By Steve Baltin of Forbes
One day in the future there should be entire college courses devoted to the art to come of the COVID pandemic. And certainly music will be a major part of that discussion. It has been fascinating to see how musicians, unable to go on the road, have explored their creative freedom and voices.
Take musician Harry Connick Jr., who was on tour in March of 2020 when the pandemic hit. Unable to play live and at home Connick turned his attention to writing new songs, which have turned into the thoughtful and thought-provoking collection Alone With My Faith, out this Friday (March 19).
A mix of original songs and familiar tunes such as "Amazing Grace," "How Great Thou Art" and more, the powerful record i a fascinating and moving treatise on the subjects of faith, devotion, spirituality and how all of those come into play during a crisis.
So as you would imagine, talking to Connick about the superb collection is compelling and insightful. Not many pop interviews ever where you get to ask someone for their definition of faith. But Connick and I went there in this Sunday Conversation.
Steve Baltin: At what point writing this record did you realize the direction this album was going?
Harry Connick Jr: It was maybe a couple of weeks after we got home from being on tour. We were on tour, the tour got cancelled in mid-March and I came home and was just kind of wrestling with the same things I think most people were wrestling with, "What is happening? Are we all gonna die? Is this gonna continue?" We were just confused. There was so much information out there and so little information out there at the same time. And I guess a couple of week into it I had my studio at home and I obviously love to play and I wasn't on the road and we didn't know what was gonna happen because everybody was shut down. So I started to write some things and record some things and I realized my faith was [the subject] through which it was running. It was working in real time. I found myself questioning it, depending on it and I thought it would be kind of therapeutic to sing music not only for the sake of music, but because of the content of the songs themselves. Like I needed that type of comfort, whether it was, "How Great Thou Art" or "Because He Lives" or maybe I needed to write something about personal experience or what I was experiencing right now. So I think it sort of evolved into what it is probably as soon as a couple of weeks after lockdown started.
Baltin: Was there a first song you wrote that jump started the direction of your writing?
Connick: It was probably a song called "Benevolent Man," which was about wondering if I'm of worth and sort of in God's eyes is anything that I do substantial. Normally when you go in the studio, when I go in the studio, there's some sort of schedule. Especially if you're working with multiple musicians like an orchestra. It's a real schedule, it's like three hours at a time or anything over that is more money. But if you're working with a band or whatever you set the recording date and you have, whether it' a week or two or whatever. This wasn't that. I could put down some ideas and then not think about it. And I don't really work like that. I like kind of working toward a project, toward a deadline. And there was none of that here, not only musically but in life. So It was a really cool way for me to kind of lay foundations for songs and then start to add to them as I thought they needed it.
Baltin: Did you grow up with faith, has it always been a part of your life and did it change during COVID?
Connick: It's all three of those things. I grew up with faith. My dad is a Catholic from Mobile, Alabama and my mother is a Jewish woman from New York. And we had an interesting household. My mother didn't really subscribe to any denomination by the time I got to know her. She believed in God, but she also believed in things that were not Christian, things like reincarnation. So it was confusing in the best of ways because I was hearing different perspectives. And although I went to church with my dad, I didn't get baptized in the Catholic church until I was 14 when I decided I wanted to be Catholic. So my faith has always been there. It certainly was developed over time. And then during the pandemic it was tested in an unusual way because it wasn't like I was going through a particular situation that was unique to me. I was going through something that the entire world was going through. So I wondered a lot about faith and where it was. Because if I was a person who believed that I had faith where was it this particular morning or afternoon. Why was I feeling this way? Why was I feeling so unconfident or unsure? There were other days where I would weep when I would do the music, which is something that doesn't happen too much in the context of the studio recording, where you may put yourself in an emotional space but rarely does it turn out to be sobbing and weeping. Because of maybe my own inhibitions or my knowledge of the fact when you cry you can't sing. So you have to shut the session down. So there were all kinds of tests and unprecedented circumstances as a result of the pandemic. So to answer your question, faith has always been there, but it's certainly transformed and grown and evolved.
Baltin: So did you find an answer to the question in "BenevolentMan" or was the point just to ask the question?
Connick: It was mainly to ask the question. I think the acknowledgement of the desire for an answer almost outweighs the answer itself, which is why there's no answer. I think I keep saying, "Am I a benevolent man/ Am I an irrelevant man/I do the best that I can." So there is no real answer, but I think what's important to me is the acknowledgment that there's growth to be had. So I think if I had to answer it right now, no, I don't think I'm irrelevant in the eyes of God. But I do think I can be better. And asking the question forces you to contemplate the prospect of answer, which is what the song is about. To deal with the discomfort of knowing that you might be irrelevant. So whether there's an answer or not I think asking the question was the most important thing.
Baltin: Are there other questions that emerged in the writing of this record that surprised you?
Connick: I guess you have to look at the album in its entirety and I have to wonder if I'm in a better place as a result of the process. And I think I am because this pandemic has given rise to things that probably wouldn't exist if it hadn't been for these circumstances. And I don't think I would have made this record, I wouldn't have written a song called "Alone With My Faith" because although I have been alone with my faith, I wasn't alone with my faith for a year, like in the studio for 12-14 hours a day with literally no one there, no recording engineer, no person setting up the mikes, no other musicians. It's like being on a deserted island. You talk to yourself, you ask yourself questions, you laugh to yourself, you speak out loud. And I don't think those things would have happened.
Baltin: Going back to the weeping were you surprised by how much the record hit you?
Connick: I wasn't surprised because that's ultimately what any artist searches for, these moments, albeit fleeting, that transcend things. Like there were times I was singing...there's a vocal booth that kind of goes around your head. It's like a big box and it sounds very good. It's not a vocal room, but the mike's in there and so it kind of comes down to your shoulders and there's a flap that comes down back over the back of your head to keep the sound out. And there were times when I would sing, I would raise my arms and my shoulders would hit the box. And I would hear it in the microphone and I didn't even realize I was doing that. It was almost like I was praying as I was singing cause the singing was the last thing on my mind. This happened during "The Old Rugged Cross." I tried to create this sonic landscape of if you or I were to walk 2000 years ago and come upon a cross on the horizon and realize what that symbolized in terms of a torture device. And then from a Christian perspective, when Christ was crucified what that must have felt like to see that cross. I found myself physically holding my hands up and a couple of times I had to stop singing. And I would sit down underneath the booth, which is on a stand, and I'd say, "Huh, this is what it's about. This is why I'm doing it." So yeah, I don't think I would do that in a room full of people in that way, where I literally sat in my chair and wept.
Baltin: Is there one song that makes you cry every time?
Connick: I think about Freddie Mercury's piano introduction on [Queen’s] "Death On Two Legs." That gets me every time. The song is so not that (laughs). It's about their manager and how he was a real sleaze ball. But just the way Freddie plays and who he was and when Brian May comes in it's just kills me. I love it.
Baltin: What was your idea of faith before making this record and has it changed after making this album?
Connick: My definition of faith is a gift that was given to me by God to compel me to want to communicate with God. And my definition of faith hasn't changed. But how I've come to see it has been stretched as a result of this because this has been an experience that's allowed me to empathize with folks who are going through the exact same thing. So I've had to talk about my faith in the context of someone else's faith or lack thereof, about a shared experience. I've never had that. I've had personal tragedy, I've had ups and downs where my faith has gone up and down. But I've never had a situation where I can talk to somebody else about how their faith got them through compared to how my faith got me through. So my definition hasn't changed, but my experience has broadened.