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Hozier: ‘If I wanted to make a f**king pop song, I would’

The Irish superstar on his meteoric rise to fame, missing his anonymity and how keeps his balance by refusing to play the fame game

Hozier: “I assure you if I wanted to make a f**king pop song I would have written a pop song, because it would have been far easier”

Stardom is rare. Household-name-around-the-world superstardom is even rarer. Reduce it to the mononymous – Elvis, Madonna, Beyoncé – and you’re down to a handful of individuals. And there, quietly among them all, lies Hozier.

We’re very sensitive about our superstars here in Ireland. We exercise proud national ownership whenever the British claim one of our own (we’re looking at you, Saoirse), and show occasional flares of begrudgery if we feel they’re too big for their boots or we have a problem with how they pay their taxes (yes, Bono, that’s you).

It’s a difficult balancing act. As Hozier – he turns 29 on St Patrick’s Day – prepares for the release next week of his second album Wasteland, Baby!, he says he maintains that balance by refusing to play the fame game.

“I’ve witnessed people who are on a slippery slope, especially young men who fall into a scene or whatever or a place in the world...It’s just a playground for people whose stars have quickly risen. But it’s a really dangerous slope to be on,” he says, picking at a modest spread of tea and Tunnock’s tea cakes in the empty bar of Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre.

“I have a strong aversion to anyone in a scene-y way. In certain parts of the world where people are blowing smoke, I’ve an absolute allergy to it. I just f**king hate it. I have a strong aversion to people trying to ingratiate themselves. I don’t want to be ingratiated upon in any way, shape or form. Scenes are to be avoided, I think.”

Andrew Hozier-Byrne grew up just outside Bray in Co Wicklow with his family: blues musician dad John Byrne, artist mother Raine Hozier-Byrne (she designed the cover of his first album) and his brother Jon. When he’s at home in Ireland these days he keeps a low profile, he says, and avoids “trendy aesthetics or glib posturings”.

There’s no fuss to him, but with the kind of fame he has fuss tends to follow. If he decides to go to a gig put on by one of his friends in Dublin, he knows that his presence might take time or attention away from the important people in his life. Does this make life difficult?

“Yeah. There’s no point me in me saying that no it doesn’t. It really does, yeah. It did especially in the first few years. At some point you have to stop resisting the fact that that’s just your life now and you have to get on with it,” he says, adding that he doesn’t want to “make a show” of himself in those situations.

“I just love the feeling of anonymity. I really, really miss it. Being in a bar, being in a pub and just being part of a crowd is a really nice feeling.”

He’s not moaning though, and he knows what he signed up; he’s just simply pointing out his life is just very different now.

Star slots

In a short period of time he went from low-key gigs in small Dublin venues to star slots on international TV shows such as The Graham Norton Show, The Ellen Show and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. When your life undergoes this incredible shift, he says, you’re suddenly presented with a different version of yourself.

“You have a hit song and everybody knows your face and everybody knows your name. You don’t feel any different. You’re just confronted with this otherness of your own self,” he says, fidgeting with his hood, adjusting it up and down over his head.

American Gospel singer and civil rights activist Mavis Staples on stage with Hozier. Photograph: Dave Meehan

“Everybody kind of recognises you as something that you have no relationship whatsoever with. I suppose that’s the weird feeling. To you you’re just a dude who just wrote a song and wanted to play the music he was always going to play; whether there was people listening to it or not.”

Quickly he reiterates that he’s not complaining.

“Of all the problems you can have, it’s a very small problem to have. It’s hardly a cost to pay for the opportunities that you’re given and stuff like that. It’s totally fine.”

When Take Me To Church was released in 2013, it reached number two in Ireland and the UK, but it was when he performed the song on The Late Show with David Letterman in May 2014 that the it began to pick up steam in the US. By the end of that year it had reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100, where it sat for three weeks. But it reached number one on Billboard’s US Adult Top 40 and US Hot Rock Songs.

Its anti-religious message wasn’t so clear to some fans at first, causing it to be claimed and then disowned by Evangelical Christians, with one faith-based website writing: “Conservative Christian pop music voyeurs are not, perhaps, very practised in the art of pop music hermeneutics.”

It was nominated for Song of the Year in the 2015 Grammy Awards, losing to Sam Smith’s Stay with Me, and has been covered by Ed Sheeran, Demi Lovato, Ellie Goulding, the cast of Glee and contestants on The Voice, the X Factor and America’s Got Talent. In an ad for Beats by Dre headphones basketball player LeBron James can be seen working out to the song.

Writing songs

With that kind of success behind him, does he find it easier writing songs for an audience of strangers rather than a small venue in Ireland with a crowd made up of friends and family?

“I write for myself. I write for things that I enjoy or things that I believe in, or things to reconcile sh*t. I don’t write for a room. I don’t write for a crowd either. You just write for yourself, and you’re fortunate if people like it.

“For me I want to write stuff that I wish other people wrote. That’s as simple as it is. If you want to write something that’s hopeful, you write something that’s hopeful,” he says, pointing to his own song Nina Cried Power as a hopeful antidote to the xenophobia and “worshipping of greed and cruelty” that clogs the 24-hour news cycle.

But he has seen how some artists change how they write when they start playing to large crowds.

“Bands and acts do get to that stage where they start writing songs for stadium stuff. Yeah, it happens. Maybe it’s – I don’t know – because they see that it pays off? Maybe they just want to write happy music and make people dance. I get that too. Avoid the difficult stuff. I don’t know. I’m not quite there yet.”

Part of Hozier’s appeal is that he is a nice guy who has done well for himself. Not for him the persona of the rock star wearing sunglasses indoors. Instead he blends in with the crowd – as much as someone who towers at 6ft 5in can – with his hood up and his head down. He walked from the Dublin hotel he is staying in to the interview with the look of a student who is sitting final-year exams, wearing jeans and a tracksuit hoodie, with his distinctive long hair tied back and his prescription glasses on.

Modern Irish man

A few years ago Irish comedian and Hozier fan Alison Spittle wrote a piece for the Irish website Headstuff about street harassment and the body shaming that women experience. The piece is entitled Why Can’t All Lads Be Sound Like Hozier? Why did she single him out as an example of a sound modern Irish man?

“I chose Hozier as my vessel for male Irish soundness because he embodies all the aspects of Irish masculinity that is good,” she tells The Irish Times. “He’s not brash but stands firmly up for what he believes. He uses his platform with the best of intentions. Years ago, when he sang on Saturday Night Live, I cheered for him like a football team.”

Spittle isn’t alone in cheering on Hozier – he has won legions of fans for using his celebrity to support social causes. He was a vocal supporter for a Yes vote in 2015’s marriage equality referendum. During the 2018 referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment he released a video asking people to vote Yes so that “our fellow citizens access to healthcare and reproductive rights”.

He has taken part in concerts and fundraisers in the fight against homelessness, and when Pope Francis visited Ireland in August 2018, he sang at the Stand for Truth protest rally that invited anyone who “been harmed or abused by the Roman Catholic Church or who wishes to stand in solidarity with those harmed by its actions” to join.

He refers to these actions as “signal boosting”. As a touring artist who is rarely home, he says he couldn’t go knocking door-to-door as so many others of his generation did.

“I am super-proud of our generation. I think in a lot of ways I am not a good example of our generation’s collective experience because I got out of the trap – I won’t say the trap – I got out of the conditions that our generation has been left with and the conditions that have been foisted upon our generation, with regards an older generation that has completely... mismanaged in so, so many ways.”

He says “I won’t even get into it”, dismissing the bigger conversation of Ireland in the boom years and steering it back to what it means to be young and Irish today.

Moral leadership

“I can’t wait until more of our generation gets into politics and starts running for office because the moral leadership shown [in both referendum campaigns] should be followed through. I think it would do a lot of good in the Dáil. We’re all citizens of the Ireland we want to see come to fruition.”

More recently he tweeted his support for the striking nurses. and he says that Nina Cried Power, the lead single from his new album that features the American Gospel singer and civil rights activist Mavis Staples, is a “thank you note” to the spirit of protest.

The video, which was co-directed by his brother Jon and Patrick Ryan, shows a number of activists, celebrities and influencers that are well-known in Ireland, including Christina Noble, Panti Bliss, Amnesty International’s Colm O’Gorman, actor Stephen Rea and direct provision activist (and Social Democrat candidate) Ellie Kisyombe, listening to the song through headphones as videos of protest play in the background.

The song plays “on the language of wokeness” but in an era where big brands such as Gilette, Nike and Pepsi use social movements for commercial reasons, did he fear being considered disingenuous?

“In a time where fatigue is setting in with regards the civil discourse and action that is taking place at the time, you’re finding an upswing of people just vilifying protest, et cetera, and rolling their eyes at protest. And the song was in the context of that, trying to write something that was a thank you note to protest, and a reminder of what protest achieves,” he says, punctuating each sentence by hitting the table with his index finger.

“Where if I wanted to make a vehicle for my own f**king success...If I wanted to take the f**king embattled spirit of the f**king times and make a vehicle for my own f**king popular success, I wouldn’t write a song like that. And I wouldn’t write a song and bring Mavis Staples into it. I would do what marketers would have wanted me to do, which is to take a younger hip, pop artist.”

Hozier performing as model Candice Swanepoel walks the runway during the 2014 Victoria’s Secret fashion show in London. Photograph: Getty Images

Far easier

Citing the video and the song as a platform for the people who are changing Ireland, he’s aware of the damned if you do, damned if you don’t approach to making work that’s political.

“Yeah, is it a concern that someone will regard the work or regard my contribution as disingenuous or cynical, I’m sure people will. That’s the f**king risk of making work. And that’s the risk of making honest work. I can’t control that but I assure you if I wanted to make a f**king pop song, I would have written a pop song because it would have been far easier.

“Or if I just wanted f**king monetary success or gain, we just wouldn’t be having this conversation. I’d just be writing music that is completely apolitical. I don’t believe that non-political artwork exists, but I would be a very different artist. I would not be dealing with the headache of the worry of people pointing the finger and saying that this guy is a f**king disingenuous hack.”

In the six years since Hozier found stardom he has rarely been at the wrong end of public criticism but one giant misstep was his decision to perform at 2014’s Victoria’s Secret fashion show. The lingerie label is frequently associated with misogyny and the promotion of unattainable body shapes, and as he sang Take Me To Church, models strutted by in their underwear, wearing the label’s angel wings. The backlash was swift and pointed. How does he feel now about that experience?

“I think it’s fair to say the whole thing was a bit outside my wheelhouse. However, I did get to meet good people from a very different industry, and gain an appreciation for just how hard they work and how dedicated they are to their field.”

He says he holds the lifestyle that’s associated with glitzy TV appearances and fashion shows at a distance, marking them as a work thing and nothing else. “That’s a few hours out of your day where you pop into a TV studio and you play the song. You shake a few hands and say hello and thank you and then you leave. It’s not indicative of any lifestyle. It’s promotion, you know?”

Human rights

His manager at MCD, Caroline Downey, considers him to be a role model, “a very proud feminist and strong supporter of human rights issues”.

Downey runs the Gaiety Theatre, and directs the concert promotion company MCD that her husband Denis Desmond owns. She has been with Hozier since the very beginning; before the beginning actually. She first heard of him when he was a student in St Gerard’s school, a private secondary school in Bray, Co Wicklow, that her daughter Storm also attended.

Her daughter told her about this talented singer with the memorable surname from school, and when Downey saw him perform at a transition-year concert she says the hair on the back of her neck stood up.

After he finished school and spent what he calls a “hot minute” studying in Trinity College, Downey, Desmond and Rubyworks Records (the Irish independent record label created by Niall Muckian) successfully brought Hozier’s music to the mainstream.

“It’s been an amazing journey watching this very shy, polite, intelligent, talented young man turn into a confident, singer-songwriter with a great stage presence and still retaining the same values,” Downey says.

Aoife Woodlock, music producer for the RTÉ TV series Other Voices, regularly books artists who are on the cusp of hitting the big time. Hozier has performed on Other Voices twice. His first performance was recorded in December 2013, three months after the release of Take Me To Church, and it aired in early 2014. His second appearance was on his own Other Voices special that aired in March 2015, such was the demand for “Ireland’s new voice”, says Woodlock.

She recalls his 2014 performance at the influential South by Southwest (SXSW) industry festival in Austin, Texas, a festival that is considered as a showcase for artists who want to expand their reach. Sitting next to his father John, who she says is a “proud and influential parent”, in Austin, there was a sense of something much bigger at work.

“Andrew had clearly got a ‘team’ around him by then. I could see the heavy hitting industry reps lining the front rows in anticipation of seeing their artists perform, and perform he did.”

Every bar in Austin was playing Hozier, Woodlock says. Even when she was travelling through the airport, she heard his music.

American market

The American music market is a tough one for any musician to crack, no matter how popular they are in the charts elsewhere: just ask Oasis or Robbie Williams, who have both failed on numerous occasions to make it Stateside. Woodlock says that in her 20 years of attending SXSW she had never seen this kind of support for an Irish artist, and he cracked the American market “wide open”.

“When an Irish artist ‘makes it’ in America, the industry looks to Ireland. They look to the place that that artist came from. This is why it’s imperative to support musicians. By supporting the up and coming you are investing in the next generation of AHBs [referring to Hozier by his initials].”

With a schedule that’s mostly made up of gigging, touring and promotion across different time zones, does he measure time differently now?

“Yeah. I just give up on the calendar. I really do. You just give up. Certainly when you’re on tour mode there’s just no point, you know?”

Socially he can’t look too far ahead so if someone wants to make plans with him they’re better off asking him the day before. He treats work as one gig at a time because if he looks at the bigger picture it can be too much.

He says he doesn’t listen to a lot of other music.

“I listen to very little new music to the point where I wish I could say I could listen to more. I just only finished mixing and mastering the record so... my head is melted with the minutiae of these mixes.”

It’s a quiet Monday in town but he’s busy. After our interview he is signing posters for fan giveaways – he aims to sign at least 300 a day – and then he has band rehearsals in The Academy on Abbey Street, just ahead of his American, Australian and New Zealand tour, which will keep him tied up until the start of June.

When he returns he begins the summer circuit of gigs and festivals in Ireland, the UK and across Europe. Unintentionally, he makes free time sound like a complete luxury that he can rarely afford. With his lyrics rich in literary references, I wonder is he a big reader?

“Never as much as I’d like, with regards reading. Time is very short.”

Time-pressed

Podcasts are a good option for the time-pressed. “I don’t really listen to podcasts. I just don’t have time. I never have time.”

Instead he listens to lectures in the background as he goes about his day, with one lecture by astrophysicist Katie Mack on the end of the universe inspiring a song on the album. No Plan is what could be described as an apocalyptic love song. In the lectures Mack goes through the five most likely ways that the universe might end.

“One of the most likely being heat death, where basically all energy will leave the stars,” he explains. “They will burn themselves out and the universe will go dark, essentially. Whatever about the end of the world, No Plan is just saying that that’s the least of your worries. The universe is set to end at some point. It’s even more hopeless than you think.”

The themes of mortality, romance, ticking time bombs and self-destruction also crop up on his new album’s title track. And despite lyrics like “we’re two minutes to midnight on the doomsday clock and 60 per cent of all animal life has been wiped out since the 60s”, it’s actually a twisted carpe diem declaration of love.

“It’s just a nice reminder of just how small or insignificant all of it is,” he says.

Time and how he spends it is evidently a main concern. A few years ago he toyed with the idea of moving abroad but he made the decision to keep his home in Ireland so that he could be closer to his family when he’s not touring.

“The job affords you a lot of fantastic opportunities but you do have to be away. In that irony you have to be away from all of the things that you are working for and that you are working towards.”

And with such limited time and a back catalogue of intense love songs, you’d wonder how his romantic life is going. There’s been the odd rumour, but never anything confirmed or outright denied.

“I’d rather not go into that side of things, if you don’t mind.”

Sorry. I tried.

Sacrifices

The trouble with being a superstar is that certain sacrifices have to be made, sacrifices like personal time, anonymity and double-down of public praise and public criticism.

The calendar year may have fallen by the wayside for him, and he may be behind on his podcasts, but with his music, and the messages of love, hope and despair that it sends, he’s certain of one thing: his songs might outlive us all.

“That’s another thing that I just love about making music. It lasts forever, and in times like this, when it’s fun to write, it’s nice to leave behind something. If nothing else, it’s credited. It last forever. Yeah, it’s cool.”