Matthew Houck, the Alabama native who records under the name Phosphorescent, is awfully hard to pin down. Our meeting is rescheduled once, twice, three times. When we finally engage, he tends to hum his answers to questions, both yes and no. “Mm-hmm.” “Unh-uh.” Etc. When he does respond with actual words, the path is often winding and circuitous. And, like as not, prone to trailing off.
“Playing inside always sounds. . . .”
“It doesn’t actually sound all that good playing in an empty, just sonically. . . .”
“You take your guitar out, like even in Georgia, you know, when I was down there writing, writing records, and I used to live out in the middle of nowhere in this little house, before I moved to New York, I had lived in this house to make the last record, and even then I guess people would assume. . . .”
When I ask Matthew why he moved from college-music mecca Athens, Georgia, to New York just over a year ago, he hems, he haws. “Shit,” he says. “I don’t know. It’s New York. Probably the same reason as most anybody. What made you come up here?”
And so once more (with feeling), we’re back where we started. Which, for the moment, is outside. A place where Houck has told me (let’s call it “half-told”; see above) that his music just doesn’t sound all that good. And yet despite his protestations (yep, I’ve cajoled him into doing this), in the widest of Brooklyn’s open spaces (alongside the East River), the man’s music mirrors his interview style. His Southern roots favor the ethereal over twang, and harmonies of crackling uncertainty over a singularly confident drawl. Call them equally enigmatic.
Houck, of course, has played outside before (he mentions a questionable busking quadrant of “New Orleans, Austin, Santa Monica, L.A.”). With apologies to new New Yorker Steve Earle, you may label Houck a hardcore, if hazy, troubadour. “I think I was specifically thinking of myself as that as well at that time,” he says. As if it was a stage, a phase to pass through. A youthful preoccupation, a dalliance.
But Houck (for once) definitely states that the whole searching-serenader-wrapped-in-wayward-mystery thing is something in his past. “I don’t think I’ll ever do that again.”
And yet here we are, with Houck and his band precariously perched on a promontory that appears none too comfortable. They play (again, at our request) “Wolves,” the highlight of Phosphorescent’s recently released Pride. It’s the first song Houck wrote upon arriving in New York and the only song (so far) that he’s written on ukulele. The orchestration is sparse (a bass drum here, an acoustic guitar there), though still a sturdy bedrock for layer upon layer of voices (yea verily it’s a 21st-century Gregorian chant by way of Brooklyn), thin like a cabin window without insulation, vulnerable, and hauntingly transparent. What remains is something tenuous, transforming and, in just the right light (say, sundown on the East River), resoundingly timeless.
For video and MP3 audio of Phosphorescent performing, consult Rob Trucks’s column, “Possibly 4th Street,” at our music blog, Sound of the City.