By Chris Carpenter of CBN
What does a Grammy and Emmy Award winning singer do when he can’t tour, perform, or collaborate with other musicians due to COVID-19? Why record a Gospel album all by himself of course!
With the coronavirus pandemic forcing him off his tour in early 2020, Harry Connick, Jr. retreated to his home studio and went on a personal journey of sorts, spending 10 to 12 hours a day working on a new album. Along the way, he arranged all the songs, played every instrument, sang every part, and even set up and broke down his own recording equipment.
The end result is collection of traditional hymns and new originals called Alone with My Faith. The album is a reflection of his experience of coping during quarantine and his exploration of faith through song. Included on the recording are classic hymns such as “The Old Rugged Cross”, “Amazing Grace”, and “How Great Thou Art” coupled with several new faith-fueled compositions that Connick wrote.
I recently spoke to the New Orleans-bred Connick about this labor of love he created in virtual solitude, the familiar hymn that he believes is the cornerstone of the entire album, and what he learned about himself during this process.
First off, how have you and your family been making it through the coronavirus pandemic thus far?
We consider ourselves very fortunate. We've all been able to kind of stay at home during this time. And we're aware that this is an incredible luxury when you consider all of the men and women who have been out there, making our lives better and safer. We're very thankful and we are okay. One of my daughters had an opportunity to go see a friend who was about an hour away and she was going to leave today, but she didn't. I asked her what happened. She goes, “Well, my friend was out with someone else last night. He was around about 10 people and I don't feel comfortable.” Just to have a young person be aware of the social responsibility is really cool. It's sad that it has to be like that, but it's temporary and they realize it. That's what we've been doing. We've been following the guidelines and trying to try to do our part.
That's great. I'm glad that your family is doing well. Let’s talk about this album. What was the inspiration or the catalyst for recording and releasing Alone with My Faith?
Last year at about this time, I was on tour. The tour got canceled and I'm at home. I was in my home studio and I was thinking, man, I've been wanting to record a Gospel album for a long time. Maybe I should do it. It's not the way I had planned on it because I couldn't be in a studio. There were no other musicians and I'm not a recording engineer. But, I have everything (equipment, instruments) here. Let me just start doing it (and see what happens). So, I picked a couple of tunes and started recording. There was no time schedule really. So, I would add a part here and there and it started to grow. And then I started to think about writing some music based on how I'm feeling. One day it could have been joyous and other day it could have been despondent or anything in between. But it was all sort of how I was feeling in regard to my faith.
And it really kind of turned into a (musical) journal about faith and what I thought everybody else was going through. And that is a unique thing, because I've never been in a situation where everybody was going through the same thing. So, it blossomed. I started adding more parts and I have a lot of instruments at home. So, I was able to record dozens and dozens of different instruments. It was just a great process. It was really fun. It took a long time because everything is real. All those instruments are real.
This truly seems to be a labor of love as you wrote and or arranged all the songs, played every instrument, and sang every part. You could have worked on anything during this quarantine period, but you chose this. Why is this so important to you?
It is really important. All my albums are a labor of love. They all are a lot of work. I orchestrate them and arrange them, and it takes a lot of time, but this one was different because there wasn't even a recording engineer. So, I’m setting up my own gear and I loved it. That's my passion anyway, but what was really thrilling to me was the results of this work. It was something that would potentially mean something to somebody else in a different way than the other albums I've done. People might say, “Oh, I like this record you did.” Or, “That's my favorite album,” or whatever, but this one is written for other folks as much as it's written for me, because we all went through something (coronavirus pandemic) very similar. That was really cool too as I was singing these songs to think about all the people who may hear this and think that I wrote it just for them.
There are some pretty amazing, well-known hymns on the record … “Because He Lives”, “Amazing Grace”, “The Old Rugged Cross”, “How Great Thou Art”, on and on it goes. Why did you choose the songs you chose?
They were kind of the first ones that popped into my head. If you just sit around in your living room and somebody says, “Hey, what's your three favorite gospel songs,” you might pick those or something else. And it was really like that. I just kind of picked songs that I liked. And then, I remember talking to my dad. He asked, “What are you working on?” I told him I was doing this album that was kind of about faith. And he says, “Are you going to do “Panis Angelicus” on it? I hadn't thought about that. I said, I am now. So, I recorded that. And then, my stepmom heard about it and she said, “What about “Old Time Religion””? And I was kind of rocked because I hadn't thought about that song in forever. I thought, I'll be fine. Maybe I can make it sound like a New Orleans brass band and just kind of pick the tunes that came to mind. And then, before I knew it, I had enough for an album and I just stopped.
Is there any one song that you feel is the cornerstone or the anchor for the entire album?
I think there's two. One of them is “The Old Rugged Cross”, just because it's such a powerful song lyrically. It reminds us of what really went down on that Cross and how horrible, shameful and tragic that type of death is. But at the same time, it's the symbol of hope for us. For a Christian, that would be the one that probably resonates the most with me. And then, for a song about faith, and this could appeal to anyone. I think it transcends Christianity and is called “Alone with My Faith”. I was physically alone when I recorded this. Literally no one else was in the studio, but I didn't feel alone because I had my faith. There are people out there who don't believe exactly what I believe, but I think they'd be able to relate to that one.
Jumping off from that, you went into what you call your “musical isolation chamber”. And out of that you found yourself alone with your faith. That must have been a very special time for you, away from all the noise and distractions that so readily present themselves. Your thoughts?
It felt like a retreat or something. It felt like that for me because I was alone for hours and hours and hours. I'd get something to eat or spend time with my family, but for 10 to 12 hours a day, I would be by myself. When you’re alone that much your thoughts wander. And that's what I wanted. I wanted to kind of see where it went.
Somebody was trying to be really nice about “Amazing Grace”. I don't think they liked it, but they were like, “This is different. This is not your traditional thing.” I took that as a great compliment because obviously not everybody's going to like it. Some people are going to hate it. But “Amazing Grace” for example, it is all over the place, but isn't that what our lives are anyway? Sometimes with my faith, I wonder about and question That's what I wanted it to be. It was all over the place and that's the way I felt for the last year. So, that's why it ended up like that and I'm happy about it. I'm happy that it’s got some change and some dynamics in it.
I love that your daughter Georgia conceived and designed the album cover, and conceived and directed your video for “Amazing Grace”. That is very special. What was the experience like working with her on this?
Well, I've worked with Georgia for a while. She's been in my life as a professional for a long time. She was a photographer on my TV show. So, we've worked together a lot and we understand each other and how we work. We kind of have a shorthand and she is just really smart. She has a gazillion ideas and knows her craft. And you know, when you hire somebody as a director it's very much a collaborative experience. But she's the director. So when she says, go stand over there or do that again, that's what you do. And I trust her. We don't fight or argue or anything like tat. Her mindset is let's get it done and she's fast. I love working with her.
After people have listened to Alone with My Faith, what would you like your listeners to get out of the experience? What is your greatest hope for the album?
It was an album I did as much for them as for me. And because we had a shared experience and the album itself gave me comfort to record. I hope listeners just get some comfort out of it and some musical enjoyment. Maybe they put the headphones on and sit in a quiet place and just go on the same journey I went on and know that it was a special time for all of us good and bad. I just want them to know that I did it for them.