By Breanna Murphy on June 21, 2010
“Hej, me I’m light.”
For nearly five minutes, Matthew Houck—the sole static member of Phosphorescent—confesses this haunting line in an echo chamber as a chorus of other voices cautiously joins him in the reverie. It’s a disquieting melody towards the end of Here’s to Taking It Easy, the band’s fourth record, which serves as a reflection of Phosphorescent’s past and fully-formed realization of a bright future.
Three years ago, Houck presented the previous album of original Phosphorescent material, aptly titled Pride, and unveiled an intimate portrait of a songwriter shed bare with an uncompromising hold on language. Walking dauntlessly along the precarious and sometimes well-worn line between alt-country and folk—and escorted by myriad other Southern muses—songs like “Be Dark Night” and “Cocaine Lights” succeeded because of Houck’s unwavering talent for delivery and tone. Sometimes soft-spoken but never delivered with trepidation, the record’s strength was born precisely from the solitude it bemoaned.
“Making Phosphorescent albums has always been a fairly isolated process even when other people are involved, but Pride was the one that I decided to do completely by myself. It was a growth in terms of getting better at learning how to make records.”
The subsequent year saw Phosphorescent in flux, facing a heavy, unrelenting touring schedule with little time at home or for anything else—let alone songwriting. By the time Houck found himself back home in New York, a toll had been taken.
“It was a bit of a rough time, having lived that lifestyle on the road for a year. It didn’t feel right to jump into new Phosphorescent material; it seemed like a little too much.”
Instead, a different project materialized. Supported by the band Houck had built for the touring of Pride, a well-deserved break came in the form of a love letter to Willie Nelson. Inspired by Nelson’s own 1977 tribute to country icon Lefty Frizzell, To Lefty From Willie, Phosphorescent’s To Willie was a welcome challenge. “They’re masterpieces,” Houck relishes of Nelson’s songs. “And they all deal with the subject matter of a lot of the stuff that I personally happened to be dealing with at the time. All of a sudden, it just made perfect sense to sit down and record all these amazing songs.”
Another tour commenced, another year went by, and Houck was then nearly three years out from his last recorded original material, beleaguered by two back-to-back albums and months of long stretches out on the road touring them. However, the new constant in his life—a band—lent itself as a beacon for the direction of the next record.
“We have six guys who are all amazingly good players, and we realized that we had the ability to make what I consider to be a classic record, in the way of Rolling Stones or 1970s-era Dylan records. They have a classic feel to them that I still don’t know how to define.”
Houck found himself writing at least half his new material on the road, and examining the process all the while. “A lot of times, my songs get written and for whatever reason, you just have to trust that they’re worth it. At a certain point, a song has its own life. You just honor what it’s doing. You give it a push, you see where it goes, and you follow it.”
The result of this generous, loose methodology is Here’s to Taking It Easy, an album that is at once as different and absolute as Pride. From the first track onwards, the record is a defiant answer to its predecessor’s isolation, a collection that would have been impossible to make without the new chorus of voices and instruments accompanying Houck. The title itself alludes to a new ideal: “Just taking it easy in the face of all these things that can get to you, one way or another.” F