Fatherhood, illness, a move to Nashville, a rehabbed warehouse space and more lead to Matthew Houck's excellent new Phosphorescent album, 'C'est La Vie'
Phosphorescent's Matthew Houck begins “New Birth in New England,” from the recently released C'est La Vie, by describing how he met the woman he would later marry.
“I was sittin' at a bar in New England/I was thinkin' 'bout another beer,” he sings. “They had a lady playin' on a piano/I was liking how it got to my ears.”
Houck tells the lady he likes the way she plays the piano, and she responds by asking what he's doing at the bar and if she knows him from somewhere. The whole scene doesn't feel particularly significant. It could have been any random night at a bar, really. But it wasn't. In the second verse, Houck is with the same woman in the basement of a medical center, and she bursts into tears as she sees a sonogram of the couple's tiny daughter.
The previously jumpy song, punctuated by percussive electric guitar and Houck's crackled, casual singing, changes course at the bridge, simmering into a wash of oohs and ahhs and a subtle, pulsating whoosh.
“There's a recording of the sonogram [in the bridge], and it's my daughter's heartbeat,” Houck said recently by phone. “I thought I was being too heavy handed with it, but I think I might have underplayed it a little bit, because a lot of people don't hear it.”
The third verse of “New Birth in New England” comes full circle, repeating that introductory scene in the bar as a way to emphasize how these unassuming incidents in life can lead to some of the most significant human experiences of love. The song is the embodiment of the idea behind C'est La Vie. It's a lateral head turn with raised eyebrows and a bemused smile. A philosophical shrug. Life is simultaneously banal and utterly significant. C'est la vie.
On “My Beautiful Boy,” which finds Houck unabashedly celebrating his other child, he bumps up against linguistic limitations while trying to convey the love he feels for his son. “My beautiful boy, I couldn't fit it in these lines/My beautiful boy, I couldn't fit it into rhyme,” he sings.
“Sometimes it's just futile, the idea that you can capture some of these things. You just do your best to stab towards them,” said Houck, who's happy to let the music fill in those gaps of meaning. “That's the trick of music, isn't it?”
Often on C'est La Vie, just when Houck finds himself in the throes of love, joy and contentment, it's followed by fear and sadness. On “Beautiful Boy,” as he celebrates the wonder of his child, Houck's mind drifts to the thought of being separated from him. “Just what in heaven would I do? Just walk around and look for you? And what if you wasn't there? And what if I wasn't there?” he sings over a wash of pedal steel, piano and vaguely tropical flourishes.
“The larger theme on this record was this really heavy feeling that comes immediately with this love and joy — the knowledge that it's temporary. It's all temporary,” he said. “There's really nothing sadder in the world than that. It's such a heartbreaker, and there's nothing you can do about it. You just kind of roll with it.”
Those thoughts have always penetrated Houck's mind and music, but this time around the idea seemed to undergird every song. “Certainly being a father brought it to the forefront, but also getting older,” he said. “It was at the forefront of my thoughts every time I would sit down to write, and it still sits there now.”
Even a holiday(ish) tune like “Christmas Down Under” deals less with a joyous birth and more with death — a concept he became all too familiar with while battling meningitis. “I've always been healthy. This was the first time I've had to face something that could quickly have gone very badly,” he said.
In the five years between C'est La Vie and Phosphorescent's last record, the career-making Muchacho, Houck and his family also made a spur-of-the-moment move from New York City to Nashville. Along the way he got his hands on a recording console from the '70s and decided to get it into working condition for the new album. “It was like getting a 50-year-old car and naively thinking you could drive it across the country the next day,” he said. Houck spent months trying to restore the console, but then he needed a place to put it, which led him to an unfinished warehouse space. “So it was like, ‘OK, let's figure out how to run some power and build some walls,'” he said. “It just became a large undertaking, which wasn't my goal at the outset.”
Kids, a potentially fatal illness, a cross-country move, a rehab project that could be its own HGTV show — “The album is all that,” said Houck, noting that just like life itself, C'est La Vie couldn't be a record solely about fatherhood or illness or death. “It's a lot messier than that,” he said. “It's a big ol' soup.”