Twenty-four-year-old Irish singer-songwriter Hozier, born Andrew Hozier-Byrne, did not plan on a career in music. “Up until school finished, I just kind of dabbled,” he relates over the phone from Dublin. “I didn’t think I could make it.” His interest in performance started early—“I was always singing,” he confesses—and his kitchen-table exposure—to Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and “just great live blues stuff”—was equally prescient. After all, before his father turned to banking, he was a drummer in several blues bands in and around Dublin. While Hozier was growing up, the Chicago and Texas greats were on rotation. “Musicians were always around,” he says.
It wasn’t until Hozier went away to Trinity College Dublin for university that his side passion began to feel more like a necessity than a hobby or a pipe dream. “So many people try, and so few people get there. So few people get the opportunity to do it as a living,” he explains about pursuing music. “I felt like college was a universal requirement. I realized when I got there that my heart wasn’t quite in it. I didn’t think it mattered how long it took, I would learn what I needed to learn.” It was around this same time that Hozier, who penned his first pieces at sixteen, reconnected with his current managers, one of whom had first discovered him performing at a school concert years before.
His music, perhaps best encapsulated by his booming, runaway viral hit “Take Me to Church,” calls reference to the blues and folk of his childhood. It’s honest—sparse in composition and based more in the frank depth of his lyrics and deep tone of his rootsy voice than in instrumental experimentation or avant-trendy production. Hozier lists Tom Waits and Pink Floyd as influences; he also looks to James Joyce (specifically, the language of his address of religion and competing human yearnings in A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man) and Oscar Wilde.
“When I write, I need quiet and time and space,” relates the artist, who has just come off his first stint touring in North America. “I think it’s easier to play, and it’s easier, sometimes, to write them from the perspective of a character. I don’t know if that makes sense. It kind of reduces my stress a little bit.”
“Take Me to Church,” which had garnered 5.1 million YouTube views as of the end of July, benefits from this graciously distanced approach to songwriting. The material itself is intoxi- cating in its boiled-down intimacy—he sings about loving a woman who others might find disgraceful and wails, “I was born sick, but I love it. / Command me to be well. / Amen, amen, amen.” It’s easy to understand how imagined detachment, the creation of an exterior protagonist, would enable Hozier to write with greater liberty. This methodical distance—or the confidence that comes from it—also allows Hozier to directly confront political issues: the video for the song shows a gay couple being captured and attacked in a clear response to last fall’s anti-gay laws in Russia. (While Hozier himself is not gay, he felt the events in question to be essential to address.) “It’s about connecting with something that is worth giving to, something real. But ultimately, it is about an organization that would undermine that very human desire,” he says.
The song’s success led to a contract with Island/ Universal and Sony/Columbia Records. It’s also the opening track to his upcoming self-titled début album, out in October. “It’s a long time coming. It’s a big deal,” says Hozier of the LP, which has been in the works since he dropped out of school four years ago. “You can only do it once.” He says the material is not exactly what familiar fans might crave or expect: “There are a few songs that are a bit more up-tempo and kind of cheery,” he explains, adding, “It would be nice if people could forgive me for writing songs that aren’t very, very sad all the time.”
For now, the musician is on the road again, playing dates in Europe (Amsterdam, Cologne) and the South (Nashville, Atlanta), while dreaming of the silence of his childhood home in rural, seaside Ireland. “It’s kind of where the countryside begins. Farmland, green, stuff like that,” he relates. “I’d love to be able to read more, to finish a book or have the time to read. I’m listening to music a lot—getting into backlogs and analogs. I’m always going back to people like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. I’m also a bit of a geek so I’m catching up on comic books. I don’t know. Time is scarce now.”
That said, times are exciting, too. “This is all so new to me,” reflects Hozier. “Going to new cities, meeting new people—it’s always interesting and it’s always rewarding.”
Hozier is out today from Columbia.
Ashley Simpson writes about art, culture, and fashion for Interview, V, Style.com, and W. She grew up in Hawaii and the South and is currently based in Brooklyn.
Styling by Ruth-Anna Coss. Grooming by David Cashman. Photographer’s assistant: Mark McGuinness. Stylist’s assistant: Triona Glennon.