Diana Krall interview: 'Elvis's health scare was frightening'

'I’ve experienced loss like many people': singer Diana Krall 
'I’ve experienced loss like many people': singer Diana Krall

Like the rest of us, the Costello-Kralls were becoming used to a little more freedom. The kids had started back at school, albeit for half the week, mum was able to go back to work almost full-time, and dad was preparing for a quick dash to visit his elderly mother for the first time in months.

And then, last week, the shutters started coming down again.

“My husband, Elvis Costello,” Diana Krall begins, spelling it out unnecessarily, “is here now, but he was supposed to see his mom in Liverpool on Sunday. It’s just not safe right now, so it was a very tough decision. We just thank God for FaceTime.”

“Here” for the jazz singer is Vancouver, one of two homes the couple maintain, the other being in New York. Her native country is reintroducing restrictions similar to those announced by the UK government last week, but judging from the view of this one particular citizen, politicians in Canada enjoy a level of support Matt Hancock can only dream of. “Our health minister here, she is so beautiful and helpful,” beams Krall down the Zoom portal from her piano-side seat in what looks like the family music room. “People listen.”

In the circumstances, though, Krall and Costello may be grateful for a bit more at-home time right now with 13-year-old twins Frank and Dexter. Both parents have new albums to promote that were completed during lockdown. Costello’s Hey Clockface, his 31st studio album, was recorded in Helsinki, Paris and New York right before Covid struck, then mixed in Los Angeles, and completed via what the 66-year-old has called “electrical wire”.

'I just felt tender about the time we worked together': Krall with husband Elvis Costello in 2011 - Larry Busacca
'I just felt tender about the time we worked together': Krall with husband Elvis Costello in 2011 - Larry Busacca

Krall’s This Dream of You, though, has been on an even more mazy, not to mention poignant, journey. The 22-million-selling artist's 15th album is a collection of intimate, classy covers of standards, with the title track a tilt at the Bob Dylan song from his 2009 album Together Through Life. It ends with a happy-sad, affecting take on Singin’ In The Rain, while the lead single is an aching version of Irving Berlin’s 1932 composition How Deep Is The Ocean.

But, far from a recent recording, the tracks were laid down in 2016 and 2017. Krall then filed them away when her garlanded longtime producer and collaborator Tommy LiPuma (Barbra Streisand, Miles Davis, Natalie Cole and countless more) died in March that year, aged 80.

“Tommy and I, we’d go in the studio and have a good time,” begins the 55-year-old. She pauses and takes a deep breath. “I’m having a moment here, it’s hot. You’ve got me thinking about Tommy…"

Composing herself, she continues:“So, the last sessions that we did, Tommy was already not feeling so great but was like: ‘Let’s just keep going, explore, keep going ’til we don’t have any time left…’ So we ended up with an abundance of material. [Then when] he died, it was such a sudden thing. I went to visit him and we were still talking about the record, and he said: ‘Make sure that you finish this and take care of it.’”

She moved on to other projects, including touring and promoting Love Is Here To Stay, her 2018 album with Tony Bennett. But stuck at home in spring, she began thinking about LiPuma’s final musical wish. As she puts it: “I don’t think I could have moved forward unless I did this. I think it honours Tommy and what we did. Otherwise it would be [like] a box of negatives under the bed. Who’s gonna find it?

“So I felt it was good to look back. And being in lockdown, it was joyful.”

That sense of valediction permeates the whole album. It feels well suited to autumn.

But I wonder if it also speaks to her husband's health scare. In 2018, Costello underwent treatment for a “small but aggressive” cancerous tumour. Does this album contain shades of concern for her husband? Krall nods.

'Jazz doesn’t have to be intimidating': singer Diana Krall
'Jazz doesn’t have to be intimidating': singer Diana Krall

“I’ve experienced loss like many people. My mother had cancer, I lost my best girlfriend. If you look on the inner sleeve, it’s her piano.” She’s referring to Jo Andres, the wife of actor Steve Buscemi, “a very dear friend of mine and artistic colleague – she did the [video for] When The Curtain Comes Down. She did all my visuals. She passed away last year. It all kind of rolls together.

“I don’t think that directly affected anything,” she adds, returning to her husband’s health. “But I just wanted to be home. I didn’t want to be out playing… away from him, on tour. That was one of the most frightening things we’ve both ever been through.”

I ask if her concern for Costello reared up again this year. Did he have to shield?

“Yes. I was concerned for everybody. I had avian flu and I’ve never been so sick in my life. We’re careful but not to the point where…” She stops. “We do what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re good homebodies. He’s really healthy, he’s doing great. I can’t keep up with him. We walk through the forest and I’m running after him, he’s in amazing form, playing everywhere he can. I come down, have a cup of coffee, he’s outside playing his guitar, working! It paints a picture, doesn’t it?"

Krall is a natural talent. She worked her way up as a solo singer through piano bars and cocktail lounges, moving to Los Angeles aged 19 in pursuit of a record deal. Success took a while – she was seven albums in before she had a UK Top Ten hit – but now has a total of five Grammy awards.

When she last spoke to the Telegraph, in 2017, she said that some of her influences as a songwriter were filmic and, specifically, that Woody Allen was “everything to me”. How does she feel about him today, given the allegations against him of sexual abuse by his daughter Dylan (allegations he denies)? Is that fandom difficult for her now?

“Definitely. I’ve thought about that. A lot of reflection,” she starts, embarking on a rambling answer that avoids outright condemnation (or any firm position).

Does she still enjoy his movies? “I haven’t watched one of his movies, no,” she says.

She is much keener to talk about the future of music. Earlier this month, figures in the British jazz world expressed concern that Covid-forced cuts to music education in schools could leave jazz the preserve of the white, male and privileged.

“My whole hope is that I can go and talk to young people, go into schools with my band," says Krall.  "[I want to do] anything that I can – if I can go into a situation with young artists or musicians where I don’t talk, I just play and show them that you can access this. Once they know what that feels like, it’s like: ‘Holy s--- that feels good!’ [Jazz] doesn’t have to be intimidating.”

And, of course, there are multiple avenues through which it can be celebrated. How about, for example, a fully collaborative album with her husband? If there is a second lockdown, recording such a project would surely beat perfecting their sourdough or re-watching Tiger King?

“I know!” she laughs. “Actually, there was a very tender moment – I was listening to [2004 track] Departure Bay, which he helped me write, in the middle of the night, thinking about it again, and I put my arm around him and said… I just felt tender about that time when we worked together. It was beautiful. But he’s busy on his own stuff!”

Of course he is, and so is she. But the world in 2020 needs the debut album from, ah, Krallstello. She laughs.

“I would be so lucky! I’m just glad we have this time together and he’s healthy.”

This Dream of You is out now on Verve