"I had to move forward because I've had so many personal changes in the last few years," says Diana Krall, explaining the musical and emotional evolutions evident in her latest album, The Girl in the Other Room.
Released in April, Krall's eighth album is a risky departure from the standards repertoire that made her the most successful jazz vocalist of the last decade. After all, When I Look in Your Eyes, her 1998 collection of vintage popular songs, spent 52 consecutive weeks atop the Billboard jazz chart, while its follow-ups, The Look of Love and Live in Paris, charted much the same territory.
Certainly, there was little to augur the substantial transformations evident on the new album, where even the majority of covers are by the 39-year-old singer-pianist's contemporaries (Tom Waits, Chris Smither, Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello). More crucially, for the first time in her career, Krall offered a half-dozen original songs, all co-written with Costello, who evolved from collaborator to husband. All on a lyric-like May-December schedule, too: The couple announced their engagement in May 2003 and got married in December (their age difference is actually only a decade, with Costello turning 50 next month).
That's the joyful part of Krall's story, of course, as is the public's embrace of The Girl in the Other Room (it opened at No. 4, with her best-ever first-week sales). But the album's roots are in the sorrow of losses Krall experienced in 2002, the same year she met Costello when they were paired as presenters at the annual Grammy Awards show in February. Three months later, Krall's mother died after several years of battling cancer. Within a month, Krall also lost two close friends, singer Rosemary Clooney and bassist Ray Brown (Ella Fitzgerald's former husband). Both had mentored the Canadian-born singer when she'd moved to Los Angeles in the early '90s after attending Boston's Berklee College of Music. And on top of that, Krall ended a long-term relationship with her boyfriend.
That accumulation of losses, particularly the familial ones, drove Krall to write as a way to address her grief, ultimately forcing her to publicly explore personal subjects after years of diligently maintaining her privacy.
"I've always expressed myself through words and music — it just happened to be Gershwin," Krall says, "and I think [my work] has always been perceived as being 'romantic' rather than ... 'There are things in there.' "
Yet even when those "things" were expressed by others, Krall was finding deeper meanings in her time of sorrow. Specifically, she points to her previous studio album, 2001's The Look of Love.
"When I look back at the tunes — 'I Get Along Without You Very Well,' 'I Remember You,' 'Maybe You'll Be There' — it was a lot of preparation for loss," Krall suggests. "The album in its original form was actually heavier, and we sort of lightened it up. Those songs are harder for me to do now because they represent a time where I just don't want to return back to."
That explains why, on her current tour, Krall is including only a handful of songs from "the repertoire," as she calls the American Popular Songbook. "I'm pretty much doing all new tunes, but that might change. I'm doing songs from the new album because right now that's what I find really interesting. But I'm also doing 'Let's Face the Music and Dance,' which I'm finding just as significant as any of the new material for me now. If you listen to the words of that song, it's pretty current."
And it's not as if Krall has never written songs before.
"I've written a few things that are bonus tracks here and there," she points out. "A few commercials, instrumentals, a few things with words — one's a bonus track ["Charmed Life" on the Canadian pressing of Live in Paris]."
The songs on the new album, however, are deeper, darker, more somber, not unlike Krall's vocals this time around. The songs about the confusions and rewards of love, the sorrow and sadness of personal loss, remembrances of people and places past, and ultimately, recovery and renewal.
As Krall sees it, "you can't prevent what's going to happen to you, but you can choose your response to it. My mother died and it devastated me, but I kept working instead of melting down and being uninspired creatively. And I met the right collaborator at the right time. Sometimes you can't say anything but thank the universe for giving you that."
At their first meeting at the Grammys, Krall had told Costello she'd been trying to cover "The Long Honeymoon" from Imperial Bedroom, Costello's standards-inspired album, as well as "My Thief" from Painted From Memory, his collaboration with Burt Bacharach. Both Costello's and Bacharach's songs are known for the challenges they can present singers, and Krall said she was having trouble with the vocal arrangements. Costello, whose own career embraces creative iconoclasm — he's explored new wave, pop, country and classical — offered to help.
"When I met him I just said, 'Look, I really admire you because you've done everything that you wanted and I don't know what's going on with me but there's something,' " Krall recalls. "This was even before the loss of my mother, but I was already creatively preparing to do something different. I think I probably talked to him about my frustrations with how to do it, talked to him honestly about how I felt and where I was going creatively."
Krall and Costello first addressed "Almost Blue," an Imperial Bedroom torch song that has inspired readings from other jazz singers over the years.
"I started basically thinking we'd just have one tune," Krall says. "I was writing [at her Vancouver Island home], so I was in a lot of solitude. I kept bringing the songs to the studio, and we kept recording, not knowing what the record would be."
This one would be defined by the playful choice of covers — only two songs date to before 1972 — and the inclusion of originals, as well as a downsizing from the lush orchestral support of Krall's two previous albums back to the intimate combo sound that better suits her. Krall wrote the music, and Costello contributed lyrics to five of six songs, crafting them from conversations and notes.
"I wasn't trying to rewrite the Great American Songbook," Krall says. "I wasn't conscious of anything, really, making this record, other than expressing what I wanted to express musically, harmonically, melodically, and having the strength and the encouragement that I had from my husband to express myself in a more personal way. I just wasn't finding that through other means."
What's in the future for the Krall-Costello partnership?
"I don't know," she says. "Simmering on the stove, I feel creatively ready to make a change again. I don't mean artistic change, but just ready to write and explore different ideas and see what else we can do. We've definitely talked about it. I like working with Elvis Costello. I think it's an amazing experience, and it's really fun," she says with a laugh.
Sadly, Krall and Costello probably won't tour in tandem, though they have done a few concerts together. The first time they did so in public was last year at Willie Nelson's 70th birthday party in New York, with the appropriately twisting melody of "Crazy." They've also done several fundraisers, including one featuring Elton John, that have raised more than $1 million for a leukemia/bone marrow transplantation program and new cancer outpatient care center at Vancouver General Hospital, to be named after Krall's mother, Adella.
"We do things that you can do together for special occasions, and people pay a lot of money for a good cause," Krall says. "Keep it special." Krall and Costello also appear, separately, in the Cole Porter bio-film, De-Lovely, which opens Friday. He sings "Let's Misbehave," she sings "Just One of Those Things." And though Krall's slowed-down reading of Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin" remains in her set list, the writing bug is there as well.