How I Became Harry Connick Jr.s' American Idol!
After a blog I wrote about him went viral, he called me to talk about it, growing older, and his new CD
John Stark has held top writing and editing positions at such magazines as Cooks' Illustrated, Body + Soul and People. For 14 years, he was a feature writer and movie critic at the San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle. Follow John on Twitter @jrstark.
Headlined “Why Harry Connick Jr. Couldn’t Sit Idle During ‘American Idol,” it ran the day after his appearance as a guest mentor on the popular Fox singing competition.
At one point Connick got into a heated debate with judge Randy Jackson about how standard songs like “Stormy Weather” or “My Funny Valentine” should be sung by the young contestants. Connick argued that a song’s melody and lyrics take precedence over flashy vocal techniques.
Connick called me the other day from his home in Connecticut. I had never spoken to him before and had lots of questions. We talked about his appearance on American Idol and why that particular blog hit such an emotional nerve.
We also discussed his new album, Every Man Should Know, which is being released next Tuesday and can be pre-ordered at either Amazon or iTunes. He wrote the music, lyrics and arrangements for all 12 songs. A new single that Connick wrote and recorded, “Love Wins,” will also be out shortly. It's dedicated it to Ana Grace Marquez-Greene, one of the children killed in the shooting rampage in Newton, Conn. She was the daughter of his former big band tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene. All proceeds go to the Ana Grace Fund.
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Every Man Should Know is Connick's most intimate album by far. One song, “Greatest Love Story,” is a zydeco-infused valentine to his late mother, Anita, who was a Louisiana State Supreme Court justice. She died in 1981 at age 55 of ovarian cancer. Connick was 14 at the time. Harry's wife of 20 years, Jill Goodacre, a former Victoria's Secret model, also gets a shout-on the CD.
My interview with Connick was scheduled to last for 30 minutes so I told him we needed to get started. “I got all the time in the world, man," he said. "I was really looking forward to talking to you.” An hour later he said he needed to hang up to do two quick phone interviews. I figured we were done. “Not yet,” he said, “I love talking music. I’m going to call you back.” And he did.
Here are excerpts from our conversation, starting with the album.
Your new CD, Every Man Should Know, is a very personal work that includes songs about death and letting go. Could you have written this album when you were younger?
Oh, absolutely not. It used to be that if I wanted to write about heartache or death or infatuation, I would make it up about somebody else. I rarely, if ever, wrote about myself. I think it was because, I don’t know, too painful, I guess. I like hiding behind the veil. But I’m older now. Not only am I writing tunes that are partly autobiographical, I’m letting people know about the process of writing these songs, too. It’s all been liberating.
I remember doing an article for USA Today 20 years ago. When the interviewer started asking me if my mother’s death had an impact on me, I basically got up and left. I mean I was horrified that this guy would ask me anything about her. How could he do that? I ended up calling him back and apologizing. But I still couldn’t talk about my mom for the rest of the interview. I couldn’t deal with that painful stuff. But I have a new perspective now. I’m more comfortable about it. I’m at an age where I’ve been around the block. Now it makes me feel good to talk about my life.
One of your songs, “Greatest Love Story,” is about how your mother used to read you bedtime stories that had life lessons in them. What are your memories of her?
I remember when I was about 10 years old lying in bed with her and she was reading a book. I kind of put my head on her shoulder and snuggled up to her. I looked at the book. It was in German. I didn’t even know she spoke German. She was this mysterious, brilliant woman who had all of these cool secrets. That’s where those lyrics of the song came from. I’m not kidding you, man. When that part of the tune came to me my voice cracked and I started to cry. I’ve spent many, many years acknowledging her death and personal triumphs and tragedies, but I’ve never sung about them. It was tough to do, but I liked doing it. I think she would rather me go down that road than not. I know I would rather go down that road.
There’s a lyric in the song about how sorry you are that your mother never lived to meet your wife.
Oh, man, it kills me that she never met Jill. The closest we got is my oldest daughter, Georgia. She resembles my mother, which is a little bit eerie because my mother is the only grandparent who isn’t here. (Connick's father, Joseph Harry Fowler Connick Sr., was the district attorney of Orleans parish from 1973 to 2003. He is now retired.) Jill gets emotional because she always wants to know me better and my mother is a part of me she’ll never know. It’s an emotional issue for both of us.
You’re 46, which means you’re not a boy wonder anymore. It’s a new era.
Absolutely. I think that’s why I was able to do this album. To answer your original question, could I have done it when I was younger? I guess, but probably not.
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Some felt that as a mentor on American Idol you were too tough on the four remaining contestants. Were you?
First off, I just want everyone to know that I spent a half-hour with each of these young women. They were extremely nice and receptive. But the problem is edited television. You didn’t see any of how we got along. In the end they did not choose to make the choices I recommended, which is fine. I said to them, "Y’all need to take this with a grain of salt, but should you choose to keep modulating a half step up and hitting a bunch of notes gratuitously, well, I wouldn’t do that. I would take the risk of not having everybody applaud on cue. I would put the lyric above that." But when they edited the mentoring sessions I looked very accusatory, like I was pissed with them. I wasn’t. They’re kids.
I read an NPR blog that called you a bully.
You want to talk about bullying? Call up Ellis Marsalis (Wynton and Branford’s jazz pianist dad, whom Connick studied with as a youngster). When I was 13 he told me I should consider another vocation because music wasn’t my forté. I would go home and cry. That was bullying. I also called him the day of the Idol mentoring session and thanked him for kicking my behind. I did not kick these girls’ behinds and I did not bully them. I told Kree Harrison, who can really sing — they all can — that there’s a reason Harold Arlen augmented the first note of the lyric, "Don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky" in "Stormy Weather." You have to know that before you change the melody. That’s all I was saying.
It’s really funny but I had no intention of showing up that night for the Idol competition. Ryan Seacrest called me at my hotel an hour before show time and asked if I could come by. I wasn’t supposed to be on camera. But then Keith Urban pulled me up from the audience when he saw how I was reacting to the judges’ comments. I had to laugh when Randy Jackson told Kree that she should have picked the Etta James or Lena Horne version of "Stormy Weather" and then be you. No, you got to pick the Harold Arlen version, dude! You got to learn the song and then you can be you.
American Idol is an extremely accessible medium to have that dialogue. That’s what so stimulating to me. Think about it. Millions of people were listening for just a moment to people having a dialogue about music. When was the last time that happened? That was fun and that’s why your blog was so important to me. You allowed the dialogue to seep out and be discussed on a much wider level. That was impressive to me.
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In fact I jumped up and down when I read what you wrote about Lorenz Hart (he was Richard Rodgers' lyricist, who wrote the words to "My Funny Valentine"). You said he was a physically diminutive, closeted homosexual who died of alcoholism at age 48. I told Amber Holcomb all of that. I told her he may be writing about himself. I told her that even if you don’t think about all of that, think of who you’re singing about: somebody nobody finds attractive, that people think are dumb, but you can’t get enough of him. If you can tap into the perfection vs. imperfection Hart wrote about then you’ve succeeded. But don’t start hitting high notes on cue so that everyone applauds. You do that and you’ve just thrown the skeet in the air and shot it out of the sky. I told her that. I told all of them that. Honor the lyric. Take that risk. I was critiqued for getting inside their heads. But that’s what a mentor is supposed to do — get inside your head.
Thanks for letting me get inside your head, Harry. While I’m there, answer me this: How with all of your fame have you remained so down to earth?
It’s called having people like Lorenz Hart come before me. When someone can write lyrics like his, what have I got to be arrogant about? I’m still learning. I love and respect my wife. I have three beautiful children. My mother and father made it clear to me that I need to keep my mouth shut and listen and learn. Ellis Marsalis, who I respect infinitely, is still at home practicing piano. And he’s almost 80. I’ve got family members that would kick my behind if they saw me acting as someone other than who I am. I’ve a lot to be proud about in my career. But cocky, no.