The best songs by Phosphorescent, as chosen by Matthew Houck

2 months ago
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The man responsible for writing such searingly raw, introspective songs under the name Phosphorescent has a few reservations about putting them under the microscope. “I’ve never done this,” he begins. “I made it a point for a long time to not tell what my songs were specifically about. I felt it was better to not do that, and I still think that is possibly true.”

But ahead of the release of new album Revelator, his first since 2018’s C’est La Vie, Houck is in reflective mode. Revelator emerged from the confines of lockdown, and in common with some of his previous work, focuses on moments of personal epiphany alongside the slow burn of existential dread. With a career spanning more than twenty years, Houck now finds himself tentatively revisiting some of that earlier material, at times experiencing his own lyrics almost like the meditations of a stranger.

Talking from Spirit Sounds, the studio he built from scratch in Nashville, Houck appears soft-spoken, thoughtful, and cautious about choosing the right words. He apologises for frequently “straddling both sides” in his responses. What emerges is an artist for whom creating records can be an agonisingly soul-searching process, something which came across all the more as he reflected on the sleepless nights and wrenching self-doubt that contribute to this largely solitary pursuit. Naturally, that can make it difficult to offer up his songs to the scrutiny of others. “I’m still overly protective to a fault. I don’t show my songs to anyone until they’re pretty much fully written,” he says. “They’re very vulnerable things and they can get easily dashed on the rocks.” While lyrics and production might be approached with real fastidiousness, there’s also a looser, more collaborative side to Phosphorescent, when Houck brings in other musicians to perform the songs with him on tour. On those occasions, he’s happy to cede the reins and let his collaborators feel their way into each song, rejecting endless rehearsals in favour of letting everyone trust their gut. “That’s been a real ethos for a long time with Phosphorescent; for better or worse, let it be what it is on any given night. If I’ve done my job right as a songwriter, the songs should be able to withstand any treatment, and you also want people to be able to feel them in the moment,” he reflects. “Inevitably, there’s something amazing that happens in those first couple of times, when everyone’s playing by instinct and by their heart. There are no stakes at that point.” He may be relaxed about how his songs get arranged for the road but is less comfortable digging into their individual truths. Despite ‘Song for Zula’ having come to seem like the definitive Phosphorescent song, it almost didn’t make the cut today. Houck was in two minds about whether he should talk about what inspired the song, or let listeners hang onto their own interpretations. “Every little thing for me can quickly become a philosophical conundrum,” he concedes. “I’m working on maybe not being so precious about this stuff. There are songs out there that I would love to know more about, and I don’t know if that would take away from the beauty of them or enhance it. I’m curious to see if doing this takes away the mystique. Does it ruin it?”

Without further deliberation, let’s find out.

MATTHEW HOUCK: “Revelator” sets the tone for the album. It’s about the revealing of something that you have either been unaware of, or that you’ve maybe been hiding from yourself. It’s ephemeral but trying to poke at something more. When I really listened to this record and took it as a whole, it revealed stuff to me in a major way. It turns out that a lot of Revelator is about the pandemic, which I had convinced myself didn’t affect me greatly. At the time I was glad to get off the road, because I’d been travelling for over 20 years, and it was nice to enjoy all that time with the kids. It would have felt absurd to say that I was sitting down to grapple with a worldwide pandemic, but there’s that line about the city being shut down. At the time I was thinking of it in the sense of the metaphorical city of one’s spirit or heart, or maybe how things can get closed off in a relationship. But now it’s pretty evident it was influenced by the global shutdown. I guess you can try to convince yourself that you’re not affected by external events, but you always are. BEST FIT: You’ve said this song marked the moment you realised you were writing an album. Why was that? It was something about the feeling of it. I definitely still think of songs in terms of albums, and albums as chapters. It sounds weird to say, but one song doesn’t mean a whole lot until I can see a larger thing around them and then they all start to make sense. I’ve done this on the past few records; C’est La Vie is called that because the song “C’est La Vie No. 2” brought the album together, and it was the same with “Muchacho’s Tune” on Muchacho – those songs really defined what the albums were for me. I very rarely sit down with a picture in my mind or a topic that I need to write about right now. I often don’t know what I’m doing with songwriting, because it can go anywhere. In general, it’s all very feelings-based, there’s not a lot of “front brain” stuff going on, as I’ve been calling it lately. The front brain is how you talk to yourself, or maybe even convince yourself that you’re existing in the world, but then your back brain reveals something new to you. I guess we’re talking about the subconscious here. Anyway, for better or worse, I’ve been trusting these instincts. Although ‘Revelator’ feels hopeful, there’s still a lingering feeling of dread. With this release, have you found any way to make peace with the horrible uncertainty of life? I had a little moment with this record when it finished, a real worry about what it is. I just have to keep trusting in the way I’ve always loved sad songs – they somehow flip from sadness into a thing of power and beauty and grace. It feels like a very holy place, though I don’t feel like what I make is in any way religious music. I know I’m doing myself no favours by calling an album Revelator. The way I feel about music is pretty clearly not how other folks feel about music. It takes me to a fairly downer place, obviously. Revelator really hit that home, where I realised, ‘OK, this is going be another record that is sorting through some sort of sadness.’ I don’t know how much that defines my life, because weirdly I don’t wallow around in this stuff. I guess I’m glad to have an outlet, because I don’t feel as sad when I hear the songs back and take them as a whole. I don’t worry about Matthew Houck from that perspective.

I was struck by the line “I don’t even like what I write / I don’t even like what I like any more”. Do you still undergo a feeling of defeatism when you write, and how do you move past that? I don’t know how to move past that feeling, I struggle with it all the time. It’s a bit of a mix, I guess. Sometimes you feel really strong about what you’re doing, other times it’s like, ‘What is this?’ I struggle with self-doubt maybe more than a lot of folks – at least in the way I perceive other people, they seem to be comfortable with their work. But I have an uneasy relationship with songwriting, where sometimes I doubt the whole process. I think there’s a real healthy naivety you can have early on, which is a beautiful thing. I don’t have it anymore, because I know what I believe in and what I care about, and it makes it harder to be sure you’re getting it right. Gosh, I probably made five or six records before anyone was hearing them. And it does flip; all of a sudden there’s the knowledge that people are going to hear it. I’d like it to be something that I didn’t worry about, but it’s definitely in there as a consideration. MATTHEW HOUCK: I don’t think other people love this one, but I do. It was written during my first time in Australia one Christmas. It was summer there, of course, and I had gotten a place on the beach to learn how to scuba dive. There was an opening for lessons, so I went by myself and was swimming with all these animals. I think I could get heavily into scuba diving; I find it truly remarkable what’s going on beneath the ocean. It’s not just a few fish, it’s a whole carnival of life. That’s where this “Living underwater, living off the land” line came from. BEST FIT: You set an idyllic scene with the pounding waves, shining sun, and tiki bars, but it seems like there’s still some unease beneath the surface? I was writing weirdly specifically in those lyrics, but I think they’re really pretty and evocative. I like when a song feels like maybe someone else wrote it. Everything was just so alien, being upside down, in the water, in the blazing heat over the Christmas holidays. I also felt upside-down because I was missing my family and my daughter, my first child, a lot. For me, it was all wrapped up together. It’s also the first time I ever specifically talked about religion in a song, which is in direct contradiction to what I said earlier. I was thinking about Christmas through the lens of this weird holiday that a large proportion of the world celebrates, and how crazily different that is from what the notion of Jesus is. It’s definitely the first and probably the only time I’ve ever mentioned Jesus in a song. The other reason I’m really proud of “Christmas Down Under” is because the conflicting feelings are sort of brought to the forefront by the alien robot voice. That was a real conscious choice. The song didn’t feel right until it had this second voice, a little sinister and cold, but all the more beautiful because of that. I think if it was just my regular voice on that song it wouldn’t have landed the way I needed it to. On a regular note, I was super pleased with my guitar solo, I thought I really nailed it. Has having children affected your outlook, and the way you make music? Yes, in the logistical way it’s more to juggle. But they’re endlessly inspiring, if we’re talking about how things are always affecting you, even if you think they might not be. There’s no way to escape how much of an effect they’ve had on my life for the better. But also, it starts to feel weird to keep trafficking in these sad arenas. It makes me question who it’s for. I know my kids don’t really like the sad tunes. My daughter says to me often, ‘I like the way it sounds, but why is it so sad?’ I tell her, ‘I don’t know, baby!’ The line “One day my dove will be a dragon” came from my daughter. She said she was going to be a dragon when she grew up, and I thought that was really nice. She’s such a powerful force. For whatever reason though, there was an undercurrent of sadness writing this song. Even in real moments of beauty there’s such an unavoidable truth, that this is all going to disappear, that it’s all passing, so I’m trying to be at peace with that, while feeling truly sad. In the third verse there’s a line about my daughter – because I happened to realise that she’ll die one day, and how dreadful that is! It’s so sad! Even in moments of loving this life and all that it has to offer, there’s always this melancholy looming. There’s nothing to do about it, is there? BEST FIT: The next two songs you picked are both from Pride. What strikes you most about these songs now? MATTHEW HOUCK: I made Pride completely by myself, living in a little house in the woods in Georgia. Around the house there was a clearing, and a pasture that came right up to the property. The building was probably around 500 square feet, with one room that had a bed, and the other a piano, recording gear and drum set. And where I had the mixing desk and speakers, there was a window I could open, and cows would come up and listen. It was a really special place. I was able to get into pretty weird habits there. I would work all night all the time. I was fully consumed with making Pride, in a way that I don’t think was healthy or sustainable. At the time I didn’t know anything about recording in the way I do now, but I look back on that record and feel like I made a pretty significant shift. Back then I was in this headspace of thinking that everything, warts and all, was the truth. Like, ‘Here’s what happened’. I turned on the microphone, I had to clear my throat before singing, and so I just left it in. I don’t remember making those decisions, but I clearly did make them. And now I listen to this song, with all the coughing, and I can’t believe that I didn’t go in and clean it up. It’s crazy to me. It’s not that I didn’t work on it, because I worked on that record for a long time. I think I just had a different idea of what was important. And things like coughs and chair squeaks and clatterings did not matter to me. I thought the music had to succeed in spite of that, and also perhaps because of that. You’ve since built your own studio in Nashville. How has that altered your recording process? Nashville was when I started getting real gear and having an idea about having the space and resources to try and make better-sounding records. It was new to actually build walls and run electricity, I’d never done any of that before. But each little step necessitated another step and things kind of got bigger and bigger.

I never sat down thinking I wanted this really full studio, but you have more space down here in Nashville. It’s like, ‘Let’s get a grand piano and put it in.’ You have the resources and ability, it grows naturally and next thing you’ve got a real proper place. But listening to “Be Dark Night” now, I hear that house in Athens. I can hear what that room sounded like in a way that’s really special, and also how monomaniacal I was at that time. I think it was also the first time I leaned in hard on building these vocal choirs. I can hear my excitement in figuring out that I could do that. That choir is me! I should probably open those sessions and see how many tracks I made. It’s not that many, but it’s more than you would think a person would just sit in a house in Georgia and build. MATTHEW HOUCK: I felt like I was a real writer when I was writing “My Dove, My Lamb”. I knew I was writing above my ability, which happens occasionally and is usually fleeting. But “My Dove, My Lamb” was a sustained thing where I remember really carving out those verses. I’m not sure I could write a song like that right now. Looking back on it, I get surprised by some of those lyrical turns. I have always approached this stuff from a literary angle, or at least a poetry angle, but if the words are too lyrical they’re not going to land. It works when there’s a real mesh of the words and the sound of the words and the way they flow in the sound of the song – when there are enough ingredients. It might be hard to isolate what that is exactly. Songwriting can get pretty laboured. I use what I write, and I don’t have a lot of songs that didn’t make it, I don’t have a bunch of B-sides or throwaway songs. I’m always really impressed by freestyle rappers: I’m a bit slower, and the words don’t always fly out. The music part comes easily though, which is why I like putting wordless pieces onto some of the albums, just long instrumental pieces. That’s where it feels the most free to me. BEST FIT: This song contains the line “Careful of that language babe / Some words are stones”. Is that a warning about the damage words can wreak? That’s a crossing of literary and real-life stuff. It was about things you can say to people you love, but then you can’t take them back. It’s not so much a warning, but a giving over to the power of language, both within the song and also within how you use those words in life. Is the whole song figurative or are any details drawn from experience? You know what? It’s both. It’s funny that we were talking about that tiny house in Georgia, because I don’t think I would have written about cows standing in the rain without those cows being outside and standing in the rain. There’s definitely a lot of real-life stuff in there, but I tried to aim for something ephemeral. When you look back on older songs like this, do you still relate to the person who wrote them? I’m definitely far enough away from “My Dove, My Lamb” that I can look at it as if another person wrote it, but that can happen pretty early on with most stuff. For positive or negative, during the course of making a song, I don’t hang onto ego. I feel like it’s someone else writing and then I can critique them or tell them ‘Good job!’ Although I feel like a completely different person when I listen back to old songs, I can still hear a throughline. It was weird, because for years I’d been carrying around this old broken 4-track, and as I was learning to build the studio, I realised I had the ability to fix electronics. So I fixed it up and it had some of my very first ever songs that I’d forgotten about – and I’m telling you, it was illuminating to realise that however different I thought I’d become, I’ve actually been doing the same thing all these years! I’ll be honest, it was really sweet. I wanted to hug that kid, you know? I’m not so sure I knew what I was doing yet as a singer or recorder or album-maker, but I knew what I was doing as a songwriter. It seems kind of crazy to me that I had such a clear vision. There was no plan B. Against all evidence – I’m telling you, those albums are kind of unlistenable – I somehow got the idea that this was my path. MATTHEW HOUCK: I would never have predicted that “Song for Zula” would become far and away the most known Phosphorescent song. It’s surprising and a wonder to me. It’s one I’ve not talked about before, and I’m still torn about choosing it. But there are no two ways about it, the song changed my life as far as being able to sustainably do this. There is one thing that I have wanted to clear up: I’m not the narrator of this song. At the time I had some pretty tumultuous stuff happening in my personal life, but it’s not about me, it’s a song for Zula.

I wrote this about a baboon in a cage in a New York zoo. It just happened that I had a motorcycle and would ride around the city a lot, and I came across her in this enclosure. She was in a bad way. She had just gotten abandoned by her mate but was still trapped in there. It was heartbreaking. Just through loitering around, I learned a little bit about how they were trying to bring in another mate for her. You couldn’t help but feel concerned because she was visibly damaged and a mess. There were all these other babies jumping around, and she had just been shunned. I don’t even know, actually, if her name was Zula. From what I tried to find out, I think it was. This wasn’t a very long period, but over the course of several weeks I went and saw her a few times, and each time, she was a little worse than the last. But the final time I went, she was gone. BEST FIT: What was it that made you feel unsure about choosing “Song for Zula”? I’ve been hesitant to ever talk about “Song for Zula” because people have brought so much of themselves to the song that I don’t think it really matters what specific thing I was writing about. But it’s a weird one, with that last verse for example. I think for a while people were rightfully questioning whether I was saying that I wanted to kill my ex-lover. They thought it was me saying that I wanted to kill the source of my frustration. But it’s not that at all. It’s a song for Zula, and I wanted to give her some strength, because she was this majestic animal, trapped by circumstance. I feel a lot of ways about this, actually. It’s such a devastating song to me, but I would have thought of it as very niche, something that wouldn’t have mass appeal. It’s been really illuminating to hear all these interpretations that have come down over the years, and amazing to see what it became. Something happened with this song.…Read more by Orla Foster

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