Diana Krall Talks About Audience, Passion & Making a Musical Statement
[This is a transcript of an Art of the Song interview as broadcast nationally on Public Radio. Click here to listen to the complete show with music.]
John: This is John Dillon
Viv: And I’m Viv Nesbitt. Welcome to Art of the Song Creativity Radio.
John: We all have a song to sing.
Viv: At Art of the Song we use the word “song” as a metaphor for the unique gift each of us has to share with the world.
John: Each week we bring you music and the stories of people who have discovered and share their creative gifts every day.
Viv: We all have a song to sing. We hope this program inspires you to sing yours.
Diana: [excerpt from interview] You have to make your musical statement. To take your risks that your audience is either going to go with you or not. No matter how much publicity and promo you do. You just have to make your musical statement and not really care too much about what anybody else things but know that you have to love it because that’s what matters. Because you have to look back on that and say, ‘I loved what I did. I meant it.’ And move forward.
Viv: This week on Art of the Song we feature one of the world’s most beloved voices Diana Krall. A jazz musician who achieve crossover success with her unique blend of bop piano and soulful, sultry vocals, Diana is multiple award winner with over six million albums sold. She is fearless in her creative expression.
John: Diana talks with us about taking risks, passions, and her latest project ‘Wallflower’ where she interprets some of her favorite songs from her high school days.
Viv: It’s our great honor and privilege to be talking with Diana Krall today. Thank you so much for joining us, Diana, for Art of the Song.
Diana: Thank you. It’s a privilege to speak with you both.
Viv: Thank you. Diana, your career reads like everyone’s favorite fairy tale in terms of the names and the people and the places where you’ve played.
Diana: Oh yes, for sure.
Viv: And I know that it came with a ton of hard work. Can you tell us how you got started?
Diana: Where do I? In the words of Alan & Marilyn Bergman, I guess I started at home. I was listening to a lot of music at home and everybody played piano. I discovered jazz music when I was in high school jazz. I didn’t ‘discover’ jazz when I was in high school but I discovered that I could play jazz in about the eighth grade that I could improvise on a Joe Zawinul song “Mercy Mercy Mercy” that we were playing in my high school band for a competition and I lost the music to the song and just kept going and played the solo on the roads in the stage band and my band director said, “Just keep playing!” Then my band teacher phoned my mother and father and said, “I need to talk to you about your daughter.” And they asked what I had done. So then he started giving me Bryan Stovall, I just saw recently, he actually started giving me Bill Evans records, and Miles Davis records. And I had got with a teacher who showed me what 2-5-1 chords were and the jet patterns. I was about fifteen years old but I was improvising way before that and playing by ear and listening to Fats Waller and old time music from the 1920’s and ’30’s before that. But I didn’t really get into hearing ‘My Funny Valentine’ and getting into Miles Davis and Bill Evans and that era until I was about fifteen. Didn’t really answer your question, did I? And then, ‘turn the page’, chapter two. I know it’s a long, boring story.
Viv: Oh, hardly. What we’ve heard from folks is that it’s so helpful to know that everybody started somewhere.
Diana: Well I did, I applied for grants. I was going to Berklee College of Music, but most important time, I think, was when I applied for Canadian Arts Council grant when I was nineteen and I had someone there. I was going to go back to New England Conservatory and I had the opportunity, I met Ray Brown in the summertime before I was supposed to go back to school through Jeff Hamilton, and they came up to my hometown to play with the L.A. Four and then I met Monty Alexander. They really encouraged me to come to L.A. and I wanted to study with this pianist who played with Billie Holiday named Jimmy Rowels. So, I drove down in my Toyota Tercel with my dad from Nanaimo, British Columbia to Whittier, California where I rented a room from a friend of a friend and started studying with Jimmy and Jeff and John. I was nineteen years old and I was very much like that character in Bridesmaids, that Kristen Wiig where I had my old broken down Tercel and I have to pull up to the fancy country club to play my three hour pre-wedding gig and pulling up smoking a cigarette wearing a Laura Ashley dress and spiky hair. So we all got to start somewhere. At the same time I was trying to play. I was hanging out at that age at Dantes and meeting other people and really listening to jazz musicians like Kenny Kirkland and getting a chance to hear the people that I only heard on record at that age. If I was a mom and my kid was nineteen going down there and doing that, I’d be freaking out, but I had a lot of people looking out for me. And still do. Jeff Hamilton and John Clayton still look out for me. How nice is that?
Viv: And now, you’ve been moving on through the great American songs, all the way through the great jazz and now, with ‘Wallflower’, you’re featuring songs of our age. So you’ve got, Elton John, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Eagles, Mamas and the Papas, how did you come to select the songs?
Diana: Well, I decided to work with David Foster. We both decided to work with each other after many years of knowing each other. I really made it clear to David that I didn’t want to do a jazz record. That I worked with Tommy LiPuma and I’ve done every record with him except for “Glad Rag Doll” which was with T-Bone Burnett. Let’s do something that is not a jazz record, I said to David, “Ok, you’re going to produce, be my producer, produce! Give me a song!” And he said, “No. No, you figure that out.” And I was like, what? Ok. So he said no and he was right because he said I think that you’ll choose songs that are more meaningful to you if you choose them. So I said, “Ok”. So we came in and started with ‘Desperado’ and he had it on the piano and it was the very first day and he said, “I’ll just play it and just sing it.” And I said, “Well, I know it from Linda Ronstadt”. I listened to a lot of Linda Ronstadt. And it just turned out fine. It just kept going from there, picking songs that I knew that I liked that I knew the lyrics to that meant something to me at that time. We just started working. Singing and playing, just happens kind of naturally. I kind of know very quickly whether something is not going to work for me. I don’t think I can really sing anything that I haven’t experienced or found something of myself in. I can’t really do that.
Viv: So that personal connection is tremendously important for you if you can’t just climb up and interpret a song. It has to have some kind of deep meaning.
Diana: Yeah. I’ve only had a couple songs in my time where I’ve felt that there was a misjudgment to do them. I think maybe one. One or two. I’m really a lousy liar. I can’t. It’s hard if I can’t feel it. And I think audiences know that too if you don’t. I’ve been actually on stage where I’ve passed having the feeling for something and the audience kind of laughs and I’m just like, “You know, I just can’t sing that line anymore, I just can’t do it!” And I try to make a joke out of it. Then I’ve gotten past it as well, but most things have pretty much stayed with me.
John: So you’re a great interpreter of songs. What’s the process like? You have a song that you’ve heard other versions of, how do you give it your own flavor or your own voice?
Diana: I have no idea. I don’t know.
John: That’s a good answer.
Diana: I guess I’m passionate about a lot of things. I’m passionate about Nat Cole, and who he was as a jazz pianist and who he was as a jazz singer. But also as a popular singer and famous artist. I guess I can use examples of something like ‘The Night We Called It a Day’ comes to mind or ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’. I think I relate it to always looked at Sinatra, to quote Bob Dylan, ‘Sinatra’s the mountain”. When I was working on ‘Look of Love’, Tommy LiPuma and I went through every record and just everything he’s saying you know he meant it like he wrote it. You know that he was going through his own. I just listened to ‘Angel Eyes’ lived at The Sounds and that just tells you everything. So that’s what I was listening to as a kid. I was listening to Frank live at the Sounds and listening to people like Irene Kral or Joni, Bob Dylan, just watch him sing ‘Tangled Up in Blue’. Sort of says it all right there. It’s interesting to hear Bob’s version of these songs. I think he’s singing them like he wrote them. I think he’s singing them with the same amount of passion like he sang ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ or some of those things. Or ‘Stay’ if you listen to ‘Stay’, especially live. It’s incredible.
Viv: That’s amazing. Sometimes it can be a risk for a musician to jump out of category. How does that feel to jump into a different interpretive role? Does it feel like a risk or it just another step along the way?
Diana: Is it a risk? I guess when I did ‘Girl in the Other Room’ is a perfect example of that. Where I went from ‘Look of Love’ to very sort of romantic bossa novas working with Claus Ogerman and Tommy LiPuma to go from that to songwriting with Elvis Costello about a particular time in my life that was very painful, when I lost my mother, was a huge risk. I don’t know if I’d do that now. I wouldn’t even ask myself the question, but I look back at it now and I sort of walked on the stage at Radio City Music Hall and was ready. And I wasn’t incorporating any other songs with it, I was just, “This is what I am doing right now. This is the show”. And I think somebody screamed out, “Show us your legs!” And I was like, “Oh, well, I will, but wait till ‘Glad Rag Doll’.” I was on tour with Neil Young this last year and he gave me such a great gift because I met him at the Bridge School Benefit and I was the first jazz musician to actually sing at a Bridge School Benefit as far as I know, and I was playing ‘Wallflower’ and I was looking over at Crosby, Stills, and Nash, all with their arms folded all sort of watching me because I was on at three in the afternoon and then Neil said, “Hey Diana, I’m going to go and do some gigs in Canada, you want to join me? You want to play?” and I’m like, “Yeah, I’m in! Are you kidding??” So when the phone call came, that was like in October, and the phone call came in December, and I said, “Who else is doing it?” and they said, “Just you”. And I’m like, “Oh, you’re kidding me”. So we started at Massey Hall and I had been playing “Man Needs a Maid” and lots of Neil songs and Neil, I idolize him, and so I was like, “Just me, what do you mean just me?” So I remember that first gig and I wasn’t about to go out there in the middle of February and play an hour on start with “Peel Me a Grape”. So I really had to really dig deep. I had to really go, “Ok, what can you do? What are you going to do?” And, if I can walk out with my hiking boots on and my own flannel shirt in honor of Neil Young in front of a Calgary audience, on a protest tour where my name is on the T-shirt and start with “Every Grain of Sand”, that is a risk that is so worth taking and I managed to do it. Neil trusted that I could do it. I fell down a few times, but I got to sit side stage and watch him every night. I got to watch his solo show every night and be just blown away. And listen to Gordy Lightfoot and listen to all these people that mean something to me as well. I’m excited to tell you about that because I haven’t really talked about that time. And that basically, I guess, is the risk that I’m talking about. Is the risk to take yourself out of what you know and even though you’re shaking in your snow boots, you’re out there, and I said, “Well I thought I was supposed to wait thirty minutes” and they were like, “No, we want an hour”, and I was playing this with Neil’s broken piano. And I started opening up and playing more Tom Waits tunes and finding Buffy Sainte-Marie and it wasn’t the only time that I’ve done that but it was somebody giving me permission to take an hour to myself and play whatever I wanted but it was scary. But thank God they were Neil fans.
Big Musical Risks Yield Huge Gains
That was a big risk. I think it’s important to do that as an artist if you feel it. Don’t just do it for the sake of doing it. That won’t work. My husband did that with North and got a hard time about it, but it was a very honest thing to do. So I think as an artist, you have to make your musical statement to take your risks that your audience is either going to go with you or not. No matter how much publicity and promo you do. You just have to make your musical statement and not really care too much about what anybody else thinks but know that you have to love it because that’s what matters. Because you got to look back on that say, “I loved what I did. I meant it”. And move forward. I thank God that I started later in my life. That I had years where I was struggling to pay my rent when I was in my thirties and then didn’t discover Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell till later. Because I was busy listening to Miles Davis and doing these things. And then when I discovered Joan, I remember discovering Blue quite later on in my life, and not really getting into and then all of the sudden really getting into Joni Mitchell music about fifteen years ago. And that just hit me like listening to Charlie Parker or something. It’s amazing.
Viv: It’s that musical exploration and just the curiosity on all walks of life but it’s that continuing to be so curious and so adventurous.
Diana: And to move back in time as well. To move back and, like for me, California Dreamin’ was something I had brought out when I was working on ‘Look of Love’ and I just couldn’t figure out how to do it. And so it took me twelve years, thirteen years, to finally go “Well, maybe we should try this again”. And the exquisite piece of the puzzle was that Graham Nash is singing on it. And also the Jim Croce song “Operator”, Steven Stills is playing and singing on it and Graham. I wanted Foster to turn my voice down as far as possible so I could hear those guys. And that was just a dream come true to me because as a kid I was listening to Crosby, Stills, and Nash and Young. So you just have to keep moving forward, no matter is Kayne is going to make you famous or not.
Viv: So would you say that that would be sage advice for somebody who was looking to find their creative voice?
Diana: I think it’s a totally different time now. I don’t know. I wouldn’t know what to say now. I just think it’s a completely different time for young people who are in music. I don’t even want to think. I just think you have to find your voice. I don’t think it’s not a good time. I can’t put myself in a time where everything is instant and immediate and streamed. But I also think that I know a lot of people who are buying vinyl. So that’s not the only thing that’s going on. So they are experiencing dropping the needle on the record so to speak. I don’t know. I don’t know how you’d start. I’ve been asked that but I guess you just got to go on auditions. You just got to start somewhere. There’s clubs that still have live musicians. Thank God it’s a live music world. And I play live music.
Viv: So it’s just about diving in. What I take away from this conversation is just that you are such a student of the craft in terms of how these guys played it and why they played it and where it came from in their soul. And not just these guys, but these musicians. It sounds like you were really drawn into the reasons why people play.
Diana: Yeah, I was a nineteen year old kid and I’m not very technically, I’m limited technically in every way. I was born with a feeling for swing music and my dream in life was what it would feel like play with Jeff Hamilton, John Clayton, and Ray Brown. And thank God I got a chance to feel what that felt like. And Ray Brown too. I got a chance to play with Ray Brown. As a nineteen year old kid, those opportunities were available for me and I got a chance to play with Christian McBride and play with my heroes. I don’t know if I’m deserving of that because I’m certainly not of the musical level there, but I have deep feeling for things. And I think I sometimes have gotten by on just that because I’m not knowledgeable about the history of music or the origins of things. I only know that I went over to this jazz pianist’s house, his name was Jimmy Rolls, and he had emphysema and he was on an oxygen tank, still smoking cigarettes, and I’d sit in his front room and we’d listen to Ben Webster. And we’d just go, “Wow! What was that??” And he’d write things out for me and we’d talk and part of the hanging time is important and just sitting at the piano with him and watching him play. I just think it’s really important to feel that you’re not entitled. That you get to do things and that there are still people that are playing. When I met Sonny Rollins recently, I chased him like a rock star. He was going to his car in North Sea Jazz Festival and it was this guy carrying his saxophone, gig is over, he’s just walking by himself to his car, and I went, “Mr. Rollins, Mr. Rollins!” And then I hugged him and I started to cry. And he looked at me and he said, “Don’t do that!” I said, “Yes, I have to because, unapologetically, this is the first time I’ve ever met you and what else am I going to say? This is everything to me.” Same with Ray. I don’t apologize. I go to Forbidden Planet, I’m walking in there going, “Hey, you got any Adventure Time backpacks, man?” Is “Over the Garden Wall” in yet? I’m always into what’s interesting to me and who created it. The world is full of creative, interesting people that are still there for people to learn from. Just watch the extras on ParaNorman or Spy Kids. I feel life is just full. I’m certainly not looking back and saying, “I wish it was like the old days, God damnit!” I don’t feel that way. I can conjure up the old days on my own just fine, thank you very much. I like to see what’s going forward and what’s interesting and what’s creative. And I have two little boys who are pushing me forward too to pay attention to that. I don’t know. I’m probably talking too much but it’s really exciting for me to actually talk about all these things because then I’m not stuck in the past or I’m not lamenting about the way things were. Like I said, I can create that any time I want to in my own house. I just wind up my dad’s gramophone and put a ’78 record on and close my eyes and I can just go back there. It’s like Woody Allen except we’ve got antibiotics. I know everything to a fault is a movie reference, it’s terrible, it’s like I’ve just been locked in and I’ve learned everything like Peter Sellers. Everything I’ve learned is from watching old films.
Viv: Yes, but unlike that you actually were there.
Diana: Well, I knew all the Marx brothers’ lines pretty much and don’t challenge me on that but I know a good lot of them. But I didn’t live at that time but I have an affection for those things. I know there was a point to my story somewhere.
Viv: And I guess the passion. It’s just the passion that you have for it in moving ahead. That’s what I’m hearing.
Diana: Yeah, I’m excited about it. I’ve had the best year of my life. Spent it with working with Paul McCartney. And then I got to sing with James Taylor. I got freaked out because I saw Prince in the corner. I guess the point is I’m still a little kid. I feel I was always taught, “You get to do this” and that’ s where I feel like I haven’t earned it. I don’t feel like I’ve earned anything that I have. I feel like I’ve been passionate about it, I’ve been lucky, ok, I’ve worked hard, and I’ve took risks, I think I have a lot of courage in just having the guts to do certain things, but I think I just love it so much. And I’m surrounded by incredibly good people and good musicians who can turn on a dime. And the people that are working with me now, I’ve got Anthony Wilson who is a great Jazz guitarist. I’ve got Kareem Wiggins who plays with everybody. Stuart Duncan, who is a bluegrass player who’s still playing Nat Cole tunes. And Patrick Warren is playing keyboards. It’s this group of people who, they’re not exactly Jazz musicians, but they’re not non-improvisers either so when you throw that all into the mix, it sounds amazing. It sounds like something unique.
Viv: We cannot wait to see you live somewhere. I saw you’re playing in Toledo, which is where I grew up, so I’m even thinking of going to the Stranahan Theater in Toledo.
Diana: That would be awesome. I’m working on it right now. After I talk to both of you I’m going to rehearsals and trying to figure out how to adopt this record to my band. It’s really fun to see how we’re doing that and how it’s working. We’re going to play songs from everything. Just like a butterfly to Nat Cole to California Dreamin’ to this. I’ll figure out how it’s all going to work together because I’m not going to go out and tour just one thing. I’m lucky that I have the musicians where I can do that. They can sort of turn on a dime. It’ll be interesting to see how we do it in rehearsals this week.
John: Diana Krall, thank you so much for talking with us today on Art of the Song.
Diana: Thank you very much and I’m sorry to talk so much.
Viv: Oh heck no.
John: That’s what interviews are all about.
Diana: Well I love radio. Print I find it very very difficult. But radio I’ve adored since I was a kid when I first listened to Mary McPartland show and took the risk in actually phoning her and leaving a message on her answering machine. And she called me back all the way to Nanaimo and my dad freaked out because he said, “Mary McPartland called the house! What are you doing calling Mary McPartland?” And I said, “Well, she’s another woman, she’s playing jazz, I figured if I need to talk to somebody, she’s the person and her number was in the phonebook.”
John: There you go!
Diana: And then it was Garrison Keillor and that was my life. And then I listened to, this is how terrible I am, I listened to radio shows of old radio shows. I think one of my favorite movies is ‘Radio Days’ but now I’ve actually gone too far and in my new screen backdrop I have a big old-fashioned radio so I can light the tubes and the dials. I have old hi-fis and radios at home. I just find that it’s a great big open sky that you can just ramble on it so you guys have to tell me to shut up and I’ll go. But I do love it.
Viv: We’ve been accused of letting people ramble and we’re like, “Well that’s what’s interesting.” If we come in with an agenda, it’s kind of a dead bore because it’s much more interesting the music of what happens. Hearing what actually comes up in the moment is far more interesting than anything we could ever plan out.
Diana: And I don’t even know if we’re talking about my record or anything. It’s fun to just talk about life and things that matter to you and why. So I appreciate you giving me the time to do that. I hope we can talk again and we can talk more about other fun stuff to talk about.
John: Oh that would be awesome.
Viv: Absolutely. Wonderful. We look forward to it. We come to New York quite often actually.
Diana: Oh do you?
Viv: My mom lives upstate and I have a solo show that I do at a festival there in the Fall.
Diana: What festival?
Viv: It’s called United Solo. It’s a theater festival.
Diana: Oh great.
Viv: And we’ll be back in November so hopefully we can connect sometime and continue this conversation.
Diana: That would be great. In person too. I’d be thrilled and even if you come to the show in Toledo we can talk too. It would be nice.
Viv: That would be wonderful.
Diana: I don’t know very many people in Toledo I don’t think.
Viv: I don’t either. The whole concept of going back to Toledo to hear you on this record, tour on this record, it would just be awesome.
Diana: Thank you Vivian. Thank you.
John: Well we’ll definitely be in touch when we’re in New York and hopefully our paths can cross in person.
Diana: Ok, great, thanks very much both of you. Take care.
Viv: Take care of your cold now.
Diana: Thank you. Bye-bye.
John: Thanks for joining us for Art of the Song Creativity Radio. I’m John Dillon.
Viv: And this is Viv Nesbitt. Remember: we all have a song to sing.
John: We hope this program inspires you to sing yours.
Viv: You may have heard about the pitifully small payments streaming services like P* and S* offers musicians. There is something you can do about it. The Standing “O” Project is an online community that helps musicians earn a living and keeps this program on the air. Joining for just $5 a month actually gives the artist a bigger paycheck than several thousand plays on S*. We called it Socially Responsible Streaming and you can learn more about it at standingoproject.com.
Viv: Our guest this week was Diana Krall. Special thanks to Joe Sivick and Missing Piece Group.
Tim: Art of the Song Creativity Radio is created and hosted by Vivian Nesbitt and John Dillon. And I’m Tim Nenninger: editor and producer. Our theme music is “Alton Air” by Darrell Scott, used here by permission from Famous Music and Chuck Wagon Gourmet Music. Program contents copyright 2015 Heliotrope Productions Incorporated. Individual songs may be protected by previous copyrights.
[This is a transcript of an Art of the Song interview as broadcast nationally on Public Radio. Click here to listen to the complete show with music.]