The New Orleans-reared singer/pianist Harry Connick Jr. has sold over 28 million albums and holds the record for most appearances atop Billboard‘s jazz chart. So if anyone could coast these days, it’s him. But you’d hardly know it from how busy he stays. In February he released the rambunctious Smokey Mary, in June he released the introspective Every Man Should Know, and now he’s in the midst of a 27-city tour that rolls into Chicago this Friday and Saturday at Symphony Center.
Illinois Entertainer: Congratulations on having released more good albums this year than most performers do in five.
Harry Connick Jr: [Chuckles] I don’t know what that’s saying, but thank you.
IE: Your PR describes Smokey Mary as a “limited release.” What makes it “limited”?
HCJ: I think it’s “limited” because there’s not a lot of hard copies out there. Smokey Mary and Every Man Should Know were really the same CD. But the label [Sony] thought it would be good to split them up. They said, “We can kind of group these into two kinds of CDs. The Smokey Mary one sounds like a lot of the New Orleans [music] that you did at the Mardi Gras parade. Why don’t you just release it with the 20th anniversary of Orpheus [the Krewe Connick co-founded in 1993]?” And I thought that was a really cool idea. So we put that out kind of under the radar.
IE: If those albums had come out as one, would the configuration have been the tracks from both mixed up?
HCJ: Yeah. We would’ve had a hell of a time trying to sequence it.
IE: Musicians often complain when record companies meddle, but this time it sounds as if the company was right.
HCJ: Yeah. I’ve been with Sony a really long time, man, and they totally get what I’m about, and we have a great relationship because they know how to sell records. I don’t.
IE: Well, you are touring.
IE: And you’re still inviting your father onstage to perform. Is he part of every show?
HCJ: No, only when he feels up to it. But he loves to sing. And I guess when he was about 65 or so, I brought him up onstage to sing one time, and he really dug it. It was kind of a hobby of his. He lived in New Orleans, so he knew a lot of musicians. And, obviously, I love having him with me. He’s a great man. He’s my hero really.
IE: Speaking of your parents, you’ve dedicated Every Man Should Know to your late mother and referred to her in “Greatest Love Story.” Most performers don’t go out of their way to honor their parents.
HCJ: Well, every record I’ve ever done I’ve dedicated to my mom. She died when I was 13, and she was a huge part of my life – and still is really. I like to publicly acknowledge her because the fact that I’m a musician would’ve been a big deal for her. She always knew that that’s what I was going to do, and I feel she would’ve been really proud.
IE: One of the most arresting songs on Every Man Should Know is the solitude-craving “Being Alone.” Were you trying to come up with the definitive anthem for 21st-century introverts?
HCJ: [Laughs] Boy, I’d be honored if that’s what it became! There’s plenty of us out there.
IE: What inspired it?
HCJ: I was sitting on my back porch, and it was a cool March morning. I was looking at the ivy and just thinking it would be nice to have enough time to actually see it grow. And, you know, as things get busier and busier, it’s tough. But I started playing around with the alliteration of “ivy inching,” “roses roaming” and then the idea of being content with just not having anything to do.
IE: Do you think the universality of your Every Man Should Know songs might have other singers wanting to record them?
HCJ: It would be an honor. But I don’t think people really think of me as a songwriter. I’m not sure what they think of me as, but I’m not a guy that gets his songs recorded a lot.
IE: There’s a gospel feel to several of your new songs. To what extent have you been exposed to, or have you exposed yourself to, black church music?
HCJ: Well, the first time I was exposed to it was before I had memories because my parents used to take me as a kid to churches when they were campaigning. Whether it was a synagogue or Baptist church or Catholic church or whatever, I was in a lot of those churches, and I developed relationships with a lot of gospel musicians in New Orleans. So that music has had a huge influence on me.
IE: Wikipedia refers to you as a “practicing Roman Catholic.” How “practicing” are you?
HCJ: Well, I didn’t go to church last Sunday. But I try to go as much as I can. It’s given me a lot of peace of mind over the years. I wish I could be better because I like the feeling of going to church. I like it, you know? I feel a sense of community. And I always feel better coming out than I did when I went in!
— Arsenio Orteza
An update was made to this Q&A at 4pm. Connick has sold 28 million (originally listed at 16 million) albums to date. We regret error.