“It’s funny,” says Matthew Houck, “I was looking at this art book at my friend’s house the other night. It was photography. And, I realized, photographs of naked ladies are always awesome.”
I agree with him, wondering where he is going with this because as far as realizations go, this one appeared from my blind spot. Our interview is nearly over and this is the first time he has really gone off script, not exactly answering my question about what he thinks makes up a good song.
“It’s always interesting,” he continues, “even though you’ve seen it a thousand times. The book had a bunch of nudes in it and I thought ‘this is always good stuff.’ I feel it’s like that with good songs, too. There is always something in there that’s brand new, even if you’ve heard something similar a thousand times. It’s something that gets me through. I love it.”
Houck speaks in an unassuming and considered way that diverts attention from his fading Southern accent, as if an epiphany could arrive at any moment, though that the moment may be in bed tonight or days later. This characteristic works best for him when writing music, as he does under the name Phosphorescent, as he can take the time to wait for inspiration to come, and even wrestle it out when it’s lacking.
There is no doubt that Houck loves music when he says so, and it has virtually taken over his life for the last decade. His passion for music comes across in the passion of his music, though Houck does perceive a difference between the person who works on the songs and the person who has relationships and drinks with friends and talks to reporters. “There’s a division there,” Houck says of his two lives, and this is clear from minute one when his initial words to me are an unexpectedly tongue-in-cheek request to push harder for him to be on the cover of Paste.
At the release of his previous LP, 2010’s Here’s to Taking it Easy, the idea of Phosphorescent on a national magazine cover would be a stretch, but between the tireless touring behind that effort and the strength of his catalog gaining cumulative attention, his sixth LP,Muchacho, arrives with newfound anticipation and buzz. Initial word-of-mouth has been very positive and has indicated that Houck might have crafted his best album yet.
Muchacho borrows from a number of musical traditions, combining characteristics found in country, rock, electronic, folk and gospel music. And, like anything that doesn’t really have a set sound but is enjoyed by people with an affinity for tight pants, it’s usually just lumped in with indie rock. Combining all these elements might risk being a hodgepodge, but Houck has his own perspective.
“I think a lot of people, myself included, just don’t care about genre divisions,” he says. “It arises out of this need to talk about music, and I understand that the categorization is necessary. It’s just what happens when you try to talk about something as ephemeral as music.”
And though he is adamant to not confine Phosphorescent’s sound with crit-speak terminology, Houck admits that his 2009 Willie Nelson covers album, To Willie, “confused a lot of people” and Phosphorescent’s appearance at Stagecoach Music Festival saw them as “the weirdest band that was playing.”
“I love those [Willie Nelson] songs and it made sense to me,” Houck says of that project. “And that’s why we got invited to play those country festivals. And, it didn’t bother me one bit. People seemed to love it. People love music and they love good songs, and they’re a lot smarter than these broad categorizations give them credit for.”
Based in New York since 2007, Matthew Houck grew up in Alabama, and these roots are a foundation for his sound. Outside of the South, there is a perception that, save the big cities and college towns, country music is the alpha and omega of the radio dial below the Mason-Dixon line. But, Houck’s early music exposure was more than Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers and the Willie Nelson songs that he has already honored.
“Country was definitely around growing up,” Houck explains, “and ‘80s country radio still has some really great stuff. You’re always influenced by whatever you hear around, and I can’t really imagine it any different. Later on, of course, I heard Nirvana and Pearl Jam at the same time as everyone else because it was just so massive, and that was about when I picked up a guitar. I was exposed to whatever was on the radio, like, I heard Michael Jackson, too. Maybe not as much as other kids, but it wasn’t completely isolated to country radio.”
“I like songs,” he continues, explaining why he was never pulled into one particular scene or sound. “I don’t know about genres so much. That always comes as an afterthought upon further inspection. I really like lyrics, I really like songwriting, I really like poetry and I like the narrative.”
“Historically there has been a division,” Houck notes, “and if you’re a lyric-based songwriter, you are probably in the realm of folk or country or some tradition. I don’t particularly agree with that. And, the flip side is that if you are making dance music or something that’s beat-heavy or rhythm-heavy or just sonic-heavy, that lyrics don’t matter or that lyric-based songwriting takes a backseat. That’s a strange division to me. I don’t know why that is. It seems unnecessary.”
Houck’s music strives to please on both levels and reaches beyond the typical limitations associated with a solo endeavor. Phosphorescent sounds like a band, performs with a full band and even features 20 players on Muchacho, but Houck does not know what it’s like to be “in a real band.”
“Even when there’s other people around, it’s still very much a solitary process,” he explains. “A lot of the people on the record, they would come in one at a time and record their tracks, and then leave, and I spent six months putting it together. I love making music with people, but for whatever reason, for the process of making music and writing, it’s always been a solitary one. I don’t know how to do it any other way. I’ve always felt more like a painter or a sculptor, but I just happened to write songs. That’s the way I’ve always worked. I just sit in my studio and start carving away at something and see what I can do with it.”
Houck uses looping techniques both on record and in concert to make his presence multiply when needed. With “Wolves,” from his 2007 album Pride, Houck often closes his live set by looping variations of himself singing the song’s final line, “wait for those wolves to play nice,” until there are a dozen voices singing the same words in a different delivery. For a song about internal demons, it’s particularly affecting to hear the same voice out of sync with itself.
“I’ve done that a lot on this record,” Houck replies when I tell him my appreciation of the live “Wolves,” “and, I do it live when I can. I really like it, but you have to build it one layer at a time if you are going to do it live, so it might get a little tedious for the audience. I love that choir effect, but there’s only one of me.”
Muchacho begins and closes with the “choir effect” on “Sun, Arise! (An Invocation, An Introduction)” and “Sun’s Arising (A Koan, An Exit),” and between are eight songs that are distinct and not tied to any particular recurring element besides Houck’s voice, showing a progression in Houck that from a listener’s perspective, seems to come with ease. Houck, however, notes that songwriting has become more difficult the more he does it.
“Well, difficult might be too harsh,” he reconsiders. “There’s an awareness now that people are going to hear the songs. More people than ever, in fact. Before, there was never consideration about who might hear them. But, I don’t think it actually affects the writing, because I’m stubborn and I just won’t let it. But it is weird to have that thought even be there while you’re creating, so I have to try to shut that voice out.”
Houck’s acknowledgment goes further than a lot of artists admit, that a song’s reception does creep into their head from time to time. Houck is not shy, though, to discuss his fascination with musical techniques and equipment, and he also acknowledges some ideological principles, just like not letting the audience affect his writing. Routine and methods and principles are less acknowledged by songwriters, usually happier to allude to genius and thank inspiration. And, Muchacho has its share of those, too.
Houck vaguely cites “damaging circumstances” for “a quick decision to get out of town and get out of my own life.”
“So, I just jumped on a quick flight and headed down to Mexico,” he recalls, not with fondness or sadness, but a sort of matter-of-fact recollection that hints it is not the first time, nor likely the last, that Matthew Houck has needed more solitude than New York can provide.
“At that point the songs had been starting, they were sort of kicking in the door, to be honest, and I wasn’t able to give them the time they needed because I was going through my own personal traumas. Going down there was a breath of fresh air to try to write and create something in a healthy way. Whether or not that happened, I don’t know. It was a time filled with solitude. I was down there alone, and didn’t really even speak to anybody, to be honest. I spent days just walking and swimming and a couple of hours each day writing.”
I ask if Houck is just a solitary person in general, more comfortable in quiet contemplation, in lone songwriting, in not having to answer to others—be it a band, a friend or a lover.
“I don’t think I am,” he replies. “I think that’s just with the work. There’s a division there. I can be completely lazy and completely get out of any frame of mind of working and go be around people. I can go out and stay out with the best of them. But, when it comes time to work, you have to allow yourself into a vulnerable state of mind that I don’t think is attainable for me in the real world. It requires a period of being alone and being open enough to succumb to these thoughts and feelings. It requires being antisocial, which is weird because in the end it’s a way of connecting with other people.”
Along with that “connection,” the goals of Phosphorescent are modest, having a career and creating art that pleases himself being the pillars, and he notes that one important element is to “maintain a career that has room for every kind of record” that he’d like to make, from a grandiose concept epic to something short and spare and quiet.
These are reasonable requests, but the fact remains that not everyone likes “photographs of naked ladies,” and the same goes for music. While he (and I) may think we have a handle on what makes a good song, there is no consensus.
“It is hard to reconcile that fact,” Houck says, “and, there’s just no accounting for other people’s taste. I guess that’s what I was saying earlier about realizing that people are going to hear your music. That reality is not relevant. It can’t be relevant.”
“People like all kinds of stuff that I consider to be garbage,” he says, “but, I believe people do respond to art that’s good. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. Useless songs can become so popular and I think ‘people are smarter than that. If you present something with depth and beauty, people will like that.’”
His heartfelt optimism quickly disappears, and the artist that toils away in solitude adds, “Or maybe I’m being naive about that.”