By Stefan Kyriazis of Daily Express
Long before Josh Groban and Michael Bublé, Harry Connick Jr was the heir to the ghosts of showbusiness past. For a generation he was the dreamboat whose voice soundtracked 1989’s When Harry Met Sally and a series of bestselling jazz albums. He was the new Sinatra, without the messy Mob connections; a global star at 22. An effortless transition to the big screen had them swooning in the aisles from Memphis Belle and Independence Day to Hope Floats. He was a wholesome hottie with plenty of soul to keep things interesting. Thirty years later, Harry has three Grammys, two Emmys and 28 million album sales. He married former Victoria’s Secret model Jill Goodacre in 1994 and they have three daughters, Georgia, Sarah and Charlotte. Throw in sister Suzanna and his Louisiana Supreme Court justice mother Anita and Harry has always been surrounded by women. “I mostly gravitate to women because I find them more interesting,” he happily admits.
The feeling is reciprocated from 20something colleagues to my somewhat older mother – who all universally sigh when I mention the interview. Sure, he comes packaged in six strapping feet of floppy-haired, sleepy-eyed Louisiana charm, but why does everyone wish they were Sally to this Harry?
It starts with his upbringing and ends with his faith... but ultimately everything comes down to love.
“We were raised in New Orleans blind to everything – colour, sexuality, creed,” he tells me. “Mardi Gras is a Catholic day but in New Orleans it’s become an extraordinary celebration of life, love and difference. “These things co-exist in all of us. We are complex creations, but people have so many issues about what is different from them. I try to love deeply and believe in everyone. That is what makes me happy. I truly love my wife and children. I have relationships with men and women in my life whom I truly love. “I try to think about what Christ wanted. Man, he loved everyone. He didn’t judge. I think about what some Catholics say about gay people and I don’t believe that is what the man we worship wanted. I don’t believe in ‘tolerance’. It implies there is something to overcome. Love a person for who they are.” Music was his first great passion.
He made his debut onstage at the age of five, playing piano at a political rally for his father, Joseph Harry Fowler Connick, who became the district attorney of New Orleans Parish. “I loved the piano from three or four. At the event, I played the Star-Spangled Banner and I didn’t want to stop. My dad had to pull me away. I’ve always been obsessed with the idea you can press this little key down and a sound comes out and, man, sometimes it makes you feel something wonderful.” Harry played with the New Orleans Symphony at nine and recorded his first album at 10. The rest may be history but I don’t doubt it when he says, “I’d be happy if all I did was play for myself, the fact that it touches other lives is an honour.” A gifted performer, Harry also arranges and composes. He orchestrated every note and every instrument on new album True Love: A Celebration Of Cole Porter. It’s a staggering achievement. “There are 550 pages of scores. Not just the actual notes but the phrasing. It’s fine to freestyle on a New Orleans funk album, but for an orchestra? Man, there is so much that can go wrong! But it is so exciting to be creating at 52 and evolving. It’s art, there is no final chapter. It’s thrilling to be uncomfortable and challenged.” I tell him my favourite track on the album is Begin The Beguine, hastily clarifying it’s not because it’s the only one where he doesn’t sing. His sleepy baritone remains as beguiling as ever, but when he simply plays the piano you can feel the music pouring out of him. It is breathtaking.
His manager, who’s been with him since he was a teenager, tells me she still loves to quietly watch Harry disappear at the keyboard, lost again in his private rapture. In public, Harry just as passionately defends art in all forms as funding is relentlessly cut. “There are no statistics to art,” he says. “It’s not a football score. It’s hard to articulate to people who are not wired that way but it’s about humanity. Art takes over where words fail. It unites us but it has always co-existed next to the most difficult and troubling parts of life. “When people try and clean up parts of society they see as ugly, imperfect or different, you lose something. “A journalist asked me if it bothered me that Porter was writing songs about men and I was like, ‘First, why would it? Second, we are talking about one of the great composers of all time. How offensive to assume everything he wrote was from personal experience?’ “If I could only write autobiographically I’d have a very narrow perspective. The whole point is to fantasise, explore different lives. I often imagine different versions of myself, with a different life, sexuality, faith. That’s what artists do.” Harry even famously embraced playing the horrifying serial killer who terrorised Sigourney Weaver in Copycat. “We all think terrible thoughts. I found it amazing to access and visit that part of me although it creeped Jill out at the time. She was like, ‘I’ll sleep in a different bed for now’. Sigourney wouldn’t speak to me as myself until the premiere.”
As the #MeToo movement exposes generations of all-too-real horrors against women, does he fear for his daughters? “They are strong women. There has been an epidemic of women being treated as prey and it’s important this dialogue has started, but I don’t worry about them looking after themselves. I remind them that not everything needs to be public. These days, with social media you can say or do something foolish and your life and career are over.”
Porter, of course, was writing in the 1930s, a phenomenally liberal time across Europe and America. It was swiftly followed by Nazism in Germany and later McCarthyism in Hollywood as any sense of “other” was persecuted. With societies across the globe painfully divided once more, does hope still float for Harry? “I’m not impervious to sadness or tragedy. I’m highly flawed. I’m insecure. My faith is complicated. But I’m always hopeful, maybe too much. I like the way it feels. “It sounds nuts, but I still feel like I’m 18. I feel like Willy Wonka. Live, love and dream. Anything is possible.” Perhaps, all it needs is more men like Harry.
True Love: A Celebration Of Cole Porter is out on October 25