Brian Houston: I owe my career to the fact that I grew up in Belfast
After two years of living the life of the wayfaring troubadour in the United States, local hero Brian Houston makes a triumphant return tonight to the city, writes Helen Carson
Belfast musician Brian Houston has a new-found love for his hometown, following a two-year stint living and working in America. And the singer/songwriter - who has previously recorded three gospel albums and is well-known for having a strong faith - reveals he is now stepping away from the genre to concentrate on traditional Irish classics.
Indeed, at his new album launch tonight at the Empire Music Hall, where he will play tracks from Songs From My Father, as well as some old favourites, the guitar-strumming rocker hopes to do justice to some classic Irish songs his dad played and sang to him when he was growing up.
Having returned to his native east Belfast recently, Brian says crossing the pond to the States changed his life in more ways than one - and it was only while he was in America that he began to yearn for the traditional songs beloved by his father, William.
Brian, who made his name here playing a mix of folk, rock and gospel, relocated to North Carolina along with his wife, Pauline, and their two children, Stephanie and Danny, two years ago to find a new market for his music.
"We went to America to find fresh opportunities," he says. "Belfast was pretty depressed, as was the whole of the UK, following the economic downturn. America wasn't as badly affected, despite the crash of the big banks there."
Although he had a successful career here as a full-time musician, playing sell out shows at the Grand Opera House for two years in a row, he was hungry to find something new to keep the creative juices flowing.
And after a quiet start in the US when he had modest expectations, Brian's blend of singing quickly found a new and much bigger audience.
"I was more successful in my first year in America than I have ever been in my whole career in Northern Ireland," he explains. "I was over the moon.
"If it had continued that way, I would have been making half-a-million dollars a year. The business model was simple; it was just myself and Pauline and we drove everywhere, as I don't like flying simply because I can't take enough of my gear with me on a plane."
Although Brian says he was relishing the new opportunities, Pauline wasn't: "We were having two different experiences. When I was gigging and travelling in America, Pauline was with me, but that stopped during the winter months."
Brian says the family kept their home in Belfast on while renting a property in the States: "We were paying taxes in both the UK and the US, but we were never in the house.
"We got our utility bill for the rented house before we left and it was 10 dollars - it was literally the fridge going on and off, because we were never there."
More significantly for Brian, though, was the realisation that while in America he craved his home back in Belfast.
"Growing up in Belfast, I was obsessed with America and used to go to get books from the library on the country.
"I was more influenced by America when I was in Northern Ireland, but then I began to see my hometown in a different light.
"Maybe it's the punk culture which has pervaded Belfast, but it is a very creative, bohemian city, where you are not only allowed to be different, but you are encouraged to be so.
"I owe my career in music to the fact I grew up in Belfast. I probably wouldn't be the creative person I am, if I hadn't been born here."
His love of old songs, which had lain dormant for most of his music career, surfaced when he was played a gig in America and a woman in the audience asked him to play some old Irish tunes.
"I was actually annoyed that she had done that, as, when I was growing up, diddly-dee music was not rock 'n' roll. But then when I thought about it I remembered some of the songs from my childhood such as the Thin Lizzy classic Whiskey in the Jar."
Now that the family has returned to these shores, Brian's experience in America led to him recording and reinventing some of the songs the lady in the States had wanted to hear.
The new album, inspired by dad William and aptly called Songs From My Father, is a collection of timeless classics reinterpreted by Brian.
"I have modernised some of the older songs, as the words may not mean that much to audiences now," he says. "I hope that I have done them justice."
Despite the new direction, Brian says his Christian faith is as strong as ever - although he is not a member of any church.
"I never wanted to go to church when I was younger, but I do have faith. I have always wanted to fit in with a church community, but I just can't. Maybe I'm just too rough around the edges."
Maybe it's the Belfast punk in Brian that just refuses to go away.
Brian Houston Band, Empire Music Hall, Belfast, tonight, 10pm. Tickets £15. Songs From My Father costs £10 from brianhouston.com