Phosphorescent: Such Is Life
photos by Stephen Bloch
Matthew Houck returns from a five-year studio hiatus with a career-defining Phosphorescent record that may upend the concept of dad-rock in the process.
It’s late November and Matthew Houck’s latest Phosphorescent album, C’est La Vie, has been out for nearly two months. By his own account, he’s recently had some of the busiest days of his entire life. And with good reason: The album’s brought his brand of spaced-out, reflective Southern rock to the masses like never before.
The Phosphorescent live band performed the record’s exuberant first single, “New Birth in New England,” on multiple late-night TV shows. Houck’s been profiled in nearly every major newspaper and music magazine on the stands, and C’est La Vie has been hailed as his most mature, self-realized, life-affirming masterpiece. But the breakneck pace is getting to him—he’s been snorting and sniffling through a cold for over a week, limiting himself to only the most necessary activities of playing shows and playing with his kids.
“I don’t think I’ve slept in the same bed more than once since this album came out,” says Houck.
That’s the rock-and-roll dream, right? Once upon a time, for Houck, it certainly was. For years, he was a musical vagabond on a nearly never-ending tour—out until his wild nights sputtered to a halt when the sun rose. But today, Houck has planted roots in Nashville. He’s created a life with partner—and Phosphorescent organist—Jo Schornikow, found a home for their family and built a clubhouse for his band, his always-in-progress studio Spirit Sounds.
C’est La Vie is the result of a life spent shifting and shuffling, finally settling into a comfortable, beautiful stillness. It’s a stillness that Houck holds tightly to his chest. The record was created, as is his method, largely in solitude—self-written and produced, with not only gorgeously textured, ethereal rock songs about his children, his home and his evolution as a man, but also his desperation to hold on to the happiness he’s finally found.
Take “My Beautiful Boy,” Houck’s ode to his son, a paean of unconditional love. In the last verse, Houck lays himself bare: “They say that heaven ain’t so bad/ But for heaven’s sake now ain’t it sad?/ Just what in heaven would I do?/ Just walk around and look for you.”
“I was a little mystified when people called this record a joyous piece,” he says. “I understand where they hear it, but I get choked up trying to talk about it. This is stuff that was really on my mind—and it’s the saddest fucking thing in the world.”
Houck was born in 1978 in Huntsville, Ala., where he says he “didn’t have access to anything that wasn’t the absolute mainstream of music, art and books.”
He quickly tired of that limited scope and, by his late teens, he’d hit the road with little more than a guitar. He lived in his truck, parking in towns that looked ripe for busking.
“I was cluelessly wandering for a long time,” he says, “thinking if I played my acoustic guitar on the sidewalks of LA, someone would walk by and yell, ‘Get this kid a record contract!’ It was a naïve notion of how it all worked. I was kind of a mess, but that’s when I found Athens.”
In the early 2000s, Houck moved to the Classic City and quickly became enthralled with the small, vibrant college town that had already pumped out the likes of R.E.M., Widespread Panic, Vic Chestnutt and Drive-By Truckers. First as Fillup Shack, and eventually as Phosphorescent, Houck began laying down his earliest tunes, recorded as the very definition of lo-fi.
His first two albums as Phosphorescent, 2003’s A Hundred Times or More and 2005’s Aw Come Aw Wry, presented a mix of loose, wiry country-rock and blues with Houck’s wandering heart at the core. On “Joe Tex, These Taming Blues,” he even howled: “Am I really, really, really, really gonna have to/ Really have to leave town again?”
The answer was yes, and it led him to New York City, where Phosphorescent truly found its voice. In 2006, Houck relocated to the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn, moving into a house that doubled as an indie-rock incubator.
“I rented my room from Ezra [Koenig] from Vampire Weekend because they were going on tour. The guys from Dirty Projectors lived there. The band Castanets were there. We’d have dinners and parties, but mostly everyone was in their rooms working on music,” he says. “We’d all tell each other: ‘Everyone be quiet, I’m tracking drums in the living room today.’”
In Koenig’s bedroom, Houck finished self-recording Pride, a collection of Southern-gothic folk dirges that earned comparisons to Will Oldham and Neutral Milk Hotel. The album’s momentum put Houck back on the road with no end in sight: He threw his belongings in storage and toured, often solo and occasionally with a small band in tow.
“If anyone was offering a show, I was taking it. I spent the next year not living anywhere,” he says. “And I wasn’t getting hotel rooms at that point, so if there’s a night without a show, you’re thinking, ‘What the fuck am I doing out here?’ It was pretty much go, go, go.”
The tour eventually landed Houck back in New York City with enough money to rent an apartment, and each subsequent album inflated the Phosphorescent name a bit more: 2009’s Willie Nelson tribute To Willie, 2010’s Here’s to Taking It Easy and his true breakthrough, 2013’s Muchacho.
Houck also started to expand the Phosphorescent sound to encompass more than a lonely guitar. Over time, musicians like pianist Scott Stapleton became permanent members of the band, helping flesh out Houck’s ragged, open-hearted songs. “I’d been working at a coffee shop in Athens, giving all musicians free coffee and food—to the point where I was fired,” Stapleton says. “The first time we played together at his house, members of Neutral Milk Hotel were there. I felt like I was famous already.”
It was during the making of Muchacho, one night in 2013, that Houck was sitting in a bar when he “heard this lady just laying it down on the piano. I guess I thought it would be a good idea to ask if she wanted to play on my record, and it went from there,” he says.
That lady was Australian multi-instrumentalist Jo Schornikow and she quickly joined the Phosphorescent band, opening up a new chapter in Houck’s life that folded into his musical trajectory. While touring for Muchacho, their daughter Dove was born. She spent the first year of her life on the road.
Five years later, that seismic change materialized as “New Birth in New England,” the first single off C’est La Vie—and certainly the leading reason why so many fans and critics have hailed the album as Phosphorescent’s most uplifting. The guitars are glowing, the congas bouncing and a gospel-like choir singing, with Houck grinning through the lyrics: “I was sittin’ at a bar in New England/ I was thinkin’ ‘bout another beer/ They had a lady playin’ on a piano/ I was liking how it got to my ears… She said ‘Don’t I know ya?/ Honey, don’t I know ya?’”
Listen closely during the bridge; Houck tucked a recording of Dove’s sonogram heartbeat into the mix. He says the song—including its second verse about their daughter’s birth—is a faithful retelling of how his family began.
“I would say he definitely got the part about him drinking beers right,” laughs Schornikow.
“And, damn, that was a great piano,” adds Stapleton.
By the time Phosphorescent quit touring for Muchacho, Houck and Schornikow had a toddler. The itch that led the couple in the first place was steadily subsiding: “We were mostly wishing we could stay home and relax instead of being out on the town; we knew it was time to step out of New York City,” he says. They decided to settle in
Nashville, “a town built on music that is just so cool and weird. We said, ‘Let’s not think about this. Let’s just do it.’”
He had also recently acquired a big, beautiful piece of equipment—a 1976 MCI recording console, which he knew could massively advance the sound of his records—but he needed to find the right space to house it. The songs of C’est La Vie were already surfacing, and with a second child on the horizon, their Nashville house didn’t have space for a studio.
“I know, it feels ridiculous that I’d build a studio in a city built on studios,” he laughs. But Houck has never been one to rely on anyone but himself, and sure enough, a massive, unfinished warehouse became his latest project.
“It was like I’d bought an antique car knowing I had to deliver a package to Alaska next week. I didn’t plan to work on this car before the trip—I was ready to go. I figured I’d build a few walls, run some power. It’d take a few months and I’d make the record,” he says. “But one step led to another. I had to learn about circuitry, soldering, wiring. God, YouTube is an amazing tool. Suddenly, I was a year deep into converting this big-ass room into a real studio.”
Phosphorescent continued to chug away in other directions—Houck contributed to the 2016 for-charity compilation Day of the Dead, a three-volume collection of Grateful Dead covers helmed by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National that features some of indie-rock’s biggest names.
“Aaron said there were a couple of songs that he thought my voice would be great for,” says Houck. “I dug them—and I was happy to contribute some singing for a great cause.”
Phosphorescent is credited on the iconic “Sugaree” and the late-era tune “Standing on the Moon.” Still, finishing the studio was at the heart of the matter for Houck.
As Schornikow remembers, “We rented a cherry picker from Home Depot, put on white overalls and spray-painted the whole place ourselves.”
But a new—and still in-progress—studio didn’t change Houck’s method of creating a new album. After he’d written and demoed all the new songs in isolation, the band was finally invited to record their parts and settle into Phosphorescent’s new home.
“We went into the studio, and we would all record a bunch of different takes. The studio is like Matthew’s brain, but in building form: organized, but chaotic,” says Stapleton. “But once we had recorded, his isolation comes back again: He takes what we’ve done and forges all these ideas together. I’m as excited as anyone, if not more, when a new Phosphorescent record comes out. It’s like hearing the record for the first time, but it’s you playing.”
Still, the band knew something special was happening; Houck wasn’t running. He was sitting with himself and his vision was clearer than ever.
“Musically, I think it’s a bit mortifying when people who are not 25 act like they’re 25. I want to listen to artists who sound like themselves, not pretending to be what they used to be,” says Schornikow. “‘My Beautiful Boy’ does the hardest thing music can do: makes the personal universal. It’s so naked, so jarringly honest.”
Or, as Stapleton puts it: “It’s not exactly sexy to be an older dad, but Matthew has the gift of not being able to lie.”
On “Christmas Down Under,” Houck wrote about a trip to Australia “to let the new baby meet her family,” he says. He’d spent a few December days learning to scuba dive by himself until a storm forced his boat to dock; lonesome in his hotel, he scribbled the song’s first verse. It was months until he found the words to complete it: “One day, my dove will be a dragon/ It’s so hard to understand/ All dragon wings and dragon fire/ Then dragon bones beneath the land.”
With their parts recorded, the band let Houck retreat back to the mixing booth alone, slowly but surely putting the puzzle pieces together.
“The majority of what I do—what takes the months and months—is just so much experimentation. The songs can become anything, and I can travel down countless roads,” says Houck. “Working in isolation, you can get so confused. If you say a word a hundred times, it loses all meaning. Several times, I’d invite one of the kids to listen and think, ‘Well, alright. If they like it, at least it’s in the realm of music.’”
The sound that Houck crafted on C’est La Vie is the thickest, fullest and clearest of any Phosphorescent record; pillow-soft keys, crisp lead guitars and otherworldly pedal steel and steady, thumping percussion. The songs don’t rage or scratch; they float along. The waters are calm and deep. The album’s cover is a close up of Houck’s face, unadorned. Lyrically, there was only one direction possible.
“I can absolutely chart my life via these albums,” says Houck. “And so these songs are more direct, less obscured; they’re coming to terms, accepting and allowing what it is to just be. Putting my face on the cover was a way to double down on that notion. For better or worse, this is my face. There’s nothing to hide behind.”
This article originally appears in the January/February 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.