Fr. Connor Danstrom is a Catholic priest who currently serves as the Chaplain and Director of the St. John Paul II Newman Center at the University of Illinois in Chicago. He is also an incredibly talented musician and songwriter. Jared Zimmerer sat down with Fr. Connor to discuss his latest album, Why the Water Came. Fr. Connor will also be playing live at a Newman Center fundraiser in Chicago at the Lagunitas Brewing Company on Monday, May 20. The event is from 5:30-8:30 p.m. If you’re in Chicago, more information about the event can be found at: https://jp2newman.org/event/holy-happy-hour/.
Be sure to check out Fr. Connor’s newest album!
So much of your music is telling a story: stories of loss, redemption, searching. Are these stories from your personal life? How has music allowed you to express these stories?
Fr. Connor: Most of what I have written has been about my life or the people I’ve known. Some of it is imaginary, but based in reality. Like I really did see a woman running to catch a bus once, and I wondered about her life. I have no idea if her clothes smelled like perfume and cigarettes, but I think for the sake of poetry it’s okay to fill in some of those details.
There is a lot that goes into writing a song, which is why it’s hard to write a good one. I don’t really start with “What is this going to be about?” I wrote my first song in college after I had just learned how to play guitar. I was noodling around and I accidentally played something I thought sounded cool, then I put some words to it. Some of my friends liked it, but personally I thought it was too long and repetitive, pretty cliché, and a little ham-fisted with the “message.” Since then I’ve written a good number of songs, but I have only really liked a few, including the ones I recorded for this EP.
There’s a rule in writing: “Show, don’t tell.” I hope the songs on this EP do a decent job of that. When it comes to any kind of art, I think it starts when the artist himself is shown something (by God, the world, other people), and then he tries to put it into a medium that lets him show it to others (through music, a story, the visual arts, etc.). What I have tried to avoid is writing a song “about God’s love” or “about my friend Nick.” Those subjects are either too abstract or too personal, and it’s hard to make anything that will really connect with people. I think it’s more convincing when the writing focuses on something particular about an experience, which points to something universal, and then leaves room for the listener to fill in the gaps with their imagination.
There’s such a mixture of darkness and light, the grotesque and the beautiful in your lyrics. How would you explain your lyrical style?
Fr. Connor: I think the hallmark of truth is paradox—God is Three in One; Jesus is human and divine; we are in this world, but our hearts long for something beyond it. To me, that comes into our everyday experience through the way sorrow and joy are interwoven. The Cross, the baby in the manger, and the Eucharist are the mysteries that have haunted me since I was a teenager. You can’t have the Resurrection without dying, and in every death there is always some glory shining through. Our relationships with God, each other, and even ourselves, are always pointing higher, and even when we reach the heights—of intimacy, of knowledge, of achievement—all that does is make our hunger more acute. You look at a sunset over a mountain range, or you stand in a river, or you pay attention to what’s happening in a city, and it kind of hurts how beautiful it is. I’m sad I can’t drink it in more, or that it passes so quickly, or that I’m too shallow or distracted to see all the beauty that’s there. Most of these intuitions are based on my own experience, and they’re reflected in things I’ve done or have happened to me. That’s mostly what I try to write about.
I love the bluegrass/folk style you use. Have you always been drawn to that style? Why? What other styles of music do you enjoy?
Fr. Connor: I honestly don’t know what genre this music is. When I published it online I had to choose a primary and a secondary genre, and I chose “alternative” and “singer/songwriter.” Those are both pretty general. I think the “folk” feel comes from the fact that I’ve listened to a lot of what might be called “folk rock” (The Avett Brothers, The Head and the Heart, The Oh Hellos), and the fact that I only play acoustic guitar and keyboards. If I had an electric guitar it might sound different. The electronic keyboard sounds that I threw in there (my students at the Newman Center call them “beep boops”) are kind of influenced by bands like The Postal Service, Matt and Kim, and Motion City Soundtrack.
My favorite songwriter is John K. Samson of The Weakerthans, a Canadian indie rock band. Most of my songs have been an attempt to imitate his style. I also like Sufjan Stevens. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of The Long Winters, Typhoon, Gregory Alan Isakov, and Mates of State.
How has being a Catholic priest influenced your music? Does being a musician give you a greater appreciation for the Psalms?
Fr. Connor: Something I value, both as a priest and as a musician, is authenticity. Preaching and music both require a discerning ear. Does what I’m saying ring true or not? Does this connect with people, or is it boring and cliché? When it comes to the faith, there are objective truths—we believe this about God, and not that—but there is also the subjective reception of those truths. Our job as Christians is to present those truths to people so that they can hear them in a language or medium that they can receive. I think playing music and writing songs present the same challenges.
With music, you also have this phenomenon of changing tastes and trends. What was popular ten years ago sounds dated now. But there is some music, both in the high culture and in the popular culture, that seems to endure as a classic. We are all children of our time and place, and our tastes reflect our particular age and culture. But I think we all want access to some kind of beauty that never gets old. I don’t want to listen to the same pop song on a loop for all eternity, no matter how catchy it is. Sacred music, like the Psalms, or the propers of the Mass, should be timeless. It should point us beyond our particular tastes to something that that transcends passing cultural trends.
What musicians do you look to for inspiration? Who has had the most influence on your music?
Fr. Connor: The music that has probably influenced me the most as a musician is jazz. I first fell in love with music in high school when I played tenor saxophone in a jazz ensemble. I learned a lot of music theory and how to play things by ear by transcribing solos from jazz recordings and learning how to improvise. My favorite jazz musicians are guys from the sixties like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Dizzy Gillespie. I also like more modern musicians like Chris Potter, Joe Lovano, and Michael Brecker. I taught myself how to play some basic jazz voicings and melodies on piano while I was in high school, and that helped me to understand how music is structured and what sounds good with what.
I also listened to the radio from the time I was a kid, so music from the 90s and early 2000s is deeply ingrained in me. The first CDs I ever bought were Semisonic, The Verve Pipe, Radiohead, and G. Love and Special Sauce. I thought I liked ska for a while, but I never understood the appeal of punk music. When I was in college I got into the indie stuff, like Deathcab for Cutie, The Decemberists, The Weakerthans, Wilco, etc.
What advice do you have for other musicians and artists?
Fr. Connor: Read the book Bird by Bird by Anne Lemott. She has some great insights about what it’s like to try to be “creative.” There is one passage I think about constantly, where she describes the metaphorical “radio station” that plays in the head of everyone who writes: “Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one’s specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn’t do well . . . that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on and on.” I have found this to be painfully and hilariously true. If you want to make something—a podcast, a book, a song—you have to get over the fact that you are not that special, but you’re not that bad either. If you have a gift, you should share it. Some people might like it, some people won’t. More often than not, though, they won’t even know you made anything at all, and it will just be an exercise in imitating the Creator. That’s a good thing to do regardless of outcome.