A member of America's pop superstars The Backstreet Boys, BRIAN LITTRELL now makes an unexpected entrance into the world of Christian music. He spoke to Mike Rimmer.
It's the back end of 2005 and Brian Thomas Littrell is in the UK promoting his latest album and touring with his band. If the name is unfamiliar, then you're one of the people who wasn't into American boy band The Backstreet Boys. They have sold an amazing 75 million albums and singles and as well as their huge US success have topped the British charts. But they were away from the scene for a few years and the release of The Backstreet Boys' 'Never Gone' comeback album has generated such interest that Brian had to put off the recording and release of his own solo debut to tour with his fellow superstars. The fact that his solo debut is a Christian music album has provoked a few raised eyebrows but when you get to know the guy, it all makes sense. Anyway, more of that later! For now he's talking about life and The Backstreet Boys.
A lot of things have changed since the release of the previous Backstreet Boys album 'Black & Blue' in 2001. "I'm a new father," he declares happily. "My wife and I are proud parents of a little baby boy. He's not a little baby anymore. He was three at the end of November! On top of that I think our perspective as a band has changed over the past couple of years. There was a time from '93 until 2001 that we were touring and travelling non-stop on a crash course pretty much. When 'Black & Blue' came out, we were kind of on a road to destruction just because we were working so much. To be honest with you we were a little sick of one another and the business had kind of taken its toll on our relationship. That's when we decided in November 2001 to take a little break, a breather. There was never a day that passed in our four year break that people wouldn't approach each individual one of us and say, 'When's the next Backstreet Boys album coming out?' I think that was such positive reinforcement from the fans because we do have some of the most loyal fans out there that have been with us for over a decade now."
The streets of pop history are littered with the down and out detritus of solo singers from former successful boy bands who don't make it and whose careers end up in the gutter. It's very difficult to grow older and make music and keep your teenage audience. Just ask pop stars from the '70s like David Cassidy and Donny Osmond, their transition into adult music has been nearly impossible. Even in the UK with a band like Take That; Gary Barlow, who everybody thought would be the main guy to have a solo career failed. Is Littrell worried? "Well from the very beginning it was all about breaking the mould," he explains. "When The Backstreet Boys started we prided ourselves on good vocals and good melodies and good songs on our records. I think as long as we stick to what we're good at - making good quality music - I think the fans will be there for us. But it is a kind of a crutch sometimes, looking back on your career, because I will forever be known as a Backstreet Boy. I think instead of running from that I've learned over the years to embrace that because it is part of my life and it's part of my success and part of the blessings that God has blessed me with. I should use that to my benefit to touch others."
Aha! The mention of God! Successful pop stars are often reticent to nail their spiritual colours to the mast, buying into the questionable perceived wisdom that mentioning God can be the kiss of death for huge sales figures. Not so with Mr Littrell! "I've been a born-again Christian ever since I was the young age of eight years old," he shares. "I grew up in Lexington, Kentucky and went to a huge Baptist church not too far from my house. My choice of church was always a Baptist church and I think that was chosen for me by my parents! Later on in life my wife and I ended up getting married in a Christian church. My belief and my faith has always been a stronghold. When you go back to the very first Backstreet record you can read my liner notes on my thank-yous and I would quote Scripture such as Philippians 4:13; which is 'I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.' I think God has given me a wonderful opportunity to touch people through music and through The Backstreet Boys and also blessing me with opportunities to move forward into a solo career in 2006. I'm really looking forward to it."
Brian's debut solo album could easily have been a mainstream pop effort building on the work of the last 12 years. Instead he shocked the music industry by announcing he'd signed a deal to make a Christian album in Nashville. 'Welcome Home' is a highly impressive album. It features great songs containing bold declarations of faith, strong melodies and Brian's great voice. In fact it sounds just like your typical Christian Nashville CCM produced album with the slick production of a Casting Crowns, MercyMe or Building 429. The title is apt as Littrell explains, "Let's not forget the fact that a lot of people don't know the original story of how The Backstreet Boys all started. Kevin is my first cousin and he was the one that called me to fly down to Orlando, Florida and leave my home in Lexington, Kentucky and pursue an entertainment career in April of 1993. Little do people know that in 1992 I was offered a singing scholarship to the University of Cincinnati Bible College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I was going to further my music ministry and study music and youth ministry. That was my plan for life. God kind of plucked me out and used me in a more worldly fashion, which I couldn't really fathom. Telling the story today I find it hard to believe that God has really opened the doors in my life that he has."
He continues, "I've wanted to do solo albums in the past but I've never really had the opportunity. Sometimes as Christians we pray for doors to be opened in our lives and when they are opened right in front of our eyes we tend to shun away from them and we back away. We have a hard time stepping out in faith to have your dreams come true, or to achieve things that you never thought you could really achieve. I think God has done that in my life through The Backstreet Boys and now I have an individual opportunity to go out and sing Christian music which is where I began in the first place."
Brian Littrell has simply come full circle! He always had the reputation for being the clean cut Backstreet Boy where the lure of fame and all the trappings never found a place in his heart. He reflects, "Growing up in a church-based home, I'm a normal person and I don't put myself on a pedestal and I'm no different and no more special than anybody else. So I think the world can label you in the pop world as having all the girls and there's drugs and there's all of these things that are roaming around in the secular world of the music business. I know that that's not for me. I'd rather be at home with my wife and child. God's put me in a very particular place in order to best utilise the talents that he's given me."
But why is he recording a Christian album and not a mainstream pop album? The answer is straight forward, "A Christian album is where my heart is." He explains, "Growing up and singing in church, that was my first love. Singing at weddings and singing gospel songs with the adult choir behind me as a 12 and 13 year-old little boy in middle school, that was my passion. Pursuing my career at Cincinnati Bible College was something that I wanted to do. God just plucked me out of the situation and sought bigger and better things for me I think, in order to reach more people. So I'm really back to my roots and back to my first love. Singing about love but this is a different kind of love that people need to realise. It's a spiritual love that's real."
Being a Christian in the mainstream pop arena is always going to bring conflicts. There's a famous story about a photo shoot for Rolling Stone magazine where they wanted Littrell to pose with a posse of naked women. He refused. He recounts the story, "There was a world-famous photographer taking the picture and his view of what rock stars should be was this photo of us with 50 naked women. I stood up to our management staff and the other four guys and I said, 'You know, I really don't care what a photographer thinks we're supposed to be. That's not what I am. I can't stand up there in the picture because that doesn't represent me as a person.' I didn't want to do it. I didn't think it was respectful for the ladies in the photo. I didn't really think it was respectful for the other four to be in the photo. But what took place was that the other four guys stood up with the young ladies and took a photo and then I got a picture by myself in that scenario with no girls.and no other members of the group! So it was an awkward situation. I think I've been faced with those roadblocks my whole life and God's given me the guidance to stand for something that I do believe strongly in and represent something that young people can see."
Brian picks out some highlights from his album. "There's a song called 'My Answer Is You', which you wouldn't necessarily think is a love song but the adoration is given to God because he's been my answer through all of the ups and downs in life. There's also a song that I dedicated to my wife called "Grace Of My Life" and a song called "Over My Head", which talks about how sometimes in life you can feel so down that you get into situations where you can be over your head. This is a different kind of 'over my head' because I'm over my head in God's love. I'm just extremely excited about it. This is really where I'm supposed to be and I'm at home with my music. I really am excited about presenting it to the world and really seeing what happens and if we can really change some lives for the better."
After all the fame, does Littrell manage to maintain a normal church life? "I do," he states. "It's difficult to get to a church on Sunday morning, depending on what country I'm in or what State or what county. As well as being approached by people and things like that, people that know me, they know where I attend church. And the people that don't really know me, they would invite me to a certain kind of church, maybe a church where there's a huge youth group and a lot of kids. They think that's where it's important for me to be. But for my faith, a place of worship is some place small. I can even turn my hotel room into a place of worship because it also says in the Bible, 'If there is any two gathered in my name, there I am also'. Sometimes it's even a church service that's happening on TV. If that's what I can get in, that's important. My faith being so important to me.you always have to give time to what makes you the person that you are. Faith being one of them, your career being one of them and now for me, later on in life, my family being one of them as well. So it's just a common balance and you have to have balance with anything in order to be a well-rounded person."
The theme of the solo album, he explains, is spiritual love. "These are not the happy-go-lucky sing-along songs that The Backstreet Boys would sing, talking about adolescent love. This is real life. These are problems that we encounter every day and I think the material in my record is based upon helping people through those situations and obviously finding a different kind of love, a spiritual love and a spiritual passion. It's about helping them to find somebody that they can go to when all else fails and help them through. If a Backstreet Boys fan picks it up, I would hope that they would get a different message other than a worldly love. This is a spiritual love which is something beyond us."
But isn't he travelling in the wrong direction? It sometimes seems that the Christian scene is crowded with an embarrassing number of rather immature musicians who can't wait to leave the Christian scene and play in the mainstream with the big boys. Yet here is Littrell travelling in the opposite direction! "The funny thing is that I've had a lot of people mention to me that very thing. The question that I get is, 'Why are you moving backwards in your life?!' I don't think they really 'get it'. They don't really understand the full story. I am so moving forward in my life it's crazy. I'm moving so fast forward at a pace that God's really moving in my life and in my work even as a Backstreet Boy. We do these soundcheck parties before shows and I've got young ladies and young gentlemen asking me all over the world about my song "In Christ Alone", that hit number one in the US on the radio charts. I'm just excited that people are becoming more aware of their faith and people that represent that. As a family man I might have a little stamp on my head as the Backstreet Boy. People have this perception of someone that I'm really not. But this is me, just like we've said. I've been a born-again Christian for nearly all my life and I'm just excited to be here and have this opportunity."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.