What to Do Tonight: Phosphorescent

Born to be mild
  • Born to be mild

Matthew Houck has spent his career taking Phosphorescent through all sorts of twists and turns. His earliest records — especially 2003’s debut album, A Hundred Times or More — lumped Houck in with the burgeoning freak-folk scene. He spread his wings on 2005’s Aw Come Aw Wry, a wildly inventive but traditional-sounding CD that incorporates New Orleans funk, old-school country, and a few waltzes.

The latest incarnation of Phosphorescent — often a one-man show in the studio that expands to a full band onstage — began when Houck relocated from Athens, Georgia, to Brooklyn three years ago. He recorded the insular and ethereal Pride in the hipster haven and assembled a group to bring on the road. Those touring members became the driving force behind Houck’s past two records. “They’re some of the best musicians alive,” he says.

Last year, Phosphorescent released To Willie, a Willie Nelson covers album slyly named in homage Nelson’s own 1977 Lefty Frizell tribute, To Lefty From Willie. On it, Houck and his band play the most traditional-sounding music Phosphorescent have ever recorded. Added bonus: Nelson heard the CD and became a fan.

“I don’t know how he tracked down my phone number,” says Houck. “He just called me up out of nowhere. It came up as a private number, so I didn’t answer it, because I thought it was a bill collector or something like that. So I got the voicemail that he left that said, ‘Hey, it’s Willie.” He was coming through [New York] a couple of days later, so he invited us over and we all hung out.”

Nelson also asked Phosphorescent to play his annual Farm Aid concert and even joined the band onstage during their set. “He’s been incredible — a really nice, great guy,” says Houck.

Nelson’s influence is clearly all over the group’s latest album, Here’s to Taking It Easy, which was released in May. “This record is trying to be a little more straightforward,” says Houck. “[I’m trying to write] classic, straightforward rock songs — trying to not hide behind metaphors or bigger picture motifs and things like that. Just let the songs do what they do and be right down the middle with them, or at least as right down the middle as Phosphorescent could get.”