Phosphorescent: These songs are joyous things for me
Photo by Dusdin Condren
Matthew Houck, better known by his moniker Phosphorescent, has had a tremendous year so far. After being evicted from his long-time home in Brooklyn's Navy Yards area, the Alabama-born Houck had a something like a crisis of self on his hands: without a home or a studio (for they had been one and the same), Houck proclaimed himself "bored of music" and decided to escape to the sunny coasts of Mexico to clear his head and see if he had another Phosphorescent album left in him. Luckily, he did.
Muchacho, with its ten ambling, beaten-up country-ish songs, picks up right where 2010's Here's to Taking It Easy left off. Houck has his own solemn vocabulary when it comes to songwriting, creating impressionistic landscapes with songs like "A New Anhedonia" and the epic, incandescent "Song for Zula." Muchacho feels gritty, bitterly determined to carry on, as though convinced that the worst, now, is over. "I've been fucked up, and I've been a fool," Huock admits on "Muchacho's Tune," "But like the wave unto the sand, I'll fix myself up, come and be with you."
Ahead of his gig this Friday at the Turf Club, Gimme Noise chatted with Houck over the phone about the new album, where it came from, and how it feels to be on the road again.
Gimme Noise: I want to get the timeline right: you lost your home in New York in 2012, and you went to Mexico, and then you came back to New York and recorded the album. What happened there in Mexico?
Matthew Huock: It was actually January... The New Year came around, and I didn't really lose the place, they just wouldn't renew my lease. It was my studio as well, so I had to find a new spot to do the record and it was just... [Pause] I went to Mexico for a week or just over a week, just to try to see if these songs I had, if these sort of pieces of songs could be something. I just couldn't find the time or space or mental space [in New York].
Well, I found out that I wanted to make another Phosphorescent record. I had kind of taken a big break from doing it, and I didn't know if I was gonna make another one. I mean, I'm always gonna make music -- I just didn't know if I was gonna call it Phosphorescent. I just kind of wanted to see... It was a moment of deciding what I wanted to next.
This record feels so heavy. Is it hard for you to be on the road and return to that place every night, to get back into those songs, the emotion and the heaviness of them?
You know, it's weird... I really agree with you, completely -- it is a heavy record. For me, I still don't understand the alchemy that makes it turn into something, but to sing these songs doesn't require me to go back to a heavy headset. I just feel really joyous and beautiful and the opposite of sad and heavy and downtrodden. Somehow, they turn into these joyous things for me.
You have such a strong musical vocabulary. You're writing these songs, and I guess they're country songs, but they're also like symphonies. Where do you start? How do you create?
[Pause] I -- what happens to me is that I'll get a little kernel of a song... That's what happened on this record, anyway. It's always been a little different. Sometimes things will just spill right out, or it's been straight lyrics and then they'll be put to music. With this album, each song started with one line that would just pop into my head, and I would just remember that, but it was several months that I was ignoring these songs, and I didn't know if I was going to write them at all... But then I had like nine or ten of them that I was kicking around, so I guess what I'm saying is that eventually I ended up doing it like a writer. I sat down and spent several hours a day writing verses and editing them and changing them, and it was the first time I had done this sort of revision process. I felt more like a writer than a musician.
That's strange. I very rarely hear that sort of process from musicians. So you were thinking about abandoning the Phosphorescent lead--are you still thinking about that now?
I think the question for me there was what Phosphorescent and this project was doing. I think before, I had these songs, but what I was working with was non-lyric based. It was just sounds, and I didn't know if I could put a record out like that and call it Phosphorescent without lyrics... it might not be able even to be called I song, I guess. So my big hope is that the definition of what a Phosphorescent record is, now, is that I can do whatever I want, and I didn't know that was possible at that time... But then these songs kicked up, and now I feel good about it.
Do you like the album? Are you satisfied?
Yeah, I am. I really am. I'm really happy with the way it sounds. I think I've learned a little bit better how to make records, so I think it sounds really great, and I'm really happy with it.
You've been doing this for a while now--making music, touring, the whole deal. You are ten years and seven records in. What have you learned over the years -- about the business, or about yourself?
Hopefully I've gotten better as a writer and a singer, but the thing that I can definitely see is that I've gotten better at being an engineer and a producer. I think in the past, I was so focused on the songwriting that the rest of the record didn't even bother me that much... But learning how to make a record sound--that's really exciting to me right now.
Are there any particular stops on the tour that you're excited for?
To be honest... [Takes deep breath] Every single one of them. It's the first tour that I've ever really done where every stop is sold out and it's been a really... it feels great. The energy in all these rooms has been off the charts. The band that I've got right now is astonishing. I'm excited about all of them.
Phosphorescent is playing at the Turf Club on Friday, April 12 with Strand of Oaks. Doors at 8 p.m. $14. 21+. Info here. This show is sold out.
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