(Catching Up With) Phosphorescent

As the cliche goes, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” But a lot of life and a lot of plans went into the making of C’es La Vie, Matthew Houck’s new album under the Phosphorescent banner. In the five years that have passed since his lovelorn Muchacho, Houck has gotten married, started a family, faced a life-threatening bout of meningitis, and moved from New York to Nashville, where he built a studio from the ground up to make the new record.

“Weirdly, for me, it was really one step to the next,” Houck says. “It never felt like a break; it definitely was strange that by the time I got to work on the music, it had been four years.”

But with time comes perspective, and C’est La Vie, recorded mostly over the last year, stands as one of Phosphorescent’s most realized albums to date. It’s a document that grapples with the weight of experience, one that recognizes the enormity of “normal life.” There are celebrations and heartbreaks, songs of love and songs of confusion. “I wrote all night/like the fire of my words could burn a whole up to heaven,” Houck sings on “C’est La Vie No. 2,” a song that grapples with the intensity of youth. “I don’t write all night burning holes up to heaven anymore,” Houck surmises, though these songs frequently sound like the results of doing exactly that. C’est La Vie is out on Dead Oceans October 5th.

Aquarium Drunkard: You built your own studio to record C’est La Vie. Had you ever done anything like that before?

Matthew Houck: I’ve always had gear. I’ve made all the Phosphorescent records essentially by myself, or with friends’ gear, never really in a proper studio, with the exception of taking [the recordings] in to do mixing or some basic tracking. But I’ve always had my own space to do the heavy lifting of the making of these records, which is a lot of experimentation. But this is the first time I’ve ever scaled up this big. I bought an old console. There’s a real big gap between vintage gear and newer gear, in terms of user-friendliness. Everything is pretty user-friendly now, whereas back in the day, there’s a reason those guys were called sound engineers. You really had to know a lot of electronic stuff. This was definitely my first move in that direction.

AD: There’s clearly an element of craftsmanship in your music. Did you find the process of building a space paralleled what happens with the creative process?

Matthew Houck: Absolutely. It’s weird, it’s kind of a like a directly opposite part of the brain that works on this stuff. How to run mic lines, where you’re going to have headphones coming back, it’s really the polar opposite part of the brain that makes music and writes lyrics. I’d be lying to you if I said it felt good the whole time. Ideally, I’d like to say, “There’s no other way this record could have been made, it had to go through all these steps, because they contributed to the making of the record.” And they did. That’s true. But at a certain point, I made it way harder on myself, and I don’t know that it was actively contributing to the whole thing. It was kind of a barrier.

AD: You got married as well between the last record and this one, and your wife, Jo Schornikow, she joined the band, right?

Matthew Houck: Yeah, I met her while making Muchacho. She joined up at that time, we started touring, and got together.

AD: You two started a family. So often when people want to talk about a male artist maturing, they toss out the descriptor “dad rock.” How do you like the idea of Phosphorescent being “Mom and Dad Rock?”

Matthew Houck: I like that a lot better than “dad rock,” I’ll tell you that. [Laughs] This certainly wouldn’t have happened without her being involved in the music. I was always doing Phosphorescent, being on the road, and all the stuff that brings to things, definitely doesn’t make for even the possibility of a stable home life. So it really happened like that, and seemed like something that could work. And so far so good.

AD: Being in a band and being in a marriage asks a lot of a person if you want to do it right. What tools does it require to do both with the same person?

Matthew Houck: I think it’s just finding the right person. I couldn’t speak for her, but there’s a big division in terms of the band thing [and making a record]. A lot of that is alone time, being sequestered away from everyone. It gets to be too much, and that was a hard thing to figure out, how to alter the way I work, but not alter it so much that I can’t work, but still see my kids and my wife. The flipside of that is that ideally now, we’ll be spending probably too much time together. It goes wildly from one pole to the other. It’s kind of the same as every other thing in terms of this music. By the time I get finished with a record, I’m fucking sick of being by myself and laboring over these tunes. All I want to do is be among my bandmates, they’re my family at this point, and be out playing these songs with people. And by the time I’ve done that for a while, I’m sick of that and I’m ready to hole up in a cave. That’s the way I’ve figured to make it work out.

AD: You sing about your son on “My Beautiful Boy.” How was writing about your child a different experiencing than writing about other people who may have made their way into your songs over the years?

Matthew Houck: It has its own set of concerns, but secretly, a lot of these songs are about my kids. I don’t think it’s as straightforward as it is in that one, but they were absolutely at the forefront of my mind as I was writing most of this stuff.

AD: People always talk about how hard it is to make a happy record. And while this record doesn’t shy away from darkness, it does feel contented. Did writing about the life you’ve built come as natural to you as writing about your life did in the past?

Matthew Houck: It highlighted for me a latent resentment for falling into the trap of believing I had to be miserable to be an artist for a lot of years. I think I accepted that as a necessary part of it. I fundamentally disagree with that notion at this point in my life. I don’t think these songs are particularly happy, that would definitely not be my word, but I’ve talked with enough people now, and that is something they can hear in there. [It sounds] less troubled than other stuff. But it doesn’t feel different, the writing push. That feeling still feels like the same feeling, even though what comes out is measurably different than what came before. My favorite artists, I think have all done that. It would be crazy if they kept making the same record from their 20s into their 40s and 50s. That’s my hope, you write from the station you’re in, and try to be truthful to whatever is happening, and hopefully, something worthwhile is in there. words/j woodbury

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2 thoughts on “(Catching Up With) Phosphorescent

  1. man i love houck and phosphorescent so much. every time his music comes on, i feel better. this is a nice little discussion. thanks for bringing him into my world.

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