'I am a very silly man in a lot of ways - I'm not a serious person' - Hozier talks fame and love songs ahead of Electric Picnic
It’s the end of the world as we know it, but Hozier feels fine. As he prepares to headline Electric Picnic, he tells Barry Egan about writing apocalyptic love songs; dealing with fame; his love of Seamus Heaney, and how there’s actually a lot of humour in his music
All that's missing is the stigmata. Long of hair and unshaven, Hozier has a certain messianic look to him. It gives his deeply felt pronouncements on the world an air of something devout at work. Like they have been uttered by a rock-star born in Bethlehem, not Bray. ("The EU pulling funding for rescue boats in the Mediterranean says all it needs to say about where we are heading and how we view human life," he tells me in the course of an hour-long conversation. "And that's the EU - one of most liberal democratic institutions on the planet. So, yeah, it is an interesting time to be alive...")
The fact that he sings like no other man from this island since Van Morrison also adds to Hozier's general sense of specialness, as does his height of six feet, four inches.
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"I'm a gangly introvert," he told The Telegraph in 2014. In 2019, he is a gangly genius who has played to over a million fans this year alone over the course of 120 shows, including festivals, across the world, according to his manager, Caroline Downey. "He's a unique, much-needed artist," she says with some justification.
Rob Kirwan, who worked with U2, PJ Harvey, The Editors, Depeche Mode, and produced Hozier's eponymous debut album in 2014, told Rolling Stone in 2015 that Hozier "has got so much soul in his voice and he's only a youngster. He's a bit like Adele, where his voice belies his age."
Even at 29, it is obvious that Hozier has assembled a body of work that is moving for its power and depth of feeling. In its review of Hozier's new album Wasteland, Baby!, Billboard magazine wrote that Hozier "has been reckoning with his mortality, and the fate of humanity in general, by writing through it".
When the stench of the sea/And the absence of green/Are the death of all things/That are seen and unseen/Are an end, but the start of all things that are left to do, he sings on the title track of Wasteland, Baby! You can see why journalist Una Mullally called him "truly the bard of the risen people".
Returning to his people next weekend to headline Electric Picnic in Stradbally, Co Laois, along with The Strokes, The 1975 and Florence + The Machine, Hozier can talk as easily about Monty Python or Amy Winehouse as he can about a 2016 Nasa report which "concluded that organised society as we know it, in 50 years or 100 years time, could alter irreparably". You can see why Bono sent him a note of congratulations when the new album came out.
There can't be many singers who can, like Hozier, over a long coffee before a show in front of 15,000 fans, talk passionately about the heat-death of the planet and how eventually all the stars will go out like an ESB power-cut across the universe. He got the thought (which inspired the song No Plan) from reading on tour the writings of American theoretical cosmologist Dr Katie Mack.
"I have since met her. She is a really amazing person, an amazing brain." Of The End of Everything, Mack's upcoming book about cosmic demise, Hozier says that "it details four or five hypotheses in theoretical physics: how the universe could end, which basically is known as a quantum vacuum, where the universe could get kind of sucked into another non-stable universe. It is just mad. But really interesting stuff. The stars have finite fuel in them. They have to burn themselves out."
"So I suppose it was fun playing with the idea of the end of the world," he says of the song No Plan.
"I have no understanding of quantum physics beyond little lectures or podcast-type knowledge," Hozier qualifies, before adding that he was fascinated by a lecture by Mack called A Universe From Nothing, "about how the universe, in line with quantum thinking, could have sprung from absolute nothingness".
When you are on tour in the Bible Belt of the US, this type of pronouncement might get you killed, I say.
"I don't know. The only serious resistance - not backlash, but just disgruntled letter-writing - I have ever experienced would probably be in the areas where the religious right are stronger, in places like the Bible Belt area. I have never seen anything that was too... you know ... there have been no death threats yet, as far as I can see!
"I am not trying to sell a point of view to anyone," he continues. "They are songs, at the end of the day. I'm an artist. You are trying to explore ideas. You are exploring thoughts and concerns and putting them on paper."
Is the Wasteland, Baby! album, a love song about the end of the world?
"Yeah, I suppose. A squeeze of the hand, or maybe hoping to imagine that the last human act on Earth is some act of kindness."
Is this album about externalising the thoughts that have been knocking about your head since you were child?
"I wouldn't say since I've been a child, maybe some elements, but definitely the last few years. I think it is just engaging with some of the concerns and some of the anxieties of the modern age, some of which are climate reports and political upheaval and stuff like that; and exploring that, and those feelings."
You have described yourself as not particularly hopeful as a person.
"Not particularly hopeful? It depends. Hopeful for what, you know what I mean? But I think things usually get far, far worse before they get better."
Is the title track of the album you yielding to dread?
"Yeah, I think so. The dread is there, absolutely, and there is some level of optimism, too. There is the actuality and the realness of that scenario and all the horrible things that can happen, and all the horrible things that people do to each other, and will do to each other - and will continue to do - and then there is the actuality and the realness of all the good things that people hold on to for each other and do for each other. That is the squeeze of the hand, an expression of intimacy or kindness. It is also looking at that in the context of a worse-case scenario."
I ask Hozier what was the last novel he read.
"Martin Amis's The Zone Of Interest," he answers. "It is about the Holocaust. There are elements of pitch, pitch-black humour in it, in the absurdity of the evil he is looking at. I don't know how he manages to handle it. But the moral questions are super-serious. It is a harrowing book."
I read somewhere that you were interested in Winston Smith from George Orwell's 1984, growing up?
"I loved that book, yeah," he says, smiling.
Not a very hopeful book, I say.
"It's not a very hopeful book, no."
But it is the truth, isn't it?
"I think in a lot of ways, it is," Hozier smiles. "Big Brother's happy ending being the crushing of the human spirit. 'If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever.' Imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever. And Winston is a very fearful man. He is not a hero in any way. He is a terrified individual who keeps making retreats. He keeps finding explanations for his own failings. 'No, this is actually subverting'."
A bit like you?
"I couldn't really say. But I think we all make sense of our position and where we stand. We all have to do that."
What has it been like for Hozier since the worldwide success of Take Me To Church in 2014? You have talked about being confronted by the otherness of how people see you? How does it play with your head?
"There is no way you can approach it other than step away from it. There are probably more things written about me now than I would care to think about myself, or to say about myself. Do you know what I mean? Ultimately, it's a weird thing to be confronted with, but it is part of it."
Part of it also was in October 2014, and Taylor Swift sharing an Instagram post with her many millions of followers of her good self air-drumming along to Hozier's performance of Sedated at a gig in Atlanta. She wrote in the post: "When attending a Hozier concert, it's very important to accompany the band on your invisible instruments."
Do you ever find the weight of expectation on your shoulders difficult to bear?
"Obviously you have to contend with that, especially after a charting hit [Take Me To Church]. That was a kind of crossover hit in the charts, a bit of a freak occurrence. The production, the sound, the themes - they weren't what were radio hits at the time. So it was a bit of an outlier. That can't be recreated. You can't recreate the conditions for such an outlier."
How do you cope with the fame?
"It is not all that difficult to throw on a scarf and a hat and a pair of glasses, and I can disappear fairly quickly."
Listening to some of Hozier's best songs can leave you with a feeling of illumination or exaltation. He unlocks emotions that are buried in the listener's psyche. You wonder what he is unlocking in himself when he sings, when he writes. Is the process of songwriting for Hozier a catharsis? And a catharsis for what?
"There is definitely a joy you get out of writing something - whether it is cathartic or not, I wouldn't know, because it is easy then to kind of romanticise that this is your therapy session or whatever, or you are getting something off your chest. I find it is more that you are reconciling something."
What are you reconciling?
"It depends on the song! It depends, song to song, what you're reconciling but, like anything, it is how you feel about things, how you see the world, how you experience it. That's it."
How does he look back on the young man who wrote Take Me To Church?
"I think it is great in a way to be a complete unknown and to be a complete underdog. You have all the freedom to do."
Which you don't have now. Does it make it more difficult?
"I wouldn't say so. I enjoy songwriting."
"You can't write the same album the second time around," he says later. "You certainly can if you want, but what's the point of writing Take Me To Church again?"
In a way, that is one of the great things about the Wasteland, Baby! album: that it doesn't have 14 stealth versions of Take Me To Church under different names on it.
"Yeah. I mean, there are times when I am exploring again the legacy, maybe, of institutionalised religion, I think. There are still elements there, but your changing position is going to be constant - the same with anybody in life, whether you are an artist or not, and that is going to affect your decisions and how you see the world and how you produce work, I suppose."
On his Nina Cried Power EP at the end of last year, on the song NFWMB - Nothing Fucks With My Baby - the lyrics reference WB Yeats's poem The Second Coming when Hozier sings: The end was soon/To Bethlehem it slouched and then/Must have caught a good look at you. Did he read Yeats a lot growing up? "Probably more as a late teenager, and now, still."
Hozier has Seamus Heaney's last words - noli timere (don't be afraid) - tattooed on his left arm. "I'm a big, huge Seamus Heaney fan," he says. "I suppose in the last 12 months, there was a time when I was reading nothing but Seamus Heaney. I was quite obsessive. I'm quite obsessive with things that I fall in love with," he says, adding that one of his favourite pieces by Heaney is St Kevin and the Blackbird.
St Kevin's hermitage is near where you grew up, I say.
"It is in Glendalough, 20, 25 minutes from where I was," Hozier nods. "But it wasn't so much a Wicklow thing. I think I found in Heaney's work something that I never named in myself, or was unable to name in memories that I had of growing up around that area. And the things that children do when they are running around fields and getting covered in filth and enjoying that and exploring; climbing haystacks and whatever. Silly things like that.
"Heaney names and kind of manages to put that in a very, very beautiful way. I just really appreciated that." (A glimpse into his young mind as it developed in the direction it did can, perhaps, be found when Hozier told Gay Byrne on RTE's The Meaning of Life in 2015 that, at the age of six, he had to grow up fast when his father was left in a wheelchair after a spinal operation. "That's where childhood ends.")
Listening to Hozier talk about subjects as mirth-inducing as a godless universe, the Holocaust, Yeats, Heaney and George Orwell, it would be easy, if unfair, to imagine that Hozier lacks a sense of humour, or is at least some forelock-tugging intellectual, lost in his own world. He is, in fact, is a dedicated devotee of laughter and humour. "I love comedy. Most interviews have serious questions," Hozier says, meaning they do not accurately or at all reflect who he really is.
What is he, then?
"I am a very silly man in a lot of ways. I'm not a serious person."
How does that silliness manifest itself?
"Just nonsense. It is my own fault for writing songs that are looked into as really serious topics."
So tell me a dirty joke, then?
He hoots. "No!"
What kind of stuff do you find funny?
"What was the last thing I watched? It is more because I live on a bus on tour and the silly in-jokes that you make a common language of, because of the humour that we share. For a long time, I had a very absurd sense of humour, like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!," Hozier says, referring to the American comedy-sketch series created by and starring Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. "And Monty Python's Flying Circus. In fact, I was kind of raised on Monty Python. It was always playing in the house. "
I can tell by the look on his face that the author of Take Me To Church was too young for the heyday of Craggy Island.
"It was more spoof stuff, like Airplane! All of the Monty Python films. The other night on the tour bus, we all watched Spacejam," he laughs. "I think humour is so important. Not only is humour so important collectively to us as Irish people, but there is a huge amount of humour in the work that I don't think people see. I see it."
What is the humour in your songs that people might be missing?
"For me, let's say on the previous record, a song like In A Week. It's more a tongue-in-cheek or a gallows humour. But I think it has always been the intention, even in a song like Take Me To Church. Good God, I'll give you my life - there's a good bit of irony and a good bit of tongue in cheek [in those lyrics]."
Having the craic...
It's probably because you look a bit like Jesus Christ that people expect to touch the hem of your garment and wisdom will be passed through you.
"I don't know!" he laughs. "It is very serious-sounding music, too, I suppose..."
When I ask him about new songs, and the lyrical concerns, he says he has lots "on hard drives" with very similar themes as Wasteland, Baby! - "concerned with some finality, or [laughs] some upcoming manifested finality!"
Manifested finality? Is that the kind of person you are and the kind of person you always have been?
"I think so, yeah. I've always been a miserable prick, yeah!" Hozier laughs, before correcting himself. "Not really! But, yeah, I've always been more concerned with [the bigger issues].
If I was to take you back to your teenage years in a pub with your mates, would you be staring out the window, wondering at the state of the planet?
"No fucking way. I'd be right there, having the drink and having the craic, but I think this is what I mean about the seriousness of things. Just because these things are named, they are not morose. Take the song No Plan, the voice in that song is saying the universe is going to go dark, but it is not a sad thing; it is certainly not lamenting anything. It is saying: let go of your troubles. Just take things as they are, as we have them now, I suppose."
He then quotes the lines:
Why would you make out of
Words a cage for your own bird?
When it sings so sweet
The screaming, heaving
Fuckery of the world?
I say I am trying to remember the last time I heard the word 'fuckery' so beautifully put in a song.
Hozier's eyes light up. "Amy Winehouse has a great line [from Me And Mr Jones]: What kind of fuckery is this? Fuckery is a great word."
What does fuckery mean?
"Exactly as it describes. It is just fuckery. Just a mess. I suppose: a clusterfuck. A kind of nonsense."
What are people getting out of listening to Hozier?
"I haven't a fucking clue!" Hozier laughs. "Probably a sense of terrible things to come! I don't know. It is the same as being a person as it is being an artist.
"You never really see what people see. [It's like] you might turn to your girlfriend whom you're smitten with, and you're like, 'What the hell are you doing sitting next to me?'"
Hozier is onstage at the Electric Picnic next Friday at 10.30pm. Photography by Alex Lake
"It's like picking a favourite child!"
Hozier's manager Caroline Downey picks her favourite songs by her world-dominating artist...
Work Song, Shrike, Wasteland, Baby! and Cherry Wine
They are the most soothing songs vocally but they also have a darkness and beauty within the lyrics. These songs, among others, are what make Hozier a unique, much-needed artist. If I'm very stressed, these songs have a very calming effect. I witness the same impact among his fans at the live shows; people close their eyes and sway. No matter which country he is performs in, the songs affect the audience the same way.
This is another favourite song of Andrew's that I have on repeat. It's a stunning song and is timeless. Plus, it is incredible live.
Arsonist Lullaby and Dinner & Diatribes
Arsonist Lullaby is a masterpiece. Dinner & Diatribes is an amazing rock song. Again, when performed live both songs are brought to another level.
To Be Alone
An amazing blues/rock song. It shows the range of Hozier's voice and guitar skills.
Hozier is onstage at the Electric Picnic next Friday at 10.30pm.
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