Phosphorescent’s Decade-Long Career Finally Catches Fire

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By Caitlin White

Some say love is a burning thing
That it makes a fiery ring
But I know love as a fading thing
Just as fickle as a feather in a stream — "Song For Zula"

Matthew Houck has been making music under the moniker Phosphorescent for almost a decade. When he made the leap from the remote town of Toney, Alabama to the eclectic musical community of Athens, Georgia, Houck adopted the moniker as a symbol of his artistic goals. Houck views his music as a dim glow in the approaching darkness, and he’s determined not to burn out.

"The concept behind the word is that it’s something that burns and makes light without combusting, without burning itself out," Houck said while sipping a beer post-set at Chicago’s Pitchfork Festival. "I think it’s a really beautiful idea, and for me it’s a reminder of why I’m doing this. It's something to strive for, that I can produce something that glows in this world without burning itself out. And I just really think it’s a beautiful word."

For his sixth album, Muchacho, Houck brings this radiance to a new intensity—even those outside of his well-established fan base sat up and took notice. On the deftly textured album out this March, the Alabama native taps into the same serene country blues that has infused his work in the past. Southern beginnings are only half the story for Houck, though, who left Athens for Brooklyn a few years ago. He self-produces everything that’s layered into his music, from the subtle synthesizers and electronic grooves, to the horns, strings and gritty vocal harmonies.

This is a man who released an Willie Nelson tribute record back in 2009 dubbed simply To Willie, but who but also self-admittedly listens to a lot of Lil Wayne, a rare rap namedrop from an artist rooted in traditional Americana. But when it comes to combining ancient acoustic traditions of the heartland with digital and modern elements, the process is simple for Houck: don’t think about it.

"Genres, as far as that goes, have never really interested me that much," he said. "It's always been a little surprising to me that there's a division, for example, between lyric-based music and physical, dancey type music. I always played around with those kind of aspects in the music that I make. For me, the songs begin with a feeling and probably a lyric and at that point it’s always kind of trying to chase down the best answer for that song."

The concept behind the word is that it’s something that burns and makes light without combusting, without burning itself out. I think it’s a really beautiful idea, and for me it’s a reminder of why I’m doing this.

One song in particular, has piqued a flame of interest in Muchacho this year—the record’s brilliant, blazing single "Song For Zula." Partially inspired by a spur-of-the-moment jaunt to Mexico (certainly, the trip was an influence on the record’s title), the opening lyrics quote Johnny Cash’s legendary "Ring of Fire" but jump off from there into a lagoon of string currents and heartbreak laments. The existential desperation of the song, along with its stark sonic beauty struck a chord even among those who weren’t familiar with Houck’s work.

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