It’s been more than a decade since Randy Houser released his debut album, but in recent times he found himself thinking back on those early days. “I didn’t have anything when I got to town,” he recalls thinking on a recent afternoon. Though even when he first arrived in Nashville back in the early aughts, a wide-eyed Mississippian completely broke but armed with ambition and a guitar, Houser says he could always see the bigger picture. “I’d spent my life making music because I loved it so much,” he says. “I felt like I was always rich in that respect. And that was and is the base of everything.”
But as Houser is quick to admit, as recently as a few years ago he’d become blinded to this reality. Or rather, he’d convinced himself it was the only way.
The 43-year old singer-songwriter has just released Magnolia, one of his most personal, effective and self-satisfying albums in years. But what he wants to talk about today as he relaxes near Venice Beach in Los Angeles with his wife, Tatiana, is what he had to endure to even make it here.
“I just wasn’t getting to do what I wanted,” the singer says bluntly of his career in recent years. More specifically, Houser is adamant that his previous album, 2016’s Fired Up, was little more than a way for him to appease his record label. “I wasn’t really crazy about the last album. It just didn’t really feel like it was a whole lot of me on it,” he admits. To hear him tell it, Fired Up was the direct result of industry suits pressuring him to deliver radio fare. “I had record label people that would push me into recording certain stuff,” he offers. “They needed me to make an album just to put something on the shelves, basically. But if the music I’m putting out there doesn’t resonate with me how in the hell can I expect it to resonate with anybody else?”
Still, forever an optimist, Houser says he believes the negative experiences around Fired Up led him to this current moment. With Magnolia, the musician says he’s made an album that feels decidedly in line with his creative spirit. Perhaps going through the fire last go-round was worth it. “Having to put out a record that I wasn’t extremely proud of was a catalyst for this one,” he says of Fired Up’s unanticipated positive effect. “It was a big push to make sure I made one this time that I am very proud of. So there’s always a silver lining.”
Of Fired Up he adds, “I almost think it was a good push for me.” He pauses and laughs. “I mean, if anything it taught me to not let anybody tell me what kind of music to make.”
Knowing his next album had to be decidedly his own is precisely why Houser says he put zero pressure on himself when he went in and began writing and recording what would eventually become Magnolia. “The main thing was just having the time creatively to try to find the sound of it and what it was supposed to feel like,” he says. “Honestly I didn’t even really know I was going in to make a record until I started writing and these songs just started piling out.”
Houser points to writing the spare, emotional Lucie Silvas duet “Our Hearts” as keying him in to the sonic direction of Magnolia. Or, for that matter, alerting him that he was even making an album in the first place. “That kind of clued me in that I was ready to start writing an album,” he says of the tender track. “It was one of those songs that stuck out like, ‘OK, I know where I’m headed now.’”
So much of finally feeling comfortable with his musical direction for the album, Houser says, was relieving himself of the pressure to deliver a hit single. “Sometimes you’ve got to make decisions with your heart and not just thinking about your bottom line,” he says. “Yeah, I could probably make some of those radio poppy-sounding hits that are very typical of today and still be in the game, but I’d rather be on the radio making music that sounds like music that I make and not copying somebody else.”
“Record labels traditionally have been very radio-minded,” he adds. “That’s what they were founded on: ‘Hey, let’s get songs on the radio and then we’ll put the record out.’ And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s a good business model. But sometimes it just doesn’t align with what the artist is thinking exactly. Because trends at radio change and then you’re expected in some ways to follow those trends. I just felt like I wasn’t ready to do that. I think the middle is very crowded right now and it’s time to make something that sounds like my own.”
To that end, Magnolia is in many ways a return to form for Houser. Warm, intimate and reflective, the 12-track LP finds the singer-songwriter unwavering in his honesty and intention–whether sincere on his path of self-exploration (“No Stone Unturned”) or flipping the bird to responsibility on the raucous blues-burner “Whole Lotta Quit.” And while Houser does admit a bit of worry that the album’s slow-rolling lead single, “What Whiskey Does,” might lead listeners to believe he’s crafted a throwback country album, its traditional sensibility only showcases the singer’s deep-held respect for his craft.
Not surprisingly, he’s taken the same approach to his live show. Houser admits that for several years he felt needled into creating a show heavy on visuals and big-ticket. In the process, he says his passion for live performance started to wane. “Industry-wise it’s just sort of expected of an artist in my situation to have all the bells and whistles that you can afford,” he explains of his longtime over-the-top live show. “But then it got to a point where it felt like I was a puppet or something out there.”
No longer “getting to make music in a creative way” as it related to the live arena, Houser stripped back his stage show and, for a while, was only touring with a three-piece band. He’s since added a few more musicians into the fold, but he says the emphasis remains on keeping his gigs quite intimate.
“It was a very calculated decision to pull back on the reins and actually rediscover myself and find who that kid was again that had all that passion and energy about making songs and connecting with fans in a way that you can’t do with a bunch of expensive toys,” Houser says. “And that’s just getting out there and playing and talking. That’s the way I came up. So that’s all I wanna do. It was really a rejuvenation.”
Reflecting on the experience leading up to Magnolia, Houser insists it was so profound it’s made him gain a better perspective on not only his career but also his life as a creative.
“I realized that I can go sit on a stool with my guitar if need be and my wife and I are still going to be OK,” he says.
And by making an album he can proudly stand behind, “it took that power away from anybody telling me what I needed to,” Houser says with conviction. “From now on I’m doing this the right way.”