By Jim Beviglia of American Songwriter
My life has changed/My world is uncertain. Those are the first words sung by Harry Connick Jr. on his new album Alone With My Faith. They set the tone for a record that asks the questions that have been bedeviling all of us for the past year or so. Connick searched for those answers while doing bold reinterpretations of traditional gospel songs. And he also wrote several new tracks which acknowledge the darkness of the times while resolutely searching for the light.
Alone With My Faith is a one-man tour de force, Connick calling on his vast musical skills as a singer, arranger, and instrumentalist to essentially do it all. While his virtuosity is impressive, it’s the passion and honesty on display that makes this record so moving.
Connick took the time to talk to American Songwriter about the new record and about the importance of truthful songwriting, how this project is unlike any he’s done before, and why you can’t ugly-cry in a crowded studio.
American Songwriter: When the pandemic hit, did you feel driven to make this music, or was it just a case of your going to the studio because you didn’t know what else to do?
Harry Connick Jr: It wasn’t what I had planned on doing. I was on the road in the middle of a tour and that cancelled, which was fine. It was disappointing, but that’s just sort of what the whole world was going through. I felt the desire to make some music, but the need to make some music that comforted me. So I wrote a couple songs that pertained to how I was feeling at the time. I thought about some gospel songs and said, ‘Maybe I could do an album about faith.’ Because this is such a shared experience, maybe some people might get some comfort out of it in the same way I’m getting comfort recording it.
AS: Was it daunting taking on all the instrumentation?
HC: I’ve done that so much I the past. I just haven’t done that on an entire album. I recorded songs that were 30 voices, a cappella stuff that I’ve done, songs where I’d played all the instruments. But I hadn’t done a whole album like that, number one. Number two, I’ve never done an album where I was the recording engineer. There are people who are far superior to me at documenting music. That was a little daunting, because a lot of times I really had no idea what I was doing. As many times as I’ve been in the studios over the years, I had a lot of questions for some experts. I would call my buddies and say, ‘Hey, what’s the mike placement on this drum?’ So that was a little challenging.
AS: Did you like the idea of taking these traditional songs and doing them in a way that would surprise people?
HC: I love interpreting and arranging songs. On a lot of my albums, when I do songs that are well-known, I kind of strip it down to the basic lyrics and melody and start from there, reinterpreting it. This one was no different. A song like ‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘How Great Thou Art,’ I just thought very carefully about the lyrics and what they meant to me and the music evolved in response to that. It’s a fun process. If I’m true to myself, and I don’t really try to sound like anybody but myself, then you can’t say it’s going to be great or awful, but you can say that it’s individual and personal to me.
AS: These arrangements are so striking, because they change, at times drastically, from section to section. I feel like it makes listeners concentrate on these songs maybe in a way that they haven’t in a while. Were you trying to create that experience?
HC: It’s hard to answer that without sounding selfish, because I wasn’t really thinking about the listener when I was recording them. What’s really interesting is that I was really using these songs, the process of recording them, and all the time it took to record them as therapy for me. You were kind the way you phrased it. Other people might say they sound disjointed or rambling, because some of them are. The point wasn’t to make them sound like that. The point was to interpret the lyrics and let the lyrics dictate where the song went. And sometimes it just didn’t feel like staying in the same style. Like on ‘Amazing Grace,’ the time signature changes, all of a sudden you have New Orleans horns coming in, but it just felt right. That’s the fun part of being an artist.
AS: This isn’t all just downcast stuff. Songs like “Old Time Religion” are celebratory. Was it important to strike that balance?
HC: I think so. I’ve done albums that are kind of theme albums, where it’s all ballads or whatever. That’s something that I did not want to do. I didn’t want every song to be this slow thing. So when I did ‘Old Time Religion,’ I’m like ‘That sounds like a New Orleans brass band tune.’ So the first track on that was the kick drum, and then I added a snare drum track, then another snare drum track, then I added the tuba track, then I added the horns. And I wanted it to sound like it was coming from the left side like a parade. And then by the time it got to the middle, you’re listening to like a studio band, and then at the end, the parade drifts off to the right.
AS: Did you feel any pressure in writing originals to sit alongside songs that have been around for centuries in some cases?
HC: I didn’t even think about it. I figured whoever wrote those songs, they were a composer in real time one day, just sitting down writing a tune. And that’s what I do too. You can’t compare ‘Old Rugged Cross’ or ‘Amazing Grace’ to anything. It’s not like I was trying to write songs to compare to them, but I was trying to write songs that meant something to me. And I think, with that being the through-line, it just felt like it worked.
AS: I was very fond of “Benevolent Man,” because I have those same questions about self-worth and relevance. As a songwriter, how do you tap into that resonance?
HC: It all has to come from a place of truth. For me, I can’t think about what other people are thinking. I was telling my daughter Kate this, because she likes writing songs: I don’t try to write songs. I just try to write what I’m feeling at the time. It may not be something that I’m feeling personally. I might be writing something for a Broadway show that requires me to write about a breakup or something. What am I trying to say? I write little ideas. I don’t think about rhyme scheme, I don’t think about song form. Eventually, it starts to take shape.
On ‘Benevolent Man,’ I was thinking, ‘Am I completely irrelevant as a human being? Am I a good person? Does it even matter? I’m trying my best.’ That’s kind of what I wrote. And then it turned into the song by virtue of melodies that are inspired by the lyrics and things like that.
AS: How much did world events seep into the songs you were writing?
HC: Just take this for example. I think the number is up to 14 people that I either knew, or my family was very close to, that died in the last year. The first funeral was for my trombone player Lucien (Barbarin), and that was in New Orleans last February, right before this all happened. And since then, I think about all the people that have died. How can that not affect you? The fact that there is no closure, there are no funerals, you’re trapped in your house. I’m not complaining. There are people out there that are working on the front lines that are dedicating their lives to keeping us safe, and I’m greatly appreciative of that. But I can’t deny my own experience in feeling despair, confusion and uncertainty. Those things clearly had an impact on what I was writing.
AS: What strikes me about these songs is that, as much as they’re about the power of faith, they don’t ignore the hard times and struggle that cause us to need faith in the first place.
HC: I try in my personal life not to lie, because when you lie, you have to remember the lie, and that can catch you sometimes (laughs.) But if you always tell the truth, you never have to worry about that. And it’s the same thing for me musically. Just tell the truth. I could have done an album of all uplifting songs for sure and that would have been cool. But that’s not what this record was. This record was ‘What am I feeling right now’ And the interesting thing to me is that I think we’re all feeling the same thing. That’s worthy of documenting on an album for me. I hope that will resonate with some folks. It’s just about telling the truth.
One thing that I can tell you that was different was the actual recording process. Because I was alone, there were times when I would actually break down sobbing. I wouldn’t really do that normally in the studio. There are social boundaries that consciously or subconsciously that we don’t cross. Like if I’m feeling super-emotional and there are eight musicians in the room, there’s a good chance I’m not going to ugly-cry up on the conductor’s podium (laughs). But I did a lot of that here. Sometimes I was just physically exhausted from recording and it just got me, or a lyric hit me a certain way. You don’t hear my crying on the record because I would always clear my sinuses and sing it again, because that doesn’t sound good. But I think you hear the emotion behind it, and I hope that people hear the truth behind it.
AS: In what way is this album separate from anything you’ve done before?
HC: I was talking to my friends about this earlier. It’s something we can all relate to specifically. I’ve never done an album like that. It’s always been about doing the best music that I can. Some of the songs are autobiographical and some of them are not. But it’s always about ‘Let me put my best musicianship on display.’ And this was not that.
This was 100-percent, emotionally driven in real time. This wasn’t even ‘Let me write about a past breakup I’ve had or a death that I experienced.’ This was like ‘Today’s a Tuesday, we watched the news and we don’t what the hell is going on?’ I would be in the studio on Tuesday singing a song about my life has changed, what’s happening? That’s very different. I feel like it’s a musical journal that I’m releasing. There’s almost a sense of wait, what? Like how do you know about ‘Benevolent Man?’ That’s my journal (laughs.)
AS: My guess is you’re hoping that others draw the same strength from listening to these songs that you did in writing and performing them.
HC: That would be the greatest gift ever. I’ve done a few interviews so far and a couple of people have said, ‘I really like this,’ or ‘This meant something to me’ or ‘That song made my cry.’ That’s huge. Because I’m at the point in my life where, if people hate the record that’s cool. If they give it a bad review, I really don’t care. It is what it is. But if somebody tells me they were moved by this, Oh my gosh, that’s it for me. Because I could have kept this for myself and done it for me. But the reason I released it is I wanted to share it. If it has an impact on somebody, that is an immeasurable gift for which I am so, so grateful.