“People scream out, Peel Me a Grape! and I [play] it,” she says, “but I just can’t sing certain lines.” When she recorded the song for 1997’s Love Scenes, “it was a different time,” says the 47-year-old singer and pianist. She still looks young enough to play the role of the song’s coy vixen, but she’s eager to move on, so much so that her new album, Glad Rag Doll, sets aside the elegant piano jazz that made her a star. She has reinvented ’20s and ’30s Tin Pan Alley tunes in a style somewhere between jazz, folk, blues and alt-country, with producer T Bone Burnett—a frequent collaborator of her husband Elvis Costello—at the helm.
On a hot September afternoon in Manhattan, where Krall and Costello live for part of the year with their nearly six-year-old twins, Dexter and Frank, she’s ensconced in a booth in an Italian restaurant, looking back to when her father, a keen record collector, started bringing 78-rpm records home. “I started trying to make [Glad Rag Doll] maybe 35 years ago,” she says. “I’ve been listening to this music and living it.” That said, the album, is “not a tribute to my dad—it’s my own thing. It’s not Girl in the Other Room , which was about my mother’s death; it’s not a tribute to Nat Cole; it’s not a bossa nova record; it’s not the big band record—this is mine.”
Krall’s words tumble out in a rush, as if a dam has been opened. She’s notoriously reluctant to speak about her work, but on this subject, she’s determined: “I’m the leader of the band, and sometimes I’ve been misinterpreted as [if] somehow a committee of other people have directed me and pushed me. I can’t really fake stuff.”
She speaks with a soft intensity, much as she sings—as Burnett says, “she insinuates and she infiltrates.” Her delivery is one of two immediately familiar things about Glad Rag Doll; the other is the sensual, mildly risqué art. On the cover, she’s recumbent on a divan, in black lingerie; the image has caused a tizzy among some jazz fans and critics. Krall shrugs it off: “I’ve always gotten so much flack for my covers that I’m kind of used to it. There’s something to be said about owning your sexuality and being a woman and confident.”
Today, in a navy blazer, a smart plaid shirt and red-rimmed glasses, she’s more like a well-heeled university lecturer than a soft-focus siren (although she turns heads as she walks down the street). She insists she appears on the album’s cover in character—as a modern take on a vaudeville chorus girl. In everyday life, she doesn’t take as much care with her style. “Recently I was so stretched [for time] I went out with two different shoes on until somebody pointed it out.”
According to the Academy Award-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood (Chicago, Alice in Wonderland), who collaborated with Krall on the photo shoot, being in character “relaxes” the singer. “She’s reluctant to be in the spotlight—it’s a lot for her to go through. She’s really shy. It adds to her charm a little bit, considering her vast talent.”
Krall was once a famously diffident performer; André Ménard, the artistic director of Montreal’s jazz festival, recalls how, in her earliest festival appearances in the mid-’90s, “She would look at the keys pretty often. She was not that affirmative about being a great singer.” Over time, her assurance grew, and since becoming a mother, she has opened up somewhat onstage. “We still can define her as a pretty reserved person,” says Ménard, “but I think she’s much stronger than when she was young. She can stand her ground, but at the same time, [she’s] still trying to challenge herself.”
At last year’s Montreal festival, Krall gave her first concerts without her band, playing songs from her father’s records. One performance ended when she cranked up his gramophone and left the stage as it played. “It was a daring move,” says Ménard. “She still is scared to death sometimes. I saw her shaking before the show. The first night, I was so nervous about her state that I could not even make it [the concert] myself.” Krall laughs when she hears this. “I was okay. I know how to work with nervous energy.” In concerts, she says, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing half the time. I usually walk on, and I don’t have a script; I don’t play the same songs; I don’t have a set list.”
After the Montreal shows, she would sit up late at night in bed, recuperating from knee surgery, listening to her father’s old records, and doing research. She sent solo-piano demos to Burnett, and together, they set about ensuring the album would have a contemporary feel. They invited a set of versatile musicians, each with his own distinct personality, to join her. Chief among them was guitarist Marc Ribot, whom Krall had admired since hearing him play on Tom Waits’s 1985 album Rain Dogs. “He’s a genius and a generator,” she says. “He’s so raw and he can break your heart at the same time.” Ribot’s orneriness helps bring out some of Krall’s most biting playing ever recorded.
To find a piano that suited the material, the producer and singer tried out “100 or so” instruments before she settled on an 1890s Steinway upright, which Burnett calls “the hardest piano to play I think I’ve ever attempted. It’s just a fight—the action is really tough, and it cuts your hands if you do a glissando.” He figures Krall “wanted something that would challenge her as a player to get into a deeper space.”
Krall and her band take the classic songs—whose original recordings are sprightly and danceable—at unhurried tempos, teasing out layers of emotion. Lonely Avenue, a 1956 Ray Charles hit (and one of the few older pieces on the album), is extended to seven minutes, ending with an eerie psychedelic jam. The title track is a melancholy duet between Krall and Ribot on acoustic guitar; the singer had in mind one of the Ziegfeld Follies girls who have what the designer Atwood calls a “dirty-fingernail sexuality.”
There’s humour in Glad Rag Doll too: one track features a Spike Jones-esque gunshot ricochet sound, and the album’s closer, When the Curtain Comes Down, is narrated with over-the-top vaudevillian gusto by Costello, who appears under the nom-de-plume “Howard Coward.” Krall has commissioned an animated film for the song We Just Couldn’t Say Goodbye in a style influenced by Warner Bros.’ Merrie Melodies.
Krall is rather jolly even though she complains of sleep deprivation from planning a tour, and a bad back from picking up two 60-lb. boys. In recent years, her life has “gotten crazier and more interesting and full and vibrant,” she says. “I feel more excited than I ever have, creatively and personally.”
She has indulged her lifelong fascination with space travel; last year she went to the shuttle launch. “Nerd alert, I know!” she says. “I just need a pen protector in my pocket.” She helped narrate the audio version of the book From Blue to Red, a story about an astronaut on a mission to Mars, written by a group of Calgary high school students. This month she played Fly Me to the Moon at Neil Armstrong’s memorial service. “It was quite emotional,” she says. “I sat next to John Glenn and his wife. I always look to mentors and other things for inspiration in what I want to do as an artist.”
She’s also particularly effusive about Paul McCartney, on whose latest album, the Great American Songbook collection Kisses on the Bottom, she served as pianist and musical director. The two have formed a mutual appreciation society: McCartney has admitted to being “intimidated” musically by her and her band. And when Krall got in the studio with him, “I’m like, Oh my God! Paul McCartney!” Krall remembers asking him, “‘Do you like this introduction like this? I’m sorry I’m taking up so much time here.’ And he goes, ‘Diana, that’s how we work. The studio is a creative place.’ ”
Spontaneity was also a key factor in Glad Rag Doll. Working with Krall reminded Burnett of a quote from the producer of Aretha Franklin’s 1967 album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. “He said, ‘Every song was the first or second take, and I knew I was in the presence of the most extreme artistry.’ I remember [thinking]: ‘My God, that’s where I want to be.’ ” After listening to Krall in the studio with her band, “It was beautiful to feel that I’d gotten there too. It took me that long.”
When Krall hears this, she smiles and shakes her head. “I can’t go there,” she finally says. “That’s too much. I don’t know what to say. I’m just a kid from Nanaimo who had a good band teacher and good parents, and I don’t know how I ended up here.”