You can’t hurry Matthew Houck.
The creative force behind Phosphorescent takes his time, be it in his meandering songs, gaps between album releases, or settling down in his personal life. The veteran Americana act’s new album, C’est la Vie , sounds like a memoir of events since the band’s 2013 breakout release, Muchacho. Over the past five years, the motorcycle-riding bad boy married Australian musician Jo Schornikow, moved from Brooklyn to Nashville, built a home studio, and became the father of two children.
Phosphorescent’s new album starts with an existential crisis of sorts, “C’est la Vie No. 2,” moves into a jubilant meet-cute story with “New Birth in New England,” then turns melancholy with “These Rocks” before its urgent, instrumental end in “Black Waves/Silver Moon.” Throughout, the urban cowboy’s metaphor-laden lyrics immerse listeners in Houck’s unique brand of wounded beauty. C’est La Vie was worth the wait.
We spoke to Houck ahead of Phosphorescent’s show at First Avenue on Saturday.
City Pages: Sonically, this album feels like it’s split in two; the first half has a psychedelic rock vibe and the second half feels more Americana, like Phosphorescent albums of the past. Did it feel that way to you, too, as you were arranging it?
Matthew Houck: Yeah, it did. The sequencing of this album was something I got hung up on for a while. It didn’t make sense until the last song that I wrote, which was “C’est la Vie No. 2.” I really didn’t know what this thing was. If you were to change the order and mix the songs around, they’re all really strong personalities. There was no sort of way they kind of all flowed. To me, it finally did make sense once that song, “C’est la Vie No. 2,” set the record in motion. From there, it was all kind of like a waterfall. Each little terrace flowed into the next one in a way that was like, “Voila!” It all of a sudden made sense. It definitely feels like a progression into the big lake at the bottom.
CP: Speaking of “C’est la Vie No. 2,” I have my own interpretation, but I want to hear what that song is about for you.
MH: I’m only halfway joking when I say I don’t know what it means. [ Laughs.] It came really quickly. One night I wrote it and the next day I recorded it. I had been sittin’ with the other songs for almost a year or so, in some cases longer. To me, it’s a summation of what a lot of those songs were going towards. It’s like the ambiguity of that phrase and choosing whether you want it to be like: “This is life. Accept it in all its sadness and heaviness and beauty.” Or also: “Well, it’s just life. Fuck it.” It seems to cover all those bases.
CP: Did faith—or the abandonment of it—have anything to do with that song? Some of the metaphors seem like they could be about a higher power.
MH: Yeah, I think that’s always somewhere in a lot of this stuff. I feel like it’s a bit of a toss-up of whether you want it to be a turning away, or an abandonment, of some kind of faith or belief versus a turning towards a faith or belief in yourself or the more earthly elements of this existence.
CP: You’ve experienced a lot of change in your life over the last five years. On the song “There From Here,” you seem surprised at everything that’s happened. To what do you attribute those changes? Were they happy accidents? Was destiny at work? Or was it all an offshoot of growing older?
MH: Yeah, you’re really doin’ it. All those things. Honestly, it is kind of a puzzlement. That was the first song I wrote for the record. I started that when we were still in New York. These all were happy accidents and yet it must be some sort of…uh…what is fate? If it’s just a convenient way of categorizing something once it’s done, it’s the same as believing it from the front-end as well, right? Life certainly just goes, doesn’t it?
CP: When you recorded the album, one would assume you were in a more emotionally stable place than in the past, given that you were married and had a home—
MH: Yeah, I think that’s true.
CP: So what was it like making music from a place a stability versus how you were living previously?
MH: Different, you know? Different in obviously logistical ways but different also in the tools that you have in your toolbox to grapple with some of this stuff. Hopefully you have more of them and you’re better with the tools. You can hopefully be more direct, or less direct if that’s what you want to do, but just being in control of it. And also, being happy to let go of the idea that you have to suffer to make meaningful art. On the flip side of that, to me, some of this stuff was a bit more emotionally tough to sort through than in other times, where I guess the songs probably sounded more angsty or anguished. I think suffering for art is not a requirement whereas I might have bought into that myth for a while there.
CP: In the song “These Rocks,” you say you’ve “been drunk for a decade.” What is your relationship with alcohol like now?
MH: It’s steady. I hesitated on that song, and I’ve tried to talk about it a little bit, because I knew it was a line that was going to jump out and be grabbable. It bothered me a little bit and it still does a little but I know what I mean by it and I don’t mean it in the sense of…I think it has the ability to be taken very easily as wanting to give up drinking or struggling with an alcohol dependency type thing. But that’s not at all what I meant. What I mean by that is: yes, booze has been a big part of my life, but not in an escapist way or in a running away. It was more of an engagement with life. I’m not trying to glorify booze, either, but booze is going to be part of my life. At a certain point, I am interested in maybe not having it in there. At a certain point, you learn everything you can from substances and chemicals and all this kind of stuff. I feel like I might be winding it down with my personal booze romance.
CP: Your wife is from Australia and you’ve spent some time there. Did Australian culture or music influence the sound of C’est la Vie at all?
MH: I wouldn’t say the culture or music, honestly, but definitely the song “Christmas Down Under,” and others that I wrote while I was down there, I don’t think would’ve been written anywhere else. They were heavily influenced by me being down there. It’s a long way away. It’s an isolated place. The seasons are flipped. It’s an amazing place, but I definitely feel like an alien there, disconnected.
CP: That makes sense, because “Christmas Down Under” is pretty somber for a holiday-themed song, not that the holidays aren’t hard for a lot of people. What about Australia makes it feel so upside-down for you?
MH: Everything. For example, in that song, it was Christmastime and I was down there. It was 100 degrees. I took a trip to the beach to just have a little alone time. I was scuba diving in the blazing heat. I think holidays can be extremely blue. That’s just one example of how strange it is to be on the beach, feeling the same way as you would if you were in the Northern Hemisphere in the freezing cold.
With: Liz Cooper and the Stampede
Where: First Avenue
When: 8 p.m. Sat. Dec. 1
Tickets: $22 - $25; more info here