Life transforms you like a mass of clay. You’ll be going in one direction and then suddenly the path becomes dark, and you lose your way. As hope fades, you find something deep inside and pull it out, returning from the darkness anew. Whatever that something was, though – call it inspiration or resilience – it sticks with you. It never fades.
The things that define us, then, come from the times when there was no hope. For singer-songwriter Matthew Houck, such a time preceded the greatest success he’s achieved as a musician, and coincidentally, the music he made is exactly what pulled him out of it. Join me, as my own experiences coincide with the music of Phosphorescent on one strange, fateful night in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
From The Stage: Phosphorescent
Though many are just hearing of Phosphorescent thanks to the breakout success of Muchacho (released last March), Houck has been creating music for the project since the early 2000s. This career-defining release came close to never even happening, though, because after 5 studio albums, the light clearing the way became dim; Phosphorescent was stuck.
Out of the dark rose a horde of issues, all of which waited patiently on Matthew Houck’s doorstep when he arrived home from touring 2010’s Here’s To Taking It Easy. It appears the 18 months of consistent gigging had added their collective weight to strained relationships, causing whatever was left to buckle.
On top of it all, Houck was forced to relocate his recording studio in Brooklyn due to zoning restrictions. As he moved all of his prized possessions into boxes without a destination, the musician couldn’t help but feel it was time for a change; he surely couldn’t ignore the parallels between those boxes and his own struggles. For the moment, life stood still.
“I’ll Fix Myself Up / To Come and Be With You”:
Years forward, a thick silence hung over the Music Hall of Williamsburg, as Matthew Houck cleared his throat and delicately stretched his fingers over piano keys. Slowly, he formed chords, as the black and white combined into one in the waning light.
“This is the song that inspired this album,” he murmured, as though he was suddenly taken back to the place he wrote it. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to even make another record, but after this song, everything sort of came together.” He paused a moment, finding the lyrics inside his head, as the crowd waited patiently.
With a few finger strokes, the waltz-y rhythm of “Muchacho’s Tune” danced out of the amplifiers. It was like watching a man wrench open his heart, and spill whatever ever came out into a microphone. You could feel the pain behind his words—the heartache translated into notes.
“I’ve been fucked up / And I’ve been a fool,” Houck sang, “But like the shepherd to the lamb / Like the wave unto the sand / I’ll fix myself up / To come and be with you.”
The singer called out from the shadows, the overhead lights bathing him in purple, and the crowd could do nothing but listen. It was a vigil—a memorial for the part of Houck that lost his way, and through a slow piano tune, began to find a path back.
The grit and redemption in Phosphorescent’s music found me when I needed it most early last year, and I had the uncanny feeling that I wasn’t alone in the audience. As his words floated through the air like fading memories, I was taken back to a time when, like Houck, life turned on me. Jobs, money, love, hope—you name it, I possessed none. I’ll never know what pulled me out of that rut, but the songs from Muchacho helped light the way; by extension, they’ll always take me back there.
As the piano of “Muchacho’s Tune” gave way to applause, Matthew nodded deeply as to say “thank you.” The gratitude not only belonged to the crowd, though, but to the part of himself that still lived in that composition; the part of him that kept going when all seemed lost.
If you had to pinpoint the location of Matthew Houck’s inspiration, you wouldn’t find it in the winding streets of Brooklyn. Instead, you’d have the search the sands of Tulum, Mexico, where the songwriter relocated in order to recharge. The remote place gave way to a source of inspiration, beginning with the aforementioned piano ditty, all the way to his opus: “Song For Zula.”
After week of writing and introspection, Houck returned to Brooklyn to record Muchacho at his newly relocated studio. He pieced everything together with a slew of musicians playing different parts, and released it off into the world in 2013, which proved to be a much different year for the artist.
As the music of Muchacho fell on the ears of critics and fans alike, it immediately resonated. The material Houck had culled from a beach in Mexico actually made listeners feel something; it was pure emotion captured into music, and for the running time of the record, fans were taken elsewhere.
Phosphorescent was finally getting the credit it so sorely deserved, and after almost a year of growing buzz, the 6th LP culminated into an epic 4-night sold-out stint at Brooklyn’s own Music Hall of Williamsburg. Clearly, in this impressive booking, Houck had captured the hearts of New York fans, and this homecoming was the icing on the cake to a year that changed everything. After a stirring solo show on the first night, Houck was joined by a full backing band for the following three; as fate would have it, our paths would finally meet.
Back in the present day: fans gathered in closely in the pit, anxiously awaiting the beginning of Phosphorescent’s set. There was a palpable buzz, as beer-induced chatter filled the arching ceilings of the beloved Brooklyn venue. Christmas lights adorned the balcony railings, while fans peered over them, searching for a proper sight-line. The stage awaited, decorated with flowers and a slowly burning incense candle that sent a thin line of smoke billowing upwards. As concerts go, this one had a “special” vibe from the onset.
Meanwhile, I stood outside of the venue, glancing down at my cell phone without a ticket. I watched as excited fans walked happily through the streets (it seemed like everyone in Williamsburg was headed to this show). In a mix-up, my press credentials were lost in the fold, a situation emphasized by the growing cold. I gazed helplessly down the streets lined with Christmas decorations, waiting for nothing.
Suddenly, a man approached me. “Need a ticket?” he asked. I nodded. Without hesitation, he ripped one off of a stack and handed it over. “Consider me Santa Claus,” he said with a wink, before disappearing out of sight.
Now, I’d stopped believing in Santa years ago, but if only for that instant, I was convinced he was real. Amazed at my luck, I finally stepped forward through the doors; the show awaited.
From The Stage:
“Sun, Arise!” (the opening track on Muchacho) began to play through the speakers, as Phosphorescent arrived from backstage. The cramped stage was probably a little too small for the band, consisting of a few guitarists, a pianist, and eventually, a string section. Houck took center-stage, wearing a white cowboy get-up complete with a hat. Make no mistake, though, the Alabama native looked perfectly at home in Brooklyn.
They jumped right in to a few cuts from Muchacho, starting rousingly with “The Quotidian Beasts.” Their live sound was a little more jam-friendly, much to the delight of the older crowd (by Williamsburg standards, anyway). As marijuana smoke projected outwards from the pit, the show took on a carefree and downright fun feel. Phosphorescent inspire many different musical comparisons, but watching them rip through a guitar solo, and follow it with a slow country-tinged ballad gave me the lasting impression of Neil Young circa Zuma.
They continued to jam through a nice mix of older material, including “Tell Me Baby (Have You Had Enough)” and “Wolves,” from 07’s Pride. As the latter song ended, Matthew invited a string section (a few violinists) to join him onstage. The crowd waited anxiously, knowing full-well what was about to happen. With a nod, the thumping synth line of “Song For Zula” began, and fans prepared for arguably the most memorable song of the past year.
“Some say love is a burning thing / that it makes a fiery ring. / Oh, but I know love as a fading thing / just as fickle as a feather in a stream. / See, honey, I saw love. You see, it came to me. / It put its face up to my face so I could see. / Yeah, then I saw love disfigure me / into something I am not recognizing.” — Song For Zula
You could feel the angst in his poetry, as the crackly vocals reverberated off the brick walls of the venue. Whatever anguish inspired this song, you could feel its presence in the room standing right beside you. After a brilliant rendition, Houck snarled the final lines: “But my heart is wild, and my bones are steel / and I could kill you with my bare hands if I was free”; my fists clenched with the sheer catharsis of it all.
After an extended applause, the band hopped right into “Right On / Ride On,” which despite the brilliance of “Zula,” may have been the night’s highlight. The raucous rock and guitar riffs hit you right in the gut live, leaving no choice but to bob your head along.
While the full-band left the stage, Houck lagged behind, taking a seat at the piano to play a few more songs. As he began playing the stripped-down versions of his songs, if you listened closely, you could hear the tides of a secluded beach in Tulum, Mexico.
The rowdy crowd drifted out through the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Some laughed through the cold as they exchanged clouds of breath; others huddled together for warmth, exchanging a joint. I placed my earbuds in—the strings of “Song For Zula” faded in from nothingness. Christmas lights lit my way while I wandered through the street. For now, at least, my direction was clear.
Article by Nicolas White
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