Brian Houston is a singer and songwriter from Belfast in Northern Ireland whose music has been referred to by veteran BBC DJ, Bob Harris, as “really, really special”. Brian’s musical influences range from old time gospel tunes to Elvis, Bob Dylan and Steve Earle. He has played support for Elvis Costello, Dr John and Van Morrison and has recently begun touring in the US as well as the UK. His gigs are always wonderful, feel-good events where you get fully drawn in by Brian’s passionate performing style, you lose yourself in the music and you laugh until your sides ache. Brian has released around a dozen albums which feature his well-crafted songs with their engaging and challenging lyrics.
He has just released a new album, Shelter, which Cross Rythms called “a raw mix of rock, blues, gospel, soul and funk”. Recorded in both Nashville and Belfast, the album features gospel-style backing vocals from the renowned McCrary Sisters who have performed with Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Buddy Miller. As ever, Brian’s Christian faith infuses the album, which at times screams with anger and rails at the world, with hope.
Downatthecrossroads caught up with Brian recently:
DATC: Brian, congratulations on the new album. Have you been pleased at the reception it’s had?
Brian: Delighted. Can’t believe it’s been so well received. 10 out of ten and 4.5 out of five as well as Steve Stockman’s album of the half year. Really delighted!!!
DATC: It’s a bit different from what you’ve done before – it’s very bluesy, rocky, and of course there are those fantastic backing vocals. Was this the album you set out to make?
Brian: Hmmm good question. I knew as I was writing the songs that it was very different from what I’d done before. I even recorded the demos kinda differently by starting some songs on the bass and drum machine rather than guitar. I even considered putting it out under a different name as it seems different enough to justify a whole new identity and marketing approach. In the end though I was talked into doing it as me. As regards it being the album I set out to make….no, probably not…I thought for a long time it would be like Gospel Road ‘cause many of the songs came from that old-timey place stylistically. But there was much more of an edge that kinda set the direction by itself.
DATC: There are certainly some traditional blues themes on the album – the title track, Shelter is a kind of cry of distress, Praying Time sounds like an old Spiritual, Night and Day’s got sadness, loneliness and hopelessness. And yet there’s this constant theme of hope breaking through. Does that reflect your view on life?
Brian: Me and my family have been through two of the hardest years of our life recently and I think much of the record and even the anger of the vocals reflects that anxiety. But at the same time I’ve wanted to keep myself from despair and so I’ve lifted up my head and declared that God is still good and has plans for hope and a future. The idea that seems to come across is that I’m gonna walk through this time with as much faith and dignity as I can and so I will praise him no matter how bleak things may look.
DATC: In Prices Go Up you kind of send up the “Preacher man” who “takes the people up, never let them come down”. Has that been a kind of religion you’ve had some experience of?
Brian: Ha ha, a pointed question…..You’re the first person to comment on that line actually…I thought I’d sneaked it past everyone…..I think it’s fair enough to say that many of the disillusioned, hurt, wounded and fed up people of this part of the world have had bad experiences with churches and religion….NOBODY I know has been treated badly by God or has a resentment issue with Jesus. I heard the line once…the difference between God and the preacher is that God never thinks he’s the preacher! lol
DATC: In some of the songs you talk about a very practical expression of faith – in Five Dollars, you talk about giving to the beggar, In Lord Pity the Fool, you mention people who are “too blinded by greed, too busy…to hear the cry of the poor”. As you tour around, do you find people get it, that this is a pretty fundamental element in Christian faith?
Brian: No, not at all….I think I, like many of us, are constantly being caught up in the “just a little bit more for me” culture that we live in. It’s one of these paradoxical situations. In order to give, you have to have something to give…How do you decide when you’ve enough and can afford to give some away? I don’t think you can…sacrifice hurts….we live in a world that says “here take another pain killer…let’s all try to live a pain free existence.” But there is pain in living and there is pain in giving….I think it’s time for me to accept that pain is inevitable at some point and it may as well be suffered for the sake of others
DATC: You’ve been touring a bit more in the US recently. How do you go down over there? Your live shows are very entertaining, but have a lot of a kind of Northern Irish humour, with a lot of banter and interaction with the audience. How does that go down in the US?
Brian: Slower lol…..we do talk extremely fast over here, lol…..I think what I do is a Bard-like event. It’s “here’s who you are …here’s your identity…your history, your politics, your anger …your humour…and…these make up your culture…”
It is very helpful to learn something about the place you are going to…what are the issues folks face? If you can tell a story that is informed by that or make a joke about a topical issue or person…you begin to build a bridge that says, ”I know who you are…I know how you feel and I’m telling you you’re not alone”. If I can do any part of that in an evening then I make a connection and once I do that….I’ve become their friend from Ireland. To me that’s what its all about…making the connection….touching their hearts and making them laugh…it’s the idea everywhere I go….
DATC: Brian, thanks for talking to us.
Don’t miss Brian Houston’s brilliant new album, Shelter
Brian Houston with Pity the Fool
Brian Houston performs We Don’t Need Religion at the Guitar Rooms, Holywood.