Harry Connick Jr. discusses Cole Porter Broadway show
It was all very different the last time we spoke to Harry in December 2019. It was the Broadway opening of his new musical A Celebration Of Cole Porter, with plans to take the show on the road throughout 2020 and then abroad. Within a few months the musician and actor was, like much of the world, in lockdown with wife Jill and daughters Georgia Tatum, Sarah Kate and Charlotte, splitting time between their Connecticut base and Cape Cod beach house. Harry’s Porter project was driven by a need to understand the artist as much as the art. This time he has turned the lens on himself.
Recorded at home, his new album Alone With My Faith includes six of his own compositions alongside secular and spiritual favourites, inspired by this new global reality.
“It’s a snapshot of all things related to faith, good and bad,” he says, “questioning if I believe in God, am I worthy, am I relevant? It’s everything from celebratory to melancholy and everything in between.
“This is the first time in history that everyone on the entire planet has gone through something similar.
“I thought this moment of looking into myself and my faith could resonate with others. A friend said, ‘I can’t believe you created a whole album, all I’ve done is create more flesh’. But the music was perfectly in tandem with what I was feeling.”
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Harry Connick Jr new albumHarry Connick Jr releases new album Alone With My Faith
Like everyone, Harry has wrestled with his own situation while watching a world in turmoil, particularly an America more divided than ever by politics, race and creed. Is it tough to find faith at such times?
“I think this pandemic has been a wake-up call,” he says. “We have all had time to question who we are, how the world works, and what we believe.
“There is so much goodness in humanity but a lot of people are really scared and sometimes they react because they are afraid or have been told things they think are true.
“The greatest sense of peace for me comes from trying to understand things I am not familiar with, rather than running from them.”
A devout Catholic raised in New Orleans with a Jewish mother (former Louisiana Supreme Court justice Anita), Harry’s sense of faith has always been a broad church, but he admits it has been tested in the past year.
He says: “I never doubted God’s existence but I did question some pieces of faith.
“I lost 14 family members and friends – Jill’s mother and then Ellis Marsalis (jazz legend and Harry’s childhood mentor) and the family priest who married me and Jill.
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“Those days were rough, especially when you can’t even go to the funeral. There were times the grief was so strong that the last thing I wanted to do was look inside myself and dig up some art. I wasn’t bounding out of bed every morning into the studio to create joyous moments with my faith. There were weeks when I couldn’t do anything.
“But so far in my life I have made it through every moment, however painful or traumatic. My record is one hundred percent, so far. So I have faith I will again.”
There is a bold, raw line in the self-penned track Benevolent Man: “Am I an irrelevant man? Am I a benevolent man?” Few of us, let alone major artists, ever publicly acknowledge that inner fear or privately confront the buried question of what our lives are worth.
“I question what the hell am I doing, all the time,” Harry says. “For all the confidence and bravado I have in certain situations, I have equal or more doubts and insecurity. People in their totality are incredibly complex. This song is a way of asking those questions.”
And was there any answer?
“Not really! But I get the most security from talking to people who aren’t afraid to admit they don’t have the answers.
“My dad just said, ‘I’m going to be 95 this month and I need to go and think about what that means’. I love that. Whether it’s insecurity or mortality, you will always gain something by acknowledging there are questions, and that they change over time.
Harry with jazz mentor Ellis Marsalis and son Wynton
“My father is so graceful in accepting physical and emotional pain and I asked him how he does that. He told me, ‘There’s an art to pain’. It gives me hope, that just by asking the questions there is always something to learn.
“I know people my age who say they are getting old. I don’t understand it like I don’t understand calculus.
“It’s not that I want to be young, I just don’t feel old. I love life and to laugh. When I feel that sense of giddiness, it’s not jaded at all by time. It still feels like I’m 19.”
Some of the more joyous tracks on the album, like Old Time Religion and Because He Lives, sound like we’re parading through the streets of New Orleans with a jazz band and gospel choir. Has Harry been sneaking musicians into his house during lockdown?
“I had to do it via underground tunnels and passageways,” he smiles, “but we got it done!” The truth is even more remarkable.
The 53-year-old is best-known as a talented jazz pianist but he plays every single instrument on the album, from the piano to the organ, drums, trumpet, tuba, and more. Those massed voices? That’s all him too – sometimes layering 25 backing vocals on a track.
“You just start with the piano or bass drum, then build instrument by instrument,” he says. “It’s fun and spontaneous. It’s fulfilling. It’s like live jazz, you feel whatever comes.”
He did, however, have some help filming the videos for the lead single Alone With My Faith, plus Harry’s new version of Amazing Grace, enlisting photographer and film-maker daughter Georgia to direct. The latter was filmed at a beautiful derelict old opera house in Connecticut.
Did it offer a new perspective on their relationship? “All of the dynamics between a father and daughter are built-in, but no child wants to be treated as a child by their parent forever,” Harry says.
“She was hired as a director and she has paid her dues and is ready to carve out her own space. If your intention is to raise a child who will become this incredible, thought- provoking courageous human being, then you must expect it to happen.”
Family and faith are the cornerstones of Harry’s life and, after the interview, he was heading to the airport for a long-awaited family reunion in New Orleans to celebrate Harry Connick Sr’s 95th birthday.
“This is the first time we are taking a trip together,” he says. “We are so excited. Everyone down there is vaccinated and everyone here has started their vaccinations.”
As the world slowly starts to reawaken, what is next for Harry?
“There’s a ton of stuff in the pipeline in terms of Broadway and TV,” he says.
“I feel patient and positive but I get so consumed by all those men and women who are out there dealing with all this for us.
“I think about people cleaning the hospitals or the restaurant and theatre owners and all the people who work there. I’m not worried about me. I have been so fortunate. Whatever is meant to happen for me will happen.”
Harry Connick Jr’s new album Alone With My Faith is out now