Israel Houghton …changing the world with The Power of One
Since his humble debut as a recording artist in the `90s, dizzyingly chameleonic Israel Houghton has been injecting contemporary gospel with a blazing, youthful and musically masterful energy that has placed him among the most highly influential tastemakers in his field. As a singer, composer, multi-instrumentalist, producer and worship leader, he has created a canon of songs that have become standards in houses of faith around the globe. He has accomplished this largely as the leader of Israel and New Breed, a GRAMMY®, Stellar and Dove Award-winning musical ensemble and ministry organization that has amassed gold-selling albums and critical platitudes reserved for the best of the best.
For his most current musical offering, Israel momentarily steps away from New Breed, whose members are also active in their own ministries, to record a solo album that is his most personal effort to date. The project, Power of One, is a guest-filled tour de force that is galvanizing in both its inspirational power and Israel's bankable high standard of music making. Power of One is a challenge to all of faith to be as impassioned and Christ-like in their earthly walk as humanly possible. And does "Iz" ever have the soundtrack for that spiritual walk! From roots reggae and head-banging rock to sanctified funk and power pop, Power of One is a visceral rush of bravado and gratitude. Listening to this album - Israel's first solo studio offering after a string of highly successful New Breed concert sets - will surely set your soul on fire.
"This is the first time I've entered into a project with no premeditation," Israel explains. "In the past, I'd go into a project saying we need this kind of song here and that kind there - worrying if it would sell or if the Church would accept it. This time it was fun to go into creating a record with no rules and just do what was in our hearts...a very cathartic experience."
The seeds for Power of One were planted last May at a friend's beach house in Southern California. "It's about two miles from where I was born in Carlsbad," says Israel. "I generally go there by myself to gather my thoughts, turn off the phone, read, write and get inspired. This time I had Tommy Sims and Aaron Lindsey come in to give a collective energy try. We had a couple of acoustic guitars, bass, keys, Pro Tools and a digital studio. We spent three days there...just looking at the ocean and writing the bulk of the album.
"Recalling musical missions past, Israel states, "If you look at our albums thematically, the early ones were about the Church and what God is doing… ‘a New Season is coming' and ‘Another Level.' On the most recent records, our message has shifted into more social and global concerns, focusing on identity and the purpose of God in everyone's life. I strongly believe that those of us who consider ourselves worshippers need to have a heart for social justice. ‘Power of One' is the song we wrote specifically around that thought for this album."
Both instrospective and anthemic, the song "Power of One" is an instant high water mark in a catalog already rich in Israel classics. Interestingly, it wasn't originally intended to be recorded by Israel at all. He explains, "Two and a half years ago, I was asked to write a song for a mainstream artist who was looking for something based around a socially conscious idea. At that time I was just beginning to understand the connection between worship and justice, so this song came very quickly to me. I was about to send it to the artist's manager when my wife Meleasa asked me to play it again. When I did, she said, ‘Don't you dare send that away! The time will soon come for you to sing that song.' Now is that time."
As an album, Power of One overflows with exceptional material, all woven together by mesmerizing interludes. The experience begins with the percussive and grand "Everywhere I Go," a joyous jam about the relationship between The Lord and the faithful. That song and "Moving Forward," are the two tried and tested numbers of the collection as they had already become fan favorites, uplifting worship concert audiences before writing began for the new album. "Just Wanna Say" is a danceable confection reminiscent of OutKast's "Hey Ya." It's the infectious rave-fave of Israel's kids (ages 12, 7 and 5). Another highlight is the powerful gospel ballad "Every
Prayer" which features Israel's old friends Mary Mary.
Lyrically direct and musically dynamic, one of the instant ear grabbers is "You Found Me." "I got the original idea riding a jet ski," Israel confesses. "I was going about 70 miles per hour when the words and melody ‘You Found Me' just smacked me in the face! Two weeks out from recording, I was playing it on my acoustic and Meleasa loved it. She filled in a lot of the lyrical holes… she's a genius in painting word pictures. We wrote the chorus together. The last section is a vamp from another song called ‘I Am Free' from our Sound of The New Breed series - that ‘No more chains holding me' line fit really well. The song had an Island feel at first, but I'd been listening to some off-the-radar rock groups. Aaron suggested we put the melody over a rockier feel. Within minutes we had a really fun and edgy new thing. So I called (rapper) tobyMac. He loved it and joined me on the song."
Israel got to exercise his Reggae muscles elsewhere on "Surely Goodness," which sprang from a series of pan-global happenstances. "Three days before I got to the beach house, I was in Kingston doing an afternoon sound check - just me - playing Crowded House's ‘Don't Dream It's Over' on my guitar, only more from a reggae standpoint. Next thing I know, I started singing the chorus of what has become ‘Surely Goodness.' That night I happened to meet (reggae vocal queen) Chevelle Franklin back at the hotel. I was honored. Told her we should do something together and she said she'd love to. We eventually re-connected in South Africa and she cut the final vocals with me. That lady is unbelievable! Our goal was to get some straight authentic Bob Marley from back in the day - old school reggae, no embellishing."
Yet another unforgettable song of Christian conviction from Power of One is "Sing (Redemption Song)" – a mod mash up of Al Green groove and soaring British rock. "It's rare that I start with just music," he explains of his songwriting process. "Tommy set it off with a guitar idea. We eventually tracked it with a melody but no lyrics and just lived with it for a while. A month later, I got an idea that led to Tommy and me emailing lyric concepts back and forth. I wound up recording my vocal in South Africa with Chevelle as well as Martin Smith (leader of the British Christian rock band Delirious? - forward thinking musical soul mates of New Breed from across the pond)."
The difference between Power of One as an Israel solo project vs. New Breed albums is subtle. "Most New Breed albums are done live," Israel states. "This is a studio record so it has a different energy. I get to call on any and everybody for specific sessions. The biggest question is always who's going to play drums. Tthe first week I used Calvin Rogers. The second week we brought in Dan Needham. And we used Lamar Carter on ‘Saved by Grace.'" That song, reminiscent of the classic live New Year's Eve video of Prince & The Revolution joining Sheila E.'s band for the encore medley "I Would Die For You/Baby I'm a Star" is an all-out throw down, thundering on for a hair-raising 13 minutes like it's "1999!"
Another special guest on the album is multi-instrumentalist Akil Thompson (son of drum master Chester Thompson from Weather Report and Genesis) who co-wrote "You Are Loved" with Israel. "Akil is a monster on bass, drums and guitar," Israel marvels.
Israel Houghton has amassed a legion of followers that crosses generational lines with popularity across African American, Latin and Caucasian listener lines as well. While blasting down barriers,he has been fittingly graced with 2 Gold-selling albums, 6 Dove Awards, 2 Stellar Awards, a Soul Train Award and 2 GRAMMY® Awards – one for "Best Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album" for A Deeper Level and one for "Best Traditional Gospel Album" for Alive In South Africa. Ironically, there is very little that is "traditional" about Israel's progressive connection to now-generation believers and the way his music is fanatically embraced around the globe.
Beyond his solo album, Israel is also a published author with other multi-media projects in the works. As for New Breed, Israel is ever and always connected to them, though the unit is currently preparing a live recording without him. This frees him to pursue a myriad of other exciting opportunities for artistic growth and his own personal sojourn into the Power of One.
"I really enjoy what I do," Israel concludes. "It's about getting a bigger picture of what's going on in the world instead of focusing on my life, wants and needs. It's about connecting with people around the world."