Brian Houston: Days of Pearly Spencer, days of an Irish songsmith

Tuesday 2nd October 2007

Mike Rimmer went to Belfast recently to meet up with the city's critically acclaimed singer/songwriter BRIAN HOUSTON.

Brian Houston
Brian Houston

Brian Houston and Robin Mark are sitting opposite me and comparing the quality of their Ulster Fry in a café in downtown Belfast and sharing stories of stomach complaints. I'm here in Northern Ireland to interview both gentlemen, but not together!

Since the last time Brian and I chatted, he's seen an upturn in his fortunes and has begun to establish himself as a popular singer/songwriter with fans now including Bob Harris, James Whale and Janice Long. Forays into the UK are now bringing in good crowds to see him play live and his most recent single "The Days Of Pearly Spencer" have sold respectably. His last album 'Sugar Queen' was released to critical acclaim and he's currently so busy that trying to find the time to record the follow up has been a problem. Expect it in 2008 but more of that later.

Breakfast over, we have adjourned to Robin Mark's office for a quiet chat about his current success. Brian's experience of his growing popularity is that it has crept up on him slowly. "It's a very slow thing so I think if there's a drift at all it's certainly imperceptible! I'm kind of going up in tiny little circles. I've started to do national radio. Radio 2 has been really good and people like Janice Long and Bob Harris have been fantastic; Aled Jones. They've all really supported my music. It's certainly within my experience now so I guess what I'm always looking for is the tipping point. At what stage does it get to a greater awareness in the general public?"

At the time of writing, I guess it would be for Houston's new single "Days Of Pearly Spencer" to chart. Houston admits, "Hit singles are hard things to get these days because nobody buys singles anymore and people download everything. And also the publicity machine is a difficult thing. Unless you've got an awful lot of money it's hard to get in there. So we just try to do it through shows all over the country, just gigging and gigging and gigging and gigging. It's word of mouth. That's the way we've been trying to do it. I've done all kinds of gigs all over the country, literally from Penzance to Aberdeen and Inverness and Fort William. I've done all those places and everywhere in between, from Norwich right over to Cardiff. Literally the four corners of Britain. A lot of miles I've put on that little van of mine just driving round. But there's no other way to do it. It's just getting out there and playing the shows. It's been a thing I've had to do."

Ever since I first discovered Houston's music about a decade ago he has been touted as Belfast's next big thing. Now it finally looks as though it might actually happen. Does he get lots of people after the gigs asking, 'Why aren't you really famous?' "That happens a lot," he confesses. "That's the most frustrating thing that people say, and I can't answer it!" He laughs, "In the last couple of years I've done a lot of internal, personal building inside my own psyche. Preparing myself for the things I'm hoping to be and do. So I certainly have realised that a lot of reasons why things haven't happened in the past is because subconsciously, in some way, I wasn't predisposed to that, you know? I guess I was a bit afraid and I've been dealing with those things and trying to get a more courageous outlook. I think the hard thing for me was I always thought I WAS courageous! I always thought I was daring and pushing boundaries and a risk-taker and all those things. I just didn't realise how much fear played a part in holding me back from other things."

So has that led to him self-sabotaging his success? "Yeah," he agrees, "I think that's the subconscious thing that you don't realise. But an opportunity comes up and deep down inside yourself something says 'no', and you can actually then construct circumstances whereby the thing falls apart. I certainly have realised that I've been doing that along the way. I've had golden opportunities that required a bit of investment from me and in the past couple of years I've done things which I wouldn't have done previous to this. I've jumped on planes. One time I played in San Francisco, in Candlestick Park at one o'clock in the afternoon. Then I got on a plane, (that was on a Saturday afternoon), and with the time lag and all that thing, I played a gig for Bob Harris on the Monday night and on Tuesday morning got a plane back and played in Napa, California on Tuesday night. And that was at my expense to do that show. And I've done lots of other things. Jumped on a plane to go over and do BBC Radio shows, which, if you lived in England would be a drive, but because I live in Ireland it's a £400 trip, booking a hotel and all kinds of things."

He continues, "I've done those things because I've believed in my career. I now would jump on a plane at the drop of a hat, at my expense, for my investment. They are things I wouldn't have done before. I just would have looked at it and said, 'Well if nobody's paying I'm not gonna go.' And that's you sabotaging your own thing and I didn't realise I was doing that."

In the past when I've played Houston's music, it seemed he has had a dual career. When he started off, it was as a singer/songwriter wanting to make an impact in the mainstream. But then he also recorded albums that are typically aimed at the Christian market. He's hopped between those two things. Did he feel schizophrenic? "Well, there's a voice in my head telling me 'no' but I think yes.!" At this point, I realise that Brian has a very hearty laugh. "I know exactly what you mean!" He adds, "There are definitely times that I feel I've got to express a certain aspect of my particular beliefs and I do that through a collection of songs."

The singer continues, "When it comes to selling an album, in many ways Christian albums are concept albums because they're based around the one general subject. When it comes into the mainstream albums are just albums. They're a selection of songs or a collection of songs over a period of time and you make them work. So in that sense I kind of treat faith albums or gospel albums as a kind of separate entity, in the sense that if there's a collection of songs that definitely have that flavour I'll wait until I have enough of them and group them together on that album. The difference would have been that somebody like Johnny Cash or Hank Williams; they'd have just had that track within the album. There'd have just been an out and out gospel track and they wouldn't have necessarily had any conflict about it. I just think that our marketing today is more pinpoint and people aim things at a specific audience."

He continues, "I think it's strange in that, I did a gig in Manchester, in the Life Café, and the BBC guys came to that. My promotional people had talked to them and brought them to the show. The producer there, Ged Gray, he loved what I did, and from a bar gig he asked me to do a Sunday show! Which I didn't know at the time was a spiritual, religious show. I agreed to do it and I did it down in London. I did "Red Badge Of Courage", sung that song, and did an interview, and it was during the interview that I realised it was bending towards spiritual things. I was talking to Aled Jones and it turned out Aled had ordered 'Jesus And Justice' off our website, personally, ahead of the interview! And he wanted to play songs off that as well. We were there to promote 'Sugar Queen' and so I've now got this situation going on where BBC Radio 2, on one of their third or fourth most popular shows, are playing a gospel album when I set out to promote 'Sugar Queen'! [laughs] They played songs off 'Sugar Queen' as well but they're playing something off 'Jesus And Justice' almost once a month. That's an incredible bit of exposure for an album that we did independently. It isn't signed up or published by anybody. That's incredible compared to all the other albums I did before that were meant to have a push behind them. It's funny to see success in something that you never even intended."

So why doesn't Brian follow the example of his heroes, like Johnny Cash or Hank Williams, and include a faith song on his next mainstream album? "I have started to try and do that now," he responds. "And I've started to realise that even the songs that I don't consider to be about God are actually far more about that than I was aware of. I did a couple of shows last week with an American band called Third Day. I was aware that I was playing to a very gospel-orientated audience and so while I was playing the songs I was going through in my own head thinking; what lyrics in this would this audience find they could relate to? And I was amazed that song by song there was always something in each song! Songs I hadn't even realised had an aspect of that, reflected it in some way."

He continues, "The phrase is 'greater is he that is in you than he who is in the world', and I just express what's in my heart so it's bound to leak out all over the place. I think that's cool, you know? But it's done without an agenda. It's genuinely just done - 'This is what I do. This is how I express myself. This is what I'm singing about and this is my life experience.' If it happens to have something in it that has substance? That's fantastic! But it wasn't done with an agenda in that sense."

The last time I saw Houston here in Belfast he gave me the grand Belfast tour, where he pointed out Van Morrison's house and took me down Cyprus Avenue. Morrison is an influence and one critic has called the song "Childish Things" "the best song that Van Morrison never wrote." "Truthfully," Brian reflects, "the way it happened was, even though I came from Belfast I hadn't actually heard much about Van Morrison. When our band started out back in the early '90s I'd heard the name Van Morrison but I thought it was one word! I thought; that's an odd name! People started to say, 'You sound a bit like Van Morrison.' So I started to buy Van Morrison records to see what they meant and I realised yes, they did. And that kind of inspired me to go down the. . . I don't know what the word for it is. . . Extemporise, is it? Where you begin to build on images and you do stream of consciousness things."

He continues, "So I think I'm in love with music like Otis Redding and music from the '60s, and I think Van was. I was raised on country music by my dad. Hank Williams, John Prine and Kris Kristofferson were my things and he was into Leadbelly and Hank Williams. So I think some of the influences I've had are similar to his and then as soon as I met his music I thought, awh right! You can do this! You can do that! I come from East Belfast. I came from the same area he came from and I dig the same type of music that he liked. Not the jazz thing. So I think it's just a similar set of influences in a similar area; the same pot if you like."

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Reader Comments

Posted by Pam Case in Liverpool @ 10:25 on Oct 22 2007

Congratulations on an excellent and well written article that gives so much space to the interviewee to put across their points. Once you have heard Brian Houston, or seen him - an artist who is dynamic live - you DO think "This man should be a household name!" Our family have been blessed with being able to get to know Brian a little, personally - he's a great guy and we have seen the Lord working in peoples' lives through what is often considered Brian's "secular" music as well as his Christian tracks. It's great to see his music going from strength to strength. If anyone reading this hasn't heard Brian yet ..... GO DISCOVER !

Posted by Colin Whitten @ 06:54 on Oct 10 2007

I had never heard of Brian Hoston before, but last night Isaw him at Whitewell, as the openiig act to Michael W Smith, Brian was fantastic, and should have been given a longer slot, the interview you have done with him gives a good isight to the man and any one from Ulster in the same age bracket can identify with all the things he talks about. brilliant interview with a brilliant artist.

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