Q&A with Phosphorescent

Simple formula: Phosphorescent wins devoted fans with profoundly beautiful, heart-wrenching songs. Over the last 10 years, bandleader Matthew Houck has evolved the project from a forlorn, solo folk foray into a full-blown Americana rock thing, quintessential yet experimental, from Brooklyn by way of Athens, Ga. 

Jesus, man. Your songs are so gorgeous but so sad. What a compelling combination.
That’s something I’m not sure I’ll ever understand. Sad songs are oppositional—it doesn’t make sense that they would bring joy and highlight beauty. It’s a weird sort of alchemy, taking these disparate things that somehow produce something completely different. If I ever stopped to explain what I’m doing, I’d have a pretty hard time.

The music is pastoral; it sounds like the outdoors. Do you think the best art aspires to the perfection of nature?
Wow. Um. I wonder. Maybe so. Maybe it should be more of that, I mean. A lot of art comes from introspection, which is all about nature in the end. I wonder if it might be aiming for some kind of perfection that’s out there and trying to lasso that in.

Over the years your music has gained in volume—it’s both louder and fuller. You seem less distant now.
Some of that is just getting better at making records. I’ve been recording and releasing these things for a while, and a lot of that stuff was where I was at the time, at a distance. Some of those really early tunes are a little too raw for even me. But it’s a progression toward something as much as a fluctuation for the time being. The new stuff is going in different directions yet again.

I interviewed Josh Tillman (of Father John Misty) a couple months ago and talking about you he said, “I’m glad that guy’s holding it down for non-precious country music.”
Josh is one of the all-time great dudes. He’s never said that to me, so I’ve never thought about it like that. But I’d agree with him. Genre-fulfilling music has always rubbed me the wrong way; I think that might be what he means by “precious.” Everything I like tends to have no adherence to genre. Not just country or folk or rock. Stuff that gets out of those lines. 

That kind of art is much harder to package and sell.
For sure. But that’s what I aspire to. It’s funny though—I’m working on new stuff and I’m more aware than ever that there’s a product at the end of all this. Phosphorescent has had some success recently in a way that makes this next record like a looming thing on the horizon. It’s something I fight against. It’s a bummer that it enters into the headspace when you’re creating, but there it is.

Phosphorescent plays Aug. 6 at the Tractor Tavern