Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

After her gruelling battle with breast cancer, how singer Brian Houston and his wife Pauline learned to make the most of the here and now ... including a road trip across the US in a Volkswagen Beetle and smoking a peace pipe with an Indian chief


With a new Sunday evening Radio Ulster show that's winning rave reviews, 2018 is off to a good start for the hugely talented Belfast songwriter. Brian and wife Pauline tell Stephanie Bell about a life-changing health battle and their nomadic adventures.

Brian Houston refuses to make plans for the year ahead as life in recent years has taught him to expect the unexpected. The popular Belfast musician does have a few albums up his sleeve but it is exactly because of the out-of-the-blue opportunities that keep coming his way that he hasn't got into a studio to record them yet.

Ever since he and his wife Pauline embarked on a three-year road trip to America in 2012, the couple have been enjoying what Brian describes as "a nomadic existence".

Travelling is now something they both embrace as Brian is humbled to discover that his music has a huge fan base which extends way beyond these shores.

Last year he was staggered to be invited by a First Nation chief to perform for his tribe in a remote part of Canada.

In a surreal moment he even found himself in a tepee with Sioux Indian chiefs passing round a peace pipe.

In fact, the First Nations love the Belfast man's music so much that he flew back and forward to Canada throughout last year with a series of gigs for different tribes.

It was the same when he embarked on his US trip. With only three gigs booked before he left, he was pleasantly surprised to discover not only was he well-known, but also well-loved in the States.

Last Sunday he launched a new six-week show on Radio Ulster and he has plans to return to America next month to record an album, but for the rest of 2018 he prefers to wait and see what the year will bring.

He says: "Last year we ended up travelling unexpectedly from the west to the east coast of Canada and it just makes you feel that it is important to stay footloose and not be tied.

"We don't make hard and fast plans. I have been asked to go to Nashville to record a Celtic album in collaboration with musicians from Wales, Scotland and southern Ireland.

"That came unexpectedly out of a gig in Scotland last year and has just snowballed.

"We were also in Israel for the first time performing in November which was fun and that's how life is. We have no masterplan really and that's the way we like it to be now."

Brian is known for playing a mix of folk, rock and gospel music and before leaving for his American adventure he played sell-out shows at the Grand Opera House in Belfast for two years in a row.

A brilliant performer and writer, he has been described as an 'Irish treasure waiting to happen'.

Brian and Pauline have been together since their teens and have two grown-up children, a son and a daughter. They are both known for their strong Christian faith.

Pauline works alongside Brian taking care of the financial side of the business but over the past year has also trained as an aromatherapist.

The couple learnt the hard way that every day should be embraced after Pauline faced a battle with breast cancer in 2004.

In what Brian described afterwards as "the biggest shock of our lives", she came through a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, plus was treated with tamoxifen for five years.

The aggressive nature of the cancer meant that instead of the usual five-year remission period, it was 10 years before she was given the all-clear.

It was a life-changing experience and it is now Pauline's hope to try and bring some relief to other cancer patients by offering aromatherapy massages. She says: "I just wanted to do something different and something for me so I decided on aromatherapy because I was into essential oils and their healing properties.

"I actually started out doing a course on essential oils but it involved a lot more than I realised with aromatherapy massage and it was a lot more challenging than I thought it would be.

"There was a lot of study and I finished it in December. I now hope to be a therapist for cancer patients but I have to do an extra few days training before I can work on patients.

"I know from my own experience that when you are going through it, people don't know how to help you.

"I was very fortunate in that I had a lot of support but I do know other people who didn't have that.

"Even somebody touching you can be reassuring as people become afraid about how they interact with you.

"I just want to be able to help people with massage and maybe help make it that little bit easier for them."

Her own experience she says has been life changing and is one of the reasons why both she and Brian choose not to plan too far ahead.

She says: "It was such a shock to the system. Obviously it is a life and death situation and you can't help but change how you look at life.

"Things can change in a day and so we learn to make the most of the here and now.

"Most of us look to the future instead of living in the day and being grateful for where we are now.

"For 10 years they were keeping an eye on me and that is a long time. You learn to take each day as it comes and then when I got to 10 years and my risk became the same as anyone else's again there was just relief that I had actually got there."

It is one of the reasons the couple decided to pack up their belongings and head off to America for three years.

While on the surface it was planned to open up new career possibilities for Brian, the reality was that it turned into a bit of a madcap mid-life adventure as the couple toured extensively from coast to coast in a yellow Volkswagen Beetle. It was also the realisation of a boyhood dream for the Belfast singer who says he had a fascination for America while at school.

A highlight of the trip was visiting the site of the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, the largest battle ever fought in North America.

Brian says: "When I was in primary school and we used to go to the local library down the street hand-in-hand, I would borrow books on America.

"I remember there was this model of the Battle of Gettysburg.

"We decided to visit it and there was a bit of a debate on whether to follow the sat nav or go in a direct line.

"I opted to go in a direct line and it took us up a mountain which was scary in a Beetle but when we got over it we came onto the battlefield and the exact spot of the little model I remembered as a child. I got out of the car and was as excited as a seven-year-old."

While Pauline and Brian indulged themselves as tourists during their stint in the States, on the serious side he also enjoyed great success with his music.

It was a revelation to Brian that he was already well-known in the US and while it was a gamble to set off with only three bookings, he never looked back.

He says: "America is tremendously pro commerce, pro talent and pro business. If you are good at something doors swing open and people have you back again.

"I just loved it. We did things we would never have done here like contact friends of friends and ask if we could stay with them.

"We would be given a bed for the night and breakfast and we travelled halfway across the Americas like that.

"For me, it was 100% about fulfilling my boyhood dream - even seeing a fire hydrant was romantic to me as I thought 'Yes they actually do really have these things'.

"We both thought it was the chance of a lifetime and we just shut up our home and went with just three gigs booked and no guarantee of money.

"I didn't know this but there was one guy going round North Carolina singing my songs and I was surprised that I actually had a reputation there and people knew my songs.

"I had no idea that existed and it went all the way up to a little village in Canada where everyone knew my songs because someone had bootlegged one of my CDs.

"It was a revelation that my music had gone out to other places across the world, I was totally unaware that people played my work and knew my songs.

"It was very humbling."

Since returning home to Belfast in November 2015, Brian has launched a new album featuring a collection of classic Irish songs called Songs From My Father.

Last year was spent largely touring Canada performing for First Nation tribes.

In what was another surprise, he was contacted via Facebook by a chief who was a fan of his music.

This led to a trip to one of the remotest parts of the world, the small village of Mistissini in Quebec to perform for the chief and his tribe.

He recalls: "This Indian chief contacted me through Facebook.

"He said he had listened to one of my songs, Where You See Bones, and it changed his life.

"He invited me to perform for his tribe in Mistissini.

"It was minus -29C in this little place which was 500 miles north of Montreal and it really was the final frontier as there was no road beyond it.

"I was met at the airport by the chief and we drove for 12 hours. We got to know each other and are now the best of friends and I've been back twice since.

"It just shows that you never know how much impact a song can have on people.

"I formed a number of connections with native Indians.

"On one visit, there was a tepee sitting on what I was told was one of the last virgin prairies and I was invited inside to smoke a peace pipe.

"There I was, this wee lad from Belfast, sitting cross-legged among Sioux tribesmen passing round this peace pipe thinking 'How did I get here?'

"The next day my picture was on the front page of the Calgary Herald sitting with these Indians and I just thought 'How did that happen?'."

Next month he and Pauline will return to America as he records a special album of Celtic sounds in Nashville with a number of other musicians.

He also has just launched his new show on Radio Ulster on Sunday evenings called Songs of Inspiration.

He says of the show - the first night of which prompted a fantastic response - that it's essentially about talking about his own life story and sharing his own inspirations: "It is basically me talking about stories from across my childhood and playing songs that have impacted me.

"I love doing it as it is a different string to my bow and while it is related to what I do, it is also very different.

"Usually I do talk a lot on stage and on radio you don't have that audience in front of you which makes it a bit nerve-wracking."

While 2017 was busy he found after returning from America in November 2015 that the following year was quiet which allowed him space to write more songs.

He has now stockpiled enough new material for four albums including a blues album and a folk compilation.

While he is content to sit back and wait to see what 2018 brings, he does hope at some stage to release his new material.

Whatever road he takes this year, he says he will still be driven by his strong faith in God: "If anything my faith just gets stronger.

"You can't do what we do without believing that there is a good force on your wide willing you to work."

Brian Houston, Songs of Inspiration, Radio Ulster, Sunday, 6.30pm

Belfast Telegraph

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