Tuesday 20 August 2019

Hozier...The voice that conquered America

Before a summer hit, Wicklow's Hozier was an unknown. Now he's elbowed U2 off the top of the charts and America can't get enough of him. Who is he?

Global press tips Hozier for greatness one day
Global press tips Hozier for greatness one day

Ed Power

The rise and rise of Andrew Hozier Byrne has been breathtaking to behold. Just 12 months ago, the Wicklow troubadour was fresh from headlining Hard Working Class Heroes, a pokey Dublin rock festival celebrating bands nobody in the real world will ever care about.

Now he is a veteran of Saturday Night Live, David Letterman, and Jools Holland, with a number-two album in the US and a fan-club that includes Taylor Swift, super-producer Dr Dre and basketball star LeBron James (his music also features in Brad Pitt tank movie Fury) .

He is, in music-press parlance, super, mega, uber-buzzy. Just last week he achieved what would once have seemed unthinkable, keeping a new U2 album off the top of the Irish charts. Truly, this was a changing of the guard. One stadium institution had tumbled off the plinth, another may have announced his arrival.

At one level, it is no surprise that the Wicklowman - residents of the county are quick to point out he hails from rural Newcastle, rather than suburban Bray, as is often assumed - has conquered the charts, and with apparent effortlessness at that.

Musically, he represents a coming together of several lucrative genres: Coldplay-esque anthemic pop; Van Morrison-style Celtic soul; and woe-is-me confessional songwriting in the Damien Rice vein. Mixed in the correct doses, this is an exceedingly potent blend - especially if conveyed by a spindly Irish man with a funny haircut who, if you squint, resembles an exaggeratedly downcast character from a Tim Burton movie.

For all that, you have to admire the 24-year-old for making success look easy. From the beginning of his solo career - there were previous stints with the arty Trinity Orchestra and trad choir Anuna - he has been lathered in hype. When one of his earliest headline performances was announced, last winter at Dublin's Unitarian Church, it sold out in a heartbeat - before he had officially put out any music or even gigged around Dublin.

Indeed, by last Christmas, he had already joined that exclusive club of Irish artists it is mildly difficult to arrange an interview with (this journalist has tried to organise a tete-a-tete with Hozier since December - at one point, relatively early on, we were told he was only doing front covers).

Whether Hozier or his team is responsible for this exclusivity, it has proved a canny strategy. He is all over the radio - yet in little danger of overexposure. There is furthermore something mildly mysterious about him: we don't understand, really, where he's come from, so it's hard to get a bead on where he is going (other than that he seems be to rocketing towards the stratosphere).

Further evidence of the smarts behind the music was provided by the video to his break-out hit, 'Take Me to the Church'. In interviews he has explained the song is about sexuality and the way Catholicism, the buttoned down Irish version at any rate, seeks to suffocate it.

However, in the promo film Hozier, who is straight, explicitly identifies with gay-rights activists in Russia: this was in the run up to the Winter Olympics as Vladimir Putin's clampdown on minorities had turned him into an international bogeyman (a furore that has since subsided amid the terrifying prospect of Russia-Ukraine military conflict over Crimea).

Without question, Hozier's feelings on the subject are entirely heartfelt and it would be offensive and incorrect to suggest he was seeking to capitalize on a fashionable cause.

Nonetheless, the video chimed with listeners, regardless of orientation, across the world: suddenly a budding artist was a flag-bearer for a movement. With those three minutes of bluesy keening - 'Take Me To The Church' is best thought of as Coldplay ballad as re-imagined by an Irish singer-songwriter raised on Muddy Waters - he introduced himself as a unique talent: an artist who could be introspective and heartfelt, yet with mass appeal.

What's more, this is a thoroughly Irish-based success story. Hozier briefly studied music at Trinity and is managed by Caroline Downey, a well-connected businesswoman and senior figure at powerful concert promoters MCD. Moreover, he is signed to Dun Laoghaire-headquartered Rubyworks records and the producer of his debut album - the briskly titled 'Hozier' - is Dubliner Rob Kirwan (other credits include Delorentos and U2).

Still, in trying to conquer the world one gig at a time, he has taken on an enormous workload and you hope the strain does not get to him. He had, for instance, the bad luck to come down with a throat infection on his recent American tour, and was forced to cancel several gigs.

"I feel really bad for Hozier," said James Bay, the English singer who supported him in America. "This is his biggest US tour, he's had to [cancel] a couple... You know, he's flat out for a year. He was in such good spirits the night before [the first show was called off]… we all raised a glass of champagne as he'd just gone to number one in Ireland."

With so much attention, it would be easy to lose your footing. Hozier, however, radiates an agreeable groundedness. For all that's befallen him, he does an impressive job seeming normal. At the same time, he is honest about his inspirations, in particular his fascination with death and sex and how they intertwine, are what make us most human.

"Blues is a very physical music," he said earlier this year. "It's often about sex, whether it's through innuendo or not. It's often about the relationship between two people. So in that sense, in a lot of my songs, there's a lot to do with the interaction between two people."

Amid the hyperbole, though, we should not get too far ahead of ourselves. Because Hozier is Irish his profile is far greater here than overseas and it is possible that we are distorting his success abroad.

It is important to recognise not everyone is aboard the bandwagon and tooting the horn. Hozier's turn on Letterman last May was criticised as nervy and underwhelming (Hozier protested he had arrived in New York tired); and, while reviews of Hozier outside Ireland are positive, they are hardly swooning.

Reading his global press, clearly the consensus is that here is a promising artist who may one day achieve greatness, but, for now, is a work in progress. He has yet to received a five-star review internationally; Rolling Stone awarded a sobering seven out of 10; the UK's Q magazine was even less enthusiastic, asserting his record was "by no means a classic".

One of the queasier write-ups was from the Los Angeles Times, which dispatched a reporter to a performance - appropriately in a Church - at the end of his recent American tour.

The journalist had a sense that Hozier was wrestling with opposing instincts: to pander to fans and to bare his soul. It is a criticism that will chime with many not quite swept up in the hype in Ireland.

"In his less successful moments, there's just a thin wall of hipness, and a truly magnificent haircut, separating him from mewly balladeers like John Mayer or Ray LaMontagne," said the review. "Hozier's set showed that he had the sacred part down pat. He could have benefited from a little more of the profane.

"For a songwriter who draws a through-line between Delta blues, sad Irish ballads and contemporary alt-folk, he needs to see that vision through. That means no more songs like Someone New a saccharine little breakup ditty that was a disservice to his more serious songwriter goals."

It was significant the Los Angeles Times should mention Ray LaMontagne. Like Hozier, the American is blessed with impressive facial hair and a mesmerising croon. And, as with the Wicklow vocalist, his early career was a story of hype and accolades. And yet, when he returned with a new album earlier this year, nobody noticed.

We'd had enough of LaMontange's brand of starry-eyed melancholy and had moved onto the next big thing - Hozier. It's a lesson that should give the Irishman pause the next time someone tells him he's the future of music (you suspect it is a daily occurrence).

Sooner or later, all artists - especially those praised to the heavens - have to reckon with younger, hipper rivals. For Hozier, the hope must be that he can delay that fateful day as long as possible.

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