Andrew Vine speaks to singer and pianist Diana Krall, who has poured out the pain of loss in a new album that marks a startling change of direction.
HER husky, honeyed voice and sparkling piano playing have won legions of fans, and she is almost single-handedly responsible for creating a market for dozens of fresh young singers exploring classic material.
Diana Krall ranks alongside Oscar Peterson as Canada's leading jazz export. Everything she touches turns to gold – or platinum, when it comes to her best-selling albums – and she is credited with drawing a whole new audience into jazz over the past decade with her highly personal and deeply romantic readings of songs by the likes of the Gershwins, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen.
Yet the titans of the classic songwriting tradition are absent from Krall's new album, The Girl in The Other Room. In their place are a collection of powerful originals that tell a story of loss and personal growth, alongside covers of songs by such thoughtful artists as Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell. There is much of Mitchell's confessional style in Krall's own songs, which were co-written with her husband, Elvis Costello, whom she married last Christmas. And if the musical pairing of a singer-songwriter noted for his anthems of urban angst like "Oliver's Army" and "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea" with a performer whose manner can be affectingly tender sounds unlikely, it works extraordinarily well.
The songs on The Girl in The Other Room were Krall's way of working out the pain of losing her mother to cancer. Another loss that rocked her shortly afterwards was the death of the veteran singer Rosemary Clooney, a close friend and mentor.
Those losses, and the self-reflection that followed, are eloquently vocalised on a quartet of songs, "Narrow Daylight," "Abandoned Masquerade," "I'm Coming Through" and "Departure Bay," on which Krall achieves an intensity of expressiveness unmatched on any of her seven albums since her debut in 1993. The sense of loss is also there in the album's solitary standard, a solo rendition of Matty Malneck and Frank Signorelli's I'll Never Be the Same.
The songs are more revealing of Krall's own feelings than anything she has recorded previously, though there was a touch of dark emotion in her last studio album, the lush, string-laden The Look of Love, which went platinum.
But even though her new songs give a peek into her personality, Krall, 39, remains wary of revealing too much.
"Everything I've ever done has always meant something to me personally," she says. "It's just that through other people's words and music you're not so vulnerable.
"Look of Love was the preparation for that because I was choosing songs which were dealing with loss, to the point that I had to lighten it up with "I Remember You." But then again, I can sort of find death in anything. If you peel back all the cover images and the strings and things, there are some pretty deep tunes, but maybe not so personal as "Departure Bay," but you hope that people can relate to them."
There are no strings on The Girl in The Other Room, just Krall's working quartet, and the stripped-down setting points up both her brilliant piano playing and the poignancy of the material.
Writing songs was a new experience.
"I wrote the music and then Elvis and I talked about what we wanted to say. I told him stories and wrote pages and pages of reminiscences, descriptions and images, and he put them into tighter lyrical form. For Departure Bay, I wrote down a list of things that I love about home, things that I realised were different, even exotic, now that I've been away.
"We were working together, obviously, but sometimes we'd work while I was on the road and he was in another part of the world, and it was in different ways. "The Girl in the Other Room" is something that I wrote late at night, and for some reason it just came to my mind. I just wrote it down, and started writing other images down. The first song we wrote was that song, where we talked about music and lyrics. We were together then.
"Some of it was like me writing music, and then him writing lyrics. "Narrow Daylight" was like that. "Change My Address," I wrote that in France, and then we met in Iceland, of all places, and finished that song.
"You do what you can do, whether you are together or you're apart, there are ways. You can tape something." Krall is conscious that the new songs will come as a jolt to her audience, which is accustomed to her performing standards, and does not yet know how they will go over.
"I'll have to tell you that when I'm on tour. I don't know. I think you have to be honest with your audience and if you just sort of stick to something because it gave you your initial success rather than if that's the way you feel, well that's fine, but if you don't you must get on with what you feel is right for you at the time, and that's what I've always done and you hope your audience will go with you.
"Some will, some won't. I try not to worry. I know when we play live, we incorporate everything. It just makes for a bigger repertoire."
She will not, though, be abandoning the standards.
"That would be tragic. Not for the audience, but for me, because that's what I do but there is more to sing about than just romantic things and novelties. "I like singing Black Crow by Joni Mitchell right now because that's pretty much how I'm feeling. It's direct, and it's womanly, it's honesty, I love it. That's how I feel right now. "It's not just only singing about relationships, there are so many thing to sing about. I'm not even pushing as hard as I could, probably."