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Harry Connick, Jr. makes it merry with a new holiday album and tour

Harry Connick, Jr., whose new holiday album, 'Make It Merry,' arrives in the midst of a national tour.
Georgia Connick
Harry Connick, Jr., whose new holiday album, 'Make It Merry,' arrives in the midst of a national tour.

Harry Connick, Jr. knows his way around the holidays. Since 1993, when the New Orleans-reared singer, songwriter, pianist and bandleader made his first Christmas album — When My Heart Finds Christmas, which eventually went triple platinum — Connick has been about as steadfast a Yuletide harbinger as boughs of holly. (There’s a reason he was once spoofed in an SNLsketch about the Rockefeller Center tree lighting; he’s a regular on that ceremonial broadcast, appearing as recently as last year.)

This morning, Connick announced his fourth Christmas album: Make It Merry, an Apple Music exclusive due on Nov. 26, with the title track out today. The news arrives on the cusp of A Holiday Celebration 2022 Tour, which kicks off tonight at the Hershey Theatre, followed by a concert at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music and dates across the country — including multiple nights at the newly refurbished David Geffen Hall in New York and the Hollywood Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. The tour, spanning 23 cities, concludes at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco on Christmas Eve.

In a recent phone conversation, Connick discussed the tinkering he’s been doing to prepare for the tour; the pandemic conditions that shaped the making of Make It Merry; and the satisfaction he gets sneaking complex musical ideas into an accessible form.

This is your fourth holiday album, and it features some of your originals in new versions — songs like "When My Heart Finds Christmas," "Christmas Day," "I Pray on Christmas." What prompted you to want to revisit those?

Well, this recording happened during the pandemic. It wasn't a lockdown situation, but it was a time when I was in my studio and I thought it would be fun to do. If it were up to me, I'd do an album every couple of months, just 'cause there are so many ideas and so many things I'd like to record. But it just doesn't work like that; you can't release things that often. So being alone in my studio, I just started recording. And as these records go, you start with a drum track or a piano track and keep adding until you think it's done. I started thinking, "Ah, maybe if I did some of the songs that I've recorded in the past, it might be fun to just kind of reinterpret those." And this was obviously recorded very differently than any of the other times I had done those songs, because this was all synths and me playing everything, as opposed to doing it with a big band and an orchestra in a live context. I just love recording and making albums, and this was just another example of that.

We've talked before about songbook standards, and the durability of that catalog. In our modern society, Christmas songs might be the very last standards we have, in the conventional sense of the word. What are your thoughts about that?

I hadn't really thought about it, but that's pretty accurate. I mean, songwriting and song form have changed so much over the decades. If you look at the way songs were written up until the '60s, and then how pop music took over in terms of what a hook is, what a chorus is, what a pre-chorus is. I mean, these are things that didn't exist in that way. The songs that are written now, it's just a completely different focus. It's not about melody and lyrics and harmony. It's just something different. So, yeah, I think that's a really good point. With Christmas tunes, we're used to hearing AABA; it just kind of feels like the right form for these songs. And I like working within those confines, to try to find interesting things to do with that structure. That's always been fascinating to me.

Have you found that putting your spin on a familiar Christmas song resonates differently with an audience than when you sing one of your originals?

It's impossible to tell, because I'm not among them when I'm listening. I don't really know what they're thinking. And I'm never trying to make a record that's going to hit the top of the charts. I've never done that once in my life. I just go in the studio and make whatever music really means something to me. So when I hear people responding to it, or see how it ends up on some kind of chart, that's always really interesting to me – because if I were to make an album with that in mind, I would've had to do things differently years ago. Some of the music on this album is more harmonically adventurous, and some of it's very, very simple. Some of it's using techniques that I really enjoy using in the recording studio. And that's what it's about for me, is making music, making albums – and if people dig it, that's great, but it's really hard to know what they think about it.

The album's first single is its title track, "Make It Merry." I'd love to hear your thoughts about where this song came from, because it feels personal in its emotional appeal.

Well, this is as unromantic as it gets. I was in the studio recording one of the other tunes, and my piano tuner was in the room, and I couldn't record while he was there. I said, "Hey man, how much longer have you got?" He goes, "Twenty minutes." So I said to myself, "Alright, write a tune now, and be finished with the words and music before he leaves."

Oh wow.

I said, "What is this going to be about? Um, I feel like I'm alone at Christmas, and it would make me so happy to have this person I love be with me." And then I'm like: "I just want you to make this a happy time for me, make it cheery for me, make it merry. Make it merry." So then I had the line, and in literally 20 minutes… Well, let me just preface this by saying, you know, it's not Shakespeare and it's not Beethoven – it's a very simple little pop song. But in 20 minutes, the melody, the lyrics, the changes were done, and it was recorded that day.

That sort of deadline exercise can be such a good creative spur.

Man, my whole life's a deadline exercise. I don't really spend a lot of time waiting for a sunset or, like, a bald eagle to fly over. I just love to write, and I mean, if you had asked me to write five of 'em, I probably could have. I don't know if they would've been any good, but I work really quickly and very intensely. I normally don't write it that quickly, 'cause I was forcing myself just to see if I could do it. But that's kind of where it came from. I mean it's really simple, and the only thing different is that I decided to go back and put strings on the record, and some French horns and stuff afterwards. It was all done and mixed, and I'm like, "Ah, you know what? It might sound good to have some real strings on this."

Harry Connick, Jr., whose new holiday album, 'Make It Merry,' arrives in time for a national tour.
Georgia Connick
Harry Connick, Jr., whose new holiday album, 'Make It Merry,' arrives in time for a national tour.

Now, "On This Christmas Morning" – is that a new song? 

Well, it's a Chopin étude.

Ah, no wonder it sounded familiar.

Yeah, that's a famous melody, and I just put lyrics to it. You know, Chopin's melodies kind of lend themselves to singing, and I just thought it would be cool to put a lyric to that.

Before we wrap up, I'd be remiss if I didn't ask about any Christmas albums you hold dear – things you grew up with and keep returning to.

You know, I haven't listened to music in 30 years. All I do is work on my own stuff. I mean, if somebody is playing music, I'll listen to it. But I don't have any music on my phone. If I'm in a car, on a plane or working out, I just would rather not hear anything. So I don't really put on any Christmas music. But there's music that I love; it's all the music I grew up with. I obviously love Nat "King" Cole, and just the classic versions, whether it's Andy Williams or Johnny Mathis or Frank Sinatra. I love all that stuff. The classic stuff is where it's at.

What's the instrumentation for the tour?

It's going to be five horns, piano, bass, drums – and I'll play Harpejji on the tour. I'm bringing that out with me. Then I've got a guy who plays organ, and I'll have a small string section.

That sounds like a lot of possibilities, in terms of different songs and arrangements. 

For sure. That's what I've been doing, is getting these charts ready for the road, which is something I love to do. When you add a musician or subtract a musician, you have to rewrite everything. So that's fun for me. I like doing all that.

Have you come up with a reduction of the "Sleigh Ride" orchestration from the early '90s? I play that for people sometimes and say, "Listen, this is the hippest arrangement you're going to hear for a Christmas tune."

Oh, thanks man. Yeah, we're doing that one. Actually, you know what? If you're talking about arrangements, check out "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" [from Make It Merry]. You put on some headphones, that's actually even hipper. There's some stuff going on in there, a lot of left turns that most people wouldn't be able to hear, but you'd be able to hear it.

I'll do that. That's a good assignment. 

Yeah. It's fun, it's like: where can you bury a lot of these things that would be distracting? Because a lot of times, especially now, reharmonizing stuff is like the flavor of the day. And it's something that I've done my entire career, but never to the degradation of the melody. I mean, I've been guilty of over-harmonizing and over-arranging and stuff, just 'cause I was a kid and I didn't know any better. But it's a lot of fun to make a song that sounds completely normal to most people, but if you play it for a musician, they'd be like, "Oh my gosh, what are you doing?" So there's a few of those on the album.

For more information about "A Holiday Celebration 2022 Tour," visit Harry Connick, Jr's official website.

Nate Chinen
Nate Chinen joined WBGO as the Director of Editorial Content at the start of 2017. In addition to overseeing a range of coverage at WBGO.org, he works closely with programs including Jazz Night in America and The Checkout, and contributes to a range of jazz programming on NPR.