Phases and Stages

New pal Willie Nelson inspires Phosphorescent's most direct album yet

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 take 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 to 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 its 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."

The standout "The Mermaid Parade" is a devastating breakup song that draws its setting from the mini-Mardi Gras that's been a summer staple at New York's Coney Island since 1983. There's a classic '70s rock sound running through the track and throughout Here's to Taking It Easy, right from the first strains of the opening "It's Hard to Be Humble (When You're From Alabama)."

Houck says a few albums from the era inspired the vibe: Bob Dylan's Street Legal, Ron Wood's I've Got My Own Album to Do, an LP by Bobby Charles, the swamp-pop pioneer who wrote "See You Later, Alligator" and "Walking to New Orleans." "Those mid-to-late '70s records have some kind of thing going on in their production that is really special," he says. "I was consciously going after that as much as I could in the production."

Still, Houck refuses to overwork or over-rehearse his band. So what you hear onstage is a group often playing without a net. Houck says that approach has more than one advantage: The audience gets a distinct show, and the band continually finds something new in the songs.

"When we try to shape these things too much, they lose their initial spark and you can end up snuffing it out," he says. "It just feels a lot better to keep everybody on their toes. [That way] you can always find new pockets of excitement that you didn't know were going to be there, and you can surprise yourself every time you play."

Phosphorescent were recently surprised, but not in a good way, when their van was stolen — including all of their gear — right before they launched the new tour. Thankfully, it turned up a few days later, in one piece and with every instrument and amp accounted for. "The police called to tell us they'd found the van, and ten hours later, we hit the road," says Houck. "It's been a whirlwind. It's been insane."

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