Pitchfork’s Grayson Haver Currin described Phosphorescent’s 2013 “Muchacho” as “a triumphant beauty full of complicated tunes about all the ways we can wound and, in turn, be wounded.” If “Muchacho” is about wounds and wounding, “C’est La Vie” (released in October 2018) is about the space we all need sometimes to heal, to breath, to be present.
“New Birth in New England” is one of a few tunes off of “C’est La Vie,” in rotation on radio airwaves these days, as Wilmington prepares for Phosphorescent (stage name for singer-songwriter Matthew Houck) to make his port city debut at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater on April 12.
During Houck and his band’s live appearance on CBS “Saturday Sessions” last November, when he played “New Birth in New England,” a pregnant pause of prerecorded soundscapes had everyone standing in silent meditation. The roughly 25 seconds of instrumental buildup have always been there, yet watching Houck physically take a moment of refrain delivered greater impact.
“I really wanted to give that part gravity,” he explains to encore. “But there was a little bit of struggle with the label and with radio and for TV. They were really pushing to remove that part altogether.”
Houck hasn’t dealt with a lot of commercial success in his almost 20 years of playing music. So the push to edit out instrumental parts of his work, for the sake of a shorter song, wasn’t something he was prepared to face. “It was shocking,” he elaborates. “To me it’s selling [listeners] short. People who care about music listen to it [in its entirety].”
The LP, “C’est La Vie,” features electronic keys, layered with acoustic guitar and instrumentals lightly wrapped around the singer’s vocals. His simplistic lyrics on the title track tell of the apt lessons of letting love and life be, whether it makes sense or not. Told in a soft unassuming (and content) vocal presence, Houck’s song connects because it’s something everyone has known and likely surrendered to.
Houck almost happily admits he’s not one of those prolific songwriters who sits upon piles of songs, waiting to piece them together on an album. In fact, he often doesn’t finish little pieces or notes of ideas, especially when there’s just too much going on in his life and not enough time to sit down with songwriting. In many ways “C’est La Vie,” which came five years after “Muchacho,” embodies a need for time, space and meditation. “For me, [songwriting] comes from a place of real stillness,” he describes. “It’s reflective.”
From busking his way from his home state of Alabama through L.A., to establishing Phosphorescent in Athens, Georgia, Houck spent 10 years in New York City. Then five years ago he settled into Nashville with his family.
“Athens was a particularly unique place at that time,” he remembers. “It’s a really small yet vibrant and amazing music town. And New York is New York. . . . All of the towns have had interesting personalities in their own ways.”
While it wasn’t a planned break from recording, Houck thinks it must have been an important hiatus nonetheless—as this album ultimately came from it. Houck met his wife, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jo Schornikow, while recording “Muchacho.” After she joined Phosphorescent and they settled into Music City, life kicked into high gear.
“It didn’t feel like time off, I have to say,” he quips. “A lot happened in my life: I had two kids; we moved; I built a studio, and that took a long time.”
He also took up carpentry and electric work to update the 2,500-square-foot warehouse, which serves as Spirit Sounds studio. This allowed for tangible growth in his music as well. He can make more records with big sounds, more instrumentals and reach greater sonic levels.
“It’s crazy how much space affects your life,” he muses, noting the literal difference between life and work in Nashville versus what he had in New York. “This is also the first time I’ve had the opportunity to make a record and then assemble players [and] really focus on bringing sounds that stem from the record to the stage in a direct way.”