Brian Houston’s rocking, shocking take on homelessness
“One of Britain’s great song writers!”
Bob Harris, BBC
Brian Houston is prolific singer-songwriter hailing from Belfast in Ireland. He has around 25 albums to his credit, typically featuring well-crafted songs with engaging and challenging lyrics. He has shared stages with Van Morrison, Chuck Berry, Elvis Costello and Robert Plant, amongst others and BBC’s Bob Harris called him “one of Britain’s great song writers.” 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.
He has a keen sense of the blues as well – check out his albums Shelter and Mercy, for some fine blues rock with a nice gospel vibe.
Now returned to his native Belfast from a spell living in North Carolina, we got talking to Brian about his new album, Embrace, which he made along with his friend, Ned Alexander, to raise funds for a not-for-profit organization of the same name in Durham which provides assistance to homeless people. It’s a raw, hard-hitting set of eleven original songs, which highlight the plight of the homeless and the injustice which contributes to their situation.
It kicks off with the hard rockin’, in-your-face Poor in America and you immediately know where the album is headed. There’s little let up in the intensity of the music or the lyrics as it proceeds until we arrive, breathlessly, emotionally drained, with sirens wailing, guitars and drums frantically competing against each other, at These Walls, with the repeated cry of “Somebody come and set me free, help me, help me, please.” It’s a full-on blues-rock encounter with the pain and distress of homelessness. Musically – think White Stripes or the Black Keys.
Over half a million people are homeless in the United States, in every region of the country, family status, gender category, and racial/ethnic group. Half of them live unsheltered in any way. People of colour and people living with mental and physical disabilities are disproportionately represented among those experiencing homelessness.
In a recent New York Times piece, Binyamin Appelbaum referred to the homeless as “victims of America’s wealth — and its indifference.” Americans “have decided,” he says, “to live with the fact that some of our fellow Americans will die on the streets,” and points to the provision of affordable housing as a key element in solving the problem.
For now, the problem continues, with the United States doing much worse than other wealthy countries. After a 2018 visit to Northern California, Leilani Farha, then the United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing, said, “There’s a cruelty here that I don’t think I’ve seen.” Pretty shocking.
I asked Brian first of all about the background to the album, and he told me that the authorities in Durham, NC., decided to clamp down on the homeless, which simply led to increased problems, with people living in a tent community in the woods who then got evicted by the authorities. In addition, he said that the city’s panhandling ordinance which can effectively criminalize homelessness just perpetuates the problem, as status as a felon makes it difficult ever to get an apartment.
On returning to North Carolina, after having moved back to Ireland, Brian was appalled at the poverty he witnessed – people scavenging in dumpsters for food and old tore up clothing. But some people Brian knew were given a house to enable people to come in and be educated, to gain skills, food and emergency accommodation. This is the Embrace House. “The House,” he told me, “is aimed at rehabilitating people, helping them to get into jobs and then into accommodation and so to change their lives.”
Seeing what they were doing, Brian wanted to help, and he initially thought of playing and recording some music in Ned’s garage and then putting it online with a link so people could donate. Things took a different turn, however. They ended up playing in the Embrace House which at that stage wasn’t quite ready to open.
“We set up there. Didn’t know exactly what we were going to do, musically. We set up, plugged in and I hit a chord and got an idea for a guitar riff. That formed the basis of I Can Hear the Rain. The song references the heavy North Carolina rain and the sound of the train coming down the track. Brian talked about “the big mournful sound of American trains – it’s a big howl that comes out. For me, as an Irish person, it was inspiring and we ended up writing that song on the first day. And a couple of hours later we broadcast it in Facebook live.”
“We just did that every day, moving from room to room, writing songs each time. It was a very fruitful time – I even dreamed a song, woke up with it – Poor in America.”
That’s the song that kicks the album off and the whole blues rock thing with the lyrics and the repetition creates a certain shock value. Said Brian, “My generation grew up with all the movies and the talk about the American Dream, but there’s a huge underbelly of poverty and hardship there.” I asked him how shocking he thought that song might be to a lot of people he knows in North Carolina and America.
At the time of interview no one had really heard the record. “I wrote it from the stories of the people I talked to. I’m expecting people from the church to have a problem with the line ‘Even God ain’t on my side.’ But the song is about how it feels to be poor in America. The whole point is that this is about a reality of life.”
I put it to Brian that there could be people who say, you know what, if these people just worked a bit harder and stopped drinking and got their life together, they wouldn’t have the problems they have.
Brian replied, “And that’s right at times, but there are people who find themselves homeless through no fault of their own. A big problem is the gentrification of neighbourhoods. And as neighbourhoods improve, the property tax goes up, and this becomes difficult for poorer residents. And this can force people out of their homes.”
Brian talked about his own background, growing up in a working-class part of Belfast. “My mom worked three jobs. She started at 7am and got back home at 1030 at night. Six days a week. She was on an hourly rate and couldn’t make any more money. So she was working all these hours and still not making enough money to pay the bills – that’s the poverty trap.”
“People need help. Some don’t have the skills, some don’t have the emotional capacity, or the support. One of the songs is Rocking Ricky, about a guy who punched an officer in the army and got dishonourably discharged. Stupid – but still – no pension, no job skills. Do we just leave someone like Ricky because they’ve made a mistake? How can we help him not suffer the consequences of that mistake indefinitely?”
After a couple of weeks, Brian and Ned had recorded some songs, raised a bit of money, and had quite a few videos on Facebook, and a few ideas they didn’t use. It was only later after Brian came back to Belfast that the idea for the album emerged.
Ned and another friend, Ben Loughran, over came to Ireland from the US some seven months later and the album was recorded in Belfast in just five days. The recording, says Brian, was done “with all the energy and spontaneity that the original writing had, which gives it the character it has.”
One of the songs which stands out for me is Gun Store, which features a rap on top of the driving guitars and the line ‘Gun store, liquor store, Gun store liquor store’ repeated again and again.
“That’s a song,” Brian said, “about the projects. In the US, the stores that stay open all the time are gun stores and liquor stores. Ned had written that refrain and then we thought – what about having a rap on it? So, we had a friend from New York who previously was a rapper, and he wrote the rap and we arranged the song around it, which made the song a lot deeper.”
I asked Brian if he thought the music style on this album was a departure from what he’d done before? Was it on a continuum or something just for this project?
“If you go back to my first record, there’s blues there. And if you look through my career, Good News Junkie, and Shelter are quite heavy albums. I’ve a very investigative mind. If I discover Elvis, I want to know what inspired Elvis and then I find B.B. King and then I get to Howlin’ Wolf. Just before I did Shelter, I did Gospel Road, which was old-timey, white gospel music. I didn’t really think if it as white music at the time, but then I invited the McCrary Sisters, who were touring Ireland at the time, to come and record on a free day they had. We tried to record them over some of my songs, but there was such a massive disconnect between their gospel authenticity and my white folk background. It worked on Jesus Again, but on the other songs, it just did not work.
“We ended up having them sing on the Shelter album. I met Mike Ferris, who they were singing with at that time and he introduced me to the Rev. Charles Jackson and his album, God’s Got It. And it’s such authentic gospel blues, and I began to realize that what I had was a very filtered version of the blues.
“I really admire the deep rawness of people like R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough or John Lee Hooker, where it’s all raw. I listen to those songs and there’s such a rawness about it, that we as white people try to organize out of it. These people didn’t care about whether it was 14 bars or 12 bars, they only cared about the expression.”
Brian told me he objects to “taking someone else’s music and dialling out what inspired that and just leaving the music.” He pointed to the hopelessness of the sharecropper life in the early days of the blues. “We can’t know that, but as a musician, I do know what it’s like to wake up in the middle of the night tormented over finances. I do know the pain of poverty – it’s how I was raised in a housing estate in Belfast. Many of my friends, cousins ended up in jail. That could have been me.”
“At one end of my street, they trained you how to be a terrorist. At the other end of the street was the church. And that’s where I ended up – they would loan us amplifiers and they taught us guitar. Youth leaders took us out to play gigs when we were 15, at their own expense. And that saved our lives. So, I can bring some empathy to the suffering of the poor people of Durham to the lyrics and say this is what people are going through.”
Embrace is an album that demands to be heard. It’s not easy listening – but it’s essential listening. Brian Houston has shone a light on the poverty that exists not far under the surface in the United States and dispels the notion that the American Dream is available for everyone. That’s a pipedream for many people, particularly people of colour – which everybody’s learning in the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Embrace was recorded before the George Floyd incident, which has sparked a new awareness of the inequalities built into the system, but it adds its voice to the cries for justice we’re hearing all around us, with a focus on the homelessness that blights America.
And if it’s hope you’re looking for – go buy the album and contribute to the work that Embrace is doing in North Carolina. Buy the album here.