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

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.”