- 17 Mar 23
As Hozier celebrates his 33rd birthday – and releases his brand new EP – we're revisiting a classic interview with the Irish star, originally published in Hot Press 2019...
Originally published in March 2019...
Having proved last year that lightning can indeed strike twice with ‘Nina Cried Power’, Hozier has conjured up a new album made for the tumultuous times – and the culture wars – we are living through. In one of his most revealing interviews yet, he talks health, housing, racism, love, consent and Tom Waits.
Interview: Stuart Clark
Andrew Hozier-Byrne was already having a very merry Christmas with friends and family in Wicklow when word came through that one of Chi-Town’s funkiest had put him on his end of year Spotify playlist.
“Yeah, Barack Obama had ‘Nina Cried Power’ on there alongside some really cool stuff by The Carters, Leon Bridges, Khalid, Courtney Barnett and that brilliant Prince track they discovered in the vaults, ‘Mary Don’t You Weep’,” Hozier beams. “I saw him dance on the Ellen Show and the guy really has soul and rhythm, as does Michelle, who I remember seriously going for it at a Beyoncé gig!”
Earlier Hozier had apologised for turning up 45 minutes late for our interview in one of the Gaiety Theatre’s fin-de-siècle bars. I’m delighted because it’s allowed me to have my evil way with the plate full of choccy biscuits and bars that have been provided for the elevenses he’s missed. You could say I’m Hobnobbing without the star.
“I think I’m arriving late for everything at the moment because subconsciously I know I won’t be able to be late again until halfway through 2020,” he smiles, nibbling away at the sole surviving Kit-Kat. “Starting in a few days, I’m going to have 18 months of being told, ‘You’re getting up seven, breakfast at 7.30, down in the lobby for eight and in the car by ten past’. There’s so much other stuff going on – gigs, TV appearances, interviews, whatever – that you simply surrender to the tour manager and then become a disorganised mess when they’re not around!”
A date he most definitely won’t be late for is Thursday March 7’s Love Rocks NYC benefit gig in the Beacon Theater, which last year paid for over 1.5 million meals to be delivered to vulnerable New Yorkers who are struggling to feed themselves.
“The line-up is outrageous!” Hozier grins again. “Off the top of my head, it’s me, Robert Plant, Sheryl Crow, Grace Potter, Buddy Guy, Keb’ Mo and Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top playing with a house band that includes Paul Shaffer and Steve Gadd. You’re talking serious musical royalty. Outwardly I’m quite composed in those situations, but inwardly I’ll be, ‘Oh my god, it’s Robert Plant!’”
The guy behind it is the menswear designer, John Varvatos, who turned the old CBGBs rock club in the Bowery into his flagship store. It still has lots of the original fixtures, and memorabilia on the walls.
“He’s got a very rock ‘n’ roll style. I did a shoot for John once, and he’s also worked with Jimmy Page, Gary Clark Jr., Paul Weller, Slash and Iggy Pop. They know they’re in safe hands with him. His charity has raised something like $5 million with their two previous gigs.”
Some people might develop a slightly inflated ego, hanging around with A-List-ers like that...
“Having met my manager, and some of my band and crew, you’ll know there’s zero chance of me getting a big head,” he laughs.
Nobody’s Life Should Be Cheapened...
The last time I chewed the fat with Hozier was in August when – with ‘Nina Cried Power’ still under wraps – everyone was asking, “Does he have another ‘Take Me To Church’ in his locker?” Was he glued to the YouTube streams-counter when it eventually went live the following month?
“Of course, you check it every now and then, but it’s really best not to. You approach the writing and the producing in good faith, and try to stick to whatever ethos you had before. I was trying to write the best song I could at that moment, not another ‘Take Me To Church’. Even if you could replicate it, what would be the point? I didn’t expect ‘Nina’ to be a big radio thing, but it blew up really quickly. A lot of that was down to Mavis Staples stealing the show with her amazing vocal. I can’t tell you how honoured I was to guest with her at Electric Picnic. Any time spent singing or just hanging out with Mavis is a joy. When we were going through the ‘Nina Cried Power’ lyrics and got to the ‘Curtis’ part, she told me this great story about Curtis Mayfield writing ‘Let’s Do It Again’, which is a very sexy song, for The Staples – who usually only sang religious music. Curtis had to convince the father, Pops, that it’s about love and Dr. Martin Luther King – a tough sell with lyrics like, ‘Let’s do it in the mornin’/ Sweet breeze in the summer time/ Feeling your sweet face/ All laid up next to mine.’ But he managed it! I love hearing stories like that first-hand.”
The aforementioned ‘Nina Cried Power’ video – which is now up around the seven-and-a-half million mark on YouTube – was directed by his brother, Jon Hozier-Byrne, and features close-ups of twenty activists either born or active in Ireland. Among them is Ellie Kisyombe, the Malawian asylum-seeker whose announcement that she’s standing for the Social Democrats in May’s local election caused apoplexy among Ireland’s alt-fascist Twitter brigade.
“These being the same people who go, ‘They don’t want to integrate’,” Hozier rues. “Yeah, I saw that unfolding online. It was through one of my team, Caroline Henry, that Ellie came on board a couple of days before the shoot. I wasn’t terribly familiar with her until that point, but she’s incredible. It’s really good news that that kind of diversity and representation is starting to creep into our politics. This is such an odd, divided time. Direct Provision really is an obscenity. It’ll be one of those things we look back on in 20, 30, 40 years time and think, ‘How did we as a society let that happen?’ People will only integrate if they’re given the fucking opportunity to integrate! At around the same time you had that hotel being burned down in Donegal. It’s horrifying. You’d hope that type of thing is a very extreme minority. I do believe in the good will of people on this island and our natural sense of warmth and justice. One of the things that can help break down barriers is music. Communities are enriched by the diverse cultures that enter them. We’ve seen it happen in the US, the UK and now it’s happening here.”
While it doesn’t compare to the abuse flung at Ellie Kisyombe, I received a lovely “You fucking libturd cunt!” message last year, after describing the Rusangano Family on the Pat Kenny Show as: “Your typical modern Irish band; a guy from Togo, a guy from Zimbabwe called God Knows and a bloke from Ennis.”
“I had the chance to meet the Rusangano Family once or twice and they’re fantastic dudes,” Hozier enthuses. “Imagination-wise, the bar has been raised. It changes the game for everybody in terms of what’s now possible here in Ireland. It’s worth pointing out in relation to Ellie that the negative Twitter comments were far outweighed by the supportive ones wishing her luck. Which is that decency I was talking about.”
When Andrew ‘did an REM’ in September and played three rehearsal shows in The Academy, the proceeds were divided between Safe Ireland, One In Four and the Peter McVerry Trust. Does he have any specific ideas as to how that other obscenity, homelessness, can be tackled?
“With all greatest respect, if we’re turning to musicians for answers, we’re really fucked. I try to avoid giving unsolicited opinions or advice because for half the year I’m living away from Ireland. The likes of the Peter McVerry Trust are in the trenches dealing with often life and death situations 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They’re far better to talk to than a fucking musician. What I can do is give a platform or a signal-boost to somebody who I think is doing something positive. I’m hypersensitive about throwing my weight around, but I can only imagine the frustration of living in Dublin or Cork or wherever and seeing that there’s no fucking affordable housing being built.
“There was an opportunity around the time of the Apollo House occupation for the government to do something, but they just kicked the can down the road. When we don’t deal with a crisis like this or, worse still, collectively normalise it, we inflict a serious injury on not just the homeless but also the whole of society. Nobody’s life should be cheapened.”
We’re not expecting Hozier to do what Simon Harris has miserably failed to do and solve the health crisis, but I imagine he’s sympathetic towards the nurses.
“I absolutely would be,” he nods. “I hope that everyone will show their support for the people who’ve literally brought us into the world and will comfort us out of it. Nurses are the most incredibly patient, incredibly caring people I’ve ever met in my life. The work they do is unbelievable. We should respect the needs of workers and listen when they say that they’re struggling, that they need more from government.”
A Storm Raging Outside
The last time we met, Hozier was a bit interview-rusty from being in the studio and trying to work out his response to the inevitable Trump questions he’s now getting from people like me. So, The Donald, discuss…
“It’s my own fault, and I say this constantly, for writing about stuff that’s end of the world-esque,” he sighs. “I never thought I’d bear witness to the culture war we’re having now, but to refer you to my earlier answer, ‘If we’re looking to musicians to save the world, we’re fucked’.”
But there’s more common sense coming out of musicians’ mouths these days than there is politicians’.
“Totally, yeah. The same’s true of most professions. Like all of us, I’m consumed by these things and get cross, to the detriment of my mental health.”
As somebody who regularly tweets about climate change, it must piss him off to hear Trump say, "Global warming can’t exist because it’s snowing."
"Yeah, it does. I imagine you’re going to ask me about Brexit and how it might impact on Northern Ireland?”
Ah, the clusterfuck that other clusterfucks call the Guv’nor. Yes.
“Going back to the ‘Nina Cried Power’ video, I didn’t grow up in the North. I’m not qualified to talk about the complexities but Eamonn McCann and Bernadette McAliskey who both feature in it are. They can give you the answers I’m not qualified to give.”
To a large extent, Hozier lets the songs on Wasteland, Baby! do his anti-Trump talking for him. A case in instance being ‘Be’, a bluesy slow-burner that proclaims “When the next man gives the order/ Is born next time round on the boat sent back/ When the bodies starving at the border/ Are on TV giving people the sack” while the gospel choir gets to work in the background. Few songs this or any other year deliver such a jolt to the senses.
“Thank you. For me, that was a lyrical vehicle. I wanted to write something late-Leonard-Cohen-esque, you know? Again, how are people not going to ask me about the state of the world when there’s stuff like that on Wasteland, Baby!?”
Elsewhere on songs like ‘Would That I’ – “I blink in sight of your blinding light/ And the fire bright, let it blaze alright/ Ah, but you’re good to me baby” – it sounds suspiciously like a falling in love album.
“It’s interesting, I’ve heard that from somebody else,” he responds. “I never considered that because to me it was always an end of the world record. I characterise it as ‘a squeeze of the hand’. There are certain songs – ‘Be’ and ‘Wasteland, Baby!’ itself – that are dealing with a storm raging outside and possibly the end times. It’s always trying to do it through the personal, hence that squeeze of the hand. There are definitely reflections on love like ‘Would That I’ but I write from memory. Sadly, I kind of hermit-ed myself away when I was making the album. I didn’t have anybody to curl up to.”
Such is the lot of a man who’s been living out of a suitcase pretty much non-stop for the past five years.
“The hard work and the sacrifice are part of it, that’s for sure. My advice to anyone wanting to maintain a stable, long-term relationship is, ‘Don’t be a touring musician!’”
Continuing on from all of ‘Nina Cried Power’s musical namechecking, ‘Almost’ references Chet Atkins, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ and Cole Porter’s ‘Night & Day’. Is Hozier just telling us what we should have in our record collections?
“Rumbled! I’m looking forward, on this tour, to doing the southern states of America, which is where a lot of the Wasteland, Baby! influences come from. I’m especially excited about playing New Orleans. There’s such a culture of people getting up and playing music there. It’s really, really cool.”
Is there anybody in Hozier’s band who shares the gaffer’s twin blues ‘n’ funk obsessions?
“Yeah, my bass-player and musical director, Alex Ryan. On the first tour, we listened to a lot of James Brown, Prince and neo soul as well. We were getting into the nitty gritty of various D’Angelo tunes.”
What’s guaranteed to get him on the dancefloor?
“About five pints,” he deadpans. “I’m a sucker for old soul music, so if I hear James Brown or Stevie Wonder I’m out there like a shot!”
Very spookily, I ran into Mike Scott on Grafton Street – he has a flat in town – just minutes after first hearing ‘To Noise Make (Sing)’, another joyous excursion into gospel, which finds Hozier plaintively crooning: “Honey the groove of it was whatever you’d choose/ ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ or ‘The Fisherman’s Blues’.”
“Mike Scott lives part-time in Dublin?” he resumes. “I did not know that. I met him at a festival and he was really, really sweet. ‘The Whole Of The Moon’ and ‘The Fisherman’s Blues’ are like blues standards to me, in that it feels like they’ve been around forever. You can’t remember not knowing them. Achieving that is every songwriter’s dream.”
Escorted Off The Premises
The striking cover of Wasteland, Baby! finds Hozier immersed in a tank of water. I assume the water was real and that Rubyworks had someone there to extract their prize asset from it if he started drowning rather than waving.
“Yeah, it was real and they did. We took some photos of the walls in Loftus Hall, the stately home at Hook’s Head in Wexford where they’ve shot a couple of horror films. It has that dilapidated grandeur and is supposed to be the most haunted place in Ireland. We printed those photographs in large form, submerged them in water and made a little room for me to sit in. It was a fun day but, because the wet suit didn’t quite work, freezing.”
At one of Hozier’s recent Olympia gigs I was sat next to a girl who having been all smiles before his arrival on stage cried her way through his entire set. Encore completed, the smiles returned. Has he ever been that emotionally affected by another musician?
“I’ve never cried like that – and whoever the girl was, thank you for conncting with my music – but I was genuinely obsessive about Tom Waits for a long time,” he reveals. “I wanted to be Tom Waits. I was in love with Tom Waits. I would’ve had my Hendrix phase, my Rory Gallagher phase and my Nina Simone phase – which never really ended – but as a teenager Tom Waits saved me in a lot of ways and turned me on to wanting to make music. None of my peers had any interest in Tom Waits or knew who he was, which made it even better. He was all mine!”
That he needed ‘saving’ by Tom Waits suggests that Hozier’s growing up pains went beyond the norm. Was he clinically depressed as a kid?
“Being a teenager is a fairly miserable experience,” he explains, picking his words carefully. “It’s nice to have something to listen to that reflects or gives a shape to the ugliness you see in the world or feel in yourself. I found there was a perfect ugliness and a crookedness to Tom Waits’ work. The way he paints scenes and populates them with named characters. It evokes such imagery.”
Hozier looks almost shocked when I ask if he’s met Pomona, California’s gravliest.
“I don’t think I’d be able to keep it together if we were introduced,” he confides. “I saw him eating dinner twenty feet away from me once in LA and I was terrified. My heart was doing backflips even seeing him that close. If I could get the words out, I’d ask him, ‘Does it get any easier?’ Two or three albums in, he stopped making beautiful songs in the conventional folk rock way. He one eighty-degreed. As an artist, I’m always doubting and second-guessing myself. To be brave enough to reinvent yourself like Tom Waits did must be very liberating, but possibly also very frightening. I’d want to ask him about that.”
Were the teenage Hozier to somehow teleport to 2019, which current artist would be obsessing over?
“There’s a real golden age of hip hop taking place,” he proffers. “There’s so much substance to the work of Chance The Rapper and Kendrick Lamar. To make it into the popular sphere like they have, while reflecting their lives and outlook so honestly, is a powerful thing. It’s leading by example and people respond to that so, yeah, those two.”
Sadly not on Wasteland, Baby! is the cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Saint Dominic’s Preview’ that Hozier recorded in response to a dream that Blindboy had. Which requires a bit of explaining…
“I have a lot of respect for the Rubberbandits. One morning Blindboy tweeted, ‘I had a dream last night that Hozier covered ‘Saint Dominic’s Preview’ and it was class.’ Saint Dominic’s Preview, the album, was one of the Van records I wasn’t particularly familiar with, so I started listening to it and was blown away. A few weeks later when things were a bit quieter, I went ‘Fuck it!’, started throwing some chords around and decided to post what was only 45 seconds of the song; I didn’t finish the cover to be fair. The opening line, ‘She’ll be cleaning all the windows, singing about Edith Piaf’s soul’, is beyond beautiful.”
— The Blindboy Podcast (@Rubberbandits) December 27, 2018
Something else I only discovered recently about Hozier is that he didn’t leave Trinity College of his own free will.
“That’s true, I had to be escorted off the premises,” he laughs. “No, I was a first year music student at Trinity when I got the opportunity to do some demos for the label, which coincided with an exam period. I chose to do the recording, and when requesting a year’s deferral was told that I hadn’t really earned that right. The time I was in Trinity I really enjoyed. I met some amazing people but, yeah, I’m a university dropout.”
In Culture War Territory
You couldn’t walk through Trinners a few years ago without bumping into an aspiring musician, guitar in hand, going off to rehearsal. How does he reckon his rock ‘n’ roll alumni are getting on?
“The lyricism of Saint Sister: they’re just amazing. I’m good friends with Karen from Wyvern Lingo, who make such colourful music. Their talents are as thrilling as they are diverse. The amount of talent coming out of Ireland is shocking. Pillow Queens are another band who I’m really excited by.”
There was lots of reaction, some bad, mainly good, to Hozier’s recent “Consent is sexy” tweet.
“Right, interesting, yeah. I thought about that afterwards and deleted it. I reckoned, ‘If I’m going to make a statement on something like that, I could word it better.’ It just stuck badly with me.”
Does he think consent classes should be mandatory for students?
“It certainly wouldn’t hurt,” Hozier suggests. “If we were to go that route I think it should happen at a far earlier age than twenty when you’re already having sex.”
And what about university ‘safe spaces’? If Hozier were Trinity Provost, would he let somebody like Katie Hopkins come and talk on campus?
“Okay, it depends on incitement. Again we’re in culture war territory. I see more people losing their minds on Fox News over the idea of safe spaces than I do actual students talking about it. It’s become such a politicised Them v Us issue. You mentioned Katie Hopkins who is somebody that referred to migrants as cockroaches. That to me is incitement and we don’t want to give a platform to people who incite hatred. I don’t think that comes under the umbrella of free speech.”
So there you have it: a forensic hour-long examination of music, life, society, politics and all the other grown-up stuff.
“Sometimes I really don’t like being a grown-up,” Hozier concludes, “but this is where I am in my life, and it feels pretty good right now.”