Elysa Gardner, USA TODAY
NEW YORK — For her new album, Confessions, out today, Liza Minnelli decided to go back to her roots — way, way back.
"When I was a kid, my father would always play music in the house," says Minnelli, 64. "And I'd sit on the piano at my mother's parties, or go to my godfather's house. That's how I first fell in love with songs, with lyrics."
As Minnelli fans and most students of 20th-century pop culture know, that father was legendary Hollywood director Vincente Minnelli; her mom, the legendary singer/actress Judy Garland. The godfather, a fellow named Ira Gershwin, was pretty accomplished himself.
Garland and Minnelli's little girl grew up to be an icon in her own right, of course, a multifaceted stage and screen performer who garnered Oscar, Emmy, Grammy (Living Legend trophy) and Tony awards. Her most recent Broadway outing, 2008's Liza's at the Palace, earned a Tony for special theatrical event, drawing ecstatic crowds who reveled in the unbridled showbiz flash and unabashed sentimentality that have come to define the persona of "Liza with a Z."
That side of Minnelli is much less pronounced on Confessions, a collection of spare, mostly piano-driven ballads delivered with an understated warmth and intimacy that may surprise both skeptics and the faithful.
"This is jazz singing," says Minnelli, settling back on a pillow-laden hotel chair and puffing on a cigarette. "I wanted to do an album that you could put on at a dinner party, where people wouldn't have to stop to hear me hit a big note. It wasn't about screaming my head off; it was about grooving on it and enjoying it."
Minnelli notes that Confessions was recorded while she was recovering from surgery for an injured knee, "so we wanted everything to be really comfortable." Working with longtime accompanist Billy Stritch, she compiled a track list that includes oft-covered standards such as I Got Lost in His Arms and At Last but also digs deeper into the American songbook, mining lesser-known personal favorites.
Minnelli's relatively subdued, organic approach could endear her to a broader audience, says Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis. "She found a nice place earlier in her career, where she was able to split the difference between that self-conscious grandeur of her background and making contemporary statements. Maybe she can do that again."
Not that Minnelli takes enduring devotion for granted. A four-time divorcée, Minnelli is now adamantly single; asked if she's dating anyone, she says, "Are you crazy? I've been there and done that. Over!" But she describes a mutually passionate relationship with her fans and stays close to them by touring exhaustively. She's currently playing theaters, with a sextet or symphony. "Every performance is a dialogue with the audience, which I love. They define the experience, so it's always different."
In fact, when asked what advice she would have for fledgling entertainers, this daughter of a child star — a teen prodigy herself — says, "Don't think about yourself that much, because it's not your job. Your job is to think about your audience.
"And stay friends with everyone you work with, because they do their jobs, too," Minnelli adds. "And stay healthy. And just keep loving what you do."
UPCOMING TOUR DATES
Birmingham, Ala.: Saturday
Portland, Maine: Sept. 29
Dallas: Oct. 8-9
Spokane, Wash.: Oct. 15
Appleton, Wis.: Oct. 22
Joilet, Ill.: Oct. 29
Indianapolis: Oct. 30
Boston: Nov. 7
Memphis: Nov. 12
Nashville: Nov. 13
Staten Island, N.Y.: Nov. 20
San Francisco: Dec. 5