Matthew Houck has been making music under the moniker Phosphorescent for over 10 years, but his latest album Muchacho, with its stunning single “Song For Zula”, is the first to really catch the ear of a mainstream audience. We caught up with the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Alabama songwriter during a pit stop on his sold-out national tour, where we talked to him about how Mexico colored Muchacho, blending reality and fiction in songwriting, and the 10 years it took to find overnight success.
You’re originally from Alabama and your music has referenced that in the past. Living in New York now, is this record about New York?
Well I guess it can’t help but be about New York because that’s where I was living when all these songs got started. But I actually did a lot of the writing in Mexico. But yeah New York situations definitely influenced some of the writing.
How did Mexico influence the record?
Looking back on it, a lot of the imagery was influenced by my time down there. The subject matter that I was writing about was largely stuff that was happening to me in New York though. But I can hear in the sounds and some of the words the feeling I was having down in Mexico. I was in a little place called Tulum on the Yucatan Peninsula.
In some ways this is a breakthrough record in that more people are hearing your music now. You’re six albums in…
I’ve been doing this thing called Phosphorescent for 10 years now and was making music before that so I’ve been doing it for a little bit. But this one seems to be the first tour where it’s sold out every night across the country and in Europe. So that’s a new thing.
Let’s explore that idea of putting in the time as a musician. Brothers only really became massive for the Black Keys after many many albums. Do you think that development is good for artists?
I think I certainly would have been pleased with a little more success a little earlier on. It was hard for a lot of those years. But I understand it. I think you’re doing something that requires a little more than just an immediate sort of gratification with your art, most things tend to blow up real fast and then a year later they’re gone. I’m glad I don’t have a trajectory like that. It’s been a really slow and steady arc. On the other side of that, it takes a body of work as opposed to one record or one song, you need a body of work to see what you’re doing. I understand it needed to have a few years.
Do you feel like these songs are the songs you want to be playing to more people? It’s not like you’re playing your first EP to a million people
Yeah. You know there is a confidence to what’s happening right now. I am proud of this record, this is the best sounding record I’ve ever made. And you learn things being on the road a lot.
Listening to the songs on Muchacho, a girl seems to be filtering through them. Is it record about one specific person?
Well, that brings up kind of a larger question, which is all those years ago I called this thing Phosphorescent as opposed to calling it Matthew Houch because I wanted a degree of separation between myself and my personal life and this thing that is art. I think with songwriters it’s pretty often assumed that if they’re signing in the first person that they must be signing about themselves, that they’re telling you some personal story about their life, which is not always the case. Mixed in all this stuff is a lot of fiction, a lot of stuff that isn’t me. Maybe even putting myself in someone else’s shoes to write a song. But there was of course a girl and it did of course affect me. But all the songs that mention a “she” or and “I,” it’s not specifically me or her.
Even Dylan claimed he never wrote personally. Don’t know how true that is, but are you able to put yourself in other people’s shoes as you write?
I hope so. That’s something I try to do. And also just making up fiction. The assumed notion is that it must be fact-based or true to life is a false assumption. I don’t think people watch a movie like Mulholland Drive and assume that David Lynch had amnesia. And I think for whatever reason people think songwriters use only explicit personal experience. I think art should be getting at some true truth, the facts of my life shouldn’t really matter.
Phosphorescent will be playing songs about himself and others at Bowery Ballroom tonight.