Phosphorescent performs at Baltimore Soundstage on April 18, 2019. (Photo by Matt Ruppert)
As I stood outside the door of Baltimore Soundstage recently, Matthew Houck and Jo Schornikow strolled past us and their touring bus, children and a nanny beside them. Simple smiles sparked, little laughs swelled; they meandered away, or maybe to a different entrance, barely a glance behind them.
Theirs is an easy grace now, and like all graces, tenuous but suffused with contentment. It looked like happiness.
Matthew, the man behind Phosphorescent, now nearly two decades into his career, has undergone something of a transformation across the last half decade and more. Since joining the Dead Oceans family and the subsequent releases of Pride, To Willie, and Here’s to Taking It Easy — all worthy of your deepest listening time — his career has wound upward, less like a rocket and more like a vulture’s circling assent (note: I consider vultures the noblest of birds). That run of records — the decade preceding it, really — nearly broke him. At the end of Here’s to Taking it Easy, Matthew lost his home and studio, his relationship, and like anyone who’s had a fucking boulder dropped in their pond, black waves of questioning and doubt intruded on his life and creativity.
In the wake of that turmoil, Matthew created Muchacho, lyrics coming like the tide only after an extended period of time creating ambient sketches. He disappeared to Mexico, wrote some songs, beginning a rebirth of sorts. He brought them home with him, taking the solitary songwriter’s life, and building the band, the album that would become Muchacho. I still remember when I first heard the album in full, having preordered the vinyl, cracking it open in my living room. The slow burn of “Sun Arise” — I sign my letters and emails, “Be easy, oh” to this day — soaring into the wilderness of “Song for Zula.”
My cat, Amon, developed a new and odd little behavior that day. He climbed atop the paisley wingback chair next to my record player, where I always sit, and purred next to the record, watching it spin. When the side stopped, he mewed at me, as though begging, digging his claws into the top of the chair; I flipped it, the music started, and he settled down again.
Stream Muchacho by Phosphorescent on Spotify:
Matthew Houck met Jo Schornikow, a creative songwriter and gifted multi-instrumentalist, during the recording of Muchacho. She soon joined the band, playing keys and organ, and in the intervening five years following Muchacho and the most recent, newest and equally-transformative record, C’est La Vie, Matthew and Jo married, had two children, and traded New York’s bustle for the slower hustle of Nashville. They rented a warehouse, and Matthew slowly but methodically turned it into Spirit Sounds Studio, building everything himself. That requires a kind of self-invention, a self-dependence, that naturally lends itself to a sense of change and rebirth.
Stream C’est La Vie by Phosphorescent on Spotify:
C’est La Vie reflects the changes Matthew has undergone. It came out last October, five years after Muchacho, and it possesses reflections and perspectives earned by stumbling over the hot coals of adulthood, failure, success, and growth. And oddly enough, it’s easy to imagine that building the studio — for two years — was a part of completing the album itself: Composition can happen in the spaces between, the times that pass. Like the times his wife and kids went to Australia and he stayed in Nashville, weeks on end. Or those moments of unfettered innocence that color the edges of parenthood. Or those late nights, when the mind opens itself to its darkest corners, the brutal concerns of living and dying.
As much as hope and light crop up on C’est La Vie, so too do Matthew’s constant themes of life and death, light and dark. His live show, with its lights and sounds, reflected this in a way photographs and words can neither show nor explain; you have to live it to know it.
Jo Schornikow, who recently released her own album, Secret Weapon, opened the show. She took to the stage by herself, a guitar in hand, soft smile curling in the corners of her lips. Beginning as a church organist and then a jazz pianist, seeing her cradle the guitar felt like a little gift, even though the record is replete with guitar and she’s known as a multi-instrumentalist. Jo commanded attention, her playing expansive and open, songs confessional.
I found myself leaning into the railing to listen to the songs a little closer, like putting my ear to the ground to listen to the true crash of the ocean. She finished the set with the titular “Secret Weapon,” a personal favorite of mine, but other standouts included “Ghosts” and “Incomplete,” the former a meditation on the movement of relationships, the impact of time.
After Jo left the stage, her flower-shrouded mic moved to her organ, the audience had a short wait for Phosphorescent. “Black Moon / Silver Waves,” the koan-like introducing partner to the album’s closer “Black Wave / Silver Moon,” announced the band, who quickly rippled into “There from Here,” a song that meditates and thrums simultaneously with percussive energy, something Phosphorescent does better than anyone else. It expresses the ineffable journey from one place to another in a life, the inconstant relationship between planned futures and the influence of time’s passage and a life lived.
On April 18, the band took a step back in time to play “A New Anhedonia” and “Terror in the Canyons” from Muchacho before the spaced beauty of “Christmas Down Under,” with its line, “One day my dove will be a dragon” like a little double-meaning dagger of light and hope — Dove is their daughter’s name — about the nature of growing up. It’s a shimmery, mystical kind of song, calling to mind the freakish epic qualities he’s cultivated over his career.
Phosphorescent followed this with what Matthew called a love song, “My Beautiful Boy,” the double percussion onstage propulsive; the adoration he possesses for his son, his family, even the life he now lives, became a tangible thing beyond the concept of such music. Listeners could feel the song’s heartbeat in their own chests. This song, more than any song on the record, was an argument that life is always interesting, regardless of your age. Perspectives and circumstances can change, but parenthood does not render life unlivable, redundant. It just requires you to look and think a little differently.
The band followed this with the almost-krautrock jams and melodies of “Around the Horn,” though a personal highlight for me is the song, “These Rocks,” about the way we carry our lives, our pasts, our natures, wherever and whenever we go. There was an acceptance to it, and listening to it feels like a call to breathing deeply. At the song’s end, a piano interlude by Jo a plaintive exclamation point, Matthew shared that someone on the internet requested the next song, an older one, before soaring through “A Charm a Blade.” A woman shouted, “Thank you” at its end, eliciting a wide smile from Matthew on the stage.
Those smiles, that easy sense of gladness on the stage, pervaded the set, despite the often bleak moments in the lyrics. A fitting end to the set, “New Birth in New England,” a rapturous kind of love song — maybe fictional, maybe not — with its gospel-tinged outro of “Don’t I know ya?” repeated again and again, it feels like the new beginning, the rebirth it is.
Matthew, Jo, and company returned to the stage following the encore, playing hit songs (at least around my world) “C’est La Vie No. 2,” furthering the themes of acceptance, along with “Song for Zula,” for which Matthew put away the guitar and sauntered around the stage, wrapping the cord around his arms and leaning into the microphone. They ended the night with locomotive “Right On / Ride On,” but not before playing, “South (of America)” of Aw Come Aw Wry, an old song that feels almost distant on record but desperately intimate and honest in person.
If Phosphorescent or Jo Schornikow come anywhere near where you live, reader, make sure you go see them. Buy their records, their merch (candles and hats!), but more importantly, commune with them and justify the touring.
Here are some more photos from the show at Baltimore Soundstage on April 18, 2019, courtesy and copyright of Matt Ruppert.