Q&A: Dylan Connor discusses his humanitarian work

Dylan Connor performs March 3 at the Fairfield Theatre Company, in the town where he attended high school. The singer/songwriter has played venues from California to Ireland and Chicago to the Middle East.

Connor, 42, has been involved in Syrian humanitarian and protest efforts since the Arab Spring uprising in 2011. His single, Man of Peace, was featured in the recent documentary film Little Ghandi, the first movie from Syria ever considered for an Oscar nomination. His wife is a Syrian native, and they have two children.

He teaches high school Latin in Stratford, where he lives. He plays the guitar, piano and bass, and his first solo recording was recognized for "Best Lyrics" by American Songwriter magazine.

He will be joined by special guest musicians at the Fairfield Theatre Company StageOne show at 7:45 p.m. Connor recently spoke with us about his musical career.

Brad Durrell: When did you first get into music?

Dylan Connor: My parents have a cassette tape of me at 2 years old singing Stevie Wonder songs from his album, Songs in the Key of Life. At 7, I saw two documentaries on video — This is Elvis and The Compleat Beatles — and had a very emotional response to them. I felt almost overwhelmed by the power of the artists, and watched the films over and over again. I decided I needed to have a guitar, and my mom went and bought myself and my neighbor plastic guitars and we started strumming on them, but they weren't something you could tune.

BD: How did you pursue music?

DC: When I was 9, I got my first real guitar and started on some lessons. When I was 11 or 12, I started writing songs that were recognizable as decent songs. I was always in a band in high school, and we were playing at bars when I was 16 or 17 — writing songs, but obviously playing a lot of covers. Whatever singing group and music class was available in school, I was in it — just sort of soaking it up.

BD: Did you study music in college?

DC: I intended to be a music major at Skidmore College but quickly decided against it. I didn't want to get all technical about music. I wanted to keep the rock ’n’ roll edge alive because I think what makes good rock ’n’ roll is not knowing what you're doing. I remember Peter Buck from REM saying, “When I really started to feel I knew what I was doing with guitar is when I decided to switch to mandolin.” I decided to focus on literature in college so I could be a better lyricist.

BD: How did you become a teacher?

DC: I moved to California after college and was in a band for six or seven years. We lived and played most of the time in San Francisco, and I had a part-time job there teaching Latin at a private school as a way to make money while doing music. When I moved back to the East Coast, I started to take the idea of teaching more seriously. I’d been doing some tutoring and odd jobs to be more of a full-time musician when I met my future wife, fell in love, realized we were going to have kids and that I needed to make a real paycheck. That’s when I started to pursue my master’s degree.

BD: You’ve been to Syria?

DC: We got married and immediately I couldn’t wait to go to Syria and check it out. Our first trip was in 2007, for about three weeks. It was just a mind-blowing place — very ancient, very different culture than ours, with a lot more emphasis on spending time with the people you love and taking your time socializing and eating. There was a really cool nightlife scene going on in Damascus, where I played some gigs. The audience was incredible and very appreciative. And I met this large family I had married into and made a lot of song connections with in-laws, cousins and uncles and so on. We went again in 2009, and I did a few more gigs. We brought our daughter, and she had her first birthday there, which was special. Our plan was to go back every other summer, and then in 2011 everything went to hell in a handbasket. I started to write songs to inform people about the [Assad] regime’s blatant human rights violations and brutality. I started making videos and posting them, and got quite a reaction. In 2014, I went to the Turkish border with Syria to help refugees. That was very life-affirming. I went with the Karam Foundation, a Chicago-based NGO (non-government organization), to a school for refugee children. I was with a group of 20 mentors in different disciplines and taught music.

BD: Your wife’s family is still there?

DC: They came [to the U.S.] when the war started in 2011 because the family has been quite active against the regime. Our family was involved in the peaceful protests in the streets in 2011. Many of them were arrested and tortured, and their houses destroyed by bombs. My in-laws lived with us until a few months ago when they moved into another of their children's houses nearby.

BD: Tell me about the song Man of Peace from the film?

DC: It celebrates Ghiyath Matar, who sacrificed his life for peaceful activism against the regime. [Matar is the focus of the documentary, and was tortured and killed at age 24 by the regime in 2011.] I wrote it for him. I was asked by the film director to do so. It’s a true song and encapsulates the film in three minutes. We’re all proud of the film.

BD: Do you like playing at FTC?

DC: It’s an intimate venue and there’s a great vibe there. I try to make it interesting for the audience, having new people play with me.

BD: Do you get nervous playing for an audience?

DC: Oh, yeah, I always get nervous. It’s a not a bad nervous. It’s something I need to do and I love it, but it takes a few songs for me to get out of my own way. It usually takes me three songs to get rid of that nervousness. Then I started coasting.

BD: What’s it like being your own promoter, booking agent, webmaster, etc.?

DC: It’s hard, being a full-time teacher, maintaining a website, publicizing shows. I’ve been doing it a long time and could certainly use some help, but it’s not like I’m a spring chicken. I still like exploring my life through songs and seeing if people can connect to it.