Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck has never shied away from the brutal side of country and folk music. On “Wolves,” a haunting track from his breakthrough 2007 LP, Pride, he sang with stark clarity about animals “tearing their claws in the ground” and “staring with blood in their mouths.” Despite its beautiful qualities—the patient arrangement, the poetic lyrics, the delicate quiver of Houck’s voice—it’s the type of song that makes you curl up in a ball on your floor.
After two relatively lighter records—his 2009 Willie Nelson tribute, To Willie, and the shit-kicking Here’s To Taking It Easy—Houck has combined the studio-rat precision of his recent efforts with the emotionally naked fetal-position folk of his earlier work to create Muchacho, his darkest and most fully realized album yet.
“My life was a little bit messy at the time,” he explains over the phone, discussing the album’s prolonged evolution that saw him decamping Brooklyn for Mexico at one point. Perhaps because of the complicated origins of the material, tracks like “Song For Zula” sound both mysterious and specific, like reading the faded fragments of a discarded letter. In our conversation, Houck discussed the delicate alchemy of blending fact and fiction, the influence of Brian Eno on Muchacho and why you won’t see a collection of unreleased Phosphorescent songs anytime soon.
Your last album, Here’s To Taking It Easy, was a pretty laid-back record. Muchacho feels mercurial, and it comes with a richer, fuller sound. Was that sound something you always wanted to explore?
It’s definitely something that’s been in development through this Phosphorescent project. I’ve been doing it for a while now. Resources are important for sure but also technical ability in terms of recording and producing records. Hopefully you just get better as you keep doing anything. I think I’ve gotten a lot better in terms of the technical aspects of making records. And I’m really happy with the recent album. A lot of it is just learning.
“Song For Zula” has that violin part and those cold, distant drums. Can you talk about recording that song in particular and how pieces fell into place?
It was very similar to the rest of the record. I did the scratch—very basic tracks for all the stuff—and then I had the violin player only for one day. Anyone that played on this record I only had them for one day at a time individually. So they would come to the studio, and I’d record them playing all over all the songs for the record. Then they would leave. And I did that with different groups of musicians, like the horns came in as a trio. I had a drummer for a day.
Then I’d just sit with the tracks and sculpt them into songs. I say “sculpting” because that’s how it felt—we never played live. This record was never done with a group of musicians involved. It was always just one thing at a time. It was like adding a new layer of paint and then stretching a layer and manhandling it in place and time. That’s how “Zula” came along as well. I had the basic rhythm structure and then placed layers on top of it.
Did you find those restrictions helpful?
Yeah, it wasn’t a restriction on purpose. It just happened that way because everyone was so busy. Originally I thought I’d try get a big group of musicians and do it live somewhere, which didn’t work since everyone was so busy and also I sometimes didn’t have my shit together to be ready to rock on a certain day. So for me it wasn’t so much a restriction because had we done it live, we would only have that one time anyway, so I was kind of treating it as if it was a live recording but with each instrument separately. Everybody got a couple passes to do the song, and that would be that. It never felt like I wish I could have them back in to re-track. It never felt like that. It was kind of just live with what you’ve got. And also, to their credit, these were all world-class musicians, and they did a great job.
What’s the significance of Muchacho as a title?
For me it’s a vague notion. I haven’t got my head around it to be honest. It just felt like a really appropriate title because “Muchacho,” if I understand it correctly, is a term of endearment. Maybe you call your buddy muchacho, but it’s got a little cut to it, a little bite to it. So in my mind it was similar to giving someone a playful but firm punch on the shoulder.
And then there’s the song “Muchacho’s Tune.” Is that one autobiographical?
Yeah, definitely. Calling it “Muchacho’s Tune” gave it a little distance. It’s not “Matthew’s Tune.” There’s a healthy mix of truth and fiction in all of my work. I wouldn’t say it’s strictly autobiographical, but hopefully those lines can be blurry.
This record, compared to the last album and the cover album, seems to have a more emotionally raw quality and feels more personal. Would you agree with that?
Yeah, for sure. “Personal” is such a funny concept because things can be emotionally heavy and also very direct and personal without really being specifically personal about the author. It’s a dark record, a troubling record in a lot of ways, but I don’t feel troubled like that.
Have you ever written a song that was too revealing and you had to pull back?
Yeah, for sure. That happens all the time I’d say. In terms of just wanting to obscure—I’m not sure “obscure” is the right word—but any art I like tends to have… Even if it has moments that are extremely direct, meaning there’s a direct line with the person who wrote it or who made the work or whatever it is, there are still layers of mystery there. That’s the type of stuff I really get excited about. I don’t think it’s really obscuring, it’s just making the work. You’re taking it and making it into something that’s useful as art.
Did you write a lot of other songs that didn’t make it onto the album?
No, not once I knew I was making this record. I did do a lot of recording over a number of months. I came off the road after the last record feeling pretty fried. I was working in the studio and there was a lot of stuff recorded then, but I was just playing with sound. Those weren’t really songs. I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was doing. But once these songs that ended up becoming Muchacho were written, I knew what to record. There was maybe one song that I didn’t finish writing, maybe tracked out some basic stuff, but then I realized it didn’t fit immediately. So no, there weren’t a whole lot of extra songs. Actually, none.
Is that typically how you work?
Yeah, actually. I think I can tell pretty quickly whether or not something is going to become a song or become something. So I don’t end up spending a lot of time on something that isn’t going to get used. Over those months that I referred to earlier, I was just kind of making ambient sound pieces that I really enjoyed playing, but I didn’t consider them songs. There aren’t a lot of unheard demos floating around.
Were there any specific artists or albums that you were influenced by in the process of writing this one?
Not so much in the writing. I guess I was interested in a couple Brian Eno records from when he was doing his ambient stuff. There was a certain type of underwater-y sound on a few of those records that I was hearing: a soft but still warm sound that I was reaching for.
Do you think you reached it?
No, I don’t think I did. It was kind of just a little starting point, but in the end I think I worked on this record for six months pretty straight. And I don’t think I heard a single note of anything else during that time. The record took on its own characteristics, and I just tried to honor those. I think it’s a pretty unique-sounding record. It ended up becoming its own beast.