Brian Houston has always been a musician's musician but his new album sets the scene for a major breakthrough. He spoke to Una Bradley
Brian Houston knows he's on a wave. Not only is his new album Sugar Queen getting serious UK and Irish airplay - and picking up rave reviews from the likes of Mojo - but the other night the east Belfast man found himself hanging out with Marti Pellow, discussing parties at Gracelands.
"I was up in Derry when I got the call to come back and open for Marti that night," explains a slightly frazzled-looking Houston the following day.
"At 4.30pm, I was still in Derry; by 6.30pm we were back at the Waterfront Hall doing a soundcheck.
"Marti and his band were just great. We had a few drinks afterwards. Marti was telling me he lived in Memphis so, being a massive Elvis fan, I asked him had he been to Gracelands. 'I've been to private parties hosted by Priscilla', he said. I was in awe ... These are the kinds of circles these guys are moving in."
Not that Houston is a complete greenhorn when it comes to celebrity. Over the past decade the singer-songwriter has supported Van Morrison, Elvis Costello and Dr John. His cohorts on the new album include uber-producer Nigel Stonier (Fairport Convention, Paul Young), guitarist Robbie Macintosh (Paul McCartney, Norah Jones, The Pretenders) and folk heroine Thea Gilmore. Not bad considering it's on Houston's own label - despite offers, he's never gone with a record company.
But although the fiercely independent Houston has built a loyal following since the 1990s - legendary Radio 2 DJ Bob Harris is a fan - there's a sense in which the mainstream has, so far, eluded him. Sugar Queen could be the breakthrough he has been waiting for.
"I don't want to be sitting here in a year's time thinking, 'I nearly made it'," he says honestly. "I want this record to go to the top of the charts. There are so many people who've told me they love this album but, with music, there's no halfway house - you either make it or you don't."
Houston has surely done the ground-work. A carpenter by trade - he did an apprenticeship at Harland and Wolff after leaving Lisnasharragh High School - he always wanted to be a musician. His dad, who also worked at the shipyard before re-training as a teacher, practically force-fed his two sons John Prine, Kris Kristofferson and Hank Williams.
"He would literally make us sit down and listen, and get us to tell him what the lyrics meant, and if we weren't paying attention, he'd put us through it again," smiles Houston.
In his twenties, while still working a day job, Houston played in a band called Mighty Fall. They caught the attention of Irish playwright Gerry Stembridge who - rather unusually - penned a drama, Family Album, inspired by the Houston song Jesus Again.
The play toured Northern Ireland including a run at Belfast's Arts Theatre. Houston would sell his CDs from the back of theatres to the departing thesps.
It was a culture shock for the young lad from a working-class area, but more was to come. One of Houston's recordings fell into the hands of a Cool FM DJ and the switchboard lit up after it was first played.
The next few years were a rollercoaster of hopes raised and dashed. Houston collaborated with some high-profile musicians - from Mike and The Mechanics, Level 42, even a sound engineer from Pink Floyd - and put out a few well-received albums (three of which went to No 1 in the local charts).
In 1998, he thought he had arrived with his own, headlining date at the Waterfront Hall. He now views that gig as the last in a run of bad decisions. "It was a cul-de-sac. Where was I to go from there? I could hardly go back to playing small pubs and clubs."
So he took up a timely offer to tour in the US under a Christian banner. It was a formative experience - musically, culturally, personally - and paid the bills back home (he was by this stage married with two children). After a couple of years, however, he felt restricted by the gospel tag.
"There were things I wanted to say lyrically that I felt I couldn't," he explains. "I don't dot the 'i's or cross the 't's when it comes to spiritual matters - I just say how I feel."
An offer to do a live slot with Bob Harris on BBC Radio 2 was the opening Houston needed to rekindle a British listenership. What followed was arguably Houston's best album, The Valley - a heartfelt, lyrically impressive collection that could give Ryan Adams a run for his money any day.
Sugar Queen raises the commercial bar. Poppy and radio-friendly, it's already gained comparisons to Dylan, Springsteen and, of course, Houston's fellow east Belfast native, Mr Van Morrison.
Those marketing his new album are only too happy to push the Van connection, but Houston seems slightly uncomfortable with this. "Van wasn't a huge influence on me when I was starting out, although I do rate him now," he explains. "It was Elvis I was listening to when I was growing up. I was quite old before I'd heard of Van Morrison and older still when I heard his music."
Still, Houston's new album does seem to mine similar territory - the east Belfast place names, the proud Belfast patois, the deceptively simple, catchy melodies.
Houston may not want to make too much of the association, but presumably he won't be complaining if it helps open up new markets. He is now in his late thirties and says he is taking a much more pro-active approach to his career after seeing a life-coach.
"I used to think that if a few people out there liked what I was doing, it would all magically take off. Now I realise we determine our own future."
So what does Brian Houston want from the future?
"I believe when we were children we all aspired to greatness - it's life's bruises that make you settle for second-best. Now that I've confronted some of my fears, I'm ready to embrace success. I'm open to it."