Matthew Houck, aka Phosphorescent, has always cut a distinctive, somewhat bedraggled country-folk path. So when his sixth studio album, 2013's Muchacho, hit No. 59 on the Billboard 200, it shocked even him.
Now beginning work on another studio album, he can't help but think about that little taste of commercial acclaim.
"It's definitely something that's there; I'm aware of it. But if I was able to channel what I thought was successful into this thing, I'd probably be doing it differently," Houck says with a laugh from his new Nashville home.
Decamping from New York to Music City isn't the only change in Houck's life. The 35-year-old now has a partner and a child — a huge turnaround since writing Muchacho, during which he complained to Pitchfork about having lost his studio and girlfriend, and then his mind to booze and drugs. He remembers the quote well and quickly cuts off a question about it.
"That stuff wasn't quite as single-minded as the way the press sought to talk about it, but whatever, it's part of the thing," he says. "Everybody needs a tag or something when they write about an album, and I think that thing got a little out of hand.
"But I was, I guess, in a dark place when I was writing the stuff for Muchacho, and I think it's pretty clear in the lyrics and the tone of the record."
On "Muchacho's Tune," Houck sings, "I found some fortune, found some fame, finally cauterized my veins / Yeah I've been fucked up and I've been a fool." Don't need Rap Genius to understand that.
Despite having written downbeat songs through his career, Houck had lived a pretty upbeat existence overall. At some point, it turned on him.
"It did for a minute, you know," Houck says. "But I don't think any more than anybody else. For whatever reason, the thing that generally pushes me to sit down and write songs is this sort of place — it's like the only thing I know to do when I feel this way is to sit down and try to write. So it tends to be a narrow zone that gets written about."
Houck spent months recording and producing Muchacho by himself, exploring his long-time aesthetic of mixing ambient tones and intimate-sounding acoustic instrumentation. He toured behind the record with a full band, then returned to Brooklyn's Music Hall of Williamsburg for a four-night stand.
Though it was recorded more for posterity than anything, it sounded so good that Houck mixed it and released Live at the Music Hall early this year. A tight six-piece playing road-tested songs in all their rough-hewn glory showcases the other side of Phosphorescent's sound. And the experience has made him curious, as he sizes up that seventh studio album.
"It put into focus that maybe these things don't need to be so meticulously labored over because — music is music," he says. "There's a thing there that takes care of itself.
"I do like the process of mad scientists in the studio, and I do think interesting things come from that that wouldn't come any other way, but there's something to be said for letting a rock band be a rock band, too."