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Burning Willie Questions: A chat with Phosphorescent


Phosphorescent performing Nelson’s “Reasons to Quit”  at the Cake Shop, NYC, 10.24.08

On Friday, Brooklynite beard-bard par excellence Matthew Houck a/k/a PHOSPHORESCENT will roll into Boston with a crack band of players to perform (among other things) some numbers off of To Willie, Houck’s recently released tribute to Willie Nelson (named in a nod to Willie’s 1975 tribute to Lefty Frizzell, To Lefty, From Willie)-- and an unexpectedly traditional follow-up to his 2007 debut, Pride. If the notion of a covers album makes you squinch a little, fear not; Houck’s got enough actual Southern blood and actual love for the Red Headed Stranger to carry off this collection of classics and deep cuts with often heartbreaking conviction. He’s even hung onto his Athens area code.

Granted, the two men couldn’t be more different: Where Nelson’s voice has the hard-edged practicality of a plank of wood, Houck’s scratchy warble is more like shale. Where Nelson’s arrangements often achieved a sort of divine, road-weary loneliness, Houck’s tendencies toward the choral make many of the songs glow with an uncanny spirituality. Of course, Houck’s relative softness sometimes falls short of convincing: When he sings that there are “more old drunks than old doctors, so I guess we’d better have another round,” it has the plaintive cracks of a private justification; when Nelson sings it, it sits there like a fact.(Now where’s his drink, dammit.)

Still, Houck has a knack for magnifying the vulnerability (sometimes hidden) in Nelson’s songs. “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way,” is a heartbreaking crawl through the regrets of lost love, and the fragility of “The Last Thing I Needed (First Thing This Morning)” is taken to its limits-- one wonders if the song will make it all the way to the end of itself.

I recently got Mr. Houck on the phone for a quick chat as he prepared for a stretch of touring that will take him right into summertime. As promised, I was even able to include some questions from you, our insatiably curious readers. (To the one who demanded n00dz of Houck: I’ll hit him up at the show for them, felt weird to do it on the phone, you know? Of course you do.)

In your selection of songs for To Willie, were there Willie Nelson songs that were too sacred to touch? (Or, for that matter, too sucky to bother with?)
There was never a selecting process, really. All of these songs were songs that I’ve known for years and years. I always thought that I would eventually record them, but when I saw the To Lefty record, it just clicked that this is the form it should take. By that point I knew immediately which 11 songs I wanted to do.

So you grew up on Willie Nelson?
I wouldn’t say “grew up on,” but some of my earliest musical memories are of Willie. I think I’m realizing how much these songs have stayed around, how some songs can come and go in your fancy of them, but how these have grown with me, and mean something new to me everytime. I remember these songs from a time before I knew what they meant.

There will doubtless be a good amount of young Phosphorescent fans for whom this album will be their first exposure to Willie Nelson. Is that creepy or awesome?
Oh, I think that’s awesome, yeah. I think that’s fine. I have no problem with that.

Neither do I. You stay faithful to Nelson’s spirit, while taking your own approach, which is nice. Of course, there is something more choral and almost reverent about many of your versions, where do those tendencies come from?
I think those have  been a natural inclination of mine for a while. I’m not sure where it comes from actually -- those harmonies just sound good. I can’t seem to keep my hands off them -- don’t want to.

Reader "djd” would like to how your move from Athens to Brooklyn affected your art, if in fact it did.
It’s funny, I actually knew that I would do this record a couple yaers ago. After Pride came out , I toured for almost a year straight. When I came back, these songs had even more of a resonance. It was a comforting thing to sit and work on these songs. But in terms of the move affecting me, I would say being on the road has had more of an effect on me than being in New York.

I’m not sure what’s up with “Stan,” but he wants to know if you support Willie Nelson's suspicion of the official story of 9/11 and if you also wish for a new investigation just as Willie does?
Wow. Do I have to go on record about this? I’m not sure I should. Let me think. [thinks] I’ll just say that people have bene doing awful things for centuries, and we really ought to stop doing that shit.

“Joe” would like to know if you’ve ever considered teaming up with Ray Raposa of Castanets for some studio work.
Well, we’ve sung on each other’s records already--and that was in a studio. Does that count?

I think so. Oh, “Joe” also would like to know  your skin and hair care regimen.
Oh man. Yeah, I don’t really have one of those.

That counts too. Finally, I was listening to “Reasons to Quit” this morning on the train after a very long night and it was really stirring--probably too much so. I’d have to wonder of anyone recording an album of Willie covers: Are you a man of vices?
I wouldn’t define myself strictly as such-- but that’s exactly when you should be listening to that song.

PHOSPHORESECENT + CARTER TANTON (OF TULSA) + RYAN LEE CROSBY + PAPER BIRDS | Middle East Upstairs, 472 Mass. Ave., Cambridge | Friday, February 27 @ 9 pm | 18+ | $9 | 617.864.EAST or visit the Middle East site


 

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