2016-06-30
Brian Littrell
If you've listened to a pop-music station anytime over the past decade, chances are you've heard a song by the Backstreet Boys. With such hits as "Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)," "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)," and "I Want It That Way," the quintet is known for its success in combining bubblegum pop, romantic ballads, and cool dance moves--and for making preteen girls swoon.
Now, one of the Boys, Brian Littrell, wants to take his talent in another direction--toward God. His debut solo album, "Welcome Home," which hit stores a few weeks ago, is full of the kind of "pop positive" music he's wanted to record for a long time—traditional gospel, inspirational, and Christian Contemporary music. He recently spoke with Beliefnet about being public with his faith, what drove him to almost quit the music business, and why being happy "doesn't sell."



Listen to Brian Littrell:


How do you plan on balancing your career as a member of the Backstreet Boys with your career as a solo artist?

I'm going to be busy. But I really think that's why God has given me the platform to touch so many people's lives through the Backstreet Boys and also to be able to talk about my faith. I will make myself available to anything and everything that I could possibly do to further both careers. And the guys, the other four Backstreet members, I tell them all the time, "I'm a Backstreet Boy first." [Being] a solo artist has come second fiddle for quite some time--other than now. I really think God is planning on rearranging things for me to be able to do both, and I look forward to the challenge. It's going to be tough, but at the same time, I can't go anywhere as a solo artist [without being] a Backstreet Boy. I'll always be a Backstreet Boy.

Are the rest of the members supportive of your solo career?

Yes, very much. They've known for quite some time that this is the direction that I've always anticipated or seen myself going. This is me, this is who I am, and this is where my heart is. They like the material on the record. I spoke to AJ [McClean, a fellow Backstreet Boy] a couple of weeks ago, just before my record came out, and he was like, "I'm going to the store to buy it."


Did you always see yourself going solo? Did you want to do mainstream songs or specifically Christian music?

I specifically wanted to do Christian traditional gospel, inspirational, "pop positive" music. I grew up singing in church as a little boy. A lot of people don't know that I had a four-year vocal scholarship offered to [attend] the University of Cincinnati Bible College, right out of high school, but that I did not take that scholarship because that was when my cousin Kevin [Richardson] called me to be a Backstreet Boy.

I really thought at that time--13 years ago--that that's what God had planned for my life, to start a youth ministry and a music ministry. That's what I really wanted to do. Little did I know that he would make me a pop star. [laughs]. So it's been a little different.

Are you concerned about alienating your non-Christian or your secular fans?

I'm not really concerned about alienating the fans that I already have through the Backstreet Boys, because I've always talked about doing this in my career. I've always talked about my faith and my relationship with God, through my "thank yous" on the records and giving the glory where I feel the glory is due.

I hope that it intrigues the Backstreet Boys fans that may not be believers, but yet at the same time, I think the material on the record is open enough to interpretation. The inspirational songs can be taken however people see fit and whatever meaning of life they can put on it. But there is strictly mainstream Contemporary Christian music as well. Those are the messages I want to tell.

Mainstream radio doesn't play much Christian music unless the music isn't overtly Christian—bands like Switchfoot or P.O.D. Why do you think this is the case? Is mainstream radio afraid of Christianity?

There's a fine line between mainstream secular radio versus mainstream Contemporary Christian radio. They both have different formats, but you have listeners on the Christian music side that, when someone plays a brand-new song and it doesn't talk about God enough, people get upset on the Christian side, and vice versa on the secular side. You have people calling up radio stations saying, "Why is he talking about God?" And I think there's this fine line that I hope my music can cross over and fit both formats.

"Welcome Home," the first single from the new CD, could very well do that. We just have to wait and see. I think with the way our radio world is today, nobody could deny good music.

There was a song by MercyMe several years ago called "I Could Only Imagine," and here it is talking about "surrounded by your glory, what will my heart feel? Will my heart dance for you, Jesus?" It referenced Jesus from a Christianity standpoint, yet that song blew up all over secular radio. It was really huge because that's where the multitude of the people are—secular radio. I'm hoping that my secular past, with the success of the Backstreet Boys, will also open doors to allow me to come in and introduce my story and talk about what I want to talk about lyrically in my music. And it's already happening. I'm not shooting for the moon or anything, I just want to touch people's lives in a positive way.

What do you think of music today?

Music today is much like music of 30, 40, 50 years ago. People want to hear live music, they want to hear live drums, they want to hear live bass and guitar-driven songs in today's music world.

Country has evolved into a powerhouse market across the world. I think it's kind of changed the way pop music looks at making songs--even [in] the R&B/ hip-hop world. Fans want real songs, they want real experiences, and they want real instruments. There was a time in the mid to early 90s where all of the sequence sounds and European sounds were making it big, and we kind of helped that with the Backstreet Boys with "We've Got it Going On" and "Larger Than Life" and some of the songs that we had that were successful back then. I think radio has changed where people want to hear bands, they want to hear guys singing, and it doesn't have to be perfect anymore. And I think that's good. When I think of the yesteryear of music, I think of the Beatles and Elvis and Dean Martin. The Beatles, for instance, played [a song] one or two times in the studio and sang it while they played it, and then they printed it on vinyl, and then that was it. It was a feeling, it was an emotion. It wasn't perfect, yet it did a lot of things.

Your song "Wish" expresses your desire to meet Jesus face-to-face. If you could meet him here on Earth and ask him one question, what would it be?

There would be many things I would ask him. One would be, "Why me? Why bless me with a God-given gift and why give a person like me the platform that he's given me?" Because he's done nothing but bless my life and show his provision on my life.

Do you think Jesus would be happy with Christianity today?

Probably not. I just think that the God I serve is compassionate and loving and is forgiving. There's nothing that's happening today that he doesn't really know about, because I feel in my heart that it's in his ultimate plan. He had a beginning and he will have an end. I just think that the way our world is—the violence and the things that we see on television, our reality shows, the sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and what people desire to be like, and what they have to have materialistically---I think our world is running out of the positive side of life.

Why being happy "doesn't sell"
Being happy doesn't sell. People don't want to read about or listen to somebody talk about being happily married and being successful. Those really aren't topics of conversation. They want to hear about divorce and turmoil and disaster. It's sad.

I wrote a song on my record called "We Lift You Up," which is a Contemporary Christian traditional gospel song. It has a choir on it from Nashville, Tennessee, that's singing the background—and that song talks about [how], as Christians, God lifts us up all the time in our life to persevere and give us the strength and the passion to continue on, yet we, a lot of times, don't turn around and return the favor. I think as Christians we need to join hands and mount up together and lift God up and talk about our faith publicly and talk about all of the things God has done for us in our life to touch other people.

Can you remember a time when you really struggled with your faith and maybe didn't want to be so public about it?

Being public with his faith
I've never not wanted to be public about it. There was a Rolling Stone [magazine] article that the Backstreet Boys did several years ago and the photographer wanted to take a picture of us with 50 young ladies in the background who were not even dressed—they were supposed to be completely nude. My faith played a big role in not taking that picture with the rest of the guys because at that time I was happily married—still am happily married—and I didn't want to compromise my faith and who I was as a person and my beliefs, just because some photographer wanted to take a picture in Rolling Stone magazine painting this picture of what he thought the Backstreet Boys were. I've been tested a lot like that in the secular world—people asking me to compromise my faith to do things and I won't do it.

There was a time in '98 when I had open-heart surgery, and it was a tough time for me because I had a lot of questions on why this was happening. I had a lot of frustration because of the fact that I was so healthy on the outside but yet everything was wrong on the inside. It was hard for me emotionally as well as physically, and spiritually too. You have to draw on your faith in times like that.

Were you asking, "Why me?"

Yeah. I was scared, I was frustrated, I was a little upset already at the music business because I had to reschedule my surgery on two different occasions because of our schedule. I wasn't looked at as a normal human being or like a real person.

Did you feel like leaving it all behind at that point?

Wanting to leave the business
I did. There was a time in my life where the music business had taken over my life so much that I didn't want it anymore. There was a time where I thought if I ever had a family and moved on with my life that I wouldn't want to do music anymore, but I think with having a family and being blessed again in my life with a healthy little boy, I think it's inspired me more than ever to stand out and tell my story that I didn't get swallowed up in the music business and that I made it and I was successful and that you can do that—you don't have to become a statistic.

What's your favorite song off your new album?

I have 11 of my favorites on there. [laughs] I have to say I enjoy singing every one of them. One of my favorites I think would be "Welcome Home." I co-wrote that song. I think it's really the story of my life, of leaving home and growing up and experiencing life on my own, but also experiencing my life from a faith-based church and a faith-based environment that I grew up in with my family. Those are the things that I want for my son and my life in the future. So that's probably the closest to my heart when it comes to playing it on the acoustic guitar and singing it live. It's who I am.

Would you mind singing a bit of it?

"Welcome Home"
[sings] When I left home to be who I am/ Some people said "no way"/ But I laid it all down, gave everything/ In my head rang the words that my Father said/ You're never far/ I will be where you are/ And when you come to Me/ I will open My arms/ Welcome home, you/ I know you by name/ How do you do?/ I shine because of you today/ So come and sit down/ Tell me how you are/ I know, son it's good just to see your face...

Do you remember the first time you prayed?

His first experience with prayer
I don’t remember the first time I prayed, but I do remember a time in my life…It was 1980 and I was sick in the hospital. I had a staph infection called bacterial endocarditis and I was not supposed to live. I'll never forget my mom and dad and my grandparents and nurses and friends and family from the church that we went to holding hands in the hospital room and praying for me. At five years old, I didn't quite understand really what they were doing. But that was my first experience with prayer, and how powerful it can be.

What is your favorite prayer?

My wife and I try to use repetition with Baylee, our son, who's three and a half. It's adorable to listen to him say his goodnight prayers. He gets those mixed up with the daytime prayers for our food. So at nighttime he says, "Thank you Lord, for this day and let it be a nourishment to our bodies…" [laughs]

The prayer he says with his son
There's one particular thing that we ask--that God sends his angels down to love us, guide us, and protect us, and keep us safe, in our waking hours and in our sleeping hours. That's what we always say in our goodnight prayers.