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Joel Houston

Joel Houston

The Hillsong United frontman on the album that changed everything

Hillsong United’s latest project, Of Dirt and Grace, features live versions of songs from the band’s studio album Empires. But it’s not your regular live album. The band filmed and recorded the project at locations around Israel—drawing inspiration from the places where Jesus actually walked. We talked to band leader Joel Houston about the process of making the album.

Why did you decide to do a live, visual album?
The whole premise is based on this idea of dichotomy and reality versus the spiritual—the empires of the world that we live in versus the Kingdom of Heaven that God is establishing. We started with what Empires was: The instrumentation is quite large and the production value is really high. We wanted to do a version where we stripped this all the way back to a point where we didn’t arrange these songs beforehand.

What’s behind the title, Of Dirt and Grace?
It’s the line of the song “empires of dirt and grace.” This idea that we’re flesh, we work, but it’s God’s light, it’s God’s grace inside of us, it’s the Spirit that we’re chasing after. It’s the wind. You can’t necessarily explain it. You can’t see it, but it drives everything we do. It’s not our job to create the wind. We’ll huff and puff and we’ll lose our breath and we’ll die trying. It’s our job to be faithful stewards with what’s in front of us and trust that God’s gonna come through.

How did recording in Israel come about?
It started as one of those ideas that gets thrown around in a room as an “imagine if.” Logistically, it seemed impossible. But then, all these events started working together to make it happen. I look back at it now and it looks like a highly polished thing that we planned out for months in advance, but I promise you it was the most disheveled, unorganized thing. We would get to a location—and it could be anywhere, on a cliff like Mount Arbor looking over the city of Galilee—and we’d have 25 minutes. We’d record the song twice, and that was it. The whole project played itself out that way. It felt like an expedition. We didn’t know what each day was going to look like.

How did it feel being in those locations?
It was my first time in Israel. The first place we recorded was the tomb where people think Jesus was buried. People love to make a shrine out of geography, but I was like, “I don’t feel anything special right now.” I realized in that moment that as the church—as people who’ve accepted the grace that we have in Jesus Christ and his Holy Spirit that is now alive and at work in us—we are the geography of God. We are the temple. God’s spirit is always with us. He’s not just there.

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