A SOUTHERN GENTLEMAN resides near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He uses his words sparingly, but when he does talk, it is in a quiet voice with a slight lilt that reveals him as not from around these parts. He prefers it if you call him “Matthew,” and sometimes he plays guitar. No, he isn’t a displaced busker. This is Matthew Houck, formerly of Toney, Alabama, lover of Willie Nelson and founder of the band Phosphorescent. And he is pleased to be here.
Houck, 30, grew up under the influence of “whatever was on the radio,” in addition to the old country and folk records of his parents. He got his first electric guitar when he was 14 and quickly began writing his own songs. Houck played in some bands with friends, but he always gravitated toward solo performance. He hit the road when he was 19 and started playing shows in coffeehouses. Around this time, he also put out his first unofficial recording, Hipolit, under the name Fillup Shack, a moniker he adapted more out of modesty than for mystery. “[I was] too shy to release something under my own name,” he admits.
But Houck eventually found his confidence and expressed this growth by changing his project’s name to Phosphorescent, a word describing something that emits light. Houck identifies the title as “a goal to strive for,” he says. “It’s a beautiful word and has a lot of heft behind it.” As Phosphorescent, Houck released his first LP, A Hundred Times or More, in 2003, followed by Aw Come Aw Wry in 2005. Then in 2007, Houck put out the quietly intimate Pride and started to gain the attention he deserved. He toured Pride extensively and decided afterward to take a break from his own music. Rather than jump into writing an album of all new material, Houck turned to the songs of one of his childhood idols, Willie Nelson. The 11 tracks on To Willie, released in 2009, “are some of my all-time favorite songs,” Houck says. Houck did the tunes justice, maintaining the classic country feeling while inserting his own casual cool. His album received critical praise, but it also garnered a hat-tip from Nelson himself. It is on this topic that Houck cannot help but be enthusiastic. “He called me up,” Houck says, in as close to a gushing manner as you’re going to get from him. “[Nelson] was as complimentary as he could be.”
Houck returned to his own music on this year’s Here’s To Taking It Easy, which saw his songwriting change shape in the aftermath of To Willie. “It was definitely a conscious choice to make a quoteunquote straightforward album,” Houck says. In an effort to make music with a “classic rock or straight-down-the-middle” feeling, Houck enlisted the help of fellow musicians who brought pedal steel and piano to the mix. This resulted in an honest album that focuses on simple, lived-in melodies and uses uncomplicated lyrics to express complicated feelings. No track does this better than the Coney Island-centric “Mermaid Parade,” a song that documents the actions of a man in New York and his ex-wife in Los Angeles. Houck hesitates to elaborate on the inspiration behind the slowly strolling number, only to say that the song developed out of “some biographical stuff and also a conscious desire to write a narrative.” But while he remains mum on the relationship details, it seems safe to assume that the line, “There were naked women dancing in the Mermaid Parade,” is at least one part of the song that came from firsthand experience.
>> PHOSPHORESCENT July 4, Hudson River Park, Pier 54 at West 14th Street, www.riverrocksnyc. com; 6, Free.