Diana Krall is relaxed. She’s happy. She is, most crucial of all, content.
The Canadian jazz-pop chanteuse has 7-month-old twin boys and what she describes as a very, very happy marriage to rocker Elvis Costello. Five years after losing her mother to cancer, Krall has grieved and moved forward, again putting her voice to songs that had become too painful to sing.
Standard life stuff, perhaps, but there’s more to this than meets the eye. For years - and she’ll tell you this herself - Krall carried a notorious reputation, keeping things tense around the edges and eliciting the fear of staff and press alike. It was a temperament born of frustration, she says - annoyance at both the news media’s predictable focus on image (“asking me about my legs,” she summarizes) and her own difficulty expressing herself away from a piano bench.
The hard facade, it turns out, may have been just that. And recent developments have begun to reveal the cracks. Last year, after reading a peeved British writer’s portrayal of Krall as a glowering “cow,” the 42-year-old singer broke down and “cried and cried and cried.”
“I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way,” Krall says, chuckling at her newfound candor. “It’s definitely a different place now. It’s about looking forward.”
In Krall’s musical world, of course, looking forward still means looking back - to the sounds of personal idols like Nat King Cole, Rosemary Clooney and Joni Mitchell. At the moment she’s even casting her attention back to her own legacy: She’s preparing for the release of her first career retrospective, a best-of set due to be issued in September by Verve Records.
In other words, 2007 may well go down as a key plot point in the Diana Krall story, a tale that began at the knees of her pianist father in British Columbia, moving through smoky jazz clubs in the northeastern United States before putting her atop the charts and into the Grammy Awards winners circle earlier this decade.
“I’m coming into my own as a woman and artist, and it’s OK,” she says. “I think I’m more secure in myself. I’m working hard and I really love it. I’m very serious about it, but I also have a very good humor about it.”
Despite her domestic stability, Krall says she remains musically restless, continuously seeking to up her own ante. On stage and record, her approach to pop standards may be the picture of graceful, understated class. But behind it all is an ever-roiling creative brain, churning and demanding. Krall is quick to quote the late choreographer Martha Graham, speaking of the “divine dissatisfaction” that provides ongoing motivation to grow.
“I love getting frustrated artistically, getting in that position where it’s demanding and challenging,” says Krall. “That’s what makes me feel excited about what I’m doing. I’m not going to just coast on this. I’m always searching for that obscure tune, something that can be surprising to myself - still getting the goose bumps where I say, `Wow I didn’t think I could do that!’ “
Her most recent works have been marked by such challenges: The 2004 album “The Girl in the Other Room” showcased her first notable songwriting efforts, with six songs penned by her and Costello. Her next two releases, a Christmas record and last fall’s “From This Moment On,” found Krall taking a spin at classic big-band sounds, pushing her voice and piano through a new set of rigors.
Her piano work - drawing inspiration from Fats Waller and Elton John - was Krall’s ticket into the jazz world years ago. But it’s that voice, sensitive and sensuous, that won Krall her mainstream following and made her a long-term resident in the pop Top 10. A mostly self-trained singer, it took her years to draw confidence from her delivery.
“I’m always trying to get ... `better’ isn’t the right word. But I might look back on something and say, hmm, I’m not sure I want to be there again,” she says. “So no, I’m not settled into it, quite. I’m always trying to find it. It’s still a challenge for sure.”
Krall will start work on a new album when her U.S. tour wraps up in the fall. While she continues to solicit Costello’s opinion on her material, she’s put aside further songwriting collaborations with her Brit-rocker husband. She’s got a pool of about 30 songs from which she’ll choose as she moves back to the nightclub jazz arrangements of pop standards that marked her work earlier this decade.
At this point in her career, Krall says she enjoys a mutual faith with her audience: They trust where she’s going, and she trusts that they’ll come along.
“Some people might not like what you try. And that’s fine,” she says. “But I’ve had a pretty loyal audience. And now I don’t have an agenda - I play what I want to play. I’m not `promoting’ anything anymore. I have a huge repertoire, and I’m enjoying myself tremendously ...
“Lord knows I have more demands on me now - physically, emotionally - and I like it like that. I feel like I can do that. I want to live. I’m not Joni Mitchell, I’m not Sarah Vaughan. But I do what I do.”