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Brian Houston interview
By Derek Walker
Sometimes rewards come from unexpected places. Brian Houston’s music has long deserved to be nearer to the heart of the nation’s airplay than its usual place in the evening specialist shows. Although the daytime producers of his national station put him to one side, recognition has come from a presidential team across the pond in the shape of an invitation to the National Prayer Breakfast.
He has recently followed up one of his best albums (Sugar Queen) by an equally fine disc (Three Feet from Gold). When I first caught up with him – before the disc had been released - he had just performed in a Larry Norman tribute concert at the Greenbelt Festival, and spoke of the man’s influence in his life.
“He was probably the first songwriter that I ever heard, I guess. Up to that point in time, I was into Elvis and into just rock & roll, you know? It was very unusual for a kid to be into that, but I just was. Then my older brother and his friend – they were Christians, which I wasn’t – they were into this different music and they would play these tunes in our house: “Life was filled with guns and war...” and things like that. They were the first songs that I had heard of a Christian nature that were basically singer-songwriter songs. Shortly after that, I think Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming was the next thing along. Then Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits supplanted both of those and I kind of got into songwriters after that.
“I’ve always been the sort of person who explores. I heard that Elvis was into B. B. King, so I checked out B. B. King; B. B. King was part of the blues, so I checked out the blues. I think I heard Cliff Richard covering “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music” and I heard people talking about it. When I was a kid, people were talking about all that kind of thing. So there was a bit of an atmosphere around it and I began to borrow Larry Norman records and gradually discovered the different material.”
But it was the ‘fifties-influenced tracks such as “The Rock that Doesn’t Roll” and “Shot Down” that really resonated with him. When I suggested that he was too young for that kind of music, he explained that it was mainly because – although radio would not play it – rock and roll was on the television.
“You got Elvis movies on Saturday afternoons on BBC 2. I was in the house on my own and I would be watching them. So I was into the ‘fifties music and there was an album that someone gave me, that I still have – a double album, called American Graffiti. It was the soundtrack to a movie that I had never seen, but the soundtrack’s awesome. It’s people like Buddy Holly and The Platters. It’s a great slice of ‘fifties music. I just came across those records in somebody else’s collection, and they were what pushed my buttons. I used to wish that I’d been born twenty years earlier, you know?”
Although he cannot change his birth date, he did have the next best thing when Stiff Records hosted a new generation of artists, particularly Elvis Costello. “I got into all that because it was essentially the same spirit as the ‘fifties and ‘sixties. There was a lot of that music then that I was registering, and the record I’ve just made is very ’fifties influenced. I was always ashamed about it, because when I was at school and told people I was into Elvis, it was the least cool thing you could be into. So I used to bury it. It was like trying to pretend you didn’t have a wart on your nose.
“Then with the latest record, I just thought, “Stuff it. This is what I like. This is really the sort of music that I like. I like doo-wop, and I like the Sun sound, and I like the early sixties soundtrack thing that Quentin Tarantino does, the surf music - I like all that! This is what I like and I’m not going to pretend it’s anything else.”
So Three Feet from Gold has a much more retro sound to every third track. It partly came about because the gap between this and Sugar Queen was longer than between any other releases, which have been virtually annual for some years. There was plenty of time for different versions of the songs. He started in the studio, but then worked on it for six months from his home, where he had his recording equipment set up.
“I would do a song when my friends, the band, weren’t there – maybe an acoustic song – and then put loads of backing vocals around it: it would sound like the Inkspots; stick a guitar on, and it sounded like Scotty Moore on the Sun sessions. I would be nervous and play that to my friends, thinking they would laugh at it and they would say, “No, that’s got to go on the record! That’s fantastic – don’t touch a thing!”
As a solo performer, Houston has to make a living and play to commercial rules as well as his own personal ones. If the audience dislike the retro material, he is putting his livelihood in danger. As the record label, as well as the artist, he has the final say; but he uses a producer for sounding out his plans. “He gave me a lot of freedom. He didn’t veto probably 99% of my ideas.”
That, of course, only makes me wonder about the one per cent that he did block.
“I can’t remember!” he laughed. “Occasionally he would take things out to save me from myself. I’ve really balanced the other recordings, and probably kept too much of an eye on whether or not it’s going to sell. With this one, my brief was, I want to do my version of a pop-rock record. I want to do as close as I can do to the spirit of a Blondie __Parallel Lines__ album, or something like that. I don’t know if I can write songs that have the pop hooks like that, but I want the album to have that energy.”
When we spoke, the album was just being finished, and the result proved him right in many ways. The disc has plenty of energy, but when he is looking at people in his songs, and wondering about them, it also has a reflective edge. Houston is like a musical pre-Raphaelite painter whose pictures have plenty of interest around the edges, with clues to what is going on in the background of his characters’ lives.
It is that human connection that led him to the presidential event. To help out a friend, he played a concert for an American trade delegation and happened to follow a fiddler, who was going down well with the crowd. When Houston came on and started to play, some of the audience began talking. He stopped the song that he was playing and told them directly that he hadn’t come all the way to the show to get ignored. Because he was Irish and charming, he ended up with the crowd singing along – it’s a Houston trait.
What he did not know at the time was that a woman in the crowd was involved with the National Prayer Breakfast. She was looking for someone to star, and who now had her sights fixed on him, because of the way that he handled the crowd.
In my ignorance I imagined the National Prayer Breakfast to be a morning event that which the President would be present and prayers would be said. If Houston was involved, as a one-time worship singer, he might play a devotional song or two at some point. Maybe there are plenty of bacon and eggs, but the ‘breakfast’ itself is actually three days long. It starts on a Tuesday and ends Thursday night, and Houston was booked to star at an Irish party on the Wednesday. It felt more like a business or political event than a prayer meeting.
“Meetings are taking place between different dignitaries from all over the world,” Houston explained. “We were meeting people like Congressmen, the ex-Chief-of-Staff, the top military person, people who had a special interest in Irish history, Irish politics, the future of Ireland. As the Irish delegation, we were just meeting all these guys: meeting after meeting after meeting.
“The whole essence of the thing is, these guys kept getting up at various meals, saying, ‘We meet every Tuesday morning’, ‘We meet every Thursday night – have done for seventeen years...’.” They were telling how they get together to pray for the American government.
“Tony Blair was hilarious,” Houston continued. “His speech was great and Barack Obama’s speech was pretty amazing as well. To actually be there in the room eating breakfast with the President was something else.”
The way that Houston described his Wednesday, it must have been as long as it was special: “I got to bed at 1:30 in the morning. I had to get up at 5:30 in the morning – to get to the breakfast you had to be seated for seven o’clock. So we came down and that’s like airport security: no phones, no bags; you come through security checkpoints; you have to show your passport and your invite and you’re into the room; then they lock the room down.”
As he was playing the evening, he would have been up for the best part of twenty hours that day, but the night was hardly onerous: “It was a party. There was free wine and whatever you want to drink. It was very much just getting people to have a bit of fun. You didn’t have to try very hard. Everybody’s invited to the Irish party, and everybody comes, because we are the Irish!”