One day in spring this year, Andrew Hozier-Byrne was walking down Parliament Street in Dublin with his guitar case. He had just returned from an American tour that featured performances in New York and at SXSW, and had celebrated his 24th birthday – which falls on St Patrick’s Day – in Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard. (A pre-tour show in Whelan’s before he set off alreadyseems like a quaint relic.)
Within a week in May, Hozier had performed Take Me To Church on the Late Show with David Letterman and on Ellen.
The previous December, Hozier was standing on the altar of the St James' Church with his hand trembling. Performing at Other Voices was a big deal for a guy who had just released an EP, but not a surprise to those who had heard about the A&R crush at his Button Factory show during the Hard Working Class Heroes festival a month previously. But what had really caught people's attention was the video for Take Me To Church, directed by Feel Good Lost's Brendan Canty. The video referenced the violence perpetrated against gay men in Russia, and managed that rare thing of creating an epic in a few minutes.
Before Other Voices, Hozier gave his first newspaper interview to The Irish Times. He was so softly spoken, it was difficult to hear his voice on the recording afterwards. His mum drove him to the interview in the Central Hotel, a quiet room where he barely raised the volume. He talked about reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man while writing songs.
Of the tracks already released, he spoke in quiet abstracts that on reflection sounded revealing and dramatic. “If I was to speak candidly about it,” he said, of how a relationship influenced his writing, “I found the experience of falling in love or being in love was death – a death of everything. You kind of watch yourself die in a wonderful way and you experience for the briefest moment – if you do believe somebody and you see for a moment yourself though their eyes – everything you believed about yourself is gone.”
Musicians on Hozier
At the beginning of June this year, the Tabernacle in Notting Hill is packed. Hozier's nerves have long departed, and while his between-song banter can sometimes be a bit mumblecore, he's deft with anecdotes. One song, he says, is about the Wicklow hills, a place, he continues, that people in Ireland only every hear mentioned before or after the phrase "a body was found". This draws a big laugh, and he launches into a morbid love song of insects, foxes, ravens and buzzards feasting on the bodies of two lovers who have lain down together, in their Garden of Ireland Arundel Tomb.
With this confidence comes a new overwhelming characteristic of Hozier's music: it's sexy. Very sexy. Diet Coke ad sexy. While his stage presence can probably be summed up as standing, he is standing taller. He stands there, sings and plays. There are no theatrics, no posturing, none of the tropes that are called upon when a star is playing to a captivated room. By the time Glasto comes around, the soulful sound of From Eden is pouring out of a packed John Peel tent and across Worthy Farm. How on earth did all of this happen?
The G Factor
Hozier is from the countryside outside Bray in Wicklow, a place that epitomises the main characteristic of an Irish seaside town in 2014: faded. His father played drums in a blues band. His mother, Raine, is a painter, and has a video of “Andy” aged 18 months, singing away. His brother, Jon, works in film.
In St Gerard's school in Bray, his schoolmate Storm Desmond, daughter of MCD boss Denis and Gaiety Theatre head Caroline Downey, had returned from a transition year bonding sessions. She told her mother about this guy with a good voice. Hozier was 16 when Downey heard him doing a cover version of To Love Somebody by the Bee Gees at a music show in the school. The hairs stood up on the back of her neck. About two years later, she roped in Louis Walsh and Phil Coulter to judge The G Factor, a twist on the reality TV format being held in the school as a fundraiser. She told Walsh there was a singer who she thought was incredibly talented. There were about 12 teenagers performing and Hozier came somewhere in the middle of the running order. When he started to play, Walsh turned to Downey: "It's him, right?"
“I don’t know why I wanted to do this,” Hozier says, sitting on a picnic bench backstage at the Longitude festival in Marlay Park in July, “Growing up, even as a kid, part of me looked at this. But it wasn’t until I got to a teenager that I felt I really wanted to, needed to. Singer-songwriters – I was obsessed with. They were to me the pinnacle of what I wanted to do. Singers were who I respected the most.”
The doctor is out
In school, Hozier’s teachers thought medicine would be a good calling. He was bright enough, well able. He enrolled in Trinity, but realised that four years of a degree would mean when he graduated, he’d basically be starting his music career from scratch. If he wanted to really do it, he’d have to go for it.
There were a few false starts with recording. Downey sent him in to Universal to do some demos that didn't work out. But when Niall Muckian of Rubyworks matched him with the producer Rob Kirwan, things started to happen. After all that percolation, Hozier is now in the fast lane.
“There was a moment a few weeks after I signed, that it actually hit me,” he says, “I was signed to a major label . . . I’m not somebody who revels a lot. I don’t like celebrating and those type of things. My parents will always try when I’m home – ‘Hey! Are you happy?’ . . . I try to be happy. I try to face things without regret, or make sure that I’m happy with things and leave nothing unsaid if I can. I’m still figuring it out. I’m still figuring myself out very much so: what it is I’m doing? What do I want to do in the future? In many ways I’m no closer to that, but I feel like this is a starting point. The album is the end of a huge amount of things, but it’s the beginning of a hell of a lot more.”
The EP factor
At Longitude, his parents cried at the side of the stage when they heard the crowd singing lyrics back. At Electric Picnic, Hozier drew the biggest crowd of the weekend. "I'm not scared. It's a challenge," he says of the workload. "I've struggled with, you know, being over-stressed before – before doing anything like this. But I'm not scared, I'm not worried. It'll be fine. Hopefully. Sometimes, honestly, I wish I could slow down and enjoy it. But it's not quite in my nature just yet. I wouldn't be here if it was. I wouldn't be doing it if it was."
The songs have it, though. Those beautiful lyrics and moody, sensual tales. “There’s a tactile nature to the lyrics and it’s often about sensory things, but also I think because a lot of the influences are from blues; blues music is just sex. Blues is all euphemism and sex. I sometimes look back and oftentimes the songs, even the crew laugh about it, they interpret the songs even when they’re not meant as euphemisms for something explicit or sexual, which is often not the case.
“Maybe around the same time that the songs were being written, they were around my first experiences of being in a relationship. And experiencing a closeness to somebody for the first time. That might be some explanation to it. But also, a lot of my influences would be along that kind of side, I suppose.” He pauses for a self-depricating punchline, “And also I’m just obscenely sexy.”
His mother is delighted to paint her son’s EP and album artwork. “The thing his dad and I are most proud of is he’s just a good man,” Raine says. “I know he’s shy and he’s hard to get to know. But if you were stuck in a storm, he’s the kind of person you’d want to be stuck with. We’re more proud of him as a man than anything else.”
Hozier's self-titled debut album is out now. Album review, page 12