Inspiration comes to songwriters in different ways. Sometimes all it takes is seeing a game-changing live performance, or finally finding the perfect lyric to fit the melody you've been humming quietly to yourself the past two weeks. For Matthew Houck, all it took was hearing the right Willie Nelson song.
In 2007, Houck had just released the sparse, lonely record Pride under the moniker Phosphorescent. Recorded by himself, Pride was a deeply personal and difficult record, with haunting arrangements, ghostly yelps and, in "Wolves," a ballad that easily out-Bon Ivered Bon Iver. But as Houck began to assemble a live band for the corresponding tour, he relocated from New York to Los Angeles for a few months and rekindled his lifetime admiration for the Red Headed Stranger by doing something odd for an indie-folk singer—recording a full album of booze-soaked cover songs.
"There were these songs that I've always loved by him [Nelson] and have been important to me ever since I was a kid, and it just clicked the one day I saw To Lefty, From Willie, " Houck says. "So instead of recording a new record, I made this tribute album. I wanted to get back to that moment when I was really young and sitting in the back of my parents' car, hearing his music for the first time."
Houck's 11-song ode to Nelson, To Willie (released last year), is both a reinvention of the Phosphorescent sound and a validation of the power of his voice. Instead of covering the standards in Nelson's oeuvre, he picked a wide array of favorites, including Merle Haggard's "Reasons to Quit" (a Nelson live staple for years) and "It's Not Supposed to Be This Way," following the template Nelson set when he recorded an homage to his hero Lefty Frizzell in 1975. Houck knew that imitating Nelson's timeless croak would be ill-conceived, so he kept his own voice—a combination of Will Oldham's cracked delivery and the wobbly echo of Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum—and set it to a batch of playful reinterpretations of the classic country music songbook.
That same sense of playfulness is all over Here's to Taking It Easy, Phosphorescent's first new set of original material in three years. Rather than retreat to the backwoods cabin folk of his earlier work, Houck wrote a set of songs that fully incorporates the talents of his backing band.
"The writing process was a little different this time because I knew where it was going to go and what the band could bring to it. And so it turned out to be a really straightforward and honest classic-rock record," he says.
Here's to Taking It Easy opens with the rambling, horn-assisted travelogue "It's Hard to Be Humble (When You're From Alabama)," which sees the band diving headfirst into Houck's Southern roots. He was born in Georgia, where the noises of the South—from the Stax horns to the Allman Brothers' guitar jangle—were the first things he heard on the radio. Phosphorescent's music, like My Morning Jacket's, grows more conventional as the band gets more renown—but that doesn't mean it's any less thrilling. Both the crushing, it's-hard-to-be-away-from-my-girl highlight "The Mermaid Parade" and the epic nine-minute closer "Los Angeles" occupy the same space as Neil Young's best work with Crazy Horse, losing none of the intimacy of his solo material but adding the ideal heft of a well-placed guitar solo or three-part vocal harmony. You can hear the L.A. influence ("It's nice to surf in January," Houck admits) in the album's country-rock chops and laid-back tone. Still, like the rambling catalog of Houck's spiritual godfather Nelson, his songs won't stay this way forever.
"Phosphorescent seems to be an album-by-album process," Houck says. "I like to take a vibe and push it across the length of a record. And then the next record will be a completely different vibe."
SEE IT: Phosphorescent plays Wednesday, Oct. 20, at the Doug Fir. 9 pm. $12 advance, $14 day of show. 21+.