Matthew Houck’s studio is located at the back of a warehouse complex in East Nashville, the sort of place that looks like a quirky crime family in a Showtime drama might store a suitcase of unmarked bills there, hiding their stash in one of the pinkish-gray structures that border a parking lot of cracked asphalt. Instead, it’s home to a pasta factory, some visual artists, a handyman’s shop and Houck’s Spirit Sounds studio, where he made C’est La Vie, his seventh LP as Phosphorescent. In a city that contains some of the world’s most prestigious recording facilities, Houck wanted to reflect on life’s inevitabilities and uncertainties in a place that he could grow himself – imperfections and all.
“It got dark for many months, honestly,” he says, sitting on a stool inside the studio in a Phosphorescent shirt and drinking a beer. Three years ago, Houck moved from New York to Nashville with Jo Schornikow, an artist, instrumentalist and now member of the band who also happens to be his wife, with their daughter, Dove (they’ve since had a son, too). When Houck first found the space that would become Spirit Sounds, it was barely anything more than a raw garage with echoing rafters, so he took two years to painstakingly build and wire it himself, anchored around a 1976 MCI console.
“I would be by myself and set up a mic,” says Houck, who produced C’est La Vie himself, as is Phosphorescent custom. “And I’d get things feeling OK, with a vocal going, and then boom! The mic was gone, the channel had fried and I can’t figure out why there is this electric buzz.” He takes a look around the room before adding softly, “There were many, many nights were I was like, ‘I quit.'”
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But Houck kept tinkering, loading the place with rugs, giant curtains and industrial panels suspended from the ceiling to absorb the sound, and spent many days and nights forming the songs of C’est La Vie in real time, writing and recording in one simultaneous fashion. This is his first studio LP since 2013’s Muchacho, and Houck had plenty to reflect on: a new home, a new marriage, young children. The unfettered, unruly joy that comes from parenthood was all around him, but so was the paradox on its other side: Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.
“A lot of these songs were heavy on the life and death stuff,” he says. Take “My Beautiful Boy,” which begins as a lush love song for his son but ventures into cutting reality in the second half: “They say that heaven ain’t so bad/But for heaven’s sake now, ain’t it sad?/Just what in heaven would I do?/Just walk around and look for you.” On “Christmas Down Under,” he contemplates the fact that his daughter is just as vulnerable to the passage of time as anyone else. Houck himself had recently fought a brutal bout of meningitis, and nearly died.
“One day my dove will be a dragon, it’s so hard to understand,” he sings, his voice bending ethereally through a vocoder with Schornikow on the Wurlitzer. “All dragon wings and dragon fire/Then dragon bones beneath the land.”
There are also moments of complete bliss, like on “New Birth In New England,” dosed with conga drums, a gospel-like choir and life’s truest source of percussion: Dove’s heartbeat, through a sound file of her first sonogram in the bridge. It’s a potent, permanent anchor to the literal pulse of the record itself.
It’s impossible to miss the evidence of Houck’s children here at the studio: Their crayon artwork lines the walls, and their toys sit preserved mid-use next to the instruments. (“He goes for the power tools,” Houck says about his boy, glancing at a play workbench.) Writing about such intensely personal subjects wasn’t exactly natural for Houck at first – after all, he’d chosen to record under an abstract handle and not his own name to help ensure there would always be a distance. This time, all bets were off.
“In the past, I really resisted allowing my personal life to be part of the Phosphorescent narrative,” he says, as Schornikow pops in briefly. “This time, I kind of just was like, ‘Well, sure, let’s do it. Let’s talk about my life, I guess.’ I’m still not 100 percent percent comfortable with it.”
C’est La Vie has some of the same emotional yearning that drove his most recognizable tune, 2013’s “Song for Zula,” but it’s now rooted in this precise time of life changes and reflection. Houck says he’d been thinking about musicians who wrote some of their best work later in life, like Leonard Cohen, whose “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” gets a nod in the title track, “C’est La Vie No.2.” “It’s not going to sound cool to say it’s a more grownup record,” he says. “There’s just no way to make that sound cool. But it is.”
Houck has always managed to elude neat genre categories, and moving to Nashville hasn’t pushed him any deeper into Americana. Phosphorescent is still an island of its own, using tools of the south — where Houck grew up and has now returned to — to create something independent. “I put a pedal steel on the last five records, and I know that’s a specific kind of instrument that can put you in a category,” he says. “But I just think it’s a beautiful instrument.”
On songs like “Christmas Down Under,” there is a delicate touch of steel, but there’s that vocoder, too, suggesting the unease and sadness that Houck felt on a beach in Australia during a visit to Schornikow’s family for the holidays. He left for a few days to learn to scuba dive, and it was lonely on that sand. But he loved it underwater, butting noses with sea life.
“The world is, what, 70 pecent water or more? And there’s just so much going on under there that has nothing to do with us,” Houck says, his lips cracking into a smile. He knows now that every sense of wonder comes with more unanswered questions and more impossible mysteries. Maybe he’s getting used to the not knowing. “It’s another world,” he adds. “It’s unbelievable. It’s amazing.” C’est la vie.