Alabama-native-turned-Brooklynite Matthew Houck, known better by his stage name Phosphorescent, is a sensitive soul who knows how to rock out (we were lucky enough to get to know him in our recent interview). He released his seventh studio album Muchacho in March to critical acclaim, baring his soul to us more than ever with a balance of bitter blues rock and sinewy folk. It's no wonder we were thrilled to have him play Hype Machine's Hype Hotel at SXSW this year.
"These are prescription sunglasses. I'm not an asshole," Houck explains from the Hype Hotel stage to a sea of fans, before launching into the much-loved "Song For Zula" off his recent record. Watching him live gives you a chance to hear the true versatility of his vocals and experience first-hand the quaking emotions they hold. Alt-country fans should definitely indulge in this 25-minute gem of a performance.
- We're called Phosphorescent. This is a song called the Quotidian Beasts. It seems appropriate at the moment. Here we go. It woke me up early I went and I drew me a bath I knew she'd be coming and she had found me at last And I started to scold her, she just started to laugh And the beast came upon her, I guess it wasn't so bad I said it's who took your claws, you slipped em under my skin There's parts that got outside, honey, I want to put them back in We've been playing like children, honey, now we'll play it like men Those parts that got outside, I'm gonna put, put them back in She took the beak of a raven and she laid it out just for show She spun it round on the table, honey, Hey, I thought you should know I saw the streets weren't lighted on the window below Yeah, that beast was upon me, honey Hey, I thought you should know Her ancient eyes were upon me, they were familiar and black She laid her claws all upon me, she had found me at last And though it woke me up early, I went and I drew me a bath That beast was upon me, honey Hey, it wasn't so bad - Give it up. - Thank y'all so much. So I want to say two things. One is thanks for being here to see us. Two is these are prescription sunglasses, and I'm not an asshole wearing his sunglasses inside. And I want to make that clear because I feel like an asshole kind of. This is a song called Song for Zula. I hope you like it. Some say love is a burning thing That it makes a fiery ring Oh but I know love as a fading thing Just as fickle as a feather in a stream Honey, I saw love You see, it came to me It put its face up to my face so I could see Then I saw love disfigure me into something I am not recognizing See the cage, it called I said, come on in I will not open myself up this way again I lay my face to the soil, and all my teeth to the sand I will not lay like this for days now upon end You will not see me fall, nor see me struggle to stand To be acknowledged by some touch from his gnarled hands You see the cage, it called I said, come on in I will not open myself up this way again You see the moon is bright in that treetop night I see the shadows that we cast in the cold clean light On my feet I go and my heart is wide And we race out on the desert plains all night See, honey, I'm not some broken thing I do not lay here in the dark waiting for thee Now my heart is wild and my feet all right And I'm racing out on the desert plains all night Some say love is a burning thing They say it makes a fiery ring Oh but I know love as a caging thing Just a killer come to call from some awful dream And all of you folks, hey come and see You just stand there in the glass looking at me But my heart is wild and my bones are steel And I could kill you with my bare hands if I was real - Thank you. Well, apart from the things I touched Nothing got broke all that much And apart from the things I took Nothing got stolen, baby, look You can love me foolishly Love me foolish-like So I wake in the morning and I dress Hang a charm of gold around my neck And I sip from this silver cup And I sing these words for good luck I sing, love me foolishly Love me foolish-like - Billie Ray, come on. So I wake in the morning, I dress I hang that charm of gold around my neck And I haul to her window to look And I sing these words to wake her up I sing, love me foolishly Love me foolish-like I sing, love me foolishly Love me foolish-like Hey, so apart from the things I touched Nothing got broke all that much And apart from the things I took Nothing got stolen, baby, look Hey, you can love me foolishly Love me foolish-like Oh and love me foolishly Love me foolish-like And love me foolishly Oh, love me foolish-like - We have a new record coming out next week and it's called Muchacho, and this is a song off of that record. It's called Terror in the Canyons. I could be the fire, I could be the lake I could be the tiger, I could be the snake I could be the sky bird that's waiting on the wind I could be the devil that's waiting to begin I was the wounded master, and I was the slave My hands and my eyes, oh honey, would not behave See, I was the wounded writer, then I was the page Then I was the bleeding actor, then I was the stage But now you're telling me my heart's sick, and I'm telling you I know And you're telling me you're leaving Hey, and I'm telling you to go And I'm not so sorry for the heart wreck For each season left unblessed For the terror in the canyons and the terror in our chests ah oh So I could be the tether, I could be the place I could be forever or just a couple days I could be the morning that breaks upon your skin I could be the devil and do it all again I was the wounded master then I was the slave My hands and my mouth, oh honey, they was caught in a rage See, I was the holy lion, and I was the cage Then I was the bleeding actor, oh, then I was the stage Oh, hey, now you're telling me my heart's sick And I'm telling you I know And you're telling me you're leaving Hey, I'm telling you to go And I'm not so sorry for the heart wreck For each season left unblessed The new terror in the canyons The new terror in our chests
Nearly three years on from his breakthrough album Here's To Taking It Easy, Phosphorescent returns to the fray with his most stunning record yet: Muchacho . During the last album's 'cycle', one could almost hear jaws hitting the floor witnessing a live band of such infinite verve. Not only did the album draw high praise in the form of Mojo's 'Album of the Month' (#8 End of Year), Sunday Times & The Independent 'Albums of the Week', hit Rough Trade's Top 5 Best of the Year, but the band also supported The National over the course of three sold out nights at Brixton Academy, a show that The Independent gave 5/5 and called "a sublime, joyous gig".
Matthew Houck, for he is Phosphorescent, likes to work. The Alabama native, now resident in Brooklyn has delivered five albums as Phosphorescent since his 2003 debut. Houck has a highly distinctive artistic voice, but also a refreshing, rolled-sleeves approach to his expression, and if he had his way, he'd have twice as many albums under his belt by now. The singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer is envious of the time when prolificacy was expected. "In the '60s and '70s, they were making artists crank out records every six months. With guys like Waylon Jennings, John Prine and even Dylan, I don't think those records would have gotten made in today's climate, because now you're allowed or even required to make a grand statement. I have this ideal and I know it's not possible, because of the way the industry works of making a record every year."
Houck may not have managed that, but still has an impressive output one born of commitment and his soul's need to have its say. It was 2007's Pride a delicate and spare, haunted and haunting work of ragged country, bittersweet southern gospel and forlorn folk-ish drone that first caused ears to swivel appreciatively in Phosphorescent's direction. He followed it with To Willie, a tribute to country legend Willie Nelson, then 2010's Here's To Taking It Easy, an unapologetically enthusiastic plunge into country rock and rolling Americana. Now, his sixth album flashes yet another colour in the subtly shifting Phosphorescent spectrum.
Muchacho reprises the understated melancholia and sensuous minimalism of Pride, while kicking up a little of Here's To Taking It Easy's dust, but it also strikes out into more adventurous waters via rhythm and electronic textures. It took shape if not quite by accident, then partly as a result of events beyond Houck's control. After spending the best part of 18 months touring his last record, Houck was, in his words "pretty fried." In late 2011, he returned to the Brooklyn Navy Yard studio where he'd recorded his previous two albums, planning "on taking this whole thing down a few notches. I wanted to make music," he explains, "but I was weary, so the spectre of putting anything out and getting back on the road was a bit of a block." In December, he bought a load of old analogue gear and "just starting playing around with it, making these noises. They weren't songs, they were just strange sound pieces. I've always had that element in my work, and one or two weird, ambient pieces seem to squeeze themselves onto every record, but suddenly I was doing a lot of those." Houck also turned into a bit of DIY electrician, since a lot of the vintage gear needed fixing. "I ended up spending a lot of time learning about stuff like impedance matching and ohms," he laughs. "I really got quite nerdy about how it all worked."
Houck also got very enthusiastic about the sonics that would eventually feed into the strikingly raw, Can-like, 'Ride On/Right On', where his simple, whooping vocal and 808 drum beats are the focus, the production is echo-heavy and the guitar little more than abstract background choogling. "I've always been happy with the records I've made," the singer says, "but sonically, I think there's been something lacking. This time, I was getting really excited about the experimental sounds I was making. I was thinking I might make an ambient record that had vocals, but no lyrics. I was actually considering releasing it under another name, or even my own name." So, a much-needed break, plus some enjoyable messing around with noise, without much thought as to how to use it. But, exactly as 2012 turned, Houck's life began to unravel. A domestic crisis meant he had to find another apartment/studio at short notice, in the dead of winter. In accommodation-squeezed New York. His life was falling apart, but almost perversely, "songs just started happening, and there were five or six of them." Houck admits he was "in the middle of a bit of a freak-out," so in the small hours one Sunday, he booked a ticket to Mexico, on a plane that was leaving three hours later. "It sounds really cheesy, but I went down there with a guitar and got a little hut on the beach in Tulum, on the Yucatan Peninsula." He spent a week there, working to finish the songs that would become Muchacho, then went back to NYC, found a new place, fitted it out with his studio and began tracking the record in May 2012.
'Muchacho's Tune' with its opening braid of twanging guitars, piano and electric keys, its warm, rich reverb and poignant mariachi brass is the song on which the album turns. "I've been fucked-up and I've been a fool," confesses Houck, who may or may not be the feckless man-boy of the title. This was the first song to come to him fully formed, and it establishes the album's lyrical theme "that the possibility of redemption through love and romance is not just hopeful, it's also viable. It definitely exists. But what ends up happening is more redemption through some vague means that I don't really understand."
The album is perfectly framed by 'Sun, Arise! (An Invocation, An Introduction)' and 'Sun's Arising (A Koan, An Exit)', the opening and closing tracks respectively. Sweet, healing and hugely potent in their hymnal simplicity, they not only recognise the diurnal rhythm that governs our existence, but also remind us that however dark things might get, the light will always reappear.
'Muchacho's Tune', the somber and majestically slow 'A New Anhedonia' and the seductively loose 'The Quotidian Beasts' are the album's fullest songs in terms of instrumentation and arrangements. Houck called on around 20 musicians at different times to add various parts, including members of the superior five-piece live band that has recently made such an eloquent and physically powerful contribution to Phosphorescent's soulful expression. But the album's composition and production are again all his own. "It's really always me by myself, so much so that with Pride, no one else played anything. I have a group of really great dudes, and I'll happily trumpet how fantastic these guys are, but a band going into the studio, as one? That never happens."
'A New Anhedonia' a gorgeous, charcoal grey song on which understated piano, soft brush work and ripples of pedal-steel guitar are matched with heavy reverb and gently sighing backing vocals was the second song to come fully formed to Houck. And the crisis it describes was resolved by the very writing. Anhedonia is a loss of the ability to take pleasure in something the sufferer usually finds enjoyable, and Houck experienced it in those winter months following that grueling tour. It's quite a shock to hear him murmur, "all the music is boring to me" and then describe music as "foreign", but that's how he felt for a short, dark while. "In addition to what was going on in my personal life, music had always been the most reliable thing for me, but I had a few really lost months of not caring about it, of not deriving any pleasure from music. I felt detached and adrift from everything. Oddly enough, I don't think I knew the word 'anhedonia'; it just kind of popped up right around the time of writing that song. That dread was still quite prevalent, even after the batch of songs came together."
If losing one's way results in something as lustrous as the first album taster 'Song for Zula', more artists should find life's maze and walk around for an indefinite period. It is such a glorious gem that unfolds with Houck's cracked vocal stalking the perimeters unabashed. And this amidst an album positively riddled with highlights like 'Terror in the Canyons' and superlative 'A Charm/A Blade'; all barreling piano and stabby horns galore.
It's indicative of Houck's distinctive talent, dedication to his work and trust in his muse, then, that a temporary hurdle didn't become a serious block. "I got clear of it by just getting to work on the recording," he says, simply. Sleeves rolled. Resolve fixed. Muchacho delivered.