(Photographer: Georgia Connick)
Harry Connick Jr. is a man who’s always on the go, be it as a singer, musician, composer, actor on stage or screen, host of a Youtube show, or humanitarian. He believes he gets his drive from his father who, at age 95, is working on building a chapel dedicated to the Holy Spirit.
When the Covid shutdowns hit in March 2020, Harry’s career came to a total stop for a while, as it did for many throughout the country. The experience prompted him to take a musical and spiritual deep dive, resulting in his new album “Alone With My Faith,” which consists of Christian classics, Catholic hymns, and original songs. Harry joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below) to discuss the album and his own journey of faith, which was greatly influenced by his father, the city of New Orleans, and some kind and caring priests he met along the way.
As shutdowns and quarantines persisted last year, Harry considered the fact that he has his own music studio at home so he could record the gospel album he’d been thinking about doing for quite some time. He played all his own instruments and recorded his own vocals for songs such as “How Great Thou Art” and “Because He Lives.”
“As the weeks passed,” said Harry, “I started to think about what I was feeling, what other people were feeling, and how, maybe if I wrote some songs about this experience, from a perspective of faith and spirituality, maybe people will gain some comfort from it, and some musical enjoyment too.”
The album expanded to include Catholic hymns Harry had known all his life, such as “Panis Angelicus” and “Be Not Afraid,” as well as originals like the title track “Alone With My Faith.” In that song, Harry explores the idea that despite not having all the answers to life’s big questions, he also knows he’s never alone. The singer notes that he has found a way to integrate questions, and even occasional doubts, into a strong faith life.
He explained, “My dad is my spiritual hero. His faith is stronger than almost anyone I’ve ever met. We talk about faith and what it means, and what it means to question things, and what it means to have a spectrum of varying degrees of faith. I’m happy in my spiritual life because of that. My dad and I have different outlooks. My dad was raised by two extremely devout Roman Catholics. They said the rosary every day, my dad had an incredibly fertile Catholic upbringing. My mom was Jewish and was non-denominational by the time I was born so I didn’t even get baptized as a baby. I was 13 when I got baptized and confirmed. So my dad and I have a lot of good conversations. And I like where I am because I have asked a lot of questions, but I’ve also found a lot of answers, too.”
Harry’s faith was also shaped by the city in which he was raised, and by his Catholic schooling. He recalled, “In New Orleans, there’s so many Catholics, so it felt very comfortable for me to go to church with my dad. I went to Jesuit High School. I became close to many of the priests there. They were great spiritual advisors to me, and friendly to me. I lost my mom right around the time I went to high school. I think about the President of Jesuit High School then, his name was Fr. Tony McGinn. And I was struggling, I was having some hard times, and he was incredibly patient and kind with me, so I felt at home in the Catholic Church. It felt like a natural place for me to want to be a part of.”
The New Orleans influences on “Alone With My Faith” are obvious. Some tracks reflect the black gospel music Harry grew up listening to. And the album as a whole reflects the beautifully diverse Christianity which surrounded the singer in his formative years. He said, “A lot of us have that common thread of Christianity. And even though that is thought of from different perspectives, it’s a unifying force down there, you can feel it…When you grow up in a town like New Orleans, or you grow up in a country like the United States, to me, that’s something we should be celebrating. It’s the antithesis of a homogenous society. Man, what a unique opportunity we have to celebrate the cultural differences that we have.”
One of the standout tracks on “Alone With My Faith” is “Amazing Grace.” (You can watch the music video, directed by Harry’s daughter Georgia, here.) The singer begins the song in a quiet, introspective way. But as he continues, the joy in his voice and the accompanying instrumentation continues to build, reflecting the joy that arises when God’s grace becomes a more dominant force in our lives.
Harry explained, “I think the inherent definition of grace, and the fact that it is amazing, lends itself to some pretty wild jubilation. And that’s kind of why [the song] came out like that.”
Harry’s charitable nature was also on display during the pandemic. He traveled from New York to New Orleans in an RV with Georgia to thank essential workers for their kindness and sacrifices, turning it into a special for CBS. He also recorded a song called “Stars Will Shine,” which benefits the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music. Located in a tough New Orleans neighborhood, the Center, “allows these kids to come and take ownership of a recording studio, performance space, classrooms, learning about eating well, things like that…We continue to help out about 200 kids a week.”
Regarding his humanitarian efforts, Harry once again credits his parents with building that foundation in his life. He recalled times when he was a kid and “we’d be at the grocery store, my mom and dad are in the front seat of the car, me and my sister in the back. We’re pulling out, and some elderly woman’s putting her groceries in the trunk. My dad would stop the car and say, ‘Go help that lady.’…So you go out and do that. And you get that drilled into your head, and it feels good to do those types of things.”
Harry’s father has also taught his son to be aware of the movings of the Holy Spirit in his life. When certain opportunities present themselves, for instance, the elder Connick said, “That’s the Holy Spirit talking to you. Say yes and listen.” That’s why Harry’s dad is working to build a chapel to the Holy Spirit and developing a foundation for it called “the Spiritual Mysteries.” He’s even got an architect lined up and has already tapped his son to hold some fundraisers for the project.
In retrospect, Harry can see how the Holy Spirit has worked in his life. For instance, his first job when he moved to New York City was as a church organist. He recalled, “I was looking for a gig. I was broke, living at the Y on 92nd and Lex, and I needed money. So I went around looking for any place I could play. [Our Lady of Good Counsel] was a couple of blocks away. So I went in and said, ‘Hey, do y’all need a piano player?’ And there was a guy named Fr. Richard Guastella, who was the priest there, and he said, ‘Yeah, sure. We’ll pay you 25 bucks, and you play the 10:00 AM mass and the noon mass.’ And I’m thinking, ‘You know how many ramen noodles I can buy with $25? That’ll set me up for the week!’
“But the great thing about Fr. Richard,” continued Harry, was that “almost every Sunday, he would change clothes, meet me in the church, and then take me across the street and buy me a hamburger at this little restaurant. And I can see it. I can see myself looking at him, and he was calm, he was measured. And I was 18, and I needed someone like that in my life. He was so kind. He eventually became a monsignor, moved to Staten Island. I asked him if he would marry me and my wife, Jill, so he came down to New Orleans [in 1994]. And then sadly, we found out that he died last year from COVID. So it’s been a tough year. But those are happy memories for me, playing in that church.”
Harry hopes that “Alone With My Faith” creates some happy memories for people who listen to the album. He concluded, “I want to give them some comfort. I want them to know that we have a unique opportunity to communicate about a shared experience. And I hope that this music lets them know that I know what they’re going through, and I take great comfort in knowing that they’re going through the same thing too, which is why the album even exists. So I hope they like the music, I hope they like the songs, and I hope it touches their hearts.”
(To listen to my full interview with Harry Connick Jr., click on the podcast link or watch it on Youtube):