Matthew Houck is a man of few words, but that might be expected from a folk singer. Under the pseudonym Phosphorescent, Houck emerged in 2007 with Pride. His latest album, To Willie, pays tribune to country legend Willie Nelson and his classic collection of Lefty Frizzell covers, To Lefty From Willie. Old cowboys may share plenty of tales, but if there’s one topic they’re tight-lipped about, it’s themselves. Nevertheless, this Alabama son and Brooklyn resident has plenty of character. The A.V. Club spoke to Houck—who performs with Deer Tick and Red Sammy Friday, March 27, at Gspot in Baltimore—about wolves, booze, and his home on an unlikely range.
The A.V. Club: Were you exposed to a lot of roots music growing up in Alabama?
Matthew Houck: Sure, that music was around. It wasn’t so much traditional roots music, though—more like early-’80s country radio. It actually wasn’t until way later that I sought out the more traditional stuff.
AVC: Do you have a personal connection to Willie Nelson’s music? There’s an old press photo, from about 2005, where you’re wearing a Willie T-shirt.
MH: Oh yeah, isn’t that funny? Yeah, I mean, a lot of the songs on this record are songs I’ve known since I was a kid. I’ve loved them for a long time. I knew several years ago that I wanted to record these songs, but I didn’t know how many of them or in what way. Then I found that record, To Lefty From Willie, and all of a sudden it kind of clicked. I knew that would be a nice form for it to take.
AVC: A tribute album is a gutsy statement. What did you hope to bring to those songs?
MH: There wasn’t ever a period of thinking about it on those terms. It was just a natural thing. I knew that Phosphorescent could do a really good job with these songs. You know, I’d been on the road for about a solid year in support of the last record [Pride], and when I came back it just felt really natural to sit down and start recording with this band.
AVC: Willie’s in your top eight friends on MySpace. Any chance that he’s heard this album?
MH: I sent it to him. No word yet on if he’s heard it.
AVC: There’s a bit of an animal theme running through much of your music, particularly in Pride. Do you find inspiration in wildlife?
MH: [Animals] seem to come up a lot. I’m not sure why that is. I think they’re more in charge of that than I am.
AVC: Can you talk about the inspiration behind a song like “Wolves”?
MH: “Wolves” is pretty allegorical in the way that it’s written. Wolves are just a symbol in that song for something sinister and unsettling, but at the same time entirely beautiful. They seemed to be a good metaphor for conveying that.
AVC: Music like yours lends itself to pastoral imagery, which makes Brooklyn seem an unlikely location for Phosphorescent’s songs. Do your urban surroundings color your writing in any particular way?
MH: Yeah, I’m sure they do. We’ll have to see where the record goes from here. I don’t exactly know to what degree things are creeping in. They creep in later, and you realize that this was affecting your work however it was. It’s always a surprise to me.
AVC: While on the topic of natural things, it’s said you wanted to be nude on the cover of Pride. Do you feel a desire to expose yourself, in the most literal sense, to the public?
MH: No. That whole thing was just the general notion of being absolutely unafraid and unabashed about our sexuality, or maybe a literal interpretation of some of the themes on the album. I thought it was a good physical manifestation of putting yourself out there—unadorned, unprotected—and also a pretty direct reference to the word “pride.”
AVC: You’ve alluded to a certain amount of on-the-road rowdiness, which seems at odds with the calming effects of your music. You told one reporter you were kicked out of a bar after a performance in Washington, D.C. Is that how you roll?
MH: Well, that’s kind of how I roll when I’m on tour, that’s for sure. I don’t know how long this will continue, and it’s not calculated or anything, but it seems that whenever Phosphorescent plays, it’s always a group of relatively rambunctious guys. Of course, booze and drugs are involved. It’s a bit of a raucous experience as opposed to the recordings, which, you know, that’s just sitting down and recording.
AVC: It's been reported that you have another album in the works. What can you say about that?
MH: Yeah, I’m definitely trying to get it out this year. We’re recording it in the same space as the Willie record, in this DIY studio that I set up. Since I built that place, I’ve actually had some stability, which has never been the scenario before.