Howie Dorough & Family
Photo by Nicole Hensley
Backstreet Boy Howie Dorough On How Crippling Anxiety & Shyness Inspired His Family Album, 'Which One Am I?'
In his new solo album, Which One Am I?, Backstreet Boy Howie Dorough sings about spending summer days as a kid, hiding in the pool changing shed to avoid being seen in swimming trunks. Meanwhile, he would go to school praying that he wouldn't have to sing in music class. Likewise, if a teacher ever asked him to speak in front of the class, he tells the Recording Academy that he would face a wave of nerves and anxiety, which would sweep over him and manifest in stutters and misread words.
It might be hard to believe that that anxious kid would eventually grow up to be a member of one of the most successful boy bands in the world. But happily, Dorough's fear of public speaking didn't stop him from performing, and it hasn’t stopped him from hosting fan after-parties or album listening sessions. Meanwhile, his aforementioned physical insecurities haven't prevented him from stripping down at Backstreet Boys beach parties.
Shyness and anxiety are some of the many childhood struggles Dorough explored in his new family album, Which One Am I?, which he created with the hope that both children and adults would relate.
As a father of two young boys himself (James, 10, and Holden, six, with his wife of 11 years, Leigh), the doting dad noticed a lack of suitable music for his sons to listen to once they were past the "Kidz Bop" stage, but not old enough for teen offerings on the radio. Nor was there music which adults would find entertaining alongside their children.
Teaming up with GRAMMY-nominated composer Tor Hyams and his vocalist partner Lisa St. Lou, Dorough set out to create a family-friendly record and subsequently ended up exploring the issues of his youth. The album, released to coincide with the launch of the Backstreet Boys DNA World Tour, has also been adapted into a musical, Howie D: Back in the Day, with Dorough set to star in the debut run of shows kicking off at Omaha’s Rose Theater in January.
Below, the Recording Academy speaks to Dorough about his new record and the personal inspiration behind it.
How does it feel to finally release your solo record?
I’m excited! It's definitely something which if you had asked me 20 years ago, or 15 years ago, whether I’d be doing this right now, I would have been like, "You're off your rockers!" I was shy growing up, but as well as that, I would never have thought I’d go from pop music to making a family album.
You worked with Tor and Lisa on the record. How did the songs evolve after your initial discussions with them?
They said, "You have a lot of relatable things that kids can relate to—and adults, too." Everyday situations like worrying, being shy, feeling small and being in somebody’s shadow. So, we started writing about this stuff. The majority of the songs are loosely based on real-life experiences, like "Pollyanna’s Shadow" refers to growing up with my older sister, Pollyanna.
You used to go into music class, praying that you wouldn't have to sing in front of your classmates, which seems ironic now that you’ve made a living singing to millions of people around the world. How much did that shyness hold you back as a kid?
I was definitely very shy—even just reading in front of my class, I would stutter. Or I wouldn’t stutter, but I'd get so nervous and my anxiety would take over so much that I’d read words that weren’t even there! I'd just be standing there shaking in front of the class.
Do you ever feel like that these days?
Even to this day I still get nervous every time before I go on stage. Every time we're about to do something for television or at an awards show—if they took my blood pressure, it would probably be sky-high! A lot of people don’t realize, but part of me is still shy. I’m not like some other people who are like, "I just want to sing for you all the time. Let me be on all the time." I’m a little more reserved. And that’s why, believe it or not, I don't do a lot of karaoke. People are like, "You must do karaoke all the time," but I really don't. If it's not one of my songs, I probably haven’t sung it in 30 years. I still get shy about being out there, especially if I’m exposing myself in a different light to be criticized and critiqued.
"Me and Kevin [Richardson] were more in the background and I struggled with that for many years. I never wanted to just be a background singer, but I realized over time that everything was meant to be."
So, how do you get up in front of sold-out crowds to perform every night?
I just do it. I just get up there! Little by little, I’ve learned not to embrace, but to understand the nerves and the butterflies. I've realized that it’s actually what I need to keep me on my toes.
You explore struggles with your multi-racial identity growing up in the album, but it sounds like being in a boy band has also caused identity issues. What has been the most memorable cause of mistaken identity?
Oh boy, I’ve had so many over the years! People will say, "Oh, is that the group with Justin Timberlake?" and I'll say, "No, it's not," then they'll be like, "Oh, you're in Menudo? Or 98 Degrees?” Then even within my own group, it’s like, "Are you AJ?" I'm like, "No, I'm Howie!"
"Pollyanna’s Shadow" is a song which a lot of kids who grow up with an older sibling will relate to. But have you also felt that with the Backstreet Boys over the years—in terms of sharing the spotlight with four other guys and often having to step into their shadow as they take on lead vocals?
Absolutely. In the early years, when the group first started, I was more of a lead singer, then little by little as we started working with [songwriter] Max Martin and the label, I got pushed more to the back. Me and Kevin [Richardson] were more in the background and I struggled with that for many years. I never wanted to just be a background singer, but I realized over time that everything was meant to be. If we didn't have the songs—and the vocals which were chosen for those songs back then—who knows if they would have been as big of hits as they are nowadays? And now I get my chance to shine here and there, just like Kevin, and it's always a great feeling.
It sounds like the other guys have been supportive of that?
When Kevin took a break I remember going to the guys and saying, "You know, I want to continue doing this with you guys, but now it really feels so awkward being in the background. It's one thing to have somebody else there in the background with me, but now that Kevin's not here, I need you guys to allow me to step up to the play in order to feel like I work in this group." The guys were really good about it. It was never like any of the guys were saying, "You can't do it." It was more the choices of the producers. And I don’t fault them for it because obviously they want the record to be the best it can be and if my voice may not be the exact tone they’re looking for, I get it. Nowadays it doesn’t bother me as much anymore.
But given that you were experiencing shyness and anxiety, did that make you more accepting of being in the background? Or did it somehow impact your performance back then?
I think with that pressure from the producers and constantly trying to prove myself, that definitely created anxiety. And, that in turn probably affected my voice and made it not as strong as it could have been.
Is anxiety harder to deal with given you have to constantly hit the spotlight on stage with the Backstreet Boys, or does it help since you have thousands of fans screaming their support and encouragement for you?
I think it's both. What guy wouldn't want a bunch of screaming women yelling for him? It definitely gives you a boost to your confidence, but I still find myself challenged with trying to be the best that I can be on stage.
You're also launching a musical, Howie D: Back in the Day, at the Rose Theater in January. How did the album evolve into a musical?
The more we started writing, we were like, "Oh, this is a musical here." This is not your normal kids' record. It’s definitely a little different. So, after we got the record done, things shifted over into making the musical. The pieces really felt like they needed to be more of a musical with an accompanying CD, rather than just a CD on its own. So, we started doing rewrites and writing the musical and about three of the songs from Which One Am I? ended up making it into the musical. Then we were like, "We still have such a great body of work here. It would be a shame to not let it see the light of day for our fans after I’ve been talking about this for five years!" So, we finally put the album out!