“Honey, I am not some broken thing,” Matthew Houck sings over the hypnotic pulse of “Song for Zula,” the gateway into Phosphorescent’s acclaimed Muchacho. “I do not lay here in the dark waiting for thee. No, my heart is gold. My feet are light. And I am racing out in the desert plains all night.”
One senses that Houck, who has performed under the Phosphorescent moniker since 2001, felt conceptually drawn to such wide-open spaces—lyrically and sonically—when it came to recording Muchacho.
“I kept thinking in terms of even more wide open than that, like not of this Earth,” Houck says, reflecting on what led to one of 2013’s most deeply enchanting and human albums.
Burned out from touring behind 2010’s ironically titled Here’s to Taking It Easy, the singer/songwriter had found himself at a loss for words, dabbling with sound pieces inspired by the ambient albums of Brian Eno. “There’s a weightlessness, like being on the moon or something, like it’s eerie and floaty,” the Alabama-bred Houck says of Eno’s soundscapes. “That’s what I was aiming for when I was making this album. Then it changed and kind of took on a life of its own.”
Alas, Houck’s life was also falling apart at the dawn of 2012. He lost both his apartment (his landlord declined to renew the lease) and his girlfriend (who declined to continue the relationship). “I just realized it was time to chuck it all for a second,” he says, “and that’s when I went down to Mexico for a little while and got renewed with these songs.”
An impulsive early-morning flight after a sleepless night brought Houck to the sleepy Yucatan Peninsula beach town of Tulum, and even lyrics began to flow. “The solitude was the most important ingredient there—I’m not the most disciplined writer,” Houck says. “I still don’t show songs to anyone until they’re completely finished. I just don’t feel comfortable working out ideas in front of other people.”
He operates as a lone wolf in his home studio as well, laying down vocals, guitars, keyboards and percussion, though Houck brought in a dozen musicians to add parts that he molded into Muchacho. Bracketed by mantra-like sunrise chants, the album finds its strength in ghostly textures where he explores redemption—“spinning heartache into gold,” to quote the countrified, horn-laced weeper “Down to Go.”
“The theme of the whole record is that split between those extremes of hope and despair,” Houck says, embracing the idea that hope prevails. “That’s a big part of why it has those [sunrise] themes at the beginning and the end. I thought a lot of the songs were pretty bleak.”
The tone opens up more onstage, as the guitar-wielding Houck takes a looser approach with two keyboardists, two drummers, a bassist and recently added pedal steel player Ricky Ray Jackson, who also appears on the album.
“Everything in the studio is far more considered and controlled—I’m definitely a perfectionist,” says Houck, who brings Phosphorescent to the Sinclair on Feb. 4. “For the live shows, I’m open to letting the mood of the night dictate the way it’s going to go… and this band that I have now, everybody’s just so good, it can really ebb and flow.”
Houck says that he finds touring to be less draining now that the group travels by bus instead of van. “It’s still not the easiest way of life, but it’s certainly not the hardest either,” he says, adding, “I’m not too sure how successful we’re being at this yet, but we’re trying to be a little healthier, with not so much self-damage.” Yeah, Houck is known for hard partying. “There’s a release after being pent up all day,” he says. “Then there’s the show, and you have to unwind from that somehow.”
As for unwinding from the road to hit the studio again, Houck says that he’s feeling confident and excited to tackle another album. “Muchacho was the first one where I feel I almost got the sound that I wanted,” he says. “I’m pretty stoked about pushing the thing and seeing where it goes.”
Phosphorescent plays the Sinclair on Feb. 4.