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Posted 09.23.09

Harry Connick Jr. has performed with the cream of R&B and jazz musicians in his native New Orleans, so he knows you can't fake the funk -- and as a premier interpreter of classic love songs, he also knows that your heart has to be in what you sing, no matter what you sing. To celebrate the release of his new album, 'Your Songs,' which features romantic standards from the likes of the Beatles and Elvis Presley, the musician, actor and humanitarian takes the stage Tuesday at a star-studded showcase at New York's high-life Hiro Ballroom. Connick talks to Spinner about his admiration for legendary record mogul -- and 'Your Songs' producer -- Clive Davis, what acting has taught him about music and his love for Freddie Mercury. What, in your opinion, makes a timeless song? I think it's three components, man -- lyrics, melody and harmonic structure. If you can say the lyrics almost like a poem and they stand up, that's a great thing. Some songs have great lyrics and I don't like the melodies, and vice versa. How about the intangible stuff, on an emotional level? I just sing what it means to me. I think people respond to an honest interpretation more than anything else. I'm not trying to be romantic. I think you can tell when people are trying to be sexy onstage. When I was doing 'All the Way,' I was really thinking about my wife. People don't know my personal experience, but they can tell it's an honest interpretation. If you have these great songs, it's like anybody can sing them. They just kind of sing themselves. Are there ever songs that intimidate you? No, I don't get intimidated. But to be frank, it's kind of tough to be in Capitol Studios, playing on Nat Cole's piano, singing 'Mona Lisa.' That's kind of heavy. But the songs are so strong. It's like saying, "Are you intimidated as an actor doing Shakespeare?" You're impressed by the material, and because it's so great, it lends itself to infinite interpretations. How long was the list of songs you and Clive Davis considered? Well, there were tunes like that song 'If,' by Bread. That was one I dug. He said, "Naw, that doesn't really work." There was a Celine Dion song, 'Because You Loved Me,' that I didn't want to do for various reasons. There were about 30, and we ended up recording 19, some of which are bonus tracks. Actually, the arrangements took the most time. He's a real stickler for tempo. He'd say, "You know, that's 98 beats per minute. Can you capture the same sentiment at 102?" I mean, the dude does his homework, bro. I was really impressed. I've never had anybody make suggestions on how I arrange things. Especially from a non-musician. The concept of that made me bristle at first. But the fact that he did his homework so thoroughly, I said, "I gotta give it up, man." What accounts for Clive's magic touch? It's pretty amazing, really. I've spent so much time with him over the last eight or 10 months. I know what it is, I just don't know how he does it. He has this ability to hear things -- when it's right to him, it's right to everybody. He said, "We know you're a piano player, and you do arrangements and conducting. We get all that. But a lot of times you're too hip for the room. Let's do something that features you as a singer. Just sing, and pick some great songs that everybody knows." I had never really done that. I'm always taking left turns. I definitely arrived at a completely different place than I would have had he not been involved. And although we got into it on occasion, I was fascinated with the process. It was cool -- even though I did all the work, I felt like an actor showing up on a film set. I didn't have to worry about direction and cameras. I just did my part, and it was kind of liberating. It was a great experience. You've got Wynton and Branford Marsalis making guest appearances. How much New Orleans did you put in the arrangements? Not much. There's different sides of me, know what I'm saying? I did some funk records years ago, and I sang it differently. If I'm singing a Meters tune, I'm not gonna sing it like I sing 'And I Love You So.' And those are all influences of mine. If you listen real close, like on 'Your Song,' there's some piano stuff in there, or on 'Close to You,' there's some gospel/New Orleans stuff. But not much, 'cause that's not what this was about. Your dad recommended the song 'Besame Mucho.' Yeah. My pop used to live in Spain back in the '50s, and he was fascinated with Spanish culture. He studied to be a matador. He wrote for a Spanish newspaper. And he's like an encyclopedia of music. From, I would say, 1910 to about 1970, there's not much he doesn't know about popular music. And he's been trying to get me to sing that song for years. So I did that for my pop. As a kid, you studied with the great New Orleans piano player James Booker. How nuts was that? You a Booker fan? It was crazy. I met him for the first time when I was, like, seven. My dad was the DA of New Orleans, and my mother was a judge. My mother loved James. I'm guessing they knew a lot of his friends in all the wrong ways. Well, they knew him in the wrong ways. My dad, I don't know if his office prosecuted him, but James was in Angola [prison]. They definitely crossed paths, 'cause Booker was a big junkie. My parents would take me to Jazz Fest when I was a kid, and he'd see me backstage and ask me to come up and play. My mother died when I was 13, and I remember he was absolutely devastated. He'd show up at the house unexpectedly. I'd be home from school and the doorbell would ring, and he'd be standing there with his three-piece suit on and his cane. He was a very unusual dude but a sweet, sweet guy. I'm about the same age as he was when he died. The amount of conflict he was going through -- not only sexual identity but mental health and drug addiction, alcohol -- oh, my God. He'd call at two in the morning: "The cops are beating me up." But he didn't want to talk to my dad, he wanted to talk to me. And I'm, like, 12? I look back and think, what kind of alternate universe was I living in? He did things on the piano that are impossible to do. He was a real freak of nature, man, and I'm so happy I knew him. When you're in the moment, how does acting compare to making music? Can you compare the two? Yeah, you can. I've always been concerned with lyrics and lyric interpretation. When you do a scene in a movie, onstage, you rip it apart more. With songs, the melody can act like a cushion, which is why a lot of people can get up and sing a song, maybe not know anything about what they're singing, but it still goes over. It happens a lot, I think, with singers. With acting, you can't do that. You have to really know what you're talking about. There's a very specific focus on word content, and it made me kind of re-examine the way I looked at lyrics. You won't talk to anybody who breaks lyrics down more thoroughly. It's just a complete deconstruction, and when you start to rebuild, nobody has the capacity to do it like me. Which is not to say I'm better, it's just that there's a unique quality to everyone. You do a version of 'Close to You,' which is best known by the Carpenters. What would you call your own guilty pleasures? Man, I like all kinds of stuff. I'm a huge Freddie Mercury fan. I think he was the end-all. I love his lack of inhibition, his talent, the chances he took. He made mistakes on his records, and he didn't care. I love George Jones and Lee Ann Womack. Any kind of rock 'n' roll from the '70s and '80s -- Kansas, AC/DC. I love all that stuff. I love Luther [Vandross]. I used to really study classical music and jazz, but I don't do that anymore. I just listen to stuff 'cause it's fun. Permalink