By Celeste McCauley of Guideposts
Award-winning singer and songwriter Harry Connick Jr. has collaborated with some of the best musicians in the business. But recording 'Alone With My Faith', an album of traditional hymns and original pieces, was different. Working at home during the pandemic lockdown, Connick became a one-man music machine: he wrote the lyrics, sang every note and even played every instrument—25 in all!—on the album.
The master musician brought us behind the scenes of the making of this personal album—and even threw in a lagniappe or two.
Q: There are so many spiritual favorites on this album. How did you choose what to include?
A: For a few of them I picked the ones that popped into my head like "Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art” and “The Old Rugged Cross.” Those were songs that I've sung a lot and haven’t recorded so I thought it would be cool to do those. And then a couple of the others were actually suggested to me by people in my life. My dad loves the song “Panis Angelicus” (Bread of Angels) and my stepmom loves “Old Time Religion.”
Q: You’ve lost many people close to you during the pandemic. That’s incredibly difficult.
A: I lost 11 people I knew due to Covid, including my mentor, jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis. I lost the priest who married my wife, Jill, and me. And we lost Jill’s mom due to a different reason. It was difficult not be able to hold funerals and to mourn the way we had been used to; it's forced my family and me to live a different way. But we’ve accepted it and try to do our best to be socially responsible and safe and realize it's not about us as much as other people.
Q: What was it like making this album on your own during the pandemic?
A. I would go in the basement, write lyrics, write the melody and then start recording. Sometimes I'd start with piano, sometimes I'd start with drums or whatever instrument I thought it needed. Then I would add instruments I thought the song called for. I would chip away at it. If I had another idea, I would switch gears and do that. I just kept recording until I got the sounds that I wanted.
Sometimes I would sing, [because] I was alone. There was no recording engineer. Sometimes a lyric or a particular musical phrase would bring me to tears. As an artist that's all you can hope for: that the music will move you to an emotional place. That happened quite a bit.
Q: With songs on the album like “Be Not Afraid” and “How Great Thou Art,” was prayer a part of your process?
A. I may pray during the song or the song itself may be a prayer. These songs are very powerful and are themselves prayers, like “Panis Angelicus” or “The Old Rugged Cross.” If you're present and you're really paying attention to what's being played and sung they can serve very similar purposes to prayers.
Q: Was your faith strengthened during the recording of the album?
A: In some ways it was tested, let's put it that way. There were some days that I woke up and I was like, what is happening right now? I just lost a family member and I can't go to the funeral. We can't leave the house and we have to wash our groceries outside. What is going on? Some days were harder than others. All I know is we see a light at the end of the tunnel. And I made it. The only thing I can credit for that is my faith and family.
Q: What’s the song “Benevolent Man” about?
A: I ask, in musical form, about my worth and relevance in God's eyes. I don't mean the God that loves us and forgives us. I'm talking about when you're deep inside your own heart and you know that you could have done a little bit more or tried a little bit harder. I'm talking about the God that compels you to think about that.
We know that God loves us, we know that God forgives us. But I'm talking about in those quiet moments when you're all by yourself, and you wonder: Could I have done more? Could I have helped that person? I could have given of myself a little bit more. Am I trying hard enough? Am I working hard enough?
Q: Who is the audience for this album?
A: I think there are people out there who will like the Christian songs because it will resonate with them. And there are other people who may not believe and may find some comfort in the music just because they realize it's coming from a truthful and sincere place. I think about some people in my life who don't really believe in anything and I would think that there are some things that they can take away from this album too. It's a pretty wide gambit. It’s for whoever it can strike a chord with.
Q: Your album cover was photographed by your daughter Georgia and it shows you on top of an old piano holding a sign that says “Faith.” What’s the idea behind that?
A: I'm standing on top of an old upright piano that was in a bad state of repair. None of the strings were in it, no hammers or anything. We hauled it out to the woods. On the front panel I had my daughter Charlotte spray paint the word “Faith.” And then right at the end of the shoot I pushed the piano over and it just kind of collapsed.
I stood on top and held up that front panel of the piano basically to say even when the whole centerpiece of what I'm doing is gone, I can still hang onto my faith. Being a piano player standing on top of a destroyed piano is a pretty sad thought, but as long as you can hang onto your faith you'll be okay.
Q: You’ve talked before about a “lagniappe”—a French Louisiana term for a bonus—and what it means to you in terms of your music. Would you please explain?
A: I think the first time I saw that word was in the Times-Picayune. They had a bonus section called “Lagniappe.” The lagniappe to me is to continue to make music that people might enjoy. To do films or Broadway or just to wake up in the morning knowing that I've been given this incredible gift of doing what I love to do. That is lagniappe. It is something unexpected. It’s a bonus. And it's something for which I am infinitely grateful.
I'm aware of how lucky and blessed I've been. And that's what makes me want to keep getting better. If somebody has seen me in concert I want them to come back the next time and say, man, that last concert was nothing compared to this. It's the humility of realizing that I've been gifted with an incredible group of people who are interested in what I do and I take that very seriously.