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When did neofolkie Matthew Houck become such a badass?

These days, Matthew Houck is a proper rock star. He rides around town on a beautiful old motorbike that he refers to as “my girl,” hangs out with country legend Willie Nelson and tours the world with his hirsute, somewhat badly behaved band, Phosphorescent (“They’re like puppies in a box!”). His Brooklyn recording studio smells of incense and is strewn with rugs and antique mirrors; there are stuffed lion heads mounted on the walls. One recent Sunday afternoon found Houck sprawled on a gold velvet sofa, gently working his way through a six-pack to celebrate his fifth album, Here’s to Taking It Easy.

Without a doubt, it’s Phosphorescent’s most confident, charismatic and, well, easy record yet—in thrall to Exile-era Stones, Bobby Charles and a warm, mellow ’70s sound that Houck describes as “massive and beautiful,” and reminds me of the movie Every Which Way but Loose. “I didn’t want this to be a regular old rock record,” Houck says in his soft Alabama burr. “I wanted it to be a classic-sounding record, but hopefully a little more interesting than that.” Job done.

Still, Houck’s come a long way (baby). I first saw him perform in 2003, a fragile, wonky-looking kid playing a grotty London basement club. Four years later and beginning to make a name for himself, Houck was “living pretty hard”: The next time I saw him, he was sitting in a dark backstage room, having ingested a lot of drugs, at a show he was supposed to be opening. Tottering on stage alone, he announced, “We are Phosphorescent!” People laughed nervously. It was a bleak show.

The common thread that runs through Houck’s music-making, however, is that he does it his way—as odd and counterproductive as it might seem at the time. The record company may have shuddered when he told them he wanted to put out a record of Willie Nelson covers, but To Willie was a surprise success; Nelson himself invited Houck to pay him a visit on tour (during which they passed around “that famous vaporizer” on the bus), and later to play Farm Aid, the festival Nelson runs with Neil Young and John Mellencamp.

The affinity makes sense; Phosphorescent attracts plenty of hipster attention, but the Alabama-born Houck was raised on country-music radio. “The most grown-up, saddest songs for whatever reason would just paralyze me,” he says. Religion loomed large—not in an overt way, Houck says (though his grandfather was a preacher), but in “an omnipresent wash over everything” that still permeates his music via cavernous, hymnal harmonies and an ongoing tussle between the spiritual and the sensual. But the teenage Houck’s world was rocked by Nirvana’s Nevermind (“Mainstream music was awesome for a couple of years!”) and he responded by getting his first electric guitar. Did he want to be a rock star? “Oh yeah!” he grins.

Sometime between an early move to Athens, Georgia, where he cut his teeth musically, and his recent relocation to New York, things got difficult. “There were several messy years there, where I guess it would be a correct assessment to say I was damaged,” he shrugs. Years of endless shoestring tours took their toll. “And I still don’t seem to be able to find a middle ground,” he explains. “You’re balls-to-the-wall out there, floating and living that kind of lifestyle, and then to try to reconcile that with having a home life...the two worlds are not only polar opposites, but they seem to battle each other.”

It’s not a path you’d choose unless you had an abiding conviction that you were doing something special and rare. “I want people to realize how good these songs are,” Houck told me around the time of his last record, the aptly named Pride. As it happened, people did realize—and Phosphorescent toured constantly for the better part of a year. “We became a fucking world-class band during all the touring,” he says, quietly. “I’ve worked hard for years, and I don’t feel the need to be pretend-humble about it.”

And New York suits him. “It’s the best city in the world,” he confirms. “I’ve been looking for one that’s better but I haven’t found one yet, y’know?” He’s the happiest he’s ever been: “I imagine it’ll shift again, but yeah, life is pretty good.” Given his trajectory so far, I speculate that in five years time we might be catching up with him in some kind of Boogie Nights silk dressing-gown shoot-out scenario. “I certainly hope so!” he replies, laughing. “Yeah, man. Let’s see how weird it can get.”

Phosphorescent plays Other Music Mon 10, Union Pool Tue 11 and Mercury Lounge May 13.

Download a free track from Phosphorescent's new album, Here's to Taking it Easy. Just click here for "Mermaid Parade."

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