Harry Connick, Jr.: An Uncharted Odyssey
BY LARRY CRANE of Tape Op
Well-known as a pianist, vocalist, and songwriter, Harry Connick Jr. found himself with a cancelled tour, left at home seeking “comfort, peace, and truth throughout the process of making music.” He played all the instruments and recorded himself at his home studio and then mixed it with longtime producer/engineer Tracey Freeman. The resulting album, Alone With My Faith, comes across like a healing balm for these times. As Harry says, “Recording was what was necessary… to help guide me through the uncharted odyssey in which we all unexpectedly found ourselves.”
Is this the first time you’ve done a solo record where you did it all on your own?
For the whole album, yes. I’ve recorded songs over the years that were either a cappella vocals or me playing all the instruments on a song or two, but never a whole album.
Do you do overdubs and track sometimes at your personal studio as well when you’re working on other albums?
Not really. If it’s a big orchestral album, I’ll write the scores here. But there’s no performing done at the home studio. I don’t do any demo or overdubbing; it’s all live in the studio.
Right. So, you’ve kept that more of a writing space for yourself.
Yeah. It’s all writing, and then, for this album, recording.
How do you have so many instruments there?
Well, I’ve collected instruments for a long time. I like playing different instruments, different brass or stringed instruments, drums, and synths. I have a lot here. It was great to have them accessible when I was doing this album, because I was hearing so many different parts. If I was hearing a glockenspiel, I have a glock. Or if I was hearing a celeste, I have a celeste. It was cool to be able to use those so readily.
Were you playing actual strings? I thought I heard a Mellotron.
Yeah, good ears. It was cello Mellotron on the outro of a song called “All These Miracles.” I did play strings on the album, but not much.
Your one-sheet notes mention that you weren’t using any soft-synths. What made you want to make that known?
I remember when [Queen’s] A Night at the Opera came out, and it had, “No Synthesisers!” [in the credits]. You remember that?
That’s important to me. There are people out there who are going to listen to this album, like yourself, who know exactly what “no soft synths” means. It would be a thousand percent easier to do this on my laptop with a MIDI controller and get all those sounds. There’s something about playing a Wurly [Wurlitzer], playing a [Fender] Rhodes, and playing a [Hammond] B3. In fact, the only instrument even remotely close to that was the Mellotron. Yeah, I could have put fake brass on it, but even the drum machine was a [Dave Smith Instruments] Tempest, which is an analog drum machine. It was important for me to have the signal path be as analog as I could have it, and to have the instruments be as analog as I could have them, because I knew there would be people out there who’d be listening for it.
Also, as a producer and engineer myself, I feel that it imparts a very different emotional feel to the music.
Not only the sound of it, but the performance. If you’re playing a MIDI controller that you want to sound like a Mark 1 Rhodes, yeah, it can be pretty close; but your performance is going to be different with the imperfections and idiosyncrasies of the instruments themselves. Across the board – if you have access to it – it’s cool to use it.
Yeah. I’ve got Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos here; I know exactly what you’re talking about. You’re working in Apple’s Logic. Is this the most intense tracking and editing you’ve undertaken on your own?
Oh, yeah. Back in the old days, when we were splicing tape, there were days which were super intense, but I wasn’t the one with the razor blade! [laughter] It wasn’t super intense for me. But yes, we’re talking about 70, 80, 90 tracks on some of these tunes. A lot of editing, which I love to do, but editing real audio with that many tracks is usually something that I’ll sit and watch somebody else do and tell them what I want. That’s not the case here!
There’s a real sense of space, even though it’s you playing all the instruments and all the vocals. It felt sometimes, like when you’re singing backing vocals, that you were getting back off the mic or putting the instruments in the room during the tracking. Is that true?
Yeah. It is true. This is where you’ll appreciate this more than anyone else: when I finished the album and consolidated all the files, completely finished them for good, I sent them to Tracey Freeman, who’s been my producer for years and years. I drove down to New Orleans and sat in a room with him. I used all kinds of analog reverbs, whether it was a Strymon, a Moogerfooger, or whatever I was using for delays. There were times when I said, “Tracey, hook me up with that choir. It doesn’t sound right.” Full disclosure, that’s where some of the space comes in. We’d put those vocals with a [Universal Audio] Capitol Chambers reverb plug-in. In the mixing process there were some plug-ins, but that’s it.
After you got everything edited, you rented an RV and drove down to New Orleans?
Yeah. My dad lives there. I knew we were going to mix the record at Tracey’s studio. He got tested and I got tested. I didn’t see anybody, and I went right to his house and sat in a room with him. I’ve known this guy since we were 15 years old, so it felt like we were doing a fun project – not even to do it for a release – because it was so fun. He’s brilliant. He understands things that I don’t understand. He would say, “Do you have a power conditioner at your house with the power coming into your studio?” I said, “No, do I need that?” He’d say, “Yeah, there’s a little bit of hum on here.” It was fun to have him hear it. He’ll say, “Um, yeah, I’m hearing a couple of clicks and pops.” I’d reply, “Man, I edited all those out!” He’s like, “No you didn’t.”
Was he giving you advice while you were tracking?
Oh, hell yeah. I would FaceTime him, “This kick drum mic: This is where it should be, right?” He’d say, “No, you want the badge facing the other way.” Or I would mic the [Hammond] B3, and I’m asking, “How the hell do you mic a B3?” He’s like, “Welcome to my world!” But it was amazing. There were all kinds of questions I had where I’d call him for feedback. It was fun for me. I learned a lot.
Right. You’re used to writing, and then stepping in and working as a performer more.
Were there methods you used to maintain that sense of performance while you were also having to think about the technical aspects?
These are such great questions! I used my iPad as a Logic remote that I attached to the top of the drum booth on a gooseneck mount. When I was laying down drum tracks, I wouldn’t have to get up and go to the computer. That was pretty neat. But, otherwise, I would usually give myself a 4-bar count-off, and then I’d go sit at the B3 and overdub that part. I’d give myself enough time to physically walk over to the piano. That was a performance. I felt the excitement of the count-off.
Yeah. On a lot of the takes, were you running down the full song?
Oh, yeah; a ton of them. Some of them were done incrementally. There were some tricky parts on this song “God and My Gospel” where there’s a harpejji. Have you worked with a harpejji before?
No. A what?
Okay, I’ve gotta show it to you. [Holds it up to see in Zoom call.] I have it here because other people have asked about it. This isn’t a plug; I have no affiliation to this company. It’s like a guitar but it’s hammered like a piano. I’d record that piece and then go back and re-record it, pan it hard left, pan it hard right, and there’re three of them. Parts like that I did in pieces.
It uses tapping, like guitar neck tapping?
Yeah, the harpejji’s made by Marcodi. It’s a family; a husband, wife, and their kids in Maryland. It’s a new instrument, and it’s unbelievable.
It’s great that you had collected all these instruments. Whereas if you had only a piano…
I love collecting instruments, and I love having them in a workflow situation where I can use them. I have it patched in a way where if I’m hearing a particular synth, or if I want to add a part quickly, then I can do that. It works well.
When did you learn all these instruments?
Well, I have a lot to learn on all of them. You’ll hear me playing trumpet and tenor [sax], but when you work with people like Wynton and Branford Marsalis, those are the trumpet and tenor players you want to work with. I love music. I’ve always screwed around with different instruments. I’ve been in the studio and wanted to hear a French horn; but when there was no French horn player around, I figured I’d play. Over time I developed more proficiency on those instruments. Some of them I’m much better on than others, but I’ve always loved to do that since I was a kid.
How did you and Tracey approach the mixing process? Was that being done in-the-box?
Yeah, that’s all in-the-box. I asked Tracey, “Why don’t you have a board?” I had an ethical problem with that, considering the recording process, but Tracey asked, “Where do you draw the line? As soon as you plug something in, you’re not acoustic anymore.” I felt I did a record that was completely analog. If he wanted to add a particular reverb or plug-in, I softened my approach a little bit. Yeah, he doesn’t have a board. The whole thing’s in-the-box. I get it. It’s so much more efficient that way.
The record sounds intimate; it doesn’t sound bright or shrill by any means.
Right. If you listen to when you can hear the piano by itself, I remember I was in the room mixing it with him, and all of a sudden I asked, “Whoa, what is that? That’s like an old upright piano.” He said, “That’s the Capitol Chambers reverb.” I’ve been at Capitol Studios; I’ve done 20 albums there. I’ve been into the reverb chambers beneath the parking lot. I know what they are. I was saying, “That sounds like Capitol reverb!” He said, “Yeah, it is.” I replied, “Okay, use it.” What are you going to do? It sounds so good; just use it.
That’s one of my favorite new plug-ins from Universal Audio.
It’s so pretty. Obviously, I wasn’t going to even attempt to mix this album [alone], because that’s a completely different thing. But it’s such a pleasure. I’ve been present in every single one of my mixing sessions since I was nine, to watch people like you who understand how to do that, and the nuance and knowledge that you have to have. I love every bit of it.
Your partnership with Tracey is amazing. That’s a real testament to friendship and collaboration.
Yeah, for sure.
Well, thank you so much for your time!
That was fun, man! I got to talk about some stuff I haven’t spoken about. I love it. I enjoyed every minute.