Outside the office windows, Dublin hums along. Strains of a busker singing his heart out filter into the room; the stops and starts of city centre traffic underscore the calm conversation with one of Ireland’s most recent creative success stories. You know the face, you know the name, you know the frame, but there was a time not too long ago when no one except friends and family knew anything about Andrew Hozier-Byrne (now known as Hozier to all and sundry).
That changed forever from mid-2014, when one of his songs, Take Me To Church, shot holes through shutters that usually prevent musicians from seeing light and breathing air. The resultant self-titled debut album, meanwhile, took Hozier off the same Dublin streets our busker friend is claiming and catapulted him to international acclaim. Less than five years ago, the man could walk down those streets and no one would blink an eye. Now? Well, Hozier is so well known these days that it’s probably why we’re talking indoors, away from too many sharp head turns, handshakes, and selfies. His life has really changed since the last time Cara caught up with him, hasn’t it?
“Yeah, it has. I can’t actually relate to memories longer than four years ago. I can remember, of course, but back then I could scarcely afford a train ticket to visit my girlfriend. It was tough, but there was such a quick sea change. I was very fortunate with the success, but it took me a long time to get to grips with, and accept it.”
Being a musician who had grafted for some years, however, Hozier held onto the nettle with two ungloved hands, smacking like a pinball from one major festival to another, from one prime-time US television show to another – all to the accompaniment of blaring ker-ching record sales and somewhat quieter online streams. Towards the end of 2016, though, weary from touring schedules and promotional duties, Hozier wound down operations and retreated to his beloved County Wicklow home.
There is something uplifting about speaking with Hozier - he talks sensibly, without hyperbole, grounded, as modest a famous person as you could possibly hope for. It is clear that having time to gather his thoughts served him well. With his signature long hair hidden underneath a large beanie hat, and his unfeasibly long legs stretched out in front of him, he reflects on life before fame, and how home and family kick-started his love of blues music.
“When I was a kid,” he recalls, “I felt that nothing would really scratch the itch for me after hearing blues music for the first time. I was listening to music that is, essentially, for adults, music that has a grown-up sense of lust and longing, desire, expectation, and the violation of that expectation. Even though I was so young I didn't really understand it, the music was very visceral and real to me.”
Hozier learned something else from listening to blues music from such a young age. “You can hear in a voice when there is grief or jubilation, and in a primal way you can latch on to that,” he remarks. While rationally noting that a “privileged white middle-class kid” might not be the required demographic for such earthy music, he nonetheless became enraptured with a form that is unique in what it can articulate – emotionally, politically – about the human spirit. Such sensibilities have segued into Hozier’s own music to the point where they have often been viewed (rightly) as kindred spirits.
“Blues is the music of a disenfranchised people, music that comes out of the one of the worst atrocities in the history of the Western world: human trafficking of such enormity, when - based on the colour of their skin - people were robbed of identity, history, religion, humanity, and then placed in another part of the planet in order to be a slave. Everything that has sprung from that is unique.”
He is aware that with the evolution of his political sensibilities he might be pigeonholed as a readymade spokesperson that will speak on or perform at the drop of a hat for every conceivable cause.
“I have a lot of resistance with people regarding my music as – quote, unquote – political music, or that there is a political message to it. First of all, I know you can be pinned down for it, but that isn’t the intention of the music. Instead, the objective is to create something that is an honest reflection of the times we live in. A lot of music made today is incredibly popular, but I don’t think it’s an honest reflection of what our shared human experience really is. The aim is not for my music to carry some sort of political message but to credit elements of our common experiences.”
Common and shared experiences notwithstanding, Hozier is back on the treadmill. With a much-praised ‘taster’ EP (Nina Cried Power) released in late 2018, and with a second album released in early 2019, there is the inevitable intensive touring bubble enveloping him. He knows what to expect this time, of course, yet suggests a new form of anxiety will arrive.
“It’s the personal pressure of knowing you have made somewhat of a mark the first time. To stay in that game is so much harder now; there’s a sense you have to justify that what happened the first time around wasn’t just luck.”
Hozier admits that “anyone can get lucky”, but he is adamant not to view a successful song or album as anything close to a career. Mindful that “there’s a bit of a game you have to play, showing up on red carpets wearing X, Y and Z, looking good, and so on – which, let it be said, can be fun”, he measures success in a particular way. He laughs before he reveals what that is.
“I don’t want to be morbid about it, but if people are listening to my music decades after I die then that’s success. A lot of my influences - given to me by people who are no longer around - have shaped the way I feel and think about things. Yet in their music, I discovered elements of the human experience that remain absolutely valid.”
In life as in art, certain things are universal. Pick up The Iliad, for example, and you’ll be startled by the relevance of some of what you read. Words and phrases created by William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens (to name but three) live on. This is what art should do, Hozier asserts.
He stretches those impossibly long legs and unwinds the lanky frame. Even after almost an hour that darned busker is still singing. Dublin still throbs, and Andrew Hozier-Byrne remains the genuine article.
“Success?” This isn’t a question, more a considered response. “Not to be too grand about it, but I would rather just leave behind a good body of work. If we’re going to add to the canon of popular music, we should at least make it count.”
*This interview first appeared in Cara (the in-flight magazine of Aer Lingus) in its December/January issue, 2018/2019.