Sadness As Solace

As Phosphorescent, Matthew Houck Finds the Emotion Uplifting

By Jeff McCord

Phosphorescent posing for a portrait in the Library after a Studio 1A session on May 16, 2024. Patricia Lim/KUT News

Revelator, the just-released new album from Phosphorescent (the alias of songwriter Matthew Houck) begins this way:

“I got tired of sadness/ 

I got tired of all the madness/ 

I got tired of bein’ a badass all the time” 

Houck doesn’t come off as a badass, he’s a thoughtful and engaging conversationalist who speaks with candor. 

But he has taken an extended break. It’s been five years since his last record and quite a while since he’s even played a show. His Studio 1A performance marks only his second show with his touring band. (I only know this because Houck announced it; they were pros who sounded like they’d been on the road together for weeks.)

And if he’s tired of sadness, you’d never know it by Revelator. The opening title track is all about a dissolving relationship moving ‘out in the void’. That’s followed by his partner Jo Schornikow’s song “The World Is Ending”. Two more songs of personal struggles follow, “Fences” and “Impossible House”, then “Wide As Heaven” which asks the musical question,”Why does heaven make me feel so sad?” That’s just the first five songs. 

Does Matthew take comfort in melancholy?

Yes, is the short answer,” he confesses.  “Obviously I must, right? But, that’s a big question because I have a fairly heavy amount of self-doubt at times. I really struggle with that.”

That’s surprising to hear from a guy who’s been making records and touring as Phosphorescent since 2001. Yet there it is.

“It only takes a second of looking at it to truly doubt this whole enterprise of making songs like this. But at the same time, it’s what comes out,” says Matthew.  “And they don’t feel sad to me. I can only trust that they do that for other people as well. I still don’t understand that mechanism. Every song I’ve ever truly loved has been a devastatingly sad one. But it feels the opposite of that. It’s something that is uplifting, I think, and hopeful. It feels strong. Trafficking in this stuff, I do worry that sometimes people don’t experience it the same way that I do because I don’t feel sadness when I’m in these songs, you know? It feels like something else. Which is strange because they are… clearly sad.”

Maybe, I suggest, it’s because he’s not not really writing about himself?

“I think you’re always writing about yourself, because you can only have that vehicle with you. But, yeah, I often don’t know what these things are about. I never sit down and say I need to write about this thing. It never happens like that for me, but it’s a two pronged thing. If I give attention to the creation of something, it inevitably feels sort of solemn. I don’t know how to get past that.”

“But the other thing is that I don’t feel like I touch those things in my day to day life. It’s [what] I’m assuming it’s like what people go to church, right? It feels like a very specific place. And that’s what comes out of that place. If we’re talking about writing about my life, I mean, things happened. There’s like a forward brain and like a backwards brain. I feel like a camera B kind of feeling. Camera B is always rolling back there. But maybe you’re not looking at the images.”

Phosphorescent in Studio 1A soundcheck on May 16, 2024. Patricia Lim/KUTX

Matthew has clearly given the matter a lot of thought. 

“It’s like I’m a passenger on this thing, where I know that I’m driving, but it often feels like I’m following this thing that I’ve set in motion. I’m being pulled along by the thing that I’m trusting and that has a way of feeling very unsure. I’m a rider on this train, you know?”

Does Phosphorescent feel like a character to him, I wonder? 

“Yeah! In a way that I don’t like. I would like to be more free, honestly. I definitely feel bound by this thing that I made in some ways, I would love to be free of any expectations, which are maybe only my own making.”

“I guess this is a roundabout way of saying, I didn’t think that this record was affected by the pandemic, but it so clearly is. There was this global thing going on. My front brain was like, ‘I’ll be fine. I’m just doing this.’ But I look at the songs later and I go, ‘Oh gosh.’ That obviously cast a pall over the whole thing.”

Not all of Revelator lives in the dark. There’s a couple of charming songs inspired by his kids, and the record ends with a determined drive “To Get It Right”. Like all his material, his careful craftsmanship hovers over the material, and the musicians playing on it augment each track. It’s a gorgeous-sounding major label production. 

Maybe Matthew is only feeling all this because after a long, enforced layoff, ‘all the madness’ is now gearing up again.

“It was the longest I had ever stayed still. And, to be honest, I sunk into it. I enjoyed sitting still and not not being on the road all the time. My whole life. I’ve been playing shows and going, going, going, and having a break from that was illuminating. I’m still wondering if I want to get back into this constant sort of traveling and moving. We’re two days into having the band and bringing everybody around. Right now it feels good.”

The Phosphorescent machine is out for just shy of two weeks, then off to Europe, with a longer US tour planned for the fall. So sure or not, Matthew is going to be moving. 

And on some level, he seems excited.

I am, yeah. I guess I’m just slow to pick up on stuff sometimes. Getting off the road, I was like, ‘I don’t even think I’ll miss it’. But then, just yesterday, I was like, ‘Oh, this is great! I love doing this.’”

Follow Phosphorescent

Set List:


“The World Is Ending”

“Wide As Heaven”

Album: Revelator (Verve Records, April 5, 2024)

Musicians: Matthew Houck – lead vocals, guitar; Jack Lawrence – bass; Dom Billett – drums; Scott Stapleton – keys; Ricky Ray Jackson – pedal steal


Producer: Deidre Gott; Production Assistant: Confucius Jones; Audio Engineer: Jake Perlman, Rene Chavez; Audio Mix: Rene Chavez; Cameras: Patricia Lim, Deborah Cannon, Isak Kotecki; Edit: Renee Dominguez; Host: Laurie Gallardo

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