Diana Krall achieved a career highlight this year when she played piano on and served as the primary musical guide for Paul McCartney's standards album, Kisses on the Bottom. But her latest work, the T Bone Burnett-produced Glad Rag Doll, reinvigorated her like never before, the Grammy-winning jazz pianist tells Rolling Stone.
"It was like I was a completely clean piece of canvas," Krall, 47, says of the sessions that resulted in whimsical, yet equally wistful and weathered takes on timeless tunes including Buddy Miller's "Wide River to Cross," which you can now stream exclusively on RollingStone.com.
Listen to Diana Krall's "Wide River To Cross":
On the surface, Glad Rag Doll, due October 2nd, seems like a significant shift for Krall, whose most recent release was the 2009 bossa nova-influenced collection Quiet Nights. But as she explains, the album's songs are deeply rooted in her musical history: while other kids were out causing a ruckus, a teenaged Krall was listening to 78-rpm records in her basement, blissing out to American musicians including Gene Austin, Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. "This music is probably closer to me than anything because I knew it as a child," she says.
Although Krall was certainly familiar with Burnett – her husband, Elvis Costello, had worked with him on a slew of projects ("They're like brothers," she says) – she had never seen the producer in action before Costello persuaded her to enlist Burnett for Glad Rag Doll. She was hesitant at first, given her husband's friendship with him. "I was thinking inside my head, 'Oh gosh, if this doesn't work this is gonna be difficult,'" she says, laughing.
She needn't have worried: Burnett and Krall were a natural fit, bonding over a shared encyclopedic knowledge of music. The singer says she thrived on Burnett's hands-off approach, comparing him to "a great director who knows exactly what to say. It was a life-changing experience to work with him."
Costello stopped by the studio occasionally to join his wife and close friend, along with a collection of studio pros including guitarist Marc Ribot, bassist Dennis Crouch and keyboardist Keefus. It was a different experience from Krall's collaboration with Costello on her 2004 album The Girl in the Other Room. Where they shared writing duties on that project, his participation this time was looser: The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer contributed instrumental parts on some tunes and shared a bevy of in-studio laughs."Elvis's presence there was just so much fun for me,” Krall says. “We just had such a good time."
All the same, Glad Rag Doll was a daunting task, Krall says. It required taking old-school songs and giving them a modern sheen, without having the entire project feel like a "giant nostalgia piece." But what Krall says made the project work was relinquishing control: She, Burnett and the others worked as a unit, composing largely off-the-cuff. "It was completely surrendering to the moment," she says.
To a younger generation, the songs on the album may largely sound foreign, and Krall says she understands the risks of recording songs that are a bit obscure. But armed with her signature contralto, the singer brings considerable charm to standouts including the ramshackle shimmy of Fred Fisher's "There Ain't No Sweet Man Worth the Salt of My Tears," the steady pacing on Gene Austin's "Let It Rain" and the haunting vindication that echoes in her take on the Doc Pomus classic "Lonely Avenue." Risks or not, it was a project Krall just couldn't pass up.
"I've always been interested in artists that have a lot to say," she says, "and have the courage to explore different ways of saying it."