Matthew Houck, Phosphorescent

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Matthew Houck and Willie Nelson

Matthew Houck and Phosphorescent performed at Farm Aid 2009, early in the day, as concert-goers were just beginning to fill up the Verizon Amphitheater in St. Louis.  Their set was so enjoyable and the crowd loved them; I wish all 20,000+ who attended that day could have heard them.  

Farm Aid was a smorgasbord of great music, as always, country, jazz, rock and roll, with the greatest being full sets by Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews who closed out the show.   You can’t say too much about these musical geniuses, with the only thing greater than their artistic talent being their big hearts and generous spirits.

This was their 24thFarm Aid Concert and they were as inspired and committed as ever to bringing attention to the plight of the family farmer. Throughout the 15-act concert, they gave out the phone numbers (1-800-FarmAid), the web site address (www.farmaid.org) , and even instructions on how you could text message your donation (text FARMER to 90999). There are so many ways to give! 

And as I watched Willie Nelson on stage for 12 hours, performing five or six times, holding press conferences, introducing artists, standing on the side of the stage watching other acts, until someone called him out to play with them — it was so clear that Willie Nelson truly is the heart and soul of Farm Aid.

One of the enjoyments of the Farm Aid concert is the wide range of music you get to hear. And tucked among familiar favorites are rising stars like Matthew Houcks, and Phosphorescent.   I first heard about Matthew Houcks with the release of their album, “To Willie,” an album of all Willie Nelson music.    When I read that the album was like his love letter to Willie,  I liked the guy already.

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Matthew Houck, Farm Aid

Matthew Houck lives in Brooklyn, NY, and has  been performing and recording as Phosphorescent for years, with fans all over the world that love him, and growing in number.    ‘To Willie’ is his 5th album, following ‘Pride’ released in 2007, to critical acclaim.  People seem to have trouble categorizing his music, (art/folk, Americana, alt/country, mountain gospel?) but it doesn’t matter, because his music is so intriguing, and his lyrics so good.  

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With ‘To Willie,’ there have been many references, of course, to Willie’s 1977 tribute album to one of his heros, ‘To Lefty, from Willie.’  Even the artwork is similar, with the gold script on white background.   But while Lefty Frizell passed away before he got to hear Willie’s tribute, Matthew got to send Willie a copy of his recording, and received a call back from Willie, expressing his appreciation of the album.  This was followed by an invite to his concert, a visit on his bus, and invitation to play at Farm Aid, where he got to perform with Willie Nelson on stage, when Willie joined him to sing on ‘Reasons to Quit.’

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 To Willie 

It’s not unusual for people to cover Willie Nelson songs, of course. Willie is such an amazing songwriter and artists have been singing and recording his music since he started writing songs decades ago.   For ‘To Willie’ Matthew didn’t just pick favorites that we can all sing along to, he selected songs that resonated with him, songs that he’s been singing in concert for years.  

Willie Nelson doesn’t sound anything like Lefty Frizzell did; he sang the songs on ‘To Lefty, from Willie,’ his own way.  Similarly, Matthew Houck doesn’t imitate Willie, but makes Willie’s music his own with his distinct style and delivery.  He sings Willie Nelson’s songs in the same way he sings his Phosphorescent music.  His renditions are interesting, because his voice is so unique, and so is his phrasing. Most of all, his enthusiasm and love for the material comes through so strongly in the album, and it’s fun to hear Willie’s music performed by them.

Matthew’s parents introduced him to Willie Nelson music, as he was sitting in the back seat of their car, listening to a Willie Nelson cassette.  As a young guy, he was moved by Willie’s songs about heartbreak, and loss and hard living — themes he was much too young a boy to comprehend the meaning of.   Then, when he was old enough he started going to Willie Nelson concerts, buying albums, and as a musician, he started playing Willie Nelson music at his concert.  He is a Willie Nelson fan, and this is what comes across in ’To Willie.’ There is so much love and respect for the songs and for Willie.

This wasn’t Matthew’s first recording of Willie Nelson. In 2004 he recorded ‘My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” on his The Weight of Flight album.  He said that he always felt like he wanted to record more of Willie’s music, and that when he came across the ‘To Willie from Lefty’ album, he knew that this was how he could do it.

I got to talk on the phone with Matthew Houck a week before Farm Aid, in Brooklyn, where he was working hard to finish up his latest album.  And he sounded just as sweet and laid back on the telephone as he does on his albums.  He sounded sleepy, too, but that was probably because he was working so hard on his latest album.  And he was charming.

After his set, Matthew sat up front and enjoyed the concert, then later Phosphorescent joined Willie Nelson and Family and other performers on stage for the finale.

Singing ‘I saw the light’ with Willie and Family and Friends

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Matthew Houck, enjoying the music at Farm Aid 

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LB:   Hi, Matthew, this is Linda in Boulder. Thanks for taking time to talk with me. Where am I finding you today?

MH:  I am at home, in Brooklyn. We have a little bit of time before we go out on tour, and I’ve been working on finishing our new album.

LB:  You moved there from Georgia. Has New York City been good for you?

MH:  Yeah, from Georgia. I’m from Alabama, originally. I’ve been up here for three or four years. I’ve been on tour for much of the time that I’ve lived here. It feels really great to be here right now.

LB:  How did you arrive at the name Phosphorescent for a band? It’s such a beautiful name.

MH:  Thank you. I’ve had that name for years, since I started recording in 2003. I was working at night, not really as a security guard, but as a watchman, on the night shift. I was reading a book and the word phosphorescent was on the page. I thought it was so beautiful. It was kind of evocative and I decided to use it.

LB:  How young were you when you started playing music? Did you take music lessons, growing up in Alabama?

MH:  No, I’ve never taken any lessons. I’m just kind of a hack. I think I started playing guitar when I was 14. And I kind of took off from there.

LB:  How did you meet the band you are touring with now?

MH:  Some of us have known each other for a long time. The piano player, Scott Stapleton is an amazing musician. We have known each other since Georgia. He brought Chris Marine into the band, he’s the drummer, who is the most recent addition to the band. Scott and Chris had played together in Georgia. I met the other guys in the band after I moved to NY (Jeff Bailey, bass player, and Jesse Anderson Ainslie, guitar) When you are playing shows and out on tour, you meet different people and you invite them to go on tour with you and see how you play together. We all really enjoy playing together.

LB:  On your ‘Pride’ album, you wrote the songs and played all the instruments. How does an artist decide to do something like that?

MH:  Right. It was kind of like the end result of a thought process I had. I wanted to do it and see what I came up with. I completely isolated myself. I started working on that album while I was in Georgia, at a little studio out in the country. I wanted to see what I could make with no outside influence.

LB:  Do you think that you’d ever do that again?

MH:  Maybe so. On this current album that we are doing right now — we’re almost finished with it — it’s kind of a middle ground approach. We went into the studio and we recorded everybody live on all the songs. Then I took all those tracks and I have been manipulating them and playing with them for the past month or so.

LB:  How is your new album coming along?

MH:  We’re almost finished with it.

LB:  You are a young guy. What was your introduction to Willie Nelson music? Did your folks play his music when you were growing up?

MH:  Exactly. One of my early memories is sitting in the backseat of my dad’s car at around age 5 probably, and hearing ‘My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.’ I can remember my dad had that cassette tape “Greatest Hits and Some that Will Be’ and he played it all the time. I listen to that album now, and it’s still strong as a record. For whatever reason I was effected by these songs, particularly the real sad songs, from a time when I was probably too young to understand that sadness. It’s really weird, isn’t it?

LB:  How did you select the songs you included on ‘To Willie?’ Were they your favorite Willie Nelson songs?

MH:  Yes. I knew for a long time that I wanted to record these songs, someday. Then about a year before I was able to make the record, I came across ‘To Lefty, from Willie.” And it just immediately clicked that that was a way to do this. And then, once that was in place, it made sense to me…

I knew it was going to be a full length album, 10 or 11 songs. Once I realized it was going to be a full length project like that it was immediately clear to me which of his songs I wanted to record. I really didn’t have to think about it much at all. Those were the songs that I had known for so many years and had never got tired of.

LB.  Boy, Matthew, you picked some of Willie’s saddest songs to record, didn’t you?  They are heartbreakingly sad songs.

MH:  Yeah, for whatever reason, those have always been the ones I like. But there were a handful of songs there that for years ended up being very important to me. These particular songs have always been rattling around my head, some of them for as long as I’ve been listening to music.

LB:   They are sad when Willie sings them,  but your renditions really tore me up.

MH:  Thank you. I hear that a lot. I really appreciate hearing that.

LB:   Is it hard for a singer-songwriter to cover songs by other artists like Willie Nelson?

MH:   No, I think it’s a lot easier to sing those songs. I would not cover songs that it didn’t feel natural to play. When we were making ‘To Willie’, a lot of the pressure of making an album was off, from the normal pressure I fee when making my own music. You can get, or at least I do, you can become a perfectionist about it, and you want to present your own music in the best possible way. You want to do the music justice. But when the songs are these great things already, that someone else has made, a lot of the weight is off my shoulders. I just sing them naturally. It wasn’t hard at all.

LB: I read on your blog that Willie called you on the phone to talk about your album?

MH: Yeah, that was nice. That was a real honor. He left a message on my phone. I was riding on my motorcycle and I missed a call on my phone. I was completely shocked. I picked up my message and it was Willie saying how much he loved the record. It was really flattering and really great.

He was playing nearby in New Jersey and a couple days later we got to go over and see his show. We went over and hung out with him and saw the show. They were playing with Ray Price that night. I met him, I met the band. That’s what lead to the invitation to Play Farm Aid, when Willie invited us to play the Farm Aid Concert.

LB: Do you have any farmers in your family? I know you don’t have to be a farmer to recognize the importance of farmers, and the danger of big business farming in America.

MH: That’s right. I was raised in the country, and my folks were into subsistence farming, growing their own food for our family. It’s not hard to see what the good fight of Farm Aid is all about.

LB: When you are tour, are you performing Willie Nelson music, from ’To Willie’?

MH: Yes, we do. Primarily we just play Phosphorescent songs, but we did a couple tours specifically in support of the To Willie album, where we played a lot of his music. We are back to playing Phosporescent music now. But I am sure we will have to break out some Willie Nelson music for Farm Aid.

LB: You played the SXSW festival — do you like Austin? Have you been to that festival before?

MH: Yes, we’ve been there several times. We love it in Austin and that festival. There’ s live music everywhere. It’s crazy.

LB: Were you too busy working, or did you get to hear much music while you were there for the festival?

MH: Too busy working. I got to see a couple of my friend’s bands, though. We played every day during that festival. Then we went right to Houston for a show.

LB: Have you been working on your new album before you go back on tour?

MH: That’s exactly what I’ve been doing. We’re going back on tour in a week. I am hoping that I absolutely finish this album in the next seven days. We’ll see what happens. It’s really close ,but not quite finished.

LB: Is the album all Phosphorescent music? What can you tell me about it?

MH: Yes. Well, I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s a really big record. I’m really happy with what we’ve made. It sounds really big. I think we’ve got a really special sound on this one. I just couldn’t be more excited about it. I’m a little frazzled right now, working to get it done. I’m hoping to release it before we get going on tour. I think it’s the best thing Phosphorescent has ever done. I’m really excited about the sounds we’re getting, and the songs included.

LB:  Matthew, I look forward to seeing you at Farm Aid next week. What’s the best way to keep up with your tour schedule — myspace?

MH: Yeah, that’s the best for now. It gets updated the most regularly. Dead Oceans’ site, our record label, also has tour information. 

www.myspace.com/phosphorescent

8 Responses to “Matthew Houck, Phosphorescent”

  1. laney says:

    Great interview……….

  2. linda says:

    Thanks, Laney. It was fun to visit with him on the phone. He was sitting in the front row at Farm Aid, and I was standing right in front of him in the photo pit, so I got to introduce myself and talk to him. Lyrics to his songs he’s writte are so good; he’s a great song writer, too.

  3. sweetheart says:

    Nice interview, LB!

  4. LindaLee says:

    Thanks, Alice. One nice thing with this blog, I don’t have an editor so I can ramble on as long as I want! No one’s limiting my word count. 🙂 People can just skim through it if it’s too long for them.

  5. Monique says:

    That’s a great interview, Linda. I watched Phosphorescent at the webcast of Farm Aid and I’m sure going to check out more of their music. Thanks!

  6. laney says:

    Love the Songwriters of the world……….

  7. LindaLee says:

    That’s right, Laney, we need those poets.

  8. […] Linda Lee at the super Willie Nelson blog StillIsStillMoving.com interviews Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck. […]

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