When I was 16 I lived and dreamt music. Growing up in New Orleans there was a lot of jazz to listen to, a lot of R’n’B and New Orleans funk. I also liked Queen, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel. All I wanted to do was move from New Orleans to New York. I wanted one thing and one thing only – to be a singer.
My family was very close knit. My parents gave me my work ethic and an awareness of other people’s feelings. Just being nice to people. Trying to accomplish what you set out to accomplish, but always being aware of the efforts of the people around you. My mother died when I was 13, and by the time I was 16 my sister had gone to college, so it was really just me and my dad. He knew what I wanted to do, so while he was worried about me and wanted to make sure I was on the right track, he was very supportive of me and knew I’d soon be moving to New York. My mother dying dented me of course, but in terms of my desire to perform, it probably bolstered it. That’s what she wanted for me, so to fulfil her dreams, that was an added catalyst for me to succeed.
My parents thought it would be good for me to go to a very famous school, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and I’m really glad they did. We had very serious music instructors there; they didn’t have time for you if you weren’t serious and didn’t have natural ability. They were very tough with us, like a trainer might be on young athletes. They sent a message to me early on that I was good at this. Not that I didn’t have a lot to learn but there was something I excelled at, in contrast to all the things I wasn’t good at; I wasn’t a good athlete, l wasn’t a good student, I was kind of an awkward kid around girls. I think when you help someone find their talent at a young age it has lifelong repercussions.
If I went back to the 16-year-old me and he said, hey, are you making a lot of money, are you famous, I’d say no, it’s not going well. You’re going to have to work harder. Not knowing what was coming, and having nothing handed to me, that’s what kept me going, and always trying. If I told the young me what was really in store, not much about his future would surprise him. I just wanted it so bad for myself. As an adult now, I look back and think I was so lucky. It’s hard to make a career in the music industry, never mind one which lasts so long; I’m 52 now. But when I was 16, I knew exactly what I wanted – to make records, to make movies, perform and write music. And I knew I just would not quit.
I think all my experiences have informed everything else I do. All that really matters to me in the end is my wife and my kids. I mean, I love my art. Anyone who knows me knows I’m obsessed with it. But the more intact my family life is, the better an artist I can be. A lot of people think the opposite – they seek out chaos to give themselves something to respond to. I think if you’re in a really good emotional place then you can go anywhere you want to go.
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My faith has helped me get through hard times. It’s been a huge part of my life. When my wife went through breast cancer the last thing I was thinking about was making art. There were times I felt I couldn’t handle it, times when I worried I wasn’t doing enough. But generally I think I coped quite well. I wouldn’t change anything. I might go back and be more patient, more understanding, yes. But the only way you become aware of your inadequacies is to see them happening. If you fall down, it hurts when you’re down there. You’re scared. It’s a terrible, awful feeling to see someone you love sick. There’s no handbook for that. All you can do is keep trying to be the best person you can be and be thankful when the good times are there.
I’d tell my teenage self to keep working, no matter how bad or good things might get. There were times when I felt things were not going the way I wanted them to go. But I just kept working. If there was, for instance, a film I wanted to do and that didn’t work out, I really believed things happened because they were supposed to happen. It takes a long time, many years, to realise that. But at this time in my life, no matter what comes down the road, no matter what bad things people might say, I just keep going. Someone asked me recently what I do to keep from being stressed out but things don’t bother me that much. I just find a way to figure a way through it. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt but all you can do is keep on going, man. There’s no alternative.
If I could have one last conversation with anyone, it would be with my mother for sure. I lost her before I knew anything. I was only 13. There’s so much I’d love to ask her and discuss with her. I feel like she’s very much in my life, she’s very present. But it would be amazing to just talk to her and see what she thinks. The closest perspective I have is my dad, and I get to talk to him multiple times a day, which is great. She was so affectionate, she was a big hugger. She was incredibly communicative and constantly told me she loved me and she was proud of me. Oh, it was just the best. And I’m sure that’s why I’m like that with my daughters. We’re very close, we’re very physical, we love to hug and hold hands and just be near each other. And that’s such an incredible gift. I know people who don’t have that. I only had it for 13 years but it certainly made a lasting impression on me.
I remember the day Jill told me she was pregnant. I still get chills thinking about that feeling. It was the most amazing feeling in the world. I look at my kids now… they say to me, you’re our father, you made us, isn’t that the coolest thing, isn’t that the best? You hope to raise children to become amazing people. So now that I have three of them and they’re still interested in what I have to say and I’ve become dependent on what they have to say… it’s a miracle.
Harry Connick Jr’s new album True Love: a Celebration of Cole Porter is released on October 25