Hozier – he's not a South American footballer but Irish music's rising star
America is the next stop for a singer from Bray whose Dublin gig sold out in less than a minute, says Larissa Nolan
It's 8.40pm on a Thursday evening in March; and amongst the crowd that has gathered outside Dublin music venue Whelan's of Wexford Street, there is a near-tangible feeling of anticipation, mixed with a sense of urgency, a touch of anxiety.
Gaggles of girls try to wangle their way in by claiming to be guest list. Frantic shout-outs for anyone buying or selling tickets fall on deaf ears; whoever has one is holding onto it. Passers-by feel pressed to enquire about who is playing tonight.
A tall young man from Wicklow by the name of Andrew Hozier-Byrne is responsible for all the excitement. He's 23 years old and writes passionate songs heavy on metaphor with lyrics like: "I'll worship like a dog at the shrine of your life" or "A rope in hand for your other man to hang him from a tree." He is best known for Take Me To Church, the sexy, bluesy, heartfelt single that compares a lover to religion. Many music critics regard it as the most impressive release by an Irish artist in a very long time.
Everything comes together with Hozier: he has a stunning vocal range, is a crafty lyricist, and plays guitar like someone who grew up on a porch in Mississipi, instead of the coastal town of Newcastle, halfway between Bray and Wicklow town. Incidentally, tomorrow, St Patrick's Day, is his birthday.
About to take off for a tour of the States, he announced the last-minute pop-up gig at the 450-capacity Whelans as a sort of bon voyage to fans. He's already sold out dates in New York and LA, where he will showcase his new EP, the beguiling From Eden, released in a fortnight's time.
On his return, it's pretty certain he won't be playing them this small ever again. Tickets for the Whelans gig last week were priced at a tenner each. They sold out in less than a minute. Those who made it to the gig knew they were part of a small group witnessing something very special. A gig you can claim in years to come: "I was there." Denis Desmond himself was one of them.
A publicist at the gig tells me that Denis's presence shows just how much MCD is backing Hozier, how much they expect for him. "Denis doesn't make it to just any gig. The fact he is here tonight is a clear message. But Hozier is the real deal, he is about to go massive. You hear about the Next Big Thing – well, Hozier is not just the cliche, he actually is the Next Big Thing. He is currently gigging across America – he played two shows last week at the SXSW festival in Texas.
"His music has a strong American influence; it's a modern take on Delta blues, jazz, gospel. They are going to love him in the US."
It hasn't happened for Hozier in a hurry. He has been singing publicly for as long as he can remember and been in bands since he was 14 or 15. Records state he is the son of a musician, and he has talked before about early influences like Nina Simone and Van Morrison. In a recent interview, he described his music as inspired by: "Afro-American music, some folk... influences include Nina Simone, Otis Redding – it's a little bit more gospel, there's a bit of folk and blues in there too."
His new single From Eden sounds thrillingly like early Van Morrison, like something off Wavelength, with a hypnotic waltz-tempo beat running through it. There's the ghostly touch of Jeff Buckley in there too. He said: "People have mentioned Buckley to me before – especially the Sketches For My Sweetheart record – but I haven't really heard it. Van Morrison would definitely have been one of my earliest influences growing up. Love Van Morrison."
That huge voice he has, that always sounds like it is resonating around a church, may have been perfected during his time with the Trinity Orchestra. He studied music there but dropped out to pursue his career – then remained as the lead vocalist with the orchestra,. He sang with trad ensemble Anuna, which could have honed that breath control that would make any singing instructor proud. He has said about this project: "I always loved congregational singing and I learned a lot about singing techniques, and even composition, from Anuna." He also sang with Dublin avant-garde group Nova Collective.
Where does he draw inspiration from lyrically? Speaking about his first EP released last summer – on which Take Me To Church was the lead track – he said: "There is a recurring theme in a lot of the songs of a liberation of the self. There was also the end of the first relationship I had ever had. Where do you end up after that? As an individual: the individual that you were beforehand, the individual you were when you were in love, and how profoundly different those things are. Then what do you do afterwards?
"I found the experience of falling in love or being in love was a death, a death of everything. You kind of watch yourself die in a wonderful way, and you experience for the briefest moment – if you see yourself for a moment through their eyes – everything you believed about yourself gone. In a death-and-rebirth sense."
Back to the gig in Whelans, where the audience seem hypnotised by the music, as during one song, To Be Alone, Hozier howls like a wolf and recalls John Lee Hooker. He does a killer version of Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love and the gospel singers on Angel of Small Death get the crowd dancing. Shy and slightly awkward-looking, he is bearded and long-haired and denim jacket-clad. He even has a song about lovers on the Wicklow hills, In A Week, in which he sings about being eaten by ants during the romantic entanglement – one who clearly knows the hazards.
He is currently working on his debut album, due to be released later this year. Watch him go.