Tony Cummings catches up on the rollercoaster ride of Belfast's mainstream hitmaker and worship ministry man, BRIAN HOUSTON
Back in 2007, when Cross Rhythms last spoke to the Belfast-based singer/songwriter Brian Houston, his career was taking something of an upturn. A single, a fine cover of the old "Days Of Pearly Spencer" hit, was looking like it could possibly make the charts. As it turned out, it didn't, but that wasn't something that worried the accomplished songsmith overmuch. In the 24 years that he's been music making, Houston's musical and indeed spiritual trajectory has had more highs and lows than a fairground rollercoaster and the fact that this most tenacious of musical craftsmen has continued to make superb music, and support himself doing so, is in itself a triumph. Not that things have been easy for Brian and his wife Pauline, who tours with him doing sound, admin and half a dozen other jobs.
I am talking to Brian, not in a radio station green room, or backstage at a huge festival - environments both quite familiar to the veteran troubadour - but in a room in a suburban house in Halesowen, Birmingham. Brian has just sung and played a spine-tingling set, demonstrating that he's lost none of his Celtic soul vocal ability; his songwriting craft which can cover songs of faith, hilarity and deep despair; or his dazzling guitar fretwork and ability to creatively use a loop pedal which would give Ed Sheeran a run for his money. The fact that Brian has just finished playing to a tiny house concert audience rather than from a vast auditorium stage clearly has not affected his performance in any way. Brian Houston is a singer/musician who gives everything to a song and many of the audience who left that Birmingham house that night, clutching one or two of Brian's CDs they'd just purchased, felt like I did, that they had been privileged to be transported to a better place through the sheer power and passion of a unique songsmith.
Brian has always been an electrifying performer of live music. Whether he sings with just his trusty acoustic guitar, or with a full band of rock accompanists, his ability to grip an audience is phenomenal. This was proven in 2008 when he released an acoustic-orientated video, Content Not Volume: Brian Houston In Concert. In 2008, things were doing reasonably well financially for Brian. He explained, "I opened for a lot of artists and I was doing really well in terms of like getting only 50 quid for gigs, but because of CD sales I was doing fine. I was covering myself, and I would get the odd headline gig and the odd church would hire me and pay me well. I was blessed a lot by some churches and between that I would do opening gigs for big names. So with CD sales we were doing fine and then back home in Ireland I made a record called 'Gospel Road' in 2009. That went on mainstream radio and became big on mainstream radio. 'Glory Glory' became the most requested, song of the year. The album itself sold really well at retail and we ended up selling out Belfast Grand Opera House, mainly off the strength of the popularity of that record on radio.
"Also in 2011, I was in Chicago with Pauline and we were really impacted by the Holy Spirit and when I got up off the floor after that, I felt really different. I felt like God really spoke to me about how much he loved me, I really felt like I literally had a vision of God grasping my heart and in Ireland we say 'you couldn't anger me'. After that I had so much peace. I guess I experienced what many people experience when they become a Christian, like this radical revival type experience. After that I didn't feel as competitive and I didn't feel as driven to be ambitious or to hit ambition goals. And Pauline and I began to pray for people in CD lines. We'd begin to look for people who we wanted to pray for and it was like what I was doing instead of it being just my job, it became a ministry. That was very disconcerting because we were doing mainstream gigs and yet our heart was to pray for people. It was after that we decided - we'd done Opera House 2011, we did it 2012 again in Belfast, sell-out first time almost sell-out the second time, and the agent said you can't do it a third time because you'll lose money the next time, that's the pattern, so we didn't do it a third time."
The monumental changes in the music industry, and how Joe Public accessed music, began to affect not only the music superstars but grassroots musicians like Brian. It was a downfall that they started to notice in Canada. He said, "People would come up to the merch table and instead of buying the CDs, they would ask 'what was that fifth song you sang?' or 'what was that last song you sang?' Then they'd produce their phone and instead of buying the album they'd go on iTunes and they'd buy the download for 99 cents. Then that got worse because then they got Apple Music and it was like, instead of buying the song now they would just stream the song. So yeah, in terms of actual income we've seen a drastic fall and we went from half of our income being CD sales to probably about, I haven't measured it, but it's a fraction of our income."
After recording an excellent Christmas project, Brian's 'Joy To The World' and a single "Prices Go Up", Brian and Pauline made the monumental decision to up stakes and relocate to the USA. He explained, "We decided we'd try America, so in 2013 we got an American visa and we just moved. We had no intention of coming back. We sold our cars and off we went. We sold everything, gave our furniture away, we rented our house out as it was in negative equity. We did all that and honestly I had no intention of coming back because I felt like I had run my course in Ireland and in the UK."
In March of 2013, Brian recorded and released the album 'Mercy [Jesus Don't Forget My Name]'. He explained, "It was mixed by the sound engineer who mixes for Bono, Alistair McMillan, who did it for us cheap because we prayed for him and because God healed him twice. So he did the record cheap. He's not a Christian, he's an atheist. And when he'd finished mixing it, he asked me once 'why would God heal me and not heal my cousin who's got a brain tumour?' As he was mixing the last tracks he said 'would you pray for my cousin, they're going to amputate his leg because he's got clots from the brain tumour medication and they're going to take his leg?' We prayed and the clots disappeared and he phoned me a couple of days later and he said 'it's confirmed the clots have disappeared and so has the brain tumour'. That was after he'd mixed the record. 'Mercy' is a blend of 'Shelter' and 'Gospel Road'. It was me trying to make them more accessible, but the song 'Come On Home To Jesus' is the one that I love. There's an actual part B of this record called 'Jesus, Don't Forget My Name', which I've never released because I've done three gospel records and I didn't think the world needed a fourth one. These were all worship songs that I wrote."
Also released around this time was Brian's 'Bring It On' album. Its origins are explained on a back-sleeve note. "In a Tuesday night prayer meeting in a little town called Asheboro, North Carolina, I began to sit in with the band. At first I just strummed along and then was asked to lead a song or two. This built over a few weeks and to my amazement songs began to flow prophetically there and multiplied even more as I played other places. As I hadn't written worship music or played it that much in years it was quite a nice surprise. Truthfully I never thought I'd do this music again. But nine out of the 10 songs on this album were written in the last 12 months, here in North Carolina. I don't know why they flow here when they never did elsewhere. But I've discovered that this state is the birth place of much of the prophetic music in the world. Maybe it's in the air, maybe it's in the people or perhaps it's in the river."
'Bring It On''s "God Is Always Good" and "Love You More Than Life" have become staples of Brian's worship set. Speaking about other tracks on the album Brian said, "'Healing In The River' was a spontaneous song written in Toronto, live on stage. 'Lover Of My Soul' was written with Mark Tedder, Ryan Tedder's uncle. 'You're Mystical' is a reprise of the song I had recorded with Kingsway. Every song on this is a decent song, I just don't play them all because I don't have time, I suppose."
The next album in Brian's discography was 'Carolina'. Brian is quite candid on how that project came about. "I got fired from a job and my wife was in Ireland and I was living with a family in a little house in North Carolina. I sat in a bedroom and I wrote and recorded it. I wrote that album in that bedroom as a kind of healing record and to have something to gig and tour and make a living from."
The subtitle of Brian's next album is 'An Album Of Memories'. The singer/songwriter spoke about 'Songs From My Father'. "I recorded the album after people in America and Canada asked me for Irish songs. These are songs he played me ('Whisky In The Jar', 'Irish Rover', 'Molly Malone' and 'The Band Played Waltzing Matilda'), artists that he liked when I was a child and he would sing them, and some of these are political songs. 'Songs From My Father' was really me embracing the fact that I listened to this music as a child and had rejected it and I wanted to re-embrace it. It was a learning exercise as well, to learn to play with Irish traditional instruments, because my heart at that time was to record an Irish traditional worship album. But I've not managed to learn the music well enough to be able to do that yet. I wanted to do Gaelic. I'd written one song in Gaelic and I recorded that, but it's not great. So I've never really put that out."
Clearly the Houstons' plans to settle in the USA were not working out for Brian and Pauline. Back in Northern Ireland, Brian embarked on some serious reading, thinking and praying about the nature of worship. Having once been badly disillusioned by the UK modern worship industry, a newly-discovered zeal to be a worshipper resulted in him writing a book, Rock 'n' Roll Worship, and a live album 'Rock 'n' Roll Worship Live: OpenSkies Festival 2016'. The latter was recorded at the OpenSkies Worship Festival at Shane's Castle, County Antrim, Ireland. Very much reflecting Brian's love for Jesus and enthusiasm to see that love communicated in passionate rock and roll, Brian wrote his thoughts in the form of a blessing, targeting all those who listened to the album. "May love pursue you. May it hunt you down in the lonely woods when you are far from home. May it wrap its warm, gentle arms around you and overpower you with peace. May you feel safe and secure in the knowledge, nay, awareness that Love calls your name and remembers your birth and rejoices in your existence and celebrates your uniqueness and delights in your craziness. May you live in love, move in love, breathe in love and rest in love. Selah."
In 2017, Brian Houston, with a band credited The Harmony Angels, released a raw rock set 'The Rehearsal Tapes'. But it was the following year that one of his most powerful recordings ever got made. On a sleeve, the origins of 'Reckless Love' were set out: "This album was recorded in the attic room of Brian's house in Belfast, Ireland. It started as a simple blog post to let folks know what Brian was up to and developed into the idea of 'Can I record an acoustic worship album in one day?' Brian did enough songs for the album in about 10 hours but over the next few days kept adding to the list until there were 21 songs. He then cut back and refined the tracks, recording different versions and adding backing vocals, banjo, mandolin and synths. His friends Linley Hamilton added horn to one song ('Lift Your Heads') and Vicki Schmidt put piano on 'Lift Your Heads', 'You Are Good' and 'Where You See Bones'. The other piano and synth noises were added by Brian himself. There are no drums or percussion and no bass guitars like in a normal rock band so all these songs can be performed by just a guitar player and pianist."
Talking about the song "Reckless Love", written by Bethel Music's Cory Asbury, Caleb Culver and Ran Jackson, Brian said, "I was really impacted by that song 'Reckless Love' and I tried to sing it in Jerusalem in November '17 and I just wept the whole way through it; I couldn't get a word out from just choking up. It's just such a powerful song and it has a real ministry to the prodigals, so it just touches part of me that relate to my kids. That's why I recorded that and got criticised actually for recording this song because people thought I was stealing the song. But I was trying to honour the song. This was me trying to do the studio equivalent of a prophetic worship time. Some of the songs are like six, seven minutes because I'm trying to find that sweet place of worship and that's why the songs are long. But I've never released this, in terms of officially released it. I haven't even put this on my website."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.