“I definitely concede that this was the first time I was really, really aware that people were gonna hear whatever I did,” Houck explains to Vinyl Me, Please over the phone from Nashville. “I’d like to say that it didn’t affect me, but that’s not true. I know I thought about it and I know it was present in my mind in a way it wasn’t before.” This pressure is relieved in unanimously positive ways on C’est La Vie, a record that’s the purest encapsulation of what Phosphorescent’s been building toward during Houck’s near two-decade tenure under the moniker. The songs are crystalline and precise, yet loose and relaxed; a perfect balance between Muchacho and the stellar live record he put out two years later in 2015.
The record’s emotional centerpiece is “Christmas Down Under,” a sprawling meditation on parenthood and responsibility. Pedal steel that’ll make the steeliest listeners weep underpins the entire operation, while Houck’s signature voice — always slightly downcast, desperate and lonely — moves from thoughts personal to generational: “Some say that Jesus had a daughter / I don’t guess that he ever met her / She had never met her father / No, I guess this world couldn’t let her / No, this world needed a martyr / It’s hard to understand / That if you need to make a martyr / You gotta take away the man,” he sings, sounding exhausted and broken, clearly affected by his experience as a new father.
C’est La Vie is a record about change and growing, but Phosphorescent, especially musically, has always encapsulated this vision. There’s an ecstatic growth throughout Houck’s discography, one that feels natural and paced, while unfolding all at once simultaneously. Houck’s reservations about having an audience expecting and anticipating his work is a valid concern, but with C’est La Vie, it shouldn’t be. This is what we’ve been waiting for, and Houck spent five years making sure it’s as good as it can be; nothing is perfect, but C’est La Vie is great and that’s good enough because that’s life. C’est la vie.
VMP: How did you end up in Nashville? How do you like it out there so far?
Matthew Houck: I like it. We’ve been here for just a few years. I’ve been working on building this studio and spending so much time doing this record that it still feels like a very new place. I’ve definitely been in a bit of a bubble.
How did building that studio cater itself to making this new record?
I’ve always worked in my own space, this was just the first time that I ended up making it a way bigger project and a real place — building walls and running power. It was a lot harder than I wanted it to be; it definitely slowed down the process. I didn’t intend to do it. I bought this old console from the ’70s and needed a place to put it. I couldn’t find a place and eventually found this old warehouse that used to be a shipping place or something. It was unfinished without any walls. It was the only place I could find. It just became a big project.
Are you planning on recording other bands there as well?
I’d like to. That’s the idea. I can use it, it works for me, but there are a lot of quirks. Let’s put it that way.
There are a few songs on the record that are an extension of Muchacho, but in most ways it’s very different. Was that intentional? Were there specific things you wanted to hit that were perhaps reactionary to how Muchacho sounded?
Probably. I’m always chasing a better sound. On the early records, for whatever reason, sound didn’t concern me that much. It was all about finding a way to record these songs and move on. Well, I cared about the sound, but I became much more technically concerned with make big-sounding records with Muchacho. That was a baby step in that direction. This is a big leap into a large-format console with a lot of microphones in a big room.
Are you recording by yourself or are there a bunch of people involved?
I was doing most of it by myself but the live band came in and out at various times. I did some tracking at another studio before mine was ready and the band happened to be in town for that, too. We recorded rehearsals during the first time I was showing the band these songs. We just rolled tape because, why not? I had a lot of material from those three days — a lot of really magical stuff — but it wasn’t useable in that form because it was the first time anyone had heard them. I was able to edit a lot of that material into the final recordings. That was the process. There were lots of other people involved but I sat with that material for many, many months, weaving that in with the stuff I was doing by myself.
There are a lot of live elements on this record, more so than Muchacho. Was that a conscious decision?
Yeah. For several of the songs, the work was dictated from that initial time when I recorded everybody in the other studio. There was real magic in that stuff. You can’t get that kind of playing ever again. The very first time you’re playing it, you can’t repeat that; you start having preconceived notions of what you’re doing. It was great to have captured that and find a way to make it useful. That dictated the sound of several songs on the record. After that it was a lot of overdubbing.
The snippets you transferred from those live recordings...Were they templates? Rough drafts?
They were guides and then I’d redo it again in the vein of those recordings. Those initial moments were then pieced in with my work. It was kind of like shooting a movie, maybe. You have a really great take and the actor was wearing the wrong shirt, but you figure out a way around it. Maybe he has a reason to change shirts.
Were you surprised by Muchacho’s success?
Yes and no. I’ve always thought that all of them should be popular (laughs). But it was so much more successful than the ones prior to it, so obviously I was surprised.
Did that in some way shape the new record? It’s easier to say you’re not caving from any sort of pressure, but I have to imagine it plays some role.
Yeah. Look, it has to. My wife’s take on it was that the reason I made this studio and made it so difficult to get to work was clearly some form of procrastination. I don’t know if that’s true but there must be some truth in it. But more than that, I made a lot of records knowing a few people would hear it but by and large it was for me. The idea that it’d be heard was a further off thought. This time it was very clear that it’d be heard.
Can you track the influence that place or location has on your work, having been in New York for 10 years before making this record in Tennessee?
It must. Outside of logistical things, though, I’m not sure I’m too influenced by where I was living.
It’s a little funny that you made a Willie Nelson cover record in New York and now you’re in Nashville and there’s not much country on C’est La Vie at all.
(Laughs) It’s also ridiculous that I’d build a studio in a town that’s overflowing with studios.
Are there any particular influences you can point to that helped inspire the sound of this record?
Ummmm… Not really, honestly. I was carving out a sonic area that I’m not sure any other record sounds like. That was a conscious choice. Outside of the first track, “New Birth in New England,” which is clearly indebted to Paul Simon, I didn’t really have sonic touchstones. Well, that might not be true. There are some ’80s vibes from the “badly produced” Leonard Cohen records that I think sound amazing.
I hear some John Cale, too.
Oh hell yeah! I’ve listened to a bunch of that stuff in the past few years.
The record, conceptually, is about this new life of yours as a married man with children. Can you speak about that transition in your life and how songwriting changed for you once you had kids?
I don’t know if the songwriting changed. I’d be a bad judge of that, though. Before my kids, all I did was something related toward making this art and trying to become an artist at the exclusion of pretty much everything else. Nothing could knock that out. That’s a fairly selfish way to live, or at the very least very inward looking. Children were the first thing that could compete with that. It’s really interesting. Music can very quickly become a different experience of what you’re doing.
Is any part of you scared of losing a certain fire?
Yeah, but I feel like it gets replaced by something else internal. My vantage point, my field of view, and what I’m looking at has changed. Maybe that won’t lend itself to the kind of music I’m making, or maybe it will. I honestly don’t know. I’m not too scared of it, but it is something I think about a lot. On the opposite end, there’s a feeling of almost resentment about how, for so many years, I thought I had to be miserable in order to be an artist. The stuff I’ve made has trafficked in fairly rough themes in terms of suffering and being miserable. I bought into that notion early on and have been slowly disagreeing with it. I no longer agree with that notion at all.
There’s a gross romanticism to it. Like, that caricature doesn’t really exist.
Yeah, well, it can exist, but it shouldn’t.
I’m sure you learned this very quickly, but it feels better to be happy. And yeah, that’s not always controllable, but when it is, being happy and enjoying things is just so much more pleasant than being angry and cynical.
Also, it gives you a clearer place from which to create. You can still traffic in these rougher areas but maybe you’re not consumed by them. I’ll never know for sure, but most of my favorite stuff seems to be artists coming at it from a place of having something useful to convey about sadness.
It’s almost an objective perspective of your personality.
That’s exactly it.
“Christmas Down Under” really struck me, especially the verse about Christ not knowing his daughter and the world not letting him. Was there a specific moment you experienced as a father that triggered that verse? Or is that sentiment more of a general feeling?
I was for sure thinking about my daughter in writing that song. But it still does feel like a general thing. I’m really proud of that song in a strange way. I don’t know. I’m glad you like it (laughs). To me, it feels like a really, really rough song. But I’m not sure anyone else would feel that way. It’s sad stuff. All this stuff.
I think something that gets overlooked in your music is how meticulously crafted and layered it is. The layers are subtle but there are so many of them. Are you a perfectionist in the studio? Do you have trouble putting songs down?
You could definitely call me a perfectionist. I can spend a lot of time subtly tweaking these things.
Does that get in the way of what you’re ultimately going for or is that part of it?
Oh, absolutely it gets in the way. I’m sure there are several people who’d tell you this record could have been done many months ago.
So how do you convince yourself that songs are done?
You get obsessed, you really do. When something’s not right I can get pretty monomaniacal about this stuff and really end up in a wormhole wanting to fix things. For better or worse, though, it’s a part of my process. I’m lucky to have the live stuff because I’m good to let it go and be rough. That’s just what I’m up to. But with self-producing records and having the tools to try to make it right, I kind of just have to keep hacking away at it.
Do you think there’s a thesis to this record?
I didn’t know what this record was until the last song I wrote, which I wrote a month before the record was done. I wrote, recorded and mixed it in three days, whereas some of the others I ended up — because of the construction process in the middle — working on them for a year. “C’est La Vie” was like a keystone or something. I figured out what the record was. There’s no real thesis, though, that’s clear. But to me that song ties into the various threads that each of the songs go through, ranging from acceptance to non-acceptance to unease and happiness. The songs are kind of conflicting as they wind this course. It really didn’t make sense as a body of work until that song, and then it fell into place.
This is year 15 for you as Phosphorescent. What does that longevity mean to you? I know earlier you said that you thought that most of these records should be more successful, but did you ever really imagine that this is where you’d be at?
Yeah, you know? I had a weird confidence in this stuff early on. I probably have less confidence now. I had a blind notion about this stuff and there wasn’t an option-B. It’s kind of a weird answer, but yeah. Mostly I’m just glad it’s happening.
You can buy a limited-edition version of C’est La Vie on transparent purple vinyl now in the Vinyl Me, Please store. Check it out here.