Above: Joel Houston of Hillsong United. Image: Hillsong United Facebook
Music lessons were the ‘bane of Joel Houston’s existence’ until he discovered the grunge band Nirvana, Jonathan ‘JD’ Douglass was once a squeaky-voiced choirboy, and Taya Smith ‘never shut up’ as a child.
Those are a few of the stories behind how Hillsong United’s members started out in music. In a series of interviews with Texan celebrity-interviewer Dave Morales about the upcoming film Let Hope Rise, the musicians revealed insights into their early musical experiences.
Pastor’s Kid ‘Forced to Play Piano’
Watch: Joel Houston chats about his childhood introduction to music and God.
Singer and New York-based Hillsong pastor Joel Houston admitted to Backstage OL that he was “forced to play piano as a kid”.
“It was the bane of my existence; I hated it,” he said. “It was the worst 30 minutes of my life, looking at these notes on a keyboard. I just wanted to be anywhere else.”
He credits grunge music for sparking his musical passion. The only way he could listen to it was behind his mum and dads’ [Brian and Bobbie Houston] backs.
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“When I was 11 years old I discovered Nirvana [and their song] Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Joel said. “Nevermind [the album] came out, and of course I wasn’t allowed to listen to it. I think we recorded it over an old Christian cassette tape I had. I put Nirvana on there and I would sleep to it every single night.
“And I picked up my dad’s old beaten up guitar, it had four strings, and I taught myself the whole catalogue. That’s where it began for me.”
Eventually his passion for Nirvana was transformed into a passion for God instead.
“I hated the music in church when I was a kid, it was boring to me. I just wanted to go and play and skateboard with my friends out the back,” he said.
“But God’s got a sense of humour; I fell in love with music and in the process somewhere there, fell in love with God, and understood who He is. And here we are.”
Kids Who ‘Never Stopped Singing’
That same ‘sense of humour’ was at work in worship singer JD, who said he started out singing in the primary school choir with his once-high-pitched young voice.
“Before I hit that stage where your voice breaks and your body changes, I used to talk really high,” he explained in his interview. “I used to answer the phone and people would say ‘is that Robin?’ which is my mum’s name. Then all of a sudden my voice broke.
“I remember my singing teacher saying, ‘Wow, things have changed – maybe take some time off for your voice to develop’. I thought ‘I’ll never sing again’. But it’s funny how God works; I end up in a band.”
As for Taya Smith, her parents aren’t shy about saying just how vocal she was as a child.
“They love to tell me that I never shutup,” she told Backstage OL. “They say ‘you were running around making up songs, singing, and you’ve never stopped’.“
Rock Music Families
Guitarists Dylan Thomas and Jad Gillies were both musicians’ kids; Dylan first played the drums until his dad encouraged him to pick up a guitar, while Jad, who hails from New Zealand, was raised in a rock music household.
“I started playing guitar when I was maybe 8 to 10; my dad played Dire Straits on the guitar in the lounge room, I was always around that,” he said. “My mum sang in pubs before I was born. I guess the appreciation for music was always there.”
“God is Doing Something”
When asked to explain the worldwide appeal of their music, Joel Houston said it was simply the hand of God.
“The only way I can explain it is that God’s doing something,” he said. “He wants to connect with people. He’s used art, and beauty and music, and all of these things, to help us process the mystery of who he is—in the midst of all our opinions and preconceived ideas.”
JD said their worldwide popularity was something they never took for granted.
“We’re more surprised than anyone that people are into our music,” he said. “We’ll come to America and do a show and a lot of people turn up; we’re more shocked than anyone and are kind of holding on for the ride.”