Sitting in an ornate carved wooden chair in the rear of the balcony of London’s St. Pancras Old Church, tendrils of incense smoke drifting lightly overhead, Matthew Houck carries a strangely priest like aura with him. Houck – better known as the rudder of the ship that is Phosphorescent – is shortly to play a spellbinding, hushed set to a tiny congregation in this intimate North London venue, but right now, using language a more devout man would shudder at, he’s discussing the process of recording Muchacho, his upcoming sixth album under the Phosphorescent moniker.
“I got this old analogue console and an old tape machine and stuff,” he says. “A lot of it was just about knowing how to get the sound that I wanted out of those machines, then it was about applying those sounds to recording Muchacho.”
The “sounds” themselves? A product of several months of experimentation, “not knowing what I was working toward, just kind of playing around,” as the Brooklyn-based singer puts it. Those months were also partially spent wondering if, after the gruelling and lengthy tour cycle of previous LP Here’s To Taking it Easy, there was a future for Phosphorescent at all: “I put Phosphorescent on hold, outside of on tour… for about a year. I don’t think it’s normal to shut down from record to record, but I wanted to do that. I wasn’t sure if I was going to make another Phosphorescent record at that time.”
Were he to retire the name, it would surely prompt howls of discontent from thousands of fans; Houck has been working under this alias for a decade since debut album A Hundred Times or More (before that he recorded and toured under the name Fillup Shack) and in that time has amassed no small following. The aforementioned Here’s To Taking it Easy, possibly the most complete and rich of his offerings to date, contains a sun-dappled Southern warmth so tangible you can almost feel your skin tingle. Add this to the haunting ‘Wolves’ and incantatory ‘My Dove, My Lamb’ from Pride or the roaring country blues of Willie Nelson covers album To Willie, and you have a back-catalogue filled with diversity and ingenuity.
Now, pensively rocking on his oaken seat with beer in hand and leather jacket on, Houck ruffles his untameable blonde-brown curls and considers the transient tribulations he went through in the process of making Muchacho. “I had to move out of my studio, I had been there for like four or five years, which was really really hard. It took about a month to even find another place, and my life was kind of getting messy right around the same time. And so I ended up just checking out for a little while, and specifically writing.”
The combination of this period of more formal, get-pen-to-paper writing, along with the aforementioned, slightly more chaotic creative process created the songs for Muchacho almost by accident: “I ended up with a handful of songs that seemed like Phosphorescent songs within a very quick timeframe,” reveals the Alabama-born songwriter, “and so I just figured ‘well shit, I’ll make this record!’ But then I ended up using a lot of the sounds I’d been playing around with: a new arena of sound for me.”
In the end, however, this unorthodox elixir of the myriad sounds Houck teased from both his guitar and his “DIY” studio setup contributed towards the spectral depth that Muchacho’s first single ‘Song For Zula’ possesses. Reverb drums echo through it as if being played directly into a starry sky, mingling with the ebb and flow of strings and wistful guitar notes; listening to it, one can easily picture “racing out on the desert plains all night” as the song’s refrain depicts. How did its release as the lead single come about – a gut feeling, a special sense of pride about the song, or a sonic platform to preview what Muchacho has to offer?
Strangely, it was none of the above. “Actually the label chose that. I liked it, and I was like ‘sure!’ but I thought they might pick another one. I kind of just stepped out on this one, allowed other people , because I had lived with this record for six straight months.” The upshot of this cohabitation, we’re told, was that “you start developing weird ideas. Like I might be really excited about one weird guitar lick in the background of one song – I’ll think ‘yeah, that’s the sound!’ – but you realise you’re crazy at that point, so I don’t think you have any objectivity about what would be a proper single.