There is something uneasy in the full moon — some eeriness, some mystery. A monthly reminder of our infinitesimal nature, the full moon inspired the poems of Hesiod, ancient Ojibwe lunar calendars, and still today, compels amateur astrologists to charge their Amazon-bought healing crystals beneath the new-age moonlight. Now it’s moved Matthew Houck, the artful folk-rocker known as Phosphorescent, to launch the Full Moon Project, a song series wherein each month, upon the full moon (the word “month,” accordingly, has its etymological roots in the Old English word “mōna,” or “moon”), Houck releases a new recording.
“I’ve been thinkin’ awhile now on how to release more music, separate from the modern album release cycle, and all its requirements and pressures,” wrote Houck in a letter to his fans last January. “So starting here at the top of this year of 2022, and I suppose aiming for the rest of my natural life, I’m gonna release a song with every full moon.”
So far, the Full Moon Project has, indeed, freed Houck from the pressures of show business, offering up a rare air of purity — a sort of back-to-basics honesty, which seems vital at this stage in his career. Since Houck started recording as Phosphorescent in 2001, he’s appeared on late night TV, big box-office film soundtracks, and, following the release of To Willie, his album of Willie Nelson covers, on the Farm Aid stage with the Red Headed Stranger himself. After seven critically acclaimed albums, Houck’s audience grew. And when his audience grew, when fame and money and the music industry took over, it became easy to lose sight of why he started Phosphorescent in the first place.
“You know, music is supposed to be something you love,” says Houck, “and I don’t want to sound bitchy or self-pitying, but running Phosphorescent, and having it always be a pressure, a thing that has consequences, can really suck the joy out of it. So yeah, I was trying to get back to playing songs I love.”
So far, Houck’s been playing “exclusively cover songs,” with warm and sad and lighthearted tributes to Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Randy Newman, and Lucinda Williams, among others — all recorded at his Spirit Sounds Studio in Nashville. And while Houck aimed to keep the Full Moon Project alive forever, after releasing 12 songs in 12 months, and with a new Phosphorescent record jockeying for his attention, the fate of the Full Moon Project is up in the air.
“I’ve got to make this proper Phossy record,” says Houck. “But come the January full moon, I may just keep it going. I’m not 100 percent sure. But it won’t look like it did this year.”
Today, on the final full moon of the year, Houck releases his latest cover: Bob Dylan’s “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven,” from 1997’s Time Out of Mind. Released under the Cold Moon of December, it’s the song that inspired this whole lunar adventure. “I was walking around Key West alone after a solo show, under the full moon, listening to ‘Trying to Get to Heaven’ on a monomaniacal loop,” says Houck. “I’ve always wanted to get messy with songs that I love. It just kind of clicked.”
Here’s the full playlist of Phosphorescent’s moonage daydream.
Randy Newman, “Bad News from Home” (Wolf Moon, Jan. 17, 2022)
January’s Wolf Moon, named for howling winter wolves, arrived with Phosphorescent’s haunting cover of Randy Newman’s “Bad News from Home”: “At the end of this bone-white gravel road / They both lie sleeping on a feather bed / And her hair is black as the sky at night / But her eyes are gray like the moon.”
Nick Lowe, “I’m a Mess” (Snow Moon, Feb. 16, 2022)
“I’m a Mess,” the first Full Moon song to feature a full band, including Houck’s wife, keyboardist Jo Schornikow, is a tender ode to despondency. When drummer Chris Marine moves from the snare rim to the head, the song elevates to new levels of heartfelt hopelessness, paying honor to the Snow Moon, appropriately named for the snowy squalls of February.
Bob Dylan, “Like a Rolling Stone” (Worm Moon, March 19, 2022)
Houck never set out to cover Dylan’s masterpiece, and he admits it was an absurd move. But after goofing in the studio with longtime Phos keyboardist Scott Stapleton, it just happened. The duo’s version — stripped and slowed — highlights Dylan’s ever-brilliant lyrics while saluting the Worm Moon, the last full moon of winter, a moon that rises as earthworms dig the thawing dirt.
Tom T. Hall, “Homecoming” (Pink Moon, April 16, 2022)
Arriving on the Pink Moon, the full moon that Nick Drake made famous (or vice versa), a moon named for pink springtime wildflowers, “Homecoming” finds Houck playing nearly every instrument as he honors one of his favorite songwriters, Tom T. Hall, who died last year.
Nina Simone, “To Love Somebody” (Flower Moon, May 16, 2022)
In May, as tulips bloomed toward the Flower Moon, Houck covered a song he stumbled on through Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent. Clark turned Houck on to Nina Simone while they were touring, years ago, as the scrappy backing bar band (Clark on guitar, Houck on drums) for the late Ray Raposa’s then-rising group, Castanets. Like “Like a Rolling Stone,” Phos’s version is broad and bare, with just keys and organ accompanying Houck’s perfectly imperfect baritone.
Vern Gosdin, “Any Old Miracle” (Strawberry Moon, June 14, 2022)
Houck first heard “Any Old Miracle” in 2014, shortly after the shocking and unexpected birth of his daughter, the first of his three children, on the kitchen floor of his one-room Brooklyn apartment. But Houck’s version is far from over-sentimental; rather, it’s a heavy nod to the mystery of life, released near the summer solstice, as strawberries ripened across America.
Vic Chesnutt, “Parade“ (Buck Moon, July 13, 2022)
For the Buck Moon, a moon named for the sprouting midsummer antlers of young bucks, Houck honored Vic Chesnutt, the late songwriter from Athens, Georgia (the town where Phosphorescent was formed), with a beautifully broken version of Chesnutt’s brilliant “Parade.” After being paralyzed in a car accident in 1983, Chesnutt spent his life in a wheelchair and committed suicide on Christmas Day, 2009, at age 45. “Where did you go after the parade?” Houck sings, “You never even appeared to enjoy it.“
Raymon Byron Raposa, “Meridian, MS“ (Sturgeon Moon, Aug. 12, 2002)
Houck never wanted to record “Meridian, MS,” at least not the way it appears here — as a hymn to his old touring buddy Ray Raposa, the songwriter known as Castanets, who died July 30, 2022, at age 41, as sturgeons swam up late-summer rivers. Upon hearing of Raposa’s death, Houck “fired up the microphones about midnight” at Spirit Sounds, then released this sparse and sad recording less than two weeks later. In his essays for “Parade” and “Meridian, MS,” Houck writes directly to both Chesnutt and Raposa, offering up his sweetest words: raw, pure, and real, just like the Full Moon Project.
Fleetwood Mac, “Storms” (Harvest Moon, Sept. 10, 2022)
When Phos released “Storms,” the second-finest cover on the Full Moon Project, upon the Harvest Moon, a moon illuminating the autumn harvest, he did so with only the following verse as his message: “Never have I been blue, calm sea/I have always been a storm.” It seems enough.
Robert Earl Keen, “Corpus Christi Bay” (Hunter’s Moon, Oct. 9, 2022)
“Corpus Christi Bay,” a full-band barnburner, features many longtime Phos players, including ace pedal-steel player Ricky Ray Jackson. An homage to living fast while trying to slow down, “Corpus Christi Bay” was released after the harvest, as October hunters started their season.
Lucinda Williams, “Big Red Sun Blues” (Beaver Moon, Nov. 8, 2022)
Phos has been singing “Big Red Sun Blues” for two decades, and it shows. With just his singular, soulful voice and an acoustic guitar, Houck stripped down Williams’ heartbreaker this past November — while beavers built their winter dams.