A Priest, a Guitar, and Transcendent Culture: An Interview with Fr. Connor Danstrom
Many know Fr. Connor for his excellent podcast Three Dogs North. However, a recent series of YouTube Videos Fr. Connor Danstrom displays his musical talent as part of a collaboration with the Blue Island Arts Alliance which aims to serve the surrounding community through the arts and culture. These performances stem from his underlying belief that Catholics ought not necessarily act 'counter-culture' but rather contribute to it. Today, Jared Zimmerer sits down with Fr. Connor to chat a little bit about Fr. Connor and how it is that he became involved in such an excellent project.
Fr. Connor, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became such a talented musician.
Well, thank you for the flattering question. I started playing the clarinet when I was 10 years old and later took up the tenor saxophone. Going to a big high school meant I had to sort of “pick a lane” in terms of extra with a curriculars, and I had excelled in music much more than in sports. Jazz band became my biggest interest outside of academics, and I got into music theory and tried picking up various instruments on my own, particularly drums and keyboards. I could be a little monomaniacal when it came to music – spending hours tooling around on my brother’s discarded Casio keyboard trying to figure out songs from the radio (or Napster, since that was the era, although my dad later convinced me it was stealing).
All of this prepared me for college, which is when I started playing guitar. I didn’t really have anywhere convenient to practice saxophone, but pretty much every third guy in the dorm had a guitar that he never played. So I started teaching myself to play the same way. At that time it was iTunes libraries shared over a LAN throughout the dorm that served as the fodder for my repertoire. I also started trying to write songs, some of which my friends thought weren’t terrible. My parents bought me a guitar over Christmas break my freshman year, and that’s when I really started in earnest. A few friends with common interests and musical tastes and I would waste away the wee hours many nights passing the guitar around and playing songs we’d learned from our favorite artists and bands. Guitars were on every camping trip. That was ten years ago, and now most of the songs I know are still from that time.
Blue Island Arts Alliance states that they exist to inspire, educate, and entertain the community of Blue Island through art and culture. How is it you became involved and what takeaways are you seeing that the church needs to pay attention to?
I actually got involved in the “Blue Island Sessions” project through a group called “My B.I.”, a brainchild of a local marketing and media company meant to highlight the unique cultural, artistic, and entrepreneurial things happening in our community. The couple behind the project and the media company, Kevin and Sara Brown (http://browntown.co), are my parishioners and parents of children at our school, and they knew that I played guitar. They were partnering with the Blue Island Arts Alliance to promote local musicians, and Kevin asked me if I wanted to be a part of it.
But to the point of your question, I would say that art and culture are what we live and breathe every day, and the Church obviously must pay attention and contribute to it. Cardinal George, who ordained me a priest, wrote and spoke frequently to this point. He said it made no sense to call yourself “countercultural”, that is to say “against the culture”, because we are all by necessity cultural animals. Being part of a culture – a shared worldview, language, etc. – is distinctly human, and it is impossible to critique the culture you are a part of from the outside. I didn’t invent English, but it’s how I write, think, sing, pray, and otherwise communicate and receive ideas. The same goes for inherited forms of work, learning, manners, architecture, dress, etc. Not everything is determined by culture. There are universal truths. But that we human beings look at and describe Truth from a particular cultural perspective seems to me undeniable.
That is why I am in favor of doing what the Church has done since the beginning of her existence, namely baptizing the cultural forms of the places and times she is in. This doesn’t mean letting the world set the agenda for the Church, as if everything human beings think and do in common is good and wholesome and should be endorsed by the Church. But it also doesn’t mean trying to do the impossible – i.e., setting up a separate and parallel “subculture” in opposition to the decadent culture around her. I’m not very interested in, for example, “Christian music” or “Catholic books”, not because they are bad, but because the whole concept seems redundant and unnecessary. Good music glorifies God by being beautiful, and a good book glorifies God by saying something true. This can be an explicit purpose or not. But if you had asked Bach if he was writing “Christian music”, or if you had asked Michelangelo or Flannery O’Connor if they made “Catholic art”, I’m guessing they would probably look at you funny.
This is all a long-winded way of saying, I like music that is beautiful and that says something true about God, human beings, and the world. My biggest complaint today is not that the culture is bad, but that there is not really much culture to be had. People sit watching TV in their homes, they don’t go out to hear a concert. They sit mindlessly checking social media, they don’t join a book club or a writing group. I include myself in this. I think a project like “My B.I.” and organizations like the Blue Island Arts Alliance have potential to draw people together around something that transcends their own solitary existence, and as long as that something is true, good, or beautiful, God can use it to draw them to Himself.
Can you tell us a little bit about the songs you chose to play and why you chose them?
To be frank, I chose the songs I did because I knew them well. The filming happened the Tuesday after Easter, and parish duties meant I had basically no time to prepare anything. This was probably a good thing, because I had to fall back on songs that I had been playing for a long time, and the reason I’ve been playing them a long time is because I think they’re good.
I think my favorite part of the YouTube series is seeing you proudly wear your collar, and at the same time be incredibly entertaining for the audience. How much would you say being a priest affects how and what you play?
I have found that being a priest and doing anything remotely cool is normally very shocking to people. I’ve played in a whiffle ball league here, started an open gym for pickup basketball, quoted funny movies and TV shows, gone running around town, and now these videos, and every time it’s like, “Father! You exercise? You play sports? You watch movies?” It’s kind of fun to elicit these kinds of reactions, but it also tells me people don’t see the Church as part of their culture. There is this perception that God and daily life are like oil and water, and I think that’s deeply bad. Anything I can do to shake up that perception without compromising my identity as a Christian and as a priest I see as a fruitful way of evangelizing. Being a priest, for instance, I’m not going to sing a bunch of love songs that could be misinterpreted or make people think I’m unhappy being celibate. The idea is to be leaven – something small that by being itself has a way of lifting up the elements around it.
Who are your musical heroes and why?
When I was younger all my musical heroes were from the world of jazz – John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, etc. In fact, my friends and I looked down our noses at popular music as unsophisticated tripe. I cringe a little at this elitism now, but I must say it gave me a very discerning taste. I like a lot of what might be called “Indie Rock” or “Folk Rock”. The popular musician I most admire right now is Sufjan Stevens. I don’t love all the music he makes, but I love that he seems to love it. What I mean is that he doesn’t just make music people want to hear right now, he makes things that he thinks are good. That, to me, is the mark of a true artist. I have seen him three times in concert, and every time I felt that he was giving me something he treasured. Many have pointed out that his music has a lot of Christian themes, and I’ve read interviews where he acknowledged as much, but there isn’t any superficiality in it. He doesn’t sing about the Transfiguration as a way of manipulating the audience into belief or religious sentiment, but because it’s something worth singing about.
What advice might you have for any musicians?
Practice. Like anything worth learning, music takes discipline. When I was in fifth grade, I wanted to quit the clarinet because it wasn’t cool, but my mom wouldn’t let me. I took up the saxophone the following year, and that ended up making a huge difference in how I ended up spending my free time, who I hung out with, what I do to unwind now. I see kids today put aside music before they’ve even gotten started, and it makes me sad. Maybe it’s not your passion, or you don’t have any innate ability, and that’s fine. But a lot of people (especially kids) confuse a lack of effort for a lack of ability, and that goes for everything from academics to music to faith. We need to learn and teach our kids that if you want something, you’re going to have to do a bunch of things you don’t want in order to achieve it.