Whether you’ve lived in New York City all your life or you’re a transplant from elsewhere, if you stick around long enough you’re bound to see it undergo some sort of transformation. Having lived here, written songs here, and played countless shows here under the moniker Phosphorescent, Matthew Houck knows that better than most. Recently, Houck slipped quietly off into the Nashville sunset, relocating for a time to raise a family and write a new record. Houck says that it was time for a “change of scenery.” He wrote no “goodbye to all that” essay brimming with wistful memories or bitter gripes. Instead, Houck’s New York swan song came in the form of Live at the Music Hall, a triple LP cobbled from four nights of shows at the Music Hall of Williamsburg last December.
“It wasn’t recorded with the intention of making an album,” he insists. “It was just recorded with the intention of documenting this band.” He’s referring to the additional musicians who lent instrumentation to Muchacho, his critically acclaimed 2013 LP. Many of those same musicians joined him while touring to support the record over the past two years, and the shows at MHOW were the last four of what was ostensibly the final leg of their U.S. tour. “I knew those four shows were gonna be special,” he says. “We had sort of a homecoming run there. So I wanted to record them and just kind of see what we had.” But months later, reviewing those performances, Houck realized that the recordings held a certain kind of magic.
“Just really quickly upon listening to them, it was clear that there was a record there, that it was bigger than just a live recording, if that makes sense,” he recalls. “After hearing it, I realized it was special enough to be a record…it does the thing that I want a record to do.” Being able to record the same musicians with the same setup was really the first opportunity Houck had gotten to pick and choose from multiple tracks. “I actually kept the track listing from the second show, but I had to swap over a couple of songs because there was a piano mic out on one of them.” Finding himself with enough material to fill five sides over three LPs, he was then able to pick and choose what went on the sixth side from across all the shows. “Those are kind of like the bonus tracks,” he explains.
Phosphorescent albums have long had the power to draw listeners in, to make whoever hears the records feel just as wounded as the characters in Houck’s narratives. Live at the Music Hall manages to do the same sort of thing, except that this time, the listener is invited to a party of sorts — an eclectic reckoning of Phosphorescent’s entire back catalog, with all the immediacy and heart of a live effort. In that setting, the songs begin to take on their own lives. “That’s really one of the joys of doing this,” Houck says. “A song like ‘Song for Zula,’ for example: I wouldn’t have ever expected that song to do what it does now, and what you can feel it doing in the room at a show. It’s like a communal and joyous, beautiful thing, and I think that song was a fairly upsetting song. [The songs] really can surprise you.”
That the venue itself is so central to Houck’s own history helps Live at the Music Hall retain a warmth and a continuity that’s rare for a live record. “New York is easily one of my favorite cities to play, and I don’t know if it’s because it kind of became an adopted hometown or if it would’ve been anyway. I honestly don’t know. But I know that those New York shows always have been highlights,” he admits. “It was really special to listen back and be like, ‘Holy shit, that’s why it was so special.’ ”
On the next page: the stigma behind live records and talk of “old Williamsburg.”[
That being said, Houck knows that New York City, and Brooklyn in particular, is not exactly the same place he moved to seven years ago. “I was in Greenpoint for the last three years…a lot of it is still similar to what it was like when I first moved there,” he says. “But you know how it is. All the stuff from early times in New York, like Glasslands, and that whole thing, that’s just all gone. It’s hard to talk about New York without getting caught up in that conversation, but I also think that conversation is a bit of a dead end, ’cause, you know, things change. I don’t feel as protective as a lot of people feel about the ‘old Williamsburg’ being gone, ’cause something else will come along. It’ll be replaced.”
Houck has plans to write and record the follow-up to Muchacho in his new home studio in Nashville, a luxury he lacked in Brooklyn. “I’m not gonna miss the small apartments!” he joked. “I’m not completely out of New York; there’s always a reason to be coming back around. So we’ll see what happens, but I want to make the record down here, and see what that brings to it.” In a way, Live at the Music Hall exists as a bookend to the albums he made while living in Brooklyn, which include his 2007 breakout Pride, a Willie Nelson tribute album in 2009, 2010’s Here’s to Taking It Easy, and of course, Muchacho and the live record.
“Whether or not it’s a sort of chapter-ender or just a nice little photograph of what it was at that time, I don’t know yet,” he says. “I’m just so proud of that band. We were really, really good and I just think we were doing something pretty special, and I’m glad that there was a chance to document it.
“I think live records might have a certain stigma behind them — you might think they don’t sound good, or are tossed off in a way that isn’t worth owning.” Houck recognizes this, but he has high hopes for Live at the Music Hall nevertheless. “Without being too effusive about it, I really think it’s a special record and I’m really proud of it. I’m proud that it exists, and that it was made in New York. I think that’s cool as hell.”
Phosphorescent’s Live at the Music Hall is available now via Dead Oceans.
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