Israel Houghton’s popularity, success and reputation far succeed his numerous accolades, which come in the form of 4 Grammy awards, numerous Dove and Stellars and even a Soul Train Award. Israel has managed to adjust corporate worship into an electrifying, culturally diverse, worshipful filled experience that goes far beyond the stage. His refreshing approach to music has single handedly changed the landscape of contemporary praise & worship, which has united congregations all over the world with his universal sound.
I recently sat down with Israel to discuss his new CD JESUS AT THE CENTER, his family and what we can expect from the upcoming King’s Men Tour with Kirk Franklin, Marvin Sapp and Donnie McClurkin.
Tell me about your childhood? Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the Phoenix, AZ area. I have two brothers and a sister. I’m the oldest. I also have three sisters on my biological father’s side.
Tell me about your parents.
My parents are pastors, so there was a lot of church. They are also white. My siblings and I all have the same mother and I have a different biological father, who is black. So I was a black kid in a white family attending a Hispanic church. So it was fun, loud and a lot of music.
How was it growing up in an all white household, but you were Black? Did you get teased at school?
It wasn’t struggle until later. I didn’t realize that it was shaping me. It was just normal for us. It wasn’t until I was in junior high and high school, getting in fights and people calling me crazy stuff, that I realized I was different. I realized I wasn’t just the oldest in the family…I was also different.
When did you discover you had more than a knack for music?
Man, I figured that out pretty quickly. By five or six years old, I was playing drums at the church. By the time I was ten or eleven, I was playing for church. We moved to New Mexico when I was thirteen and that’s when I picked up keys and at sixteen I started playing the guitar.
Did you have formal training?
I had formal training with the trumpet and then I went to a big, month long, summer camp every year that really emphasized training, reading, and theory. And I went to college for that.
So, you got your degree in music?
No. I just went to college. I did not get a degree. I only went for a couple semesters and started working full time playing for churches. At nineteen, I was doing ministry full time.
Are any of your siblings in music like you?
My brother is an amazing bass player and he tours with a Spanish artist named Lilly Goodman.
How does your family feel about all your success?
We’re just a family, so it’s honestly something that’s never really discussed. My parents are very, very simple people. They don’t even own a TV, so they could care less. And I mean that in the best sense. As long as I’m bringing people to Christ, they’re happy. I think they know that I’ve worked hard and they recognize and appreciate that, so that whole idea of accomplishment hardly ever comes into our conversation.
How long have you been married?
In October, it will be 18 years.
How did you and your wife meet?
We met in Pittsburgh. I was ministering and I looked down and I saw her. Afterwards, I met her dad, but I didn’t realize I had met her parents. Whatever audition I needed to pass talking to him, I passed, because he said I want you to meet somebody, and there she was. And, literally, the second I met her; I knew she was the one.
So it was love at first sight?
It really was. It’s not everybody’s story, but in our case, it was one of those, “we just knew.” We got married four months later. And that was eighteen years ago.
Was it love at first sight for her, too?
Yeah. She had seen me in that same place a month before, at a different conference, and when she saw me, she just said to God, “I feel like that’s the type of person I want to meet.” And so, a month later, I saw her and I basically said the same thing to God.
How many kids do you have and what are their ages?
Mariah is 16, Sonny is 10, and Lily is 8.
Do any of them want to follow in Dad’s footsteps?
You know what, they all show a lot of musical ability. Sonny has showed up on a couple of my records and Mariah just sang on this new record with me. I’ve never pushed my kids in any particular direction, except Jesus. But, serving Jesus doesn’t necessarily mean having a microphone in your mouth. So, I think, if they want to, they kind of have first right of refusal in the sense of, if I can open doors I’ll help. I’ve worked hard to develop relationships and that sort of thing, so if they said this is something I really, really want to do, then of course, I would support that wholeheartedly.
Does Israel ever get writers block? How do you get through it?
Yes sure I do. But when I’m writing for a specific record with a theme in mind, I normally feel pretty good. It’s when I’m writing “just because” that I get blocked. But I also like to collaborate too. Sometimes bouncing ideas off another person is all you need to get the wheels going. I collaborate a lot with Aaron Lindsay, Michael Gungor and my wife Meleasa.
Does it ever get heated between you and your wife writing together?
You know, it never has. Meleasa really knows her strengths. She has great concepts and really great melodies. And I tend to come alongside and shape that based on what she’s brought. Other times I’ll come to her and go, “I think we’ve got a good hook here, but I’m not sure what’s beyond this.” And she’ll always have something significant to add.
I remember you released a solo CD years ago. What was the name of it?
Yeah, I did a record called WHISPER IT LOUD on Warner Bros. Records that came out in ’96. It had a couple songs on there like “Nothing Else Matters” that recorded again and “You Are Not Forgotten.” I moved to Nashville and tried to make that whole scene work, but I don’t think at that time our industry was ready for anything to burst. It was black, it was white and so it didn’t really catch on, which was a good thing because it sent me back to my first love, which was leading worship. And out of that came New Breed and working with Fred Hammond.
How did you even land the deal with Warner Bros back then?
At the church in Arizona, there was a guy who was starting a record company in Nashville and he ended up doing it in partnership with Warner Bros, so he had known me for a long time and he just felt like I had something. So, I’m always going to be grateful to him for that.
So, how did you and Fred link up?
Somehow Marvin Sapp heard the song “Nothing Else Matters,” and he told me he was going to record it. I was like, “Yeah ok great.” But people say that all the time, so I didn’t think it was really going to happen. A couple months later Fred calls me and said I really like your song and how you sang it. So he asked me what I wanted to do and if I would be willing to come on the road with him and RFC. So, I became an honorary member of RFC toured with them from ’99 to 2000. That’s how I met Aaron Lindsay and that’s where New Breed was birthed.
Had you been a fan of Fred and Commissioned before this?
Oh, yeah! Definitely. Who wasn’t?
It must have been a surreal moment being that young and then having Fred Hammond asking you to go on tour.
Well I was young, but I had already done things to establish myself. I really took it as an opportunity to serve an icon. And that’s what I came and did. I really humbled myself, took a significant pay cut, and learned a lot in that process. I am very grateful for that season in my life.
You said you took a significant pay cut, so was it something you really had to think about?
No, it wasn’t tough a decision because I knew that it was God. I knew it was a season for me to learn. We approached that season in talks of maybe doing a record on Fred’s label at the time. And even though that didn’t pan out, Fred and I are still great friends. He’s still a great mentor to me and anytime it’s time to honor Fred somewhere, I’m flattered they call me. Fred recognized I had something different and always challenged that gift in me and that is why I always look back at that season very fondly.
Jesus at the Center is the first live CD in five years. How does it differ from Love God, Love People?
It’s pretty much the same crew. The difference is when you’re doing a live worship record, the songs have to be singable, accessible and they have to work in the church and the world. So, that was really the criteria for this record. When we did LOVE GOD, LOVE PEOPLE, we were at Abbey Roads Studios in London. It was about being creative and having fun. So, on this, it’s a little less inventive. And so, we really approached this record thinking about Sunday morning experiences all over the world; and let that drive the content of the songs that we wrote for this project.
What is your favorite Israel album?
I’d have to say ALIVE IN SOUTH AFRICA. It was such a labor of love. It was eleven years in the making before we finally did it. So, that one meant a lot. It was the first Grammy we won and I think that record really launched a lot of what we do internationally now.
What can we expect from you on the King’s Men’s Tour?
Anybody who’s seen me before, you can pretty much expect that. It’s going to be interactive, energetic, and worshipful. But so much of what’s happening on that tour is going to be collaborative. So, Marvin Sapp will appear on things with me, I’ll appear on things with him and Donnie and Kirk we’ll be doing the same. So, people will be able to hear some of these songs they like, differently, each night. We’re excited and pumped about that.
ISRAEL’S 10 RANDOM TRUTHS
- Spontaneous or a planner? Spontaneous.
- Mary Mary, Anointed or BeBe & CeCe? That’s tough…BeBe & CeCe.
- Favorite movie? “Braveheart.”
- Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey? Whitney Houston.
- Favorite meal of the day? Breakfast.
- Pet peeve? Complacency.
- Commissioned or The Winans? The Winans.
- 2 artists on your iPod people wouldn’t expect? Foo Fighters and Sade.
- Introvert or extrovert? Introvert. I’m pretty shy.
- Crystal Lewis or Natalie Grant? Crystal Lewis.