Brian Courtney Wilson On Fame And 'God's Promise'

A few years ago, the Houston native left his job in corporate America to pursue his musical dreams. This year, Brian Courtney Wilson's sophomore album, So Proud, debuted at number one on Billboard's Gospel Albums chart. He tells host Michel Martin that he prays that God continues to reveal the music his listeners can lean on.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. The 43rd Annual Gospel Music Association Dove Awards are coming and one man who is making a big splash in the gospel world is Brian Courtney Wilson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO PROUD")

BRIAN COURTNEY WILSON: (Singing) We never had all the finest things, but what we had was enough. There were so many reasons to keep believing that we should be so proud.

MARTIN: That was "So Proud" from his new album of the same name. It debuted this February at NUMBER ONE on Billboard's Top Gospel Albums Chart. It also ranked number five on Billboard's Independent Chart. So, Brian Courtney Wilson has lots to be proud of, especially for somebody who spent a lot of years doing a lot of other things before reaching his big dream. And Brian Courtney Wilson joins us now. Welcome. Congratulations on everything. Of course, we want to talk about the new stuff, but I want to talk about your background...

WILSON: OK.

MARTIN: ...a little bit, and just explain what it is I was talking about in the introduction.

WILSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: You had a nine-to-five, right?

WILSON: I did. I was a salesperson. I started out when I left college.

MARTIN: Well, what are some of the things that you've sold?

WILSON: You know...

MARTIN: Like those little books that you buy that are not about anything?

WILSON: That would be one thing. And then...

MARTIN: Candy?

WILSON: I'm at a loss to even try to remember some of this stuff.

MARTIN: Chachkas?

WILSON: That's how - yeah. That's...

MARTIN: Chachkas.

WILSON: ...the main thing. It was just kind of insignificant type stuff.

MARTIN: You also sold pharmaceuticals, too, at one point.

WILSON: I did that. That was my last sales gig. I did that for close to seven years. Great job. You know, I wasn't rich by any stretch of the imagination, but you knew you were going to get paid, you know, every two weeks, so I enjoyed it, but I wasn't comfortable, because I felt like there was something else I was supposed to be doing. I just was afraid to kind of step out there and try it.

MARTIN: When did you come to the awareness of your gift?

WILSON: You know, I've been singing my whole life and I grew up in my dad's male chorus. He used to make me go to male chorus rehearsal on Saturday nights. I missed my favorite shows, "Fantasy Island" and "Love Boat," stuff like that. And I always knew I could sing because they would keep letting me sing and lead songs in church.

I didn't really start to think that, man, maybe I can really do something with this, until possibly college. I sang at a talent show in college and I got a standing ovation. You know, several years later, I encountered Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston, sang for their first recording that they ever did, a song called "Awesome God," and it became a regional success and it kind of sparked something in me, like, man, maybe I can really do this.

MARTIN: And Windsor is...

WILSON: Kirbyjon Caldwell.

MARTIN: ...Kirbyjon Caldwell's church, who many people know because he was closely associated with former President George W. Bush. They were friends.

WILSON: Right. Uh-huh.

MARTIN: And he was kind of part of his circle of spiritual advisors. It's a very diverse church. It's an African-American church, but people will remember that name.

WILSON: Right.

MARTIN: But what about that connection? Did something about working on that recording make you think, maybe this is something that needs to take a bigger place in my life?

WILSON: It did. And I think it was connected to what you just said. It was a prominent church and so maybe I ascribed more value to what I was able to do in that particular setting than I had in any other before.

MARTIN: You became a music minister.

WILSON: Right.

MARTIN: And you were a music minister at St. John's, which is also...

WILSON: Which - it was birthed out of that church, actually. The people that started St. John's United Methodist Church in downtown Houston used to attend Windsor Village Church and Kirbyjon actually seeded into their ministry to get them started down there.

He heard some music that I had started doing for a mission outreach service at Windsor Village as a volunteer and decided to ask me to come down and help start their music ministry down there. It was an outreach service that he wanted to start in downtown Houston and that's where I kind of got my, quote, unquote, "professional start" in music ministry.

MARTIN: You obviously have a lovely voice. We can hear it just from the little snippet.

WILSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: So you have a choice of the kind of material that you can sing, so presumably, you could sing R&B, you could sing something else. Why gospel?

WILSON: It just makes sense for me. You know, in college - a little after college, actually - I was recording, like, R&B demos, so to speak. And I remember taking these pictures, you know, in these cut-off shirts where they would take the arm out of your shirt and stuff like that and try to make you look sexy and it never really worked for me, you know.

What I've always been is authentic about the story - that I didn't want to tell a story that wasn't my own and there's a song - my friends are begging me to continue to record this song called "I Wish I Was a Player" that was - it says a player is what a player does. If that was me, I would do you right. And it was about this girl I had a crush on in college, so that was kind of my focus at that time. I was really just girl crazy, to be honest with you.

My focus now is the fact that I've been saved by grace, so to speak, and given an opportunity to truly pursue my destiny and I feel forgiven for the mistakes that I've made and I feel compelled to tell the story in a way that makes other people feel that way, as well.

MARTIN: This album was executive produced by Mathew Knowles and that is a name that many people will know because he is the father of Beyonce Knowles and was their first manager, the manager for...

WILSON: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Destiny's Child and shepherded that group to its, you know, to phenomenal success.

WILSON: Yes.

MARTIN: And, of course, now she's launched on her amazing solo career. So how did that connection with Matthew Knowles come about?

WILSON: The person I mentioned before, Rudy Rasmus, who founded that church in downtown Houston, is a good friend of his. They've been friends for many years. So when I was plying my trade, so to speak, at that church, Matthew came in and he heard one of the songs that we did. It was called "Already Here," it made him decide to make me his first male artist on the label.

MARTIN: The first male artist on the label. Congratulations.

WILSON: That's the way he described it to me, yes.

MARTIN: But what was it about that song that you think grabbed him?

WILSON: Well, all I can say is what I've heard other people say and that it's hauntingly beautiful and that it's true, and it makes them really believe that God's presence is in the building when they hear it. And...

MARTIN: "Already Here." Makes sense.

WILSON: Yeah. And I guess from his perspective, you know, outside of all of those spiritual considerations he's like well, if a lot of people like it, you can sell a record with it. So let's do it.

MARTIN: Well, give me a bar or two. Give me a bar or two.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Give me something. Give me something. I don't have it front of me. Give me...

WILSON: (Singing) We watch and we wait, Lord. We anticipate the moment you choose to appear. We worship. We praise until there's no debate. And we recognize you're already here.

You with that? You like it?

MARTIN: Well, that's it. Well, yeah, yeah. Yeah, I can see it.

WILSON: All right. Cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I can see it.

WILSON: Good. Good.

MARTIN: I could understand it now. Thank you for breaking it down for me.

WILSON: You got it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: We're talking with Brian Courtney Wilson. His new CD is titled "So Proud." And we're talking about the journey that brought him, you know, to this point. And talk to me about "So Proud." Why that title?

WILSON: Why the title?

MARTIN: Yeah. What does it mean? And I love the cover, by the way. The cover is you wearing headphones as a toddler.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WILSON: Yes. Exactly. I jokingly said it was taken 25 years ago, because I don't want to give up my age, but...

MARTIN: Exactly. Right.

WILSON: But no.

MARTIN: We'll go with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Tell me about it.

WILSON: Yes. "So Proud" is it was, it was given to me in what I call like you really tough time. Like before the first record came out, "Just Love," I didn't even know if it was going to make it out. And I had people in my ear telling me, you know, well, maybe you need to change something about it. It's not valuable enough or you got to do something different to make sure people like it.

There were people who quite frankly, I think I was waiting on their validation and had come to depend on their support. They were starting to kind of walk away to a certain extent. I was afraid that the decision I made to walk away from corporate America was leading my family to shipwreck. And I remember, it was around the holidays and in the spirit of this verse, in the Bible that says train up a child in the way that they should go, when they are older they won't depart from it. I remembered my dad and my mom who were working class black people in Chicago. They never had a whole lot of money, but they never gave up either. And no one ever came to take their picture and to interview you, interview them like you're interviewing me, but they thought that they had enough to keep going and protect their family. And I thought if they can, I will too. And really, that's what my whole faith is about when I call myself a Christian. It's Jesus saying that hey, man, you're worth it. And I knew you were worth it way back before you were ever born, that's why I did for you on the cross.

MARTIN: You know, that's a good way to lead to this song. Let's play "He Still Cares."

WILSON: Ooh, that's a good one. OK.

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah. That's play short clip. Another make you sing this time. You're (unintelligible).

WILSON: OK. I love singing, though. I'll do it all day.

MARTIN: OK. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE STILL CARES")

WILSON: (Singing) He still cares. He still cares. You can believe it, he cares for you. Let me say it again, he still cares for you, you, you, you. Now get up. Dust yourself off. Put a smile on your face so you can tell somebody else, God still cares for you. If you need to cry, that's all right. Joy is coming in the morning. In fact, joyous.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. That was very good. Thank you. It was really lovely.

WILSON: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Do you, now that you out here and you are becoming more prominent, and dare I say it, you know, a celebrity, do you feel different? Do you feel any more responsibility?

WILSON: I feel more responsibility. I don't feel any different, though. I feel more confident about the value of my message, though. Like the more I tell it - and when I say my message I'm really saying my story. I just want to be as honest as possible. And when you talk about responsibility, that's what I'm responsible for.

MARTIN: We are having this conversation at a time when there have been some very sad stories in the news about, you know, celebrities and fates that have befallen them. I mean these are things that other people experience who are not celebrities, like, you know, drug addiction and things of that sort.

WILSON: Right.

MARTIN: But it gets magnified because someone is a celebrity. And I do wonder if you ever worry about, you know, the effect that that might have on your life or on your family's life.

WILSON: Absolutely do. I worry about my mistakes being exposed in a way that discredits the message and my ability to tell the story. And I'm, you know, I'm thinking about something in particular, actually. And that's like I really like potato chips a lot and sugary snacks and stuff like that and I probably eat more than I should, you know.

MARTIN: Have you been spying on me?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Have you been spying on me? Because I have a potato chip thing too.

WILSON: It is? OK. I got you. See, I'm not alone and I'm glad I told it.

MARTIN: No, no, you're not.

WILSON: So now we're in communion. We're talking about it.

MARTIN: Yeah.

WILSON: But...

MARTIN: And also chocolate chip cookies.

Man.

Is that an issue?

WILSON: That kills me.

MARTIN: You know, right?

WILSON: Now you're in my stuff right now.

MARTIN: You understand what I'm saying right here?

WILSON: Yeah. Absolutely I understand. And I don't want to do any...

MARTIN: What about guacamole? Not...

WILSON: Man. Michel, now you're tripping right now, because it is.

MARTIN: Really?

WILSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: I'm serious, guacamole is the thing.

WILSON: Guacamole. Yeah, man.

MARTIN: Right. But not all together. I just want to clarify for people.

WILSON: There is an HEB in Houston that does the best guacamole every day; I'm trying to tell you.

MARTIN: OK. OK. Well I feel better now that I let that out. So...

WILSON: OK. You do?

MARTIN: Yeah. And hopefully...

WILSON: So I feel off the hook too then. OK.

MARTIN: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WILSON: Very cool.

MARTIN: OK. But one more thing though, I do want to mention. You do talk a lot about being a married man. You've been married for more than 10 years and you do of children.

WILSON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And I do sometimes, listening to the album, I do feel like you're talking about this in a way that you, you're talking about your own relationship in life. Is that accurate?

WILSON: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely.

MARTIN: OK. Mm-hmm. And is that part of your witness, to kind of witness that faithfulness, the daily-ness of commitment and what it requires, is that part of your witness?

WILSON: And the struggle. And the struggle. Yeah. Absolutely.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

WILSON: Oh, something that you got to choose to do. Something that you don't always feel like doing. Some days where you come up short and those days you got to get over it so you can come up strong again the next day. I mean I'm hoping that we're saying it in a way that's compelling, that makes people want to keep listening, in a way that doesn't like set off the corny meter, so to speak.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. Well, well, doesn't set off the corny meter. OK. I'm going to remember that. But let me just play a little bit of one of the songs I was thinking of. It's called "One Day At A Time."

WILSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: We'll play a clip of that. OK. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE DAY AT A TIME")

WILSON: (Singing) I've heard people say, feelings are bound to change. But this one thing still remains I don't wan to face tomorrow without you. To have, to have, to hold, to hold, until, until we're old, we're old. Oh, to stay faithful to this love, faithful to this love, one day at a time. Care, to care, to share, to share, this joy, the joy, each tear, the tears. Oh yeah, believing God...

MARTIN: I have a feeling this song is going to be sung at many weddings going forward after this album comes.

WILSON: I hope so. I hope so.

MARTIN: Was there some, were you thinking of some situation in particular when you wrote it? And I do want to mention you also wrote or co-wrote almost all the songs on this album.

WILSON: That's right. I was having a conversation with a co-writer of that song, P.J. Morton, and we were talking about marriage. And he had been married three years and I was coming up on 12 years this year, and I was saying, you know, people ask me sometimes, you know, how do you make it work? I always say well, we do it one day at a time. Like, you know, we didn't decide to just be married 12 years. We decide every day to do what it takes to keep our marriage together. And I make the decision and she makes the decision, I can't make her make the right decision for the marriage and she can't make me, and that's part of why we call it being faithful. Like I can't tell what the end is going to be, I'm just hoping that it will be. But thankfully, after close to 12 years now, we've both decided that regardless of what happened yesterday we want to go into the next day together. That's what I wanted to tell the story about.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations.

WILSON: Well, thank you so much, Michel.

MARTIN: Well, what's next for you?

WILSON: Next for me is one of my prayers as I do this is that I continue to create the type of catalog that when I look back on my career and other people look back on it, it's like man, he made a lot of great music. People I admire doing this type of music, a Fred Hammond's, Marvin Sapp, Andrea Houlton(ph), and when I look at them I think man, they have made, you know, a lot of great music and albums. And I'm praying that God continues to reveal to me the type of words, and lyrics and music that other people can lean on for a very long time.

MARTIN: Are you at all worried that you are limited in your appeal because you are faithful to this message; this is the motivating force in the music?

WILSON: Limited in my appeal?

MARTIN: Limited in your appeal - that there might be people who listen to you otherwise if you weren't faithful to this particular message?

WILSON: Not worried about it but it is a consideration. Because I know I'll be the first to admit that what I believe is kind of ridiculous. You know, I believe in a God that I've never seen who apparently took on a man's form, came down to Earth to die for me, although he's never met me before. And while he was here he was raising people from the dead and walking on water. But it's what my mom believed and what my dad believed and what his dad believed before him and that's what "So Proud" is about. These promises have come true and I've found them to come true in my own life and I'm going to keep telling the story.

MARTIN: Brian Courtney Wilson...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Stop. You messing me up. Brian...

WILSON: Guacamole.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Brian Courtney Wilson's latest CD is called "So Proud," and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Brian Courtney Wilson, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WILSON: Thank you, Ms. Martin. I really appreciate it. I'm a big fan too. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILSON: (Singing) I remember church one Sunday morning. I remember everyone that was there. I got sing my song, and the first notes came out wrong, but she still shouted 'cause you were so proud.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. And remember, to tell us more, please go to NPR.org and find us under the Programs tab. You can find our podcast there. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter @TELL ME MORE/NPR. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILSON: (Singing) Staying up late at night trying to pay the bills, it's tight. But you kept on. Kept on. 'Cause you were so proud. So proud. Ooh, I remember watching you read your Bible. Your Bible. And then crying sometimes when you pray. And now that I am a man I finally understand how to bow down still stay proud. Woo, we may not have all of the finest...

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