New Orleans native Harry Connick Jr. burst into the public eye singing standards on the When Harry Met Sally soundtrack achieving double platinum status and winning him his first Grammy.
He began acting in films like Memphis Belle, Copycat, Hope Floats and Independence Day. Also, he played Grace Adler’s love interest in the TV sitcom Will & Grace for five seasons.
Connick starred on Broadway with On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and a revival of The Pajama Game.
His music career has thrived making the jazz musician a perfect candidate to mentor American Idol on season nine. For season 13, Connick returns as a judge and Windy City Times gave him a call to discuss it.
Windy City Times: Tell our readers about your journey to being a judge.
Harry Connick Jr.: Well, my whole life has been a lot of interaction with people who are a lot better than I am, whether it’s in a one-on-one teaching situation, a clinic, mentorship or master class, and as I got older I started to be on the giving end of those things. I would spend a lot of time talking to kids in high school, college, even professional people about how they can improve. I feel very comfortable in that kind of environment.
When American Idol called a few years ago to ask me to be a mentor, it felt like a very natural thing to do. Then they called me back last year to do it again and I had a great time. I really, really enjoyed spending time with those talented young performers. Then they called and asked me if I wanted to be a judge, which is different than being a mentor because you don’t really have the intensity of the interaction but you get to share your views with a lot more people and try to help them develop their talent. So, it just felt like a natural thing to do.
Plus I love television, I love being in front of an audience. I love talking about music. There are a lot of things about being on American Idol that I really, really like. So, it feels really good so far.
WCT: How are your relationships with the other judges?
Harry Connick Jr.: Well, first of all, I really love being up there with them. They’re extremely bright people, highly successful, have very strong work ethics and very strong convictions about what they do and they’re the best in the business at their respective jobs. We’re completely different. We’re different brains, different personalities, different philosophies.
WCT: What do you bring to the table?
Harry Connick Jr.: I think what I bring to it is I have a lot of experience as a player, as a singer and as a kind of an overall entertainer that’s unique to my own life. It’s like the movies I’ve done are different than the ones that Jennifer’s done and the concerts I’ve played are different than Keith’s. So, just by virtue of our own experience, I think I can bring something a little bit different.
WCT: Who is the troublemaker at the judging table?
Harry Connick Jr.: We’re all kind of troublemakers in a way that we all kind of goof around and are silly sometimes. I do it a lot because I’ve been like that since I was a kid. I was kind of the class clown. It’s really hard to label people, but I guess if you had to pick the person who’s the goofiest, it would probably be me. But they all get silly and serious and sentimental. All of us are complex grown people. We all give a little bit of that, but if you had to pick one, it would probably be me.
WCT: That means you are the Nicki Minaj this year?
Harry Connick Jr.: Hell, yes!
WCT: Did Keith Urban or Jennifer Lopez give you any advice about judging?
Harry Connick Jr.: No, there wasn’t really any of that because I think they knew that I was really familiar with the show, and seriously you could tell from the first contestant that this was going to be a lot of fun. It’s not rocket science. We go up there; it’s a very simple concept. They hired us to judge and all of these young performers signed up to be judged and that’s it. They sing, we judge and it’s pretty easy.
WCT: How is it without Randy Jackson at the judging table?
Harry Connick Jr.: Randy Jackson is great. He’s a great musician. He’s legendary in this show and he’s an icon for the many, many years of great television that he provided to all of us, but it’s a new show now. It has different producers, new directors, a new panel and different contestants. It has a new look.It has a new feel, and it’s a new day for this great show. Fortunately for all of us, Randy is still a huge part of it as a mentor and I think the kids are going to be very lucky to have him on their side.
WCT: Last year there was a general feeling that the male talent was not up to the par with the women. Now that you are in Hollywood week, how are the guys this time around?
Harry Connick Jr.: There’s some crazy guy talent—for real, no joke. There are some guys that are really good, [and] some great young women, too. It’s hard to say if it’s a 50/50 split. It’s impossible to know and we certainly would never try to reach any kind of quota because that would be biased I think, but we just respond to the people that we see, but I guess the feeling is that it’s about half and half; maybe two more girls than guys, but I think it’s about even.
WCT: How does adding guitars impact things?
Harry Connick Jr.: I think it’s a great thing because it’s very telling. When people pick up the guitar and they’re not good players, it shows immediately that A ) they should put the guitar down and B ) a lot of the decisions that they make as singers are not dissimilar to what they’re doing on the guitar. In other words, if you’re playing some chords that make no sense, that person can’t hear. When they sing, it’s obvious why they’re making the choices they’re making.
You also have to remember like there’s this weird "ignorance is bliss" kind of attitude. These people are coming up there playing guitar in front of Keith Urban. That takes some guts and maybe they don’t realize what they’re doing and maybe their family and friends have told them that they’re really good and you should go on American Idol, but eventually they’re going to have a realization that "uh-oh maybe I’m not quite as good as I thought," and then there may be some people that pick it up and you’re like, "Oh, this person sounds great with a guitar and that’s the kind of artist they are." I think it’s all around a good thing because it’s very telling.
WCT: As a mentor you mentioned last season that contestants understand the meaning of the lyrics in order to give their performance more depth. Is this something you are looking for as a judge?
Harry Connick Jr.: Yes, that’s huge. Unless they’re singing a tune that’s really a groove-based tune like a lot of those disco tunes that I grew up listening to, it’s really not about the lyrics. The lyrics are just kind of there to have you sing something. It’s really about a dance tune. Sometimes they sing tunes that the lyrics really aren’t that important and I really don’t care, but if they’re going to sing a lyric, then you have to really start picking it apart.
Sometimes, they’ll listen to you when you say understand the words but then they’ll over sing it or maybe it’s kind of one dimensional. There are a lot of little roads you can go down for improvement, but absolutely. These are singers. You need to know how to sing a song. You need to know what you’re singing about, and interestingly to me, that is not that important to a lot of singers. They just sing but they’re not connected to the lyrics. That’s profound to me and interesting to talk about. I’m glad we have a chance to do it on this great show.
WCT: Hopefully, you will be back on Broadway soon.
Harry Connick Jr.: It’s one of my favorite things in the world to do.
WCT: Did you see American Idol winner Carrie Underwood’s performance in the Sound of Music?
Harry Connick Jr.: I didn’t. I was on a movie set, but I’m a big Carrie Underwood fan, so I’m sure she did a great job, but I haven’t seen it yet.
WCT: When are you coming back to Chicago? We love performing here.
Harry Connick Jr.: Chicago is one of my favorite places to play at. I seem to connect with people there. I love playing anywhere, but some cities you just kind of have a special feeling for and I’ve had some nights at the Chicago Theater that I’ll never forget.
American Idol’s season 13 debuts Jan. 15 on Fox.