Diana Krall, returning to the Sydney Opera House, talks about the heroes who inspired her new album. And going on stage half-zipped!

Jazz singer Diana Krall is returning to Sydney for her Wallflower tour. The new album is not a jazz album, but a collection of pop standards we all grew up with, slowed down a touch, mellowed out and unforgettable. She's on the line with IAN HORNER from her home in Vancouver and talks about working with Paul McCartney – she picked up a song for her album that he couldn't use on his album – and she talks about her heroes, shooting pool with Joni Mitchell and touring with Neil Young. Her trademark is re-inventing standards – pop, jazz, show tunes – like her wonderful version of Lerner and Loewe's I've Grown Accustomed to his Face, from My Fair Lady, which is a great track to sing to your husband, the singer Elvis Costello, when he's back home while you're on tour . . .

ACCUSTOMED TO HIS FACE | With husband Elvis Costello.

ACCUSTOMED TO HIS FACE | With husband Elvis Costello.

I just sang that again for the first time in a long, long time because it was my wedding anniversary and I was away from my husband, so, that's what I sang. I never get tired of it. It's so beautiful, isn't it? Thanks for mentioning it.

Are there other songs you find yourself singing to anyone in particular?

I sing Exactly Like You which to me represents the love I have for my family.

The Wallflower album is more songs I knew from growing up. The Neil Finn song [Don't Dream it's Over] is pretty and has always been a powerful song from the moment I got that Crowded House record. It's pretty, I love that song. It's powerful writing.

The album is more pop than jazz.

Yes, it's not a jazz record, but it has jazz, of course. There are jazz musicians playing on it, but it's not a jazz record with a lot of improvised solos. I didn't say OK, I'm gonna make this into a new standard by adding four bars of sax on solo. And that's OK. Not everything has to be that way for it to be meaningful, you know.

Talking of meaningful, you've taken songs we know and love and geared them down a notch, breathing new life into them which is wonderful.

Well, that's a nice compliment! I worked with David Foster, which was great. We're both from Victoria, British Columbia. We're from the same neighbourhood, you know, growing up, and he knew the songs and he's a great jazz pianist and also a great popular-style pianist. We just tried to keep it beautiful and I think the arrangements he did, especially on In My Life, are just a knockout. There's a definite nod to Johnny Mandel on that one for sure. We just went in and wanted to make a beautiful record.

Just slowing a song down ever so slightly can change it greatly. Like Desperado which is suddenly more profound than ever.

Well, that's Linda Ronstadt for me. I know it's written by the Eagles and I love the Eagles but I learned it from Linda. And Linda is somebody I greatly admire. She did those records with Nelson Riddle and her own pop records. She kinda did everything but those records she did with Nelson Riddle had a profound influence on me as a kid. She did Pirates of Penzance. She's just awesome. She owns Desperado. You can YouTube her doing it with just a piano and it's just really, really, really phenomenal. I never announce that I'm inspired by Linda Ronstadt before I sing it because I could never live up to it. I always mention it after the fact [laughs]. People don't talk about Linda Ronstadt enough.

Which song on Wallflower do audiences like most?

It depends where you are. I haven't taken the tour to Australia yet, so I'm yet to find out there. In California people like California Dreamin' [laughs]. People like Operator. We've been doing a Paul McCartney song [If I Take You Home Tonight] and it goes over pretty well and the [Bob Dylan] song Wallfloweris always great.

The McCartney song has an interesting story. How did it happen that you worked with him

Well, my record producer Tommy LiPuma was producing Paul's record [Kisses on the Bottom], in 2011 I think it was, and he mentioned to Paul that I could play piano and I ended up being sorta musical director, as it says on the liner notes so I can say that [smiles]. There were a lot of great musicians but I was kinda like the bandleader, which is really fun. It was great. Probably the greatest experience of my whole life. We had such a blast! He brought in his own songs to do and one of them was If I Take You Home Tonight and, as songs go, not every one makes it onto the record and years later I still had the sheet music for it on my piano at home and I loved it and I just asked him "Do you think it'd be OK if I did this for my record?" And he was like "Sure!"

What if he'd said no?

[Laughs] Well, that's why I asked him. He would tell me. He would say "Oh, I don't think that's right for you".

Why did he reject the song from his album?

He didn't reject it. You can only put so many songs on the record. I don't know, it just didn't get finished? There's a time you have to say "OK, we gotta stop". So it mighta been just that it didn't get completed because there were so many other great songs. You know we all have that. when we do records. That's why things are thrown on as bonus tracks. We all have like five other songs that are still being worked on that don't get completed on time to get on the record. It's just kinda the way it goes. They weren't rejected. Yeah, it's hard as artists 'cos we don't really have a stop button, you know [laughs]. "OK, we only have two more days left, so . . ." We often say "We'll get to it on the next one". That's what usually happens to me.


Yeah. And then you have some things ready for next time.

Performing and touring is such a big business . . .


. . . when you finally get to sit down in front of the piano in front of thousands of people surely you have to take a quiet moment to clear your head and focus . . .


Last weekend I thought the show was at 7.30 and it was at 7pm so I was like literally running on stage with my dress half-zipped [laughs] and I've gone on stage when my dress hasn't been zipped!

. . . It must be incredibly difficult to wind back and find that space in your head to begin to perform. How do you do it?

Well, I don't know. I've gone on stage so many times completely frazzled, like I just performed last weekend where I thought the show was at 7.30 and it was at seven o'clock so I was like literally running on stage with my dress half zipped up so [laughs] you know . . . and I've gone on stage when my dress hasn't been zipped up at the back! You know, it's priorities! You get your head in place and then you just pray you haven't missed a piece of essential wardrobe [laughs]. I'm pretty good at it. Once I hit the piano and I see the guys, I don't really have a problem getting into that head space because I don't stand out front, I sit at the piano and I look at the guys and we all look at each other and smile and . . . that's it. It's like a dinner party. Here we go!

You toured with Neil Young . . .

Yeah, I did.

. . . a little while ago and you called it a protest tour. You said "It opened me up to start thinking differently about stuff". Can you elaborate?

I was invited to be supportive without, hm, I don't know is "protest tour" is the best way to describe it necessarily but it was to make people aware the way the pipeline was being handled was not good for the environment or the people who live there.

And Neil wanted to make people aware of the seriousness of that in the traditional way – playing music.

So I watched Neil for two hours every night from the side of the stage and I thought I was gonna come out and play briefly.

He asked me weeks before. He said "I’ve got this thing in February I’m doing, you wanna do it with me?" And I was like "Yeah! Of course I do!" I thought it'd be like a whole pile of musicians and I said "Who else is doing it?" And he said "Just you".

I thought I'd be playing for just a minute and then Neil would come out. He said "No, we want you to play for an hour." And I thought an hour! I mean I can't play a tour protesting the way a pipeline's being handled and sing Peel Me a Grape!

So you start thinking differently about things. I opened with Every Grain of Sand and then I got turned on, again, to Gordon Lightfoot because Neil was doing Gordon Lightfoot tunes so I did If You Could Read My Mind and it was really good, it was really healthy, and it was a very lucky experience for me to watch Neil.

It was winter time in Canada. I'd go on in hiking boots and sit at Neil's piano and he told me "Play whatever you want". There was no, like, I had to go up and do the Diana Krall show. It was really a great experience for me.

And I think it was brave and courageous, too, for Neil, you know? There's nobody else like Neil.

Another of your heroes is Joni Mitchell. If you were going to compare notes with her, what sort of things would you ask?

POOL PARTNERS | With Joni Mitchell.

POOL PARTNERS | With Joni Mitchell.

Joni Mitchell is just probably the most important woman artist. I can't be her, I'm not her, I’m not aspiring to be like her but, yeah, I love her, and that's how I feel.

I've actually played a few games of pool with her. And we talked a lot. About lots of different things. The most important thing was the freedom you have to play music. I think that she is the, you know, I don't know how to express it, but there's no one genre for her.

You can't call her a folksinger, God, you don't do that. You know, she's probably the most important songwriter for me this side of Cole Porter. Like Bob Dylan, she's writing her own songs.

Music was all around them. Jazz music was always there, they were playing the same time Miles Davis was playing. Lenny Bruce. It was a time of great change, a completely innovative era when everything was just new.

So, when I listen to Joni's Refuge of the Roads [1976] or The Hissing of Summer Lawns [1975] or All Summer Long, Clouds [1969] or you go back to Blue [1971].

It's unprecedented. There are very few artists who write their own songs and write with confidence lyrics like that and then play jazz chords that are influenced by Charlie Mingus and Miles Davis.

She's just probably the most important woman artist. I can't be her, I'm not her, I’m not aspiring to be like her but, yeah, I love her, and that's how I feel.

The music industry has changed so much, having gone digital. How would artists of the Sixties and Seventies cope in the industry today?

Bob Dylan just got nominated for a Grammy! For his album of standards. He's doin' great! He's another example of someone who's movin' forward, he sounds like he owns the songs.

I know Joni hasn't been well but I hear she's recovering. I know Bob and Neil are out there doing it A lot of musicians from the Sixties and Seventies are doing incredible things.

My husband heard Bob at the Royal Albert Hall and he said it was just off the charts. Ridiculous. His voice is in such amazing shape.

I love Bob Dylan. I love his new record as well. I think it's awesome.

He's singing standards his way, not with a pianist accompanying him, he's not trying to be a singer with a jazz trio, he's got his band, and he's singing them the way he's singing them. Brilliant.

Is there a song you’re working on in the back of your mind that you want on your next album?

Oooooooh. I just finished the most intense touring year I've ever had in my life, so, um, I have a few in my back pocket but right now what I feel is important is that the people who are gonna come to see me are gonna hear songs that are familiar from the records, not just Wallflower but things we do from Quiet NightsLet's Fall in Love and those familiar things.

Then we'll play some things we may never record. We do a couple of Joni Mitchell tunes, we've been playing a couple of Neil Young lately and Whispering Pines. We've been doing a few things maybe audiences will only hear if they come see me.

I trust the generosity of my audiences to know they're coming to hear me and things they know me for. I'll play familiar things but I’ll also trust that I can play a few things that are not on any record. Yet.

Maybe they will be. I always say to the audience "If you like this song maybe it'll be on my next record!" [laughs].

It was really great talking with you about old music and the Neil Young tour. I can't believe I did that! I'm glad you mentioned that. It was a life-changing thing, you know? Just to be part of it, that kind of artistry. I felt really lucky.

It's a good thing I play the piano and sing because I’m not an expert in speaking about it. I’m much better to do it. I'm looking at the beautiful ocean and sky and thinking how lucky and blessed I am to have this life. I'm looking towards you from Vancouver right now.

The sun is setting and it's pretty. I’m really looking forward to coming to Sydney. It's my favourite place to play.

I still feel like 16 years old at jazz festivals, you know? God, how did that happen! That's a good place to be where you feel like that. It's great. ❏

■ Diana Krall is at the Sydney Opera House, January 27 to 29. Tickets here

■ Read Ian's other interviews and reviews:

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