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Harry Connick Jr. reveals why he's no pushover on 'American Idol'

Harry Connick Jr. joined the “American Idol” judging panel for the show's 13th season, and he now has the reputation of being the toughest judge on the panel. He’s part of another revamping to “American Idol,” which had its lowest rated and most controversial season (Season 12) in 2013, due largely to viewer complaints about the bad chemistry between Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey, who each lasted just one season with the show. Even with the huge decrease in ratings, “American Idol” is still Fox’s top-rated entertainment series. Season 13 premieres in two parts on Jan. 15 and Jan. 16, 2014, at 8 p.m. EST/PST.

Harry Connick Jr. at the "American Idol" Season 13 premiere in Los Angeles, on Jan. 14, 2014.
Getty Images
Harry Connick Jr.
Getty Images

For “American Idol” Season 13, the judges are Connick, Keith Urban (who joined in Season 12) and Jennifer Lopez, who was a judge on “American Idol” in Seasons 10 and 11. Randy Jackson, one of the original “American Idol” judges, has now become the “American Idol” in-house mentor, a role that was previously held by Interscope Geffen A&M chairman Jimmy Iovine. Ryan Seacrest continues to host “American Idol,” a show he has been with since the beginning. Here is what Connick said in a recent telephone conference call with reporters.

Can you talk about your journey to being an “American Idol” judge? Is it because you did such a great job mentoring? What made you want to do it and all that?

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 or a clinic or 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. So I feel very comfortable in that kind of environment.

So when “American Idol” called a few years ago to ask me to be a mentor, it felt like a very natural thing to do. And, 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. So there are a lot of things about being on “American Idol” that I really, really like. So it feels really good so far.

When are you coming back to visit Chicago?

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.

How does your wife support you when you're on “American Idol”?

Well, she is a big fan of the show. We've watched the show since the very first episode and we've watched it every year since and we're big fans, and she always kind of would say it would be great to see you as a judge, which made me feel nice because she supports me in so many ways. I respect her very much and just the fact that she could see me up there really always made me feel nice, and then when it actually happened, she was just delighted because I'm her husband and she loves the show and she's really excited about this.

Why are you two perfect together?

There are so many variables that make up a relationship. There are too many to mention. I think at the forefront is she's my best friend. She is the first one I go to when I want to talk about things or when I want to have fun or whatever.

And now that we have children together, we just love being with each other. We both take marriage seriously and thought about it for a while before we jumped in. I think it's a lot of things, but those are some of the reasons for sure.

How are the relationships going with the other “American Idol” judges? What do you bring to the table that’s a little different to them?

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.

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.

Last year, there was a general feeling the male contestants on “American Idol” weren't quite up to par with the female contestants. What's your take on how the guys are this time around?

There's some crazy guy talent, for real, no joke. There are some guys that are really good, some great young women too. So 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.

Letting contestants audition with guitars, how has that impacted things? Do you think it's a good thing or not such a good thing?

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. So 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.” So I think it's all around a good thing because it's very telling.

When you served as an “American Idol” mentor, you put a lot of emphasis on the importance of the contestants understanding the meaning of the lyrics of the songs that they chose in order to give their performance more depth. Is this something you're going to be looking for now that you're a judge?

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. So 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 is 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, but it's interesting to talk about. I'm glad we have a chance to do it on this great show.

So many “Idol” alumni have gone onto successful careers. Did you see Carrie Underwood’s live TV performance of “The Sound of Music”?

I didn’t. I did not see it. 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.

You have obviously been on the show before in mentoring capacity and now as a judge. Have you found that the experience is different? Is this measuring up to what it was when you were there as a mentor? Is it completely different for you?

Well, it's different, but it's not a surprise. I know what the show is. So I was really familiar with what it would be like to be a judge, and from the very first contestant that we saw in Boston it just felt very natural. You go sit in that chair, you're with two people that you respect very much and like very much and people start coming in and singing and it all gets turned on. You zone in on them, and you critique that performance and it's exciting stuff.

How does it feel in the room without Randy Jackson?

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, different directors, different panel, 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.

Is there anything that surprised yourself about how you judge? Was it difficult to sometimes give bad news?

Well, there were no surprises because sometimes you do have to give bad news and sometimes that’s the best thing these kids can hear is the truth. In fact, all times it's the best thing they can hear, and sometimes the performances are great, and sometimes the performances are terrible and I would want to be told or I would want my friends and children to be told absolute truth. I think you can be diplomatic about it, but you also have to be real. You have to tell it like it is.

There was one group that came out yesterday that was, I thought, horrible. I don’t think you have to make personal commentary on people about the way they look and it's got nothing to do with that. It has to do with the performance, and I thought it was terrible, and I said that was terrible. I couldn’t wait for it to end.

And then you move onto the next one and they come out and give a killer performance and then you use that. So it's a very healthy, honest, spontaneous environment and it feels right to me. There were no surprises, but it feels right.

We’ve seen some fun clips of you and Keith Urban and Jennifer Lopez. Which one of you do you think is the biggest troublemaker when it comes to having fun?

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. So we all give a little bit of that, but if you had to pick one, it would probably be me.

Does that must mean that you're the Nicki Minaj of this year's group? Is that right?

Hell yes!

How do you deal with criticism? Are you good with it or not?

Well, it depends on the source really. As a kid, when my teachers would critique me, and it happened every day for years and years and years, you develop a tolerance for it especially when it's right and when it's sincere and when it helps you. Nowadays, if I do something wrong and somebody that I know and love says “Hey man, that was a mistake,” I'm at the point in my life where I can admit it almost immediately.

The criticism from the noise out there because somebody doesn’t like the way I look or the way I sing or the way I talk, it just doesn’t even register with me. Some people don’t read reviews, some people do read reviews. If I read one or not, it doesn’t matter. There's a lot of noise out there. I just don’t hear any of the noise.

What about Keith and Jennifer? Did they give you advice about this job before you started?

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.

How are going to balance family time with your new responsibilities on “American Idol”?

Well, I have a manager that I've been with since I was 18 and she's really good at carving out time for work and for family and sometimes it's hard. These last few months have been tough. I'm filming a movie, and I was on tour, and then “Idol” was going on. So it's been a little thin on the family side, and it's not that great, to be honest with you. I miss my family, but I happen to absolutely love what I do and everybody in my family happens to love what they do.

They all love their schools and my wife, Jill, loves her life, so nobody's miserable but we miss each other … It’s tough. I'm not going to lie to you. I wish I could be with them every day, but they know that I have to work and they love it and they support it and no complaints.

Is there anything specific that you're looking forward to as “American Idol” goes forward, not necessarily the live episodes, but just as it moves further into the season?

Honestly, as broad as this sounds, I really am just looking forward to being on the show. We've worked I don't know how many days, but if you include like the audition days in different cities, Hollywood Week, all of these things. Every time “American Idol” is on the calendar, I just bound out of bed with great excitement and enthusiasm, like it's really, really fun.

It's extremely intense. The days are long. It's very emotional, but it's just the wildest ride and it's a wonderful ride with great people and I really just like being a part of it. I thought it would be like that but it's hard to come and speak about the specifics before you’ve actually done it. So all I had to base it on was my last times mentoring, but I'm telling you, it is a great, great show with great people at the helm and we're just having a ball.

What do you find the most challenging?

The long hours don’t bother me, but I think you go back to the hotel and you're by yourself and I’m like, “I just wish my wife and kids were here,” but that’s temporary and everybody knows that. It could be worse.

In previous years, “Idol” has crowned a lot of artists to fall in categories outside of your own, as far as genres go. What are the odds of finding the next Harry Connick Jr. this season?

I don't know. Hopefully, there's only one me and you'll never find the next one, but genre really doesn’t matter to me. I haven’t seen anyone in this entire audition process that really does anything remotely similar to what I do, but I think there are qualities that even Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban don’t do what I do.

We share qualities and that’s what we're looking for. We're looking for work ethic and artistry and being telegenic and creative and just being an artist. And as far as finding the next me, that didn’t cross my mind.

As far as Randy Jackson moving to in-house mentor role, do you think that will help in fostering talent as far as swing and big band and that whole area goes?

No because that’s not what Randy does, and that’s not what this show is really about. This show is about finding a pop superstar. It's not really about jazz and big band. I can tell you right now out of the 600 people we saw, none of them did that kind of music, but if they did, I would sure rather have Randy in my corner if I were a young performer than maybe somebody else.

He is from New Orleans or Louisiana anyway and he understands it to a point, but that’s not even in the cards really. Randy's a bad dude. Randy's an incredible talent. Anybody would be lucky to have him coaching them on any genre really. Although jazz and big band aren’t at the forefront of what Randy does today, he is more than capable of coaching that or any other genre.

For more info: "American Idol" website

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