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Cover Story: Hozier

| November 3, 2014

11-hozier_Photo- Dara Munnis_web

Talk about the shot heard ’round the world. Every great once in a while you get a single like “Take Me to Church,” by Irish folk-rocker Andrew Hozier-Byrne, who performs as simply Hozier. The song – originally released over a year ago – has topped charts all over the globe, and made the man something of an overnight sensation, thanks to its soulful delivery, Gospel-uplifting chorus, and double-entendre lyrics, which on the surface describe a simple boy-girl relationship. Dig a little deeper, however, and they become an unsparing indictment of the Catholic church itself: “Take me to Church/I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies/I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife/Offer me that deathless death/Good God, let me give you my life.”

Then, there’s the track’s video, which takes the metaphor to a whole new level. It depicts a gay male couple being set upon by a vicious mob of hooligans, and is rooted in the recent anti-gay movement that is polarizing Russia and alienating the rest of the tolerant, forward-thinking world. Blowing through San Francisco on his current world juggernaut, Hozier’s popularity perhaps culminated a week earlier, when he was the featured artist on a Bill Hader-hosted episode of Saturday Night Live, where his whiskey-soaked, Van Morrison-regal voice rattled the rafters on a passionate rendition of “Take Me to Church.” “It was amazing – the cast and crew were so sweet and so kind, they really made me feel comfortable there,” says the tall, angular artist, kicking back in his dressing room.

For this 26-year-old Irishman – who hails from the tiny hamlet of Bray – the SNL experience was simply surreal. Hader – a droll-witted show vet who had recently left the cast to pursue other projects – was surrounded by a coterie of stellar well-wishers that evening, like Kristin Wiig, Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen, Jack Breyer, and Zach Galifianakis. And he met them all. And got to chat with Hader at length. “He’s very unassuming, he’s very quiet and he seems quite shy, but he was a really cool dude,” he says. “And even Steven Spielberg was there, and I got to say hello to him, too, which was crazy. I was talking to him and his wife, and his wife was quite a fan of mine – I couldn’t believe it! She’s really into music, so that was really cool, even more surreal than I had ever expected.”

Hozier desperately wanted to attend the program’s weekly wrap party in New York. But reluctantly, he left right after the broadcast and returned to his hotel for some shuteye – he was flying out to officially launch his tour in Los Angeles the next morning. And the Hollywood gig had its own constellation of stars, he sighs. Another fan popped up backstage, made himself known – fellow Celt Colin Farrell, who chatted with the singer at length, post-performance. “He was just the greatest guy, really, really lovely,” he says, still a bit stunned.

Where was Hozier coming from when he crafted his multi-layered smash? “Church” was written right after a romantic breakup, he admits, and viewed from the perspective of still being in said relationship. “But more what was in my head was taking a swipe at religion, or any organization that undermines the more natural vibes of the universe,” he explains. “Like specifically, the Catholic church – they have a very unique history and legacy in Ireland, even down to (not) receiving communion if you’re divorced. Just ridiculous stuff, like the instituted gender inequality, or a discrimination based on sexual orientation, or teaching people to be ashamed of their sexuality, even down to teaching people not to use contraception.” He snorts, derisively. “It’s just shockingly irresponsible and backwards. S0 my song was essentially about an organization that undermines what it means to be a human being, and to celebrate yourself as a human being by asserting yourself through loving somebody, through the act of sex. And there’s a good bit of (late atheist author) Christopher Hitchens in it, certainly in the first verse.”

Mention the fact that the current Pope and cardinals seem to be opening up in the gay-tolerance department, and Hozier shrugs, scowling. “Oh, like ‘Maybe they’re people, too!'” he snaps. “When policy changes, I think it’s important to see the difference between good public relations and actual policy. Because policy itself has yet to change. But it’s a start. Yet I would be of the opinion now that just saying ‘Let’s tolerate people being gay’ is too little, too late. I mean, it’s 2014. It’s not progressive in any way, shape, or form – they’re just finally catching up.”

Hozier thought he was just venting his own personal spleen with “Take Me To Church.” But the song has struck a resounding chord with fans, many of whom have written to him about similar feelings. “They’ve shared stories of their experiences either with hate crimes or prejudice or discrimination,” he says. “And I wasn’t prepared for that. And I’ve got to say, people were revealing very personal things, like being kicked out of their homes or being victims of actual hate crimes, which was very touching and moving.”
All of this, of course, would just be so much spilled Guinness – a real flash in the pan – if all the guy had was one noteworthy nugget.

But Hozier’s just-issued eponymous debut (Hozier) is chock full of tasty morsels, like the bluesy “Jackie and Wilson,” the reverent recital “From Eden,” the tent-revival-fervent “Work Song,” and “Angel of Small Death & the Codeine Scene,” a swaying foot-stomper inspired by a classic French phrase for orgasms, “La petite mort.” He sang almost every vocal on the disc himself, played guitars, piano, and synthesizer, and – with Rob Kirwan – produced the album, as well. And the mix is roomy, Stax-Volt echoey, the perfect showcase for his old-school R&B singing style. Hozier is no fluke; It’s easily one of the best records of a somewhat lackluster music year.

But that could simply reflect the decade of stage chops the man has under his belt. He first grabbed the mic at 15, fronting his older brother’s trashy blues octet. “I was a very different performer back then,” he cedes. “I always could sing, but I think it took me a while to find my voice, and find the way I wanted to present myself as a singer-songwriter. I was writing songs from the age of 15, 16, too. But I didn’t release anything until “Take Me to Church” – I worked on many different projects and nearly came to releasing things, but I just always felt like I wanted to explore more, to produce myself a bit more. But I learned a lot with some great producers.”

Hozier’s father was a local blues rocker, playing the pub-and-club circuit. So he combed through his vintage record collection, discovering R&B/blues touchstones, along with more modern artists like Tom Waits. “When I discovered him, I was in my early teens, and he was my…my everything,” he says. And he didn’t go for the “Nighthawks at the Diner” hits. I dove into the dark, icy waters of “The Black Rider” and some of his darker stuff. Like his song “What is He Building in There?” – it’s just fantastic. The way Waits paints worlds is magic, and he populates them with names and characters that make them all the more real. He paints a world with people in it, so there’s a vibrancy to it, and I love that – his imagery is just incredible.”

That’s what Hozier sought to do, with album cuts like “In A Week” (sung with Karen Cowley), which opens with the colorful couplet “I have never know peace like the damp grass that yields to me/ I have never known hunger like these insects that feast on me.” The song proceeds to unfold like a boy/girl conversation, possibly between two cadavers. He’s a huge Walking Dead fan, he confesses – the graphic novels, not the TV series, which he has yet to watch – but he’s not cashing in on today’s zombie craze. “The song is about two lovers, but I wanted to keep it open-ended, so they could be dead, or they could just be in a state of bliss, having done what lovers do in a field somewhere. They’re in that ultimately relaxed state, where they could be joking about it, like ‘Well, we may as well be dead’.” It’s up to the listener to decide, he says.

After his teenage band, Hozier started studying music at Trinity College in Dublin. But he got a publishing deal, started composing in earnest, and eventually dropped out of school, which worried his parents, who had stressed academics over a freewheeling art career. Or as he puts it, “I wasn’t raised to be a musician. But I knew that I wouldn’t be satisfied just learning music – I really wanted to write songs, so It was time to take a deep breath and leave college.”

There was just one little problem. “At the time, I was the class representative for my class,” he says, chuckling. “I was liaison between the lecturers and the students, so I had already resented myself to them as someone who would be there to represent my classmates. So I had to get them all together one afternoon during a lecture and essentially tell them ‘There’s something I really have to do – I have to pursue my dream, so I’m leaving college’.” But before he would at last strike out on his own, Hozier had one more curious path to pursue – he joined legendary Irish vocal ensemble Anuna for three eye-opening years.

“And that was a lovely experience, as well,” he notes. “I mean, I didn’t learn much about composition there, because it’s a very different style of music. But being around harmonies and textures like that? I just loved it. I played guitar on one tour with them, but mainly I was a member of the choir, and I only sang solo songs every now and then. Anuna was a large group of maybe 35, 40 people, guys and girls, but only 12 might come on tour.” He would later apply what he discovered about voice via Anuna to his own music, which finally hit stores on the 2013 EP Take Me to Church and its followup EP earlier this year, From Eden. “There were a lot of techniques that I picked up from Anuna, like breathing techniques, and singing techniques, getting vowel sounds and textures. It really helped me quite a bit. And frankly, it’s just a joy being around human voices, singing together. I found it just great, singing in a choir.”

Hozier is a force to be reckoned with on his own, however. And he’s won over showbiz fans like Taylor Swift (who posted a video of herself dancing to one of his tracks) and Ed Sheeran (who has already covered his material). For his next project, he might even collaborate with British minimalist James Blake, of “Wilhelm Scream” renown. He wants to pare his own sound back to its barest essentials in the future, he adds. “Because sometimes, a little touch goes a long way. It took me years to figure out how to articulate exactly what I wanted, the sound that was in my head. And in truth, I don’t know where I’m going to go with it on my next record. But I’ll certainly be learning a lot over the next year, and checking out the musical landscape around me as I go.”

There’s one thing this iconoclast wants to clarify before he heads over to soundcheck, though. Folks who have casually enjoyed “Take Me to Church” may instantly pass him off as an atheist. But he’s not, exactly. He’s just not a Christian, and he steadfastly believes that organized religion is responsible for a good portion of the world’s ills. “But it’s just that when you’re dealing with absolute justification, when you think that God is one your side, it gives people carte blanche to do whatever the hell they want,” he reasons. “Then again, if people think God doesn’t exist, then sometimes everything is allowed. That’s why people are worried about atheism – they think that without God, there is no morality, there’s no big boss to say not to [do] it. So I’m comfortable with knowing that I don’t know, if that makes sense.”

There’s only one thing that Hozier knows for certain: “Art is incredibly important.” So why spend your life looking for an existential answer when there never was a question to begin with?” he concludes. “I look at it this way – questions and answers were invented by man, invented by people because we have inquisitive brains and we’re hard-wired to figure things out. So there needs to be some causal relationship between our existence and the universe.”

“But I think the universe is quite indifferent, really. And that’s the wonderful thing about being a human being – for the most part, you’ll never really know any answers…”

Hozier appears February 25, at the
Riviera Theater, Chicago

-Tom Lanham

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