Matthew Houck aka Phosphorescent
is returning to his roots with the new album, Muchacho
. The first track we heard, "Song For Zula," is a lush synth ballad with an Enya-meets-Springsteen sincerity that feels both warm and heartbreaking, like a summer wind that brings nostalgia in its wake. The rest of the album showcases Houck's blues and country roots - this is a guy who recorded an entire album of Willie Nelson covers - with hymnals and honky-tonks that feature piano, violin, slide guitar, and horns to support his shivering vocals. Always inspiring and always musically unpredictable, Phosphorescent is definitely a songwriter worth watching, and we were fortunate enough to talk with him about his recording process, his lyrics, and Brooklyn tacos.
While you read, listen to Muchacho
, which is currently streaming in its entirety:
How do you feel about the new album coming out?
I feel great! I wish it was out already. It's hard to finish a record and have to sit on it for six months while the record label does its thing.
You recorded and produced the album on your own. Were there any challenges you encountered?
Just the normal challenges. I've actually recorded and produced all the Phosphorescent records, with the exception of one EP. I think there are a lot of challenges, but I wouldn't trade them. One of the challenges is that you're trying to work the technical aspect. Gear breaks a lot and you have to do maintenance. I recorded some basic tracks in the very early stages of recording at Electric Ladyland, Jimi Hendrix's old studio. It's beautiful, it's one of the most amazing places...it's a dream studio. But it just doesn't work for me. It's hard to be on a schedule, which sounds like it might be a minor problem, but it turns out to be [major]. I think if I were working in a proper studio, with the clock ticking and billable hours going out the window...I tend to daydream and play around with something for ten hours before actually hitting 'record.' So I really do enjoy working alone like that.
Were there any other advantages of working in your own studio?
Just the freedom to be able to try out ideas and not feel any kind of pressure about hours ticking by. I just require solitude. I require a long time to access some of the mental state to be able to make some of this stuff. Anytime you're working in a commercial studio, there are going to be people around. And that's beautiful, and I'm sure it's a great thing if you work that way, but I've always needed some alone time to access those feelings.
You moved from Georgia to Brooklyn, which strikes me as kind of a busy place for a solitary artist. Do you feel like it's affected your songwriting?
Well, outside of the solitude of working, I'm not actually that solitary of a person. I love Brooklyn and I have a great time up here. And I don't know how it's affected my songwriting. I never know how to answer that question, because you can only see things as they are, as opposed to having an idea of what they would have been if you'd been somewhere else. I don't know how it's affected my songwriting, but I'm sure it has. Everything does.
When did you move out to Brooklyn?
Five years ago, I think...?
How do you feel that your sound is evolving? Do you feel like this record is heading in a different direction?
I do, but I think the public perception is quite different than the way it has been for me. The last two records, the Willie Nelson covers and Here's To Taking It Easy
, to me, were the departure records. They were the ones where I was kind of trying to work with a different sound, kind of a classic rock and country sound. The records before were more in line with what this record is. So, for me, it's getting back to my normal way of working. The reason that I think it's confusing is because most people didn't hear of Phosphorescent until the last two records.
So, you did a record of Willie Nelson covers. Who are your other influences and inspirations?
Oh, there are so many! Just songwriters, you know? Any artist that consistently writes good songs. I don't really think about genres, I just tend to gravitate toward artists that consistently turn out good work. Most stuff tends to be lyric-based. That's what inspires me.
I was reading your interview with Spin, and it seemed to say that you don't like to talk about the meaning of your lyrics. Is that true?
I'm actually okay with talking about lyrics. But often to go past the lyrics seems to be antithetical to what you're doing when you have crafted this thing where hopefully - if you've done your job right - the lyrics say it as best as they possibly could, so it's sort of a refraction of something to say it again in lesser words. It just seems like the opposite of song. Hopefully the song can stand on its own.
What's the songwriting process like for you?
The songwriting process, for me, is one of trying to have the self-discipline to sit down in a chair and write the thing. That's the biggest thing: willing it, as opposed to waiting for divine inspiration to help you out.
You're starting a world tour this spring. How are you feeling about it?
I'm feeling good about it. I've done a lot of touring over the years, and I think I was a little bit burnt out after the last record and all the touring that happened. At this point, I've been off the road for over a year, and I've really enjoyed it. I think sometimes too much of a good thing can burn you out. But getting this band together, and having rehearsed with them after making the record [feels great]. We played a show a month ago, kind of warm-up show to see how it was feeling playing these new songs, and it sounded so good
. So I'm really thrilled to have put together this band and to be going out again.
Are there any stops you're looking forward to in particular?
Yeah! Oh, I mean, all of them! [Laughs] Honestly, all of them. Like I said, it's been just long enough that I'm really stoked to get back to all these cities.
One last question: what's your favorite place in Brooklyn?
I don't know about favorite. Favorites are hard. Oh, you know, I should give a shout-out! The bass player in my band has a taco shop called Whirly Bird in Williamsburg. They serve coffee and breakfast burritos. So give that some love.
is out 3/19 on Dead Oceans. Pre-order it here