Israel Houghton: Bridging the black/white worship music divide

Friday 2nd October 2009

Mike Rimmer went to Nashville to meet up with one of the giants of modern worship music, ISRAEL HOUGHTON

Continued from page 1

His self-awareness took a dramatic turn at age seven, however, when he went to Waterloo for the first time and met his grandfather. "All my cousins and my little brother were jumping on his lap," he recalls. "So I just did that because I figured that's what you do. I ended up being pushed to the ground [by him] and realising there was something so wrong with that picture. He was so terrified and so racist. . .that he couldn't imagine this black kid on his lap. That sort of began a lot of questions and an identity crisis for me."

While growing up in Santa Fe, Houghton began listening to the music of his day, both mainstream (Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Bobby Joel) and Christian (Andrae Crouch and the LA Mass Choir). But what really grabbed the teenager was the emerging R&B of Earth, Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder. "My mom always encouraged and fostered the musical scene in our house and in our church," Houghton explains. "I was the kid that always jumped up on the drums at the end of service and annoyed everybody until I was removed. But I was always around it so when the need arose - the drummer was sick or whatever - I was the guy."

One night in Arizona, where he'd returned to attend college, Israel had a life-changing experience. He was visiting a friend's church and was asked to play drums for the worship band. When the pastor met him and heard his name, he told Houghton, "Even in your name, you have favour with God, but you've also struggled with men and God. But. . .you have prevailed, and you will prevail." "He basically spelled out the last six months of my life in pretty strong detail and rocked my world," Houghton says. "It was just this flash of what God had for me. . .this world-changing kind of thing."

With Houghton's transformation now in full swing, he was able to believe that God loved him unconditionally, which changed the way he viewed himself. "That's when I began to celebrate [my background]," he says. "Encouraging words from people, or even prophetic words from people, all had something to do with the message that I was distinctly different by God's intention. When I said yes to that, I really feel like purpose began. . .in my life." Houghton still had some lessons to learn about leading worship, though. Not long after that life-changing night in Arizona, he accepted his first opportunity to lead worship.

'The Power Of One' album saw Israel return to the studio and explore more creativity. He explains, "I think there is something about taking it back into the studio and still trying to keep some semblance of, can this translate live? Because naturally what I'm known for with New Breed, regardless of who likes the records or not, a lot of what we absolutely enjoy doing is being on stage and the interaction that ensues with people. So that became the criteria with this record. I think when we interviewed last time I said, 'I'm really looking forward to getting back in the studio with Tommy Sims (and with Aaron Lindsey of course).' And so this time we sat down - Tommy, Aaron and I - and said, 'Can we as a three-headed monster produce this thing together?' Because Tommy's got great ideas and sometimes the jacket fits Tommy but that same jacket won't fit me, even though I would love it and I'm intrigued by the way he thinks. But I said, 'At some point this still has to tailor fit me.' So I had the comfort of Aaron, who knows every inflection of mine, to say, 'I don't think that's gonna work.' What was amazing is we never had that. With Tommy it was such a cohesive, trying situation! We were connected, man. It was pretty amazing. And we feel like we've probably done nearly every song from the record in a live context now and it just connects, man. And that was big issue; can this translate? But we had a blast making the record and writing the record, and yeah, it's been fun."

The biggest disappointment for Israel about this album is that he didn't get to record it in Abbey Road like he had planned. Israel had originally suggested that I attend the recording sessions but it wasn't to be. "I'll tell you what happened," he says. "The pound - I think the reason they call it the pound. . .is because it pounds the dollar! When we were gonna record, we booked the studio, we had every intention of fulfilling that and then the tour came along and we realised, hey, we want to get the record done a little sooner. When we checked rates, flights, hotels, etc, it was going to be nearly triple the budget of what it would be to do it at home. But I'll tell you what, that dream will not die. I'm gonna do another record at Abbey Road there's no question about it because it's so in my heart to do. But it also made sense to do it at our studio which is a hundred yards from my apartment in Houston! So it certainly cut down costs and helped keep things loose and tension free in that regard. And yeah, I agree with you, that is my only regret, that we didn't do it there."

So what was the creative process like in the studio? "Well, every day was just brilliant," he says enthusiastically. "I don't know if you know much about Tommy Sims but we'll spend as much time just hanging out and telling jokes and playing old songs as we do tracking. So once the vibe feels right and the hang is cool and everybody's relaxed then we'll cut. So some of these songs you hear were cut at four in the morning. I think the creative process needs that loose thing so it's not so tense and tight. We had a blast. There were several nights that ran way into the wee hours, and then we came back at noon and did it again."

Sometimes, when listening to certain songs on the album you can hear influences coming through. Almost immediately that I heard "I Receive" I began to sing the melody of Phil Collins' "In The Air Tonight". Israel shares, "What happened was the song had been recorded on the Hillsong London record. I wrote it with my friend Pete Wilson from the church and when I started showing it to our guys I said, 'I know I want to sing this song because I just feel like people need to be able to say in a worship context, 'I receive your love'. I saw the effect that it was already having live and I said, 'But I'm feeling this tribal thing with it.' So I started playing these chords and changed a couple of the chords up and said, 'This feels a little more like Phil Collins to me.' And before I knew it Dan Needham was over in the studio taking all the heads off the bottom of the drums and Danny Duncan, our engineer, was up mic-ing him and they were mic-ing the room. The next thing you knew those drums sounded like Phil Collins. I mean, it was incredible! That's the beauty of playing with guys who are as big audiophiles as I am in the sense of, they know exactly what they're going for. If it's a reggae song like 'Surely Goodness', we're gonna do it authentic reggae or we're just not gonna do it. I love that about them. On this record, as I'm sure you can tell, we've borrowed from a lot of our different heroes and influences. I hope they hear it as an homage and not a rip off. It was definitely our respect and tipping the hat toward that."

Israel Houghton: Bridging the black/white worship music divide

So in the future, will he do live albums as Israel & New Breed and then do solo projects as Israel Houghton? Will that be a way of differentiating his projects? "I think it is," he says. "That's how we're thinking. And that allows us to maybe stay creative - keep things out there at the same time. I guess if I had to make a distinction - one of the best models I've seen would be the Hillsong guys. You've got Hillsong church but then you've got Hillsong United. You've got Darlene who's doing records. You've got Reuben who's doing records. But at the end of the day they're all on the same team. They're all coming out of the same house. And I think that template is a good one for us to follow. At the same time you're going to see a New Breed record coming out that I'm not on at all. It's just a live New Breed record led by our team and Daniel Johnson. They've recorded it, arranged it, produced it, themselves, and they allowed me to be involved by writing the cheques!" he laughs. "I paid for it and as a sort of a mentor and a father to this whole New Breed thing, I've never been prouder. To see those that I've trained up run and really follow their dreams on their own without feeling, 'Well Israel's got this and we surround him,' it's really now me surrounding them saying, 'Man, you guys just go for it!'"

The live worship experience is definitely at the very centre of what Israel wants to do. I wondered how that was changing for him as he matures. When he stands up with New Breed and he's leading worship live, what goes through his head as he's heading out onto the stage? "There are a few things that go through my head walking out," he reflects. "Whether the band has started an intro or they're just announcing us, I want to invoke the sense that this is the first time I've ever done it. I never want to forecast how I think something is going to go. I never want to go: if we do this song then great things are going to happen and lives are going to be changed! The belief and the hope is that every time you go out there God is going to do something fresh and I think the freshest way he does it is when you have as much expectation as the crowd does; you have as much appreciation for the presence of God as the crowd does."

He continues, "There are a few things as a group that we are doing in establishing, just in our core understanding of who we are, and one of those has come out of Romans 15. In The Message translation it reads, 'Strength is for service, not for status,' and I just LOVE that! And that's become almost a motto of our group; that we've been empowered. God has pulled us out of obscurity. He's given us his name. He's given us his presence. And then we have been very fortunate and blessed to have also been given a platform. God has trusted us with this calling. So we've been empowered. We've been strengthened. That strength is not to go, 'Hey look! We just performed on the Grammys! Look at us! Where's my limo?!' Because that's ridiculous. Strength is: 'The stronger I am the more time I can spend on my knees serving you, without the pain of that.' I think when you look at it that way - this whole social justice component - to what worship is and what music does, and how it can mobilise and even catalyse a people to say, 'Alright, let's get after this thing,' we've been looking at it that way. So any time we can walk out on the stage, love God, serve God and then serve his people, it's a great night for us in that context."

The current trend in worship is to write lots and lots of worship songs that are songs from us to God. Israel has also written songs where the people declare who they are in God, but what about the prophetic? What about songs that whisper God's heart into a person's life as they are worshiping? "I'll tell you this," he says. "In the live context those moments happen a lot. I think there is a bit of a difficulty and a challenge to write something that becomes maybe a song that transcends just that moment. There's a lot of the real prophetic songs that I've been involved with that have been moment songs; they were tailor made, hot off the press for that moment. But a song like "You Are Not Forgotten" is straight from the heart of God to the listener and so I am always looking for that moment to write from. But I don't want to ever force that, just because it's a good idea. But I think there are songs out of encouragement that, even though they're coming through a vessel or coming from my pen so to speak, they are flowing out of the heart of God. But I definitely have an affinity and a passion toward the power of the prophetic word and what can happen in a moment in an atmosphere. It's like God is saying, 'Hey, give me the mic.' Like, 'Back off and let me do what I can do.' It's in those moments. . .in 45 seconds more can be said than in the 45 minutes prior to it, you know?"

He continues, "That's why I love the live context because I live for that kind of moment. When we did the 'Alive In South Africa' record there were several moments, especially around 'No Limits' - 'I'm not a man, I cannot lie. . .' - that's coming straight from God. That's a prophetic moment in the song. So we're saying take the limits off and it's God saying back, 'Take the limits off of me.' So certainly in the live context I'm looking for that moment."

Israel may not have managed to have fulfilled the dream to record his own studio album at Abbey Road but through his involvement with CompassionArt he did make it through the doors of the hallowed studio complex. It all started with a phone call from Martin Smith. "He called me about a year and a half ago," Israel remembers, "and he said, 'Hey, we've got Michael W Smith and Steven Curtis Chapman and Chris Tomlin and Darlene Zschech and Matt Remand and Tim Hughes etc, etc, etc, Paul Baloche, Stu G, Graham Kendrick, Andy Park. We're all coming together and we want to write for a week.' And I was like, 'Oh, that sounds great!' And he said, 'Yeah, but we want to take everything we write that week and give it away.' And I said, 'Man, I'm in! I'm in 100 per cent!' And we came together and did just that. We had a goal to write 12 songs during the week and we wrote 26! It was just by far the most incredible, moving experience; one of the most creative experiences I've ever had. Just the camaraderie that came out of connecting with everybody, and 'her' songs becoming 'our' songs and 'his' songs becoming 'our' songs. It was 12 people getting involved in each song and it made it just so special. What happened was we'd break up into groups of three. So we had four groups of three and we would write and then we'd come in every couple of hours and the 12 of us would talk about the songs and we'd critique it and we'd shape it and add to it and then we'd go back and work on it. So at the end of each night we'd be in the studio down the hall at the estate we were at, building demos of the songs. Again, just a really, really incredible experience."

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Reader Comments

Posted by patricia kalungi in uganda @ 14:47 on Oct 14 2013

am a worshiper and encouraged through Israel's story. God bless you

Posted by Joshua in Gaborone, Botswana @ 11:38 on Sep 13 2011

Thanks for the article Mike, great interview, I'm studying Israel Houghton and wanted to know of his background, Wow! i'll be listening to more of him, hoping to incorporate his work in our worship service's, by the grace of God i'll catch on. Bless you Mr Houghton for your work and your response to your calling.

Posted by Dan H. in Los Angeles, CA @ 14:30 on Nov 15 2009

Dear Mike, I would be honored to know your thoughts on how to create worship albums that equip others to grow in their own ministry, but are not formulaic. The very essence of organized religion is formulaic to some degree (not necessarily a bad thing!). I guess one could say: "hey, let's sit around and create a new version of John Cage-esq worship music that our critiques sip their bourbon glasses to!". But remember, worship music needs to be accessible, as Israel so passionately described. Not tryin' to hate on you Mike, but perhaps the answer lies in the often formulaic questions from our beloved critics.

Posted by JonnyP in Oxford @ 23:28 on Oct 28 2009

Great article! I hadn't heard Israel's story before or his take on songwriting, really fascinating. I'm also a bit shocked to find you think Israel's albums are formulaic.. as a musician who's played in lots of worship bands I know ALL about formulaic, and his/new breed's music is definitely not that in my book!!

Posted by Julie in United Kingdom @ 23:25 on Oct 4 2009

awesome article Mike! i love that statement that Israe, makes that we are given this strength to do the work of God and not to big up ourselves....great to be reminded of that and to be humbled by this Biblical statement, good to hear every once in a while don't ya think! so looking forward to hearing more from Israel but also to seeing what God is going to do in the lives of our modern day worship leaders....i hear mighty things are coming and I wanna see it, experience it, live it and be a part of it for myself.

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