Wild About Harry

Special Celebrity Feature
Harry Connick Jr. talks about “American Idol,” NYC, and the crazy life of a musician in New Orleans.
(©Nino Muñoz)
Harry Connick Jr.

At the age of 3, New Orleans-born-and-bred Harry Connick Jr. placed his hands on a piano and began to play, mastering scores by Beethoven, Bach and other musical giants. He was gifted with an ear for melodies, rhythms and pitch. These talents would later help him win three Grammys and two Emmys, sell over 28 million records worldwide and be a judge on “American Idol,” mentoring some of America’s greatest up-and-coming musical talents.

As a teenager, Connick apprenticed under two famous New Orleans jazz teachers, James Booker and Ellis Marsalis. At age 18, he packed his bags and moved to New York. At 19, he released a self-titled album with Columbia Records, and, by age 22, won his first Grammy Award for the soundtrack of “When Harry Met Sally,” catapulting him into fame. He also acts, securing roles in films such as “Copycat” (1995), “Independence Day” (1996), “Hope Floats” (1998), and landing a recurring role on the hit TV series “Will & Grace.” He even did an acting stint on Broadway in “The Pajama Game,” receiving a Tony Award nomination in 2006. Considering his talent, it’s no wonder why the producers of “American Idol” brought him on to mentor and then judge contestants. Currently, Connick’s got a lot on his plate: the final season (season 15!) of “American Idol,” which airs Jan. 6; his new album, “That Would Be Me;” and his new nationally syndicated daytime variety show, “Harry,” premieres this September. Connick, who lives in Connecticut with his wife, former model Jill Goodacre, and their three daughters, recently talked about music, New Orleans and the impossibility of picking a favorite restaurant in NYC.

Q: It’s the final season of “American Idol”: thoughts?

A: I’ve had a great time on that show. It’s challenged me to do something that I don’t normally do—which is to continuously critique music—and offer my opinion on it. You know, it’s a very specific gig. I like what the job has had to offer.

Q: How is your new album different from previous ones?

A: Well, the main difference is that I’m working with two producers that were operating at a very different capacity from any other producers I’ve ever worked with. Normally, I come up with the concept for the record. I’m actually always the one who writes the arrangements and in some cases the orchestrations, too. I also do the conducting, all the way through to the mixing process to the mastering to the artwork.

For this one, I wanted to experience what it would be like to be in the passenger seat and have the perspective that a lot of artists have had: to respond to suggestion and bounce ideas off of other people and collaborate a little bit.

So I kind of just said this project is gonna be via my record company Columbia, and they put me together with two extraordinary musical minds: Butch Walker and Eg White. And it was a learning experience. It was uncomfortable at times, it was thrilling—just everything I could hope for.

Q: One of the first songs on the album is called “Smile.” What was the inspiration behind it?

A: Eg said, “I want to write a very happy, simple, feel-good song about the feeling you get when somebody you’re attracted to does something as simple as smile at you.” And that was it: We started clapping our hands and he hit “Record.” Then we just started writing lyrics and coming up with melodies, form and rhythm.

Q: How did growing up in New Orleans impact your music?

A: Everything I do is a result of my upbringing in New Orleans—all the music that I play. The unique thing about New Orleans in terms of music is that there are many different styles. And as a musician, you’re sort of called upon to know how to play all of them. Everything from traditional jazz to contemporary jazz, to rhythm and blues, to funk, to gospel, to country. You go to these gigs as a young musician and you don’t know what type of music you will be playing or who is going to be there. One day you could show up and it’s a classical piano gig, another day [famous New Orleans jazz singer/guitarist] Walter Wolfman Washington is there.

That gets real deep into your bones, not to mention the indigenous style of New Orleans. With different rhythms and instrument configurations, you hear music down there that you just don’t hear anywhere else.

Q: You’ve lived in the New York area for a while now.

A: Yes, and there is a lot I love about New York. My mother is from here and I moved up—let’s see, 30 years ago—and I had family up here for a long time. So for many years I have felt a strong connection with this city, largely because I used to come up here as a kid with my family to see shows and go to the restaurants. I still get some of the same nostalgic feelings that I did when I was a kid.

Q: In your opinion, what are the differences between New York and New Orleans culture?

A: Well, I think one of the differences is the pace of the lifestyle. People in New York are normally going to and from work at a pretty high rate of speed. New Orleans is a much slower pace; people have a tendency to be more conversational when they see you. That might have something to do with the weather, the proximity to the Caribbean, lots of things. New York is a huge metropolis and New Orleans, although it has a substantial downtown, has more of a laid-back, smaller-town feel to it.

Q: What’s your go-to restaurant in town? Any spot in particular?

A: Man, I just ate at Fresco by Scotto the other night: That was tremendous. So many great restaurants here! From John’s of Bleecker Street pizza to Le Bernardin to Mario Batali’s places—Eataly and Esca to name two. It’s impossible to pick a favorite—I love so many of them!