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Fr. Connor Danstrom’s Music Seeks Out the Hard and Dark Places

July 7, 2020


Fr. Connor Danstrom is a priest, an accomplished musician, and host of the podcast “Three Dogs North.” He spoke to Jared Zimmerer last year about his EP Why the Water Came, and he has just released a new collection of songs called Doralydia, available now on Bandcamp. All digital sales will go to support the St. John Paul II Newman Center at the University of Illinois in Chicago, where Fr. Danstrom currently serves. Doralydia will be available on streaming services beginning July 1.

Andrew Petiprin recently had an opportunity to ask Fr. Danstrom about his work.

Both musically and lyrically, your songs very nuanced—perhaps not even obviously the work of a Christian, let alone a priest. I don’t think creative Christians are producing enough of this sort of mature art that could draw in people who aren’t ready yet for the specifics of Catholicism or the Gospel. Do you agree?

Thanks. To be honest, this question is one of the reasons I’ve been reluctant to share the music I’ve written. I wonder what people will think that a priest is saying stuff like this, or not saying stuff like that. The truth is, I don’t really listen to explicitly “Christian music.” If I painted, I would probably paint landscapes or something, not scenes from the Gospels, although I don’t know. I pray every day, I read the Scriptures every day, but the music I like to make sounds like this. It’s what I enjoy listening to, and it’s what I enjoy writing. If I felt like the music had to convey a message that would persuade people to think or believe what I do, I would probably just preach a homily or write an article, not write a song. That said, I do think there is a quality to music that can lead people to Christ, because good music is beautiful, and good lyrics say something true. But it has to lead through the heart, not the mind.

The first song, “Set Me Free,” is a really beautiful exploration of life and death—maybe something about nature and grace too. At one point you sing,

What did I do to deserve Pharaoh’s position
The catbird seat is not for me

Likewise, on “Leave Me Alone,” you sing about always being connected and in demand. Are you thinking there about your authority as a priest or is it more universal? Where do these songs come from?

One of the reasons I put those two songs next to each other is the ironic contradiction: “Set me free,” but “Leave me alone.” They are very different songs, but come from a similar place of feeling trapped and in need of saving. The irony, of course, is that although I need someone to come help me, I choose to go it alone. And yes, the authority of the priesthood has been one of the most difficult aspects of it for me. I don’t understand the lust for power at all. I like everyone to like me, and half the people usually hate the person in charge. It’s something I’ve grown into in the last few years, though, and I am starting to see how that third munus of Christ—priest, prophet, and king—is critical for the flourishing of the Body. But that’s only if we reject the false choice between ruling like a Pharaoh or not ruling at all. Whatever authority we’re given belongs finally to God, and to wield that authority without reverence for God or for the people he’s put in your charge is a recipe for disaster.

The title track “Doralydia” reminds me a bit of Sufjan Stevens, and especially a song like “Romulus” off his Michigan album. You sing,

Dora I know you have to suffer alone
In a north side rehab you chose
Or was chosen for you but know
Someone’s coming for you

Who is Dora? She seems like someone who means a lot to you.

That’s a flattering comparison. Sufjan is a favorite of mine, and Romulus is one of his best songs in my opinion. Dora (aka Doris or Doralydia) was a young woman from my parish who died of bone cancer. I got to know her and her family over the year and a half she was sick, and I had the privilege of confirming her in the hospital and giving her Holy Communion on the day she died. The whole thing kind of broke my heart, and it’s a lot to go into, but this song came out of it. She became a really dear friend of mine.

The last song on the EP, “Even Late” is a dialogue. Your lyrics remind me of some conversations I’ve had in my head with certain people in my life—the kind of things that keep me up at night. What’s actually happening in this  song? At one point you sing,

Do you take pride in your hurt
Is it a good feeling to let your life lie fallow
What else could I do
You could try
Try again
Maybe I’m afraid
I don’t know why, I’d rather just go about it this way

This song is mostly adapted dialogue from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which is one of my favorite novels. They are interchanges between Adam and Samuel, both of whom tell each other hard truths at different points in the story. Samuel calls Adam to task for wasting his life feeling sorry for himself, and Adam helps Samuel realize that it’s time to pack it in and enjoy his last days letting his children love him. There was something about the relationship between these two men that spoke to me deeply—the honesty, the affection—and I wanted to make something to preserve it in my memory.

Finally, do you consider your songwriting and performing an essential part of your ministry, or more like something you just have to do for your own spiritual fulfillment on the side? What other musical offerings can we expect from you in the future?

I’m not really sure. It’s a good question. I started writing music in college, and before that I used to make little tunes with a lot of layered overdubs on the keyboards in my high school’s music theory room. Music has been my main hobby for a really long time. How it fits into my ministry as a priest, I’m not sure, but I’m sure that God intends to use it somehow. I plan on continuing to write and record as long as I have the free time to do it.