Matthew Houck, who records under the name Phosphorescent, released an album this year titled Here's to Taking it Easy. But at the beginning of his current tour, he could do anything but.
Following the tour's first show - an outdoor performance on New York City's Pier 54 - someone or some group stole the van which had all his gear. An email was sent out through his label, Dead Oceans, in the dim hope someone on the mailing list would have information. And police were continually hassled.
Miraculously, the van and all its holdings turned up four days later in another part of the city. But not before friends and acquaintances of Houck assembled everything he and his band needed to continue their tour.
"It was heartwarming," Houck said during a recent phone interview.
So is Here's to Taking it Easy, an equal parts rose-colored and autumnal jaunt through '70s-styled mellow rock. The horn-fueled saunter of "It's Hard to Be Humble (When You're From Alabama)" meshes effortlessly with the choral, pastoral and ironically named "Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly)."
"It's Hard to Be Humble (When You're From Alabama)" from Here's to Taking it Easy (via Dead Oceans):
Houck, born and raised in Alabama, is essentially a self-taught musician. His parents could play a little guitar and there were instruments laying around the house in his youth. But what Houck has accomplished musically has mostly been his own doing. The self-made artist even engineers his own recordings.
"It's always been a process of learning how to make a record sound like I want it to," Houck said. "I think I'm getting better at that each time around."
Houck made his debut in 2000 with the LP Hipolit, recorded under the pseudonym Fillup Shack. By 2003's A Hundred Times or More, he had changed his stage name to Phosphorescent, something he says is a "good handle" on what he's creating now. 2005's Aw Come Aw Wry and 2007's Pride put Phosphorescent on the map. His last three albums have been released on Dead Oceans, a Bloomington-based label which shares office space and resources with Secretly Canadian and Jagjaguwar.
Houck gives credit where it's due; he and his band recorded a tribute to Willie Nelson last year. But he's generally coy about how he's cultivated his sound.
"For me it's just a record by record process," Houck said. "Each one is its own little world."
Houck's song-writing routine remains a mystery, even to him.
"There is no process to speak of," he said. "It's completely different every single time. I really don't have any way of describing how it happens. I don't know where it comes from or why. It just feels right to do it."
What he can reveal is just how much his songs have been influenced by his ongoing travels.
"With this record in particular, a lot of the songs were affected by being on the road so much the last few years," Houck said. "We're in the middle of a pretty decent haul right now, but when this ends I think we're going to have some downtime. The small amount of downtime I've had in the past few months, it felt really good to write and do some work that wasn't informed by being on the road."
Indeed, the music on Here's to Taking it Easy may reflect its namesake, but not Houck's work ethic.
"I don't know that answer," he said when asked how he relaxes. "We're trying to learn how to take it a little bit easier."
"The Mermaid Parade" from Here's to Taking it Easy (via Dead Oceans):