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Cover Story: Hozier • Beautiful Language

| July 6, 2023

Hozier

It might not have swept over him like some Hokusai-impressive wave. But Irish folk-rocker Andrew Hozier-Byrne — who records and performs as simply Hozier — has been caught in the subtle currents of spiritual change since he turned 33 this March. It’s the fabled Christ age, when your proper career trajectory is clearly revealed to you, giving you a crucial choice to follow it or not. “I feel that happening, I do, and I feel very good,” the blues-schooled “Take Me to Church” singer says, and it’s a concept perfectly exemplified on his majestic new “Unreal Unearth” album, his third, as well as his recent introductory EP Eat Your Young. “And I think there’s a lot of stuff exorcised on it, a lot of stuff that’s very personal, and there’s some stuff that I’m finally just sitting and coming to peace with and then letting go of.”

And it’s a sea change you can veritably chart, song by carefully-plotted song, over the sixteen generous tracks of Unreal Unearth, beginning with its dual literary-inspired openers, “De Selby (Part 1)” and “De Selby (Part 2),” which starts out Gaelic but quickly tumbles into a tub-thumping R&B rhythm. The serpentine thematic path then wends through the jangling “First Time,” an acrobatic-voiced “Francesca,” the skeletal, string-enhanced ballad “I, Carrion” (based on the myth of Icarus), a falsetto-funky “Eat Your Young,” and the ethereal “Son of Nyx,” wherein Hozier’s voice itself acts as a symphonic instrument. And that’s just the first half of the magnum opus; It then segues into a soul-stirring “All Things End,” the Gaelic-language-inspired piano etude “To Someone from a Warmer Climate (Uiscefhuaraithe),” then a somber keyboard dirge called “Butchered Tongue,” a sonically-complex “Anything But,” the blues-beefy “Unknown,” and a twinkling, monastic-reverent closer, “First Light, which builds to a gorgeous crescendo. What does it all mean? First, Hozier has to paint an appropriately dark pandemic backdrop, how the world closed in on him during the lockdown in his provincial Irish hometown of Wicklow.

“It was a difficult time, and I was on my own, just contending with all of the challenging things that you find the ability not to tackle when you’re busy, or you’re touring,” sighs Hozier. “But I think it’s that thing of, when you finally step off the hamster wheel, you’re kind of forced to sit in the corner and have a look around whatever space you’re in, you know? So I had to do some serious reflecting then, but now, on the far side of it, I feel infinitely more attuned with the much larger natural world as a result.” In the interim, he also found time to issue the 2022 protest single “Swan Upon Leda” (as Roe v Wade was tragically overturned in America); contribute “Blood Upon the Snow” to Bear McCreary’s God of War: Ragnarok video game soundtrack; donate royalties from his police-violence addressing single “Jackboot Jump” to the Black Lives Matter Movement and NAACP. With Saoirse Ronan and Glen Hansard, he is also part of an Irish charity organization called Home Sweet Home, so he has admittedly been blessed with his fair share of artistic distractions. But he’s also happy to break it all down for fans, so they can surf this revitalizing new wave of change alongside him.

IE: What is your relationship with water as an element? And you’re also a Pisces. But water is somehow in almost every song on the new album. 

HOZIER: Yes. Yes, I guess it is. There is a lot of reflection on it. Uhh, no pun intended! But actually, really, I always really loved water, and even as a child, my mother said I was very hard to get out of it. So I’ve always found it comforting, very calming. And obviously, coming from Ireland, the stuff kind of falls from the sky a great deal, and it’s very often part of the landscape, with 250 days of rain potentially a year. But I think during the pandemic, I was swimming in the sea a lot. At least once a week — even through the winter, because it’s a very different experience during the winter — I would meet with my school friends, my childhood friends, and we would get in the sea every… let’s say Friday morning. And in winter, in particular, you would catch the sunrise, but it was a time of… I dunno. That experience of swimming in the sea is a challenge when it’s so cold, but there’s a wonderful feeling where you can’t help but reflect on being a very, very small thing in a very, very big thing. And it was a very joyful kind of time, where you could catch up with friends in the pandemic. So yeah, I was spending a lot of time by the sea, either walking by the sea—because in lockdown, for anybody living by the coastline, that was the safest place to walk. So I was spending a lot of time by the water, and with water, or in water.

IE: Which brings up this question, of course — have you ever had a close call or scare in or on the water?

HOZIER: I think there have been moments where you know that you’re out of your depth. There was one winter morning where myself and my buddies met, and we had no business in the water; we really did not. Even in the little seaside town where we would swim, sometimes there would be two helicopter rescues a week during that winter. But the one morning that we got in, the waves were… well, I remember just bobbing on an enormous wave and looking down at the beach that was only a few feet away from me — it was crazy. And being out there with friends? I’ve had moments where I’ve felt like an insect on a bedsheet that had just been wrung out, just been tossed, of feeling very, very tiny and like you’re no longer in control. But I always know when to call it quits, but this time there was a moment when I was in the water that gave me a whole new respect, I would say, for the water, for the sea.

IE: Now, do you surf?

HOZIER: I don’t. I don’t. A man of my coordination and balance? No, I don’t surf when I’m in the water. But I’m a good swimmer, though. I’m a pretty strong swimmer.

IE: I remember years ago Julian Cope would go swimming in the ocean over there with Fungi, the dolphin. Swimming with dolphins was a UK thing.

HOZIER: In Dingle, you can — in the west. And tragically, one loss during the pandemic was that Fungi has been confirmed as being no more. Now, Fungi was nearly 40 years old, so he lived a great life, but it appears that during the pandemic — amid an absolute stacking of misfortune and tragedy — that he’s gone. He’s not been seen again. And I think what took him out, sadly, was just old age. But he was this beloved seaside figure.

IE: When you’re in any new town, do you feel drawn to their local bodies of water? Like, say, the Great Lakes, where supposedly more ships and planes have gone down than in all the world’s oceans combined?

HOZIER: I think there is something to that. I don’t go out often to lakes, but I’ve heard that there are these natural currents in lakes that you can’t see, so the surface can be totally still, but underneath the surface, there can be this pull. But also that lack of buoyancy. Like, every time I’ve swam in a lake, I’ve tired so much faster, and just felt this fatigue come on so much quicker, and I’ve had to work so much harder to stay afloat, just because there’s no salt and its buoyancy is far, far less. So definitely, lakes mean business — they’re not to be underestimated, for sure. But I didn’t know that about the ships and aircraft.

IE: I wonder if something in a past life connects you to all this. Have you ever had a regression?

HOZIER: I have never had a clear regression or anything I could describe as such. But I will say that I’m not sure if it’s from being raised on an island and always knowing which way the ocean is because from there, I always know which way east, south, north, and west is. But for me, when I’m too long away from the sea, or if I don’t know in what direction the water is, or a large body of water is, I do become slightly disoriented, and a little bit irritated, a little bit restless. So I think having a large body of water nearby, and preferably the sea, is definitely something I feel better with.

IE: Are there any other Earth elements that affect you? Or do you suddenly feel the need to see the new Pixar flick Elemental?

HOZIER: Ha! I think my relationship with the land is always changing with me, and as I grow older, my relationship with nature is always forming and changing, but only for the better, I have to say. And I’m very lucky that there are a lot of foxes around me and a lot of badgers around my house, so to just sort of sit and watch things happen at nature’s pace during the pandemic was really nice. And I was very fortunate that I lived in the countryside setting that I do — it’s very bucolic, and a very easy place to spend time. So over that time, I think I was — not always with intention, but sometimes with intention — connecting with the land around me, I guess, with the natural world.

IE: What were some strange connections with nature that you made?

HOZIER: Well, I could go off in many directions with that question. I did a Temazcal, a sweat lodge ceremony in Mexico sometime late last year, and that was a real connection with nature, in a way. But I will say that I started keeping bees. I just became a beekeeper overnight. I was gifted a beehive, and my neighbor who keeps them gave me a queen and a collection of workers, so I’ve watched as that has grown and harvested and spun the honey. And I have to say, that’s a really wonderful pastime, it’s a really wonderful thing to do because they’re surprisingly easy to take care of. But to slowly open up a hive? You have to use that smoke, and you have a little tool that helps you pry apart the frame because it’s covered in all this gluey, sticky stuff that bees use to build their hive, and it’s something that you have to be very careful with, and you have to be very slow and deliberate in your movements. And very often, without meaning to — and with the best intention in the world, like putting in some vitamins for them, something that will sort of help them — you could end up crushing a bee in just the tiniest movement. But it breeds a great deal of compassion, and it puts you in a space of having a lot of compassion for these tiny, tiny creatures that are so complicated. In some ways, they’re so simple, but in other ways, deeply, deeply complex, and so determined. In some ways, bees are just immaculately perfect.

IE: Bees are a microcosm, the canary in the coal mine for humanity. Because as their colonies die, humanity will soon follow.

HOZIER: Yep. They are; they really are the canary. But raising them, then, is a good thing. I encourage anybody who’s thinking of starting it to do it. So long as you’re not allergic, it’s wonderful, so it can only be a good thing.

IE: On a more personal scale, almost every track on the album feels like a breakup plaint. Are you in a decent relationship right now?

HOZIER: Well, I think the album reflects on a lot of love and a lot of loss. So I’m still sort of figuring my way through and in between a lot of those things. And I’m not a father yet. But maybe one day.

IE: The song “To Someone From a Warm Climate”? That’s pretty much just about everyone in a few years.

HOZIER: Ha! Yeah. To me, it deals more with the interpersonal this album. And there are some larger macro questions, I guess, in “Eat Your Young” and “Who We Are” — there are some reflections on our socio-economic predicament. But a lot of it is just personal, and it focuses on the interpersonal, or what takes place in the internal world, with regards to love, etcetera. But yeah, I think it’s a weird time. And the title “Unreal Unearth”? When I was starting to write those songs at the top of the pandemic, it was a great time to be a conspiracy theorist with regard to misinformation and red herring narratives, and false narratives. So it was just a strange time, and also what was happening around it became so surreal, to sort of sit and watch case numbers and death tolls come in every single day. It felt very dreamlike. I felt like we’d stepped into this very surreal situation rather quickly.

IE: People forget how dark it was.

HOZIER: It was. It really, really was. And just [to] give context, I had a friend who was working in the government, describing how there were contingency plans to turn ice rinks into makeshift morgues because no one really knew in those early parts how bad the mortality rate could become, if it got out of hand and hospitals were overrun. And it was a strange, scary time. But I think we’ve kind of gone back to the point where it seems we’re just happy to get back on track quickly. And it seems like we’re contented to treat that as an anomaly rather than an outcome of the way the world once was or as an inevitability of the way our society was functioning and what its priorities were.

IE: “Butchered Tongue” instantly reminded me of how the Welsh in British history once had their tongues cut out by English overlords to keep them from speaking their native language. And that song has one of the coolest lines on the record… “The distance between what is lost forever and what can still be known.”

HOZIER: Yes. And I suppose viewing the Irish language, and Gaelic is something that we learn in school, and there’s a great written history of it. And yet I would say less than 20% of the island’s population still speak the language in the day-to-day. And it is a very beautiful language, and it describes things — especially in the natural world — that there is no other way of describing. It’s a language that really was developed around, in a lot of ways, a life in accordance with nature. And it can be humorous, also — the word for a jellyfish is literally just “seal snot.” And the word for a ladybug is BOW-een DAY, so it’s this very lovely, unique way that this language describes different things. So I think it’s very beautiful, and I have some grasp of it. But I wish I had more. But I suppose that line reflects upon traveling to different places in the world, like Australia and maybe some places within North America, and asking a local what the name of the town means, or what the name of the region means, in the indigenous language where it gets its name. And there just not being anyone present to tell you that. So there are some histories that are really lost. And there are some oral or spoken histories that are lost in a way that we can be grateful [for], just reflecting on that. So there’s a huge difference between the Irish experience because as difficult and challenging as that history is, we were so lucky in so many ways to have what we have left now because not all cultures survived the colonial experiment.

IE: “De Selby,” parts one and two, are sung partially in Gaelic, right?

HOZIER: There is. There is a moment of Gaelic in “De Selby,” for sure. And the passage basically translates to, that first song reflects upon darkness, and what’s freeing about it — what part of yourself is lost, and how you’re invisible and nailed into the darkness, and there’s something freeing about that. So that passage opens up the love song of “De Selby (Part 2),” and it’s saying, “Although you’re bright, light and easy — you’re light of spirit — you come to me like nightfall, you fall like night, so we’re mixed up together, you and I, sort of metamorphosed.” Which is this idea that in darkness, you don’t know where one person begins and one person ends. So it’s the art of shape-shifting, and it’s a dark art. So I suppose it’s looking at the act of being in darkness and leaning into the idea that something of you is lost or is melted into that space. And it’s playing also with the mindset, I guess, of De Selby, who is a character from a surrealist Irish novel, “The Third Policeman,” and “The Third Policeman” is worth a read — it’s an early 20th-century sort of “Alice in Wonderland,” about a person’s journey through the infinite and then trying to make sense of it. And De Selby is this character in it that he keeps referencing in his own footnotes, in his own personal monologue, who’s somebody he wants to write his thesis on and have it published. And De Selby is a fictional philosopher-scientist, part genius, part lunatic, who sees the world through kind of a child’s “Alice in Wonderland” logic. So it’s just a nod to that. But I don’t want to ruin the book for anybody.

IE: But what is the Gaelic word following the “Warm Climate” title, “Uiscefhuaraithe”?

HOZIER: (Speaks it rapidly) It’s an Irish word which I did not know existed! There’s a line in the song that there are some things that no one teaches you, and I studied twelve years in school learning the Irish language, and there are some wonderful words, these wonderful, creative, interesting words that don’t fall into that school curriculum. And what this is describing is you can pick up a rock from a river, and you can sense that it’s very cold; it’s gonna be cool. But you are also sensing that coldness has been given to it by water, and uiscefhuaraithe describes that trace or that character of something. That it is cold, but it’s cold by water. Like a cave wall — something that has a coolness, but it’s a coolness that can’t be separated from the dampness or the water or the moisture that’s in it. So to someone from a warm climate, that’s literally what the word is, and it’s describing parts of, or memories of, growing up in a climate that is very wet and quite cold, and that being something that just gets into you.

IE: The cut “Anything But” references the Mississippi and sounds like you stumbled into an impromptu zydeco-folk festival. Discuss.

HOZIER: Actually, yeah — there are a lot of bodies of water in that, too. But what’s fun about that song is that the verses sound on paper like they’re describing nice things that you would want to do for somebody. Like, “If I was a stampede, you wouldn’t get a kick,” or “If I was a riptide, I wouldn’t take you out.” But those are Irish sarcastic ways of saying that you don’t want anything to do with somebody that you reject. So it sounds like a love song, and yet it’s actually about trying to put distance between yourself and somebody else as quickly as possible. That’s why it falls into the circle of fraud. And by referencing the Mississippi, I was trying to give it scope.

IE: In “Abstract,” you note “The rain that you slept through.” And, going back to unusual, little-known words, I like the fact that there is actually a word for that ephemeral smell of rain or sunlight on the concrete, which dissipates almost immediately. I can’t remember what it is, though.

HOZIER: I believe it’s Petrichor? And it’s a beautiful thing that there is a word for it, for sure. And to smell the rain that hits either soil that’s dried out after a semi-drought, there’s this gas that’s released, all these nitrates that are released from the soil after rain hits it, and you can really smell the Earth sort of changing a little bit when rain hits it for the first time in a long time, and there’s something really special about that.

IE: Listening back to this album, what conclusions did you come to over the pandemic and beyond? 

HOZIER: There’s a lot of reflections on the album that are very personal, and some that are old, deep memories, like in “Someone From a Warm Climate” — early childhood experiences of learning how to warm a bed in the cold of winter. And that’s just an experience of a lot of people in Ireland — or any cold climate — you go to bed in winter, and it’s going to be cold, you know? And the Irish way is described in the song. A lot of people do hot water bottles, but I never had that as a kid — your breath does the job if you cover yourself with a blanket. But it’s definitely reflecting a lot of personal stuff on the album, and I changed up some styles on this with regards to the creation of the work — I let people into the creation of the music in a way that I hadn’t done before, so there’s also that. There’s also coming away and saying, “Okay, this is something where I can actually hand some of the ropes to someone else and trust that we will all pull in the same direction.” That was good, too, to come away with people I want to work with again on more work.

IE: And the textural “Son of Nyx” hints at possible film soundtracks in your future.

HOZIER: Yeah. That’s a collaboration because for the actual melody, that piano that you’re hearing at the beginning is my wonderful musical director and longtime friend and bandmate Alex Ryan. He sent me this beautiful piano piece, and it was at a very difficult time, and his father’s name is Nick, so I asked him if I could call it “Son of Nyx,” as a sort of play on words that would also honor his father, and I was delighted to have his work on it because, to me, it’s such a beautiful piece. And Nyx is a Greek goddess, and one of Nyx’s sons is Charon, the boatman in Greek mythology. So the song, to me, really felt like a crossing, and it reflected on that river crossing or that sort of crossing over. So that was a wonderful example of opening up the process, of opening the door to a new experience of sharing in the creation of something. And I think the result is beautiful — it’s one of my favorite pieces on the album, and I am so proud of that.

IE: But all the way to the coda, “First Light,” there are a lot of dark-vs.-light battles on the album, as well, right?

HOZIER: Yeah. For sure. And in “First Light,” definitely. For me, I wanted the album to have a sort of descent, starting from the beginning, with “De Selby”’s reflection on darkness, that’s entering into something, going into a dark place. Dante talks a lot in his “Inferno” about how he misses the sky for the whole of that poem. But I wanted the end of the album to have something of an arrival, back to see the sky again for the first time and to ascend or march upwards instead of march downwards.

IE: But all of this, really, is just gravy after the real meat and potatoes — you actually got to hang out and record on the Nina Cried Power” EP in 2018 with THE Mavis Staples! She is so incredibly cool!

HOZIER: She is so cool; she really is. And she really is so wonderful, and I just pray to God that I could have the ability to be 83 and to be onstage in such a way that is so joyful and so energetic, and so welcoming to other artists, and so celebrating of other artists. She invited me and Brandi Carlile onstage with her at Brandi’s Mothership Festival, so I am forever astounded by the grace of that woman and her warmth, kindness, and her energy.

-Tom Lanham

Appearing September 12 at Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northery Island, Chicago

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