz fan. Both denied there was anything going on. When she is not in the mood, she is not in the mood, it seems. But what about when she is due to give a performance? “I’m never not in the mood when I’m performing. Ever. I might feel tired but as soon as I hit the first note I’m in the mood. I never feel negative about performing, unless I have to perform at a loud car show. That is excruciating. When people are talking. I don’t feel comfortable about that.’

I tell her I once came to see a concert she gave at the Royal Albert Hall when she had a bad cold, and yet she struggled gamely on. In fact, I suggest, when sandpapered by a cold, her voice had an even huskier and more attractive texture than normal. Did she see it that way? “Not really.’

She starts doodling on a notepad. ‘You know,’ she says without looking up, picking up the thread of an earlier conversation. ‘I never got bored re-interpreting jazz standards. Something like My Funny Valentine you can pull apart and put back a million different ways. You can take any song and improvise.’

In terms of improvisation, I say, drugs have always played a significant role in jazz. ‘Well that applies to the history of anything, art, literature anything.’

Yes but especially with jazz improvisation in the 1950s and 60s… ‘Well whatever worked for you.’ Has that ever worked for her? ‘Whatever works, as long as you get what you want in the end and don’t die in the process…’ She sighs impatiently, her lightening mood swinging back to darkness. ‘It’s kind of an old stereotype,’ she says peevishly. ‘I’m not having to deal with a lot of the things those artists had to deal with.’ Long pause. ‘I don’t think it’s an interesting conversation.’

I guess she has more of a safety net than the jazz stars of the 50s and 60s had. Managers, advisers, assistants. Presumably, she has an entourage with her? ‘I don’t travel with personal trainers and personal chefs, if that’s what you mean. I have a crew and I have a hair and make-up person. Don’t have her with me at the moment, as you can probably tell. [Her hair is gathered and she doesn’t appear to be wearing make up]. I buy my own clothes. But I do have people who look after me, yeah. People who make sure I’m not getting stressed out.’

Her quartet is far too distinguished to come under the heading ‘entourage’, by the way: drummer Jeff Hamilton, bass player John Clayton, and guitarist Anthony Wilson all being legends in their own right. Do they bow to her fame? “No they keep me in my line. They are my big bothers. They’ve known me for years. I don’t have people around me who don’t tell the truth. There’s no attitude or ego. I was never a big ego. I was always more on the insecure side.’

Insecure in what way? Presumably she doesn’t have insecurities about her looks? ‘Of course. Of course I do. Everyone does. There will be times when I wake up and look like shit.’

So she isn’t a narcissist? Long pause. ‘I don’t know.’

It would be understandable, being photographed all the time. ‘I’m not being photographed all the time. I’m not being photographed all the time. My photo shoots are one day.’

So she’s what? Well adjusted? ‘I’m fairly grounded, but always less neurotic when I’m playing. If I don’t play I end up internalising things… It has nowhere to go.’

If she was in a prison cell without a piano would she go mad? ‘Probably.’

What about if she were deprived of her pretty dresses? ‘I rarely dress up. I usually dress up if I go out to dinner with my husband but I don’t let it run my life. If I was going to a big party I’d get nervous about my gown…’ She trails off. ‘This is a crap conversation.’ Silence.

I ask if her husband has travelled over with her for this tour. ‘He and I just played in Aspen together. I played a show one night and he played a show the next night so we saw each other for two days then. Now I wont see him for a month… But we love what we’re doing. We love our tours. It’s hard being apart but… we get it. We struggle with missing each other but we talk on the phone every day, even when there is an eight hour time difference.’

Is her husband going to be there for the birth? ‘I certainly hope so!’

Well some fathers are squeamish. ‘Oh I see. I thought you meant in the same town.’ She rubs her arms and shivers. ‘This air con… I’m a bit chilly.’

She plans to tour again this time next year, but what, I ask, if  motherhood has made her too happy by then to sing her melancholy songs. ‘You never know.’

Again. No kidding. We have been talking for an hour and a half and it is time to say goodbye. One bone-crushing handshake later I sit back down and reflect ruefully on the old adage: never meet your heroes. I make some notes and get up to leave. It is then I notice the pad she had been doodling on. It is only a bit of cross hatching and a few loops but — hey — disillusion be damned — it is Diana Krall’s cross hatching, Diana Krall’s loops. I tear off the top sheet and slip it in my pocket.