On ‘C’est La Vie,’ Phosphorescent’s Psych-Country Balladry Has Become Immortal

Editorial Director, Music
10.12.18

Philip Cosores

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In 2018, plenty of musical fandoms are driven by the cult of personality. Even when the accompanying music is superb (which often isn’t the case), it’s the story and the persona, the myth of celebrity that drives these artists forward. The focus is completely inward, a closed feedback loop centered on the reputation of the artist and all the flashy accouterment that comes with that. This is fame first, music second, a bargain that many artists are willing to take, and may they continue to pursue the glorious mess of fickle popularity without judgment.

This is not the kind of renown Matthew Houck is interested in. In the case of an artist like Houck, the tenured psych-folk musician who writes and records as Phosphorescent, the figure of the artist recedes a bit, and the songs take center stage. Or more importantly, larger themes the music gestures toward become the primary focus. In this type of fandom, the fan and the artist are both looking outward, angling and aching toward a third thing; the songs are a conduit for that quest, a cultivation of reaching that’s not designed to ever fully grasp anything. Houck doesn’t want you to look at him, he wants you to look, with him, at the song. For this reason, he’s reluctant to talk at length about himself or his personal life, in his mind, that isn’t really what the songs are even about.

And he’s right — a sense of external reckoning thrives in the ethos of Houck’s music, propelling him to six full-length albums of original material and six release on the storied indie label Dead Oceans, including a much-praised Willie Nelson covers album, To Willie, in 2009, and 2015’s gorgeous live release, Live At Music Hall. In between those two, in 2013, came Phosphorescent’s biggest album to date, Muchacho, a swaggering beast of a record that trades on psychedelia and the blues, and managed to hit No. 59 on the Billboard 200 chart, no small feat for an independent release in the streaming era.

Muchacho was also the first album to feature Houck’s now-wife, Jo Schornikow, an element that pushed his personal life into the forefront like never before. “In the past, I was always very protective of my personal life. I kept a division between Matthew Houck and Phosphorescent,” Houck explained to me, while we sat in the back studio of the newly reopened disco bar, Gold Diggers, in East Hollywood.

Formerly a bikini bar (read: strip club with lingerie), the retrofitted dive bar and music venue would host a private show that night, populated with label folk and a few members of the press, where Houck and his band would debut most of the songs off their long-awaited, stunning new album, C’est La Vie, for the first time. “Be nice,” Houck joked to the crowd. “The way you react will determine how I feel about the album for the next several months.”

Nerves aside, the songs go off without a hitch, a shimmering blend of bleary-eyed, steel guitar burners, ensemble-driven, psychedelic choruses, and even a playful piano ballad, all defined by the incisive, tender lyrics that are an essential facet of Phosphorescent. Surrounded by a large band, including two drummers, Schornikow, and several other players, the group brings to life the music Houck gently layered together in his Nashville studio. That it takes close to a village to flesh them out is all part of the appeal — Houck may be bandleader, but the music is the master.

Philip Cosores

In the intervening five years between Phosphorescent albums, though, so much has changed in Houck’s personal life that it’s been all but impossible not to address some of the shifts while discussing his new work. First of all, he and Schornikow got married and had a baby daughter, all while still touring behind Muchacho. After that tour was done, the new couple returned to New York and found it more inhospitable to their new family than they anticipated. Half on a whim, half on a lark they opted to move to Nashville a couple years back, and have been based down south ever since.

“I like the idea that this town is music city, and it’s a town that was built on music,” Houck explained of their new home. “I think I can still be enamored by the romantic notion of Nashville, like in the same you can be enamored with Hollywood, just as an idea. To some degree, it was just a choice, but I can’t say Nashville as a thing didn’t have something to do with it.” Once they were settled in Tennessee, the family welcomed another new baby, this time a son, into their lives. And, as if Houck wasn’t busy enough, he began building his own recording studio, a place to finally getting down the scraps and bits of songs he’d been writing during the chaos.

Aptly dubbed Spirit Sounds, the whole place was constructed to house an enormous a 1976 MCI console (bigger than this couch, he says, gesturing for emphasis). After Houck found the console, he erected a building around it instead of vice versa, gradually adding all the elements of wiring, lighting, and soundproofing as he whittled and worked song scraps into useable fragments. Even so, a recent Rolling Stone profile notes evidence of his children in this sacred creative space, and of course Schornikow pops in and out, intimating his family is just as ensconced in the studio as he is.

So yes, the family life of Matthew Houck, new husband and father, certainly impacted the trajectory of this new Phosphorescent record. But C’est La Vie is no more specifically about those experiences than it is about French. It’s a record about the ambiguities of life, and how massive changes can unfold without us expecting or realizing they’ve done so, until suddenly one day we look up and everything has shifted. In these moments, life is neither bad nor good, it’s just life, constantly shifting while we try to follow along, grabbing a hold where we can. Many of the tracks on the record attempt to grapple with the specters of change and time, invoking the natural world as a means of processing immovable these forces.