Hozier: I'm a gangly introvert compelled to make music
Bray's Hozier admits fame has been a steep learning curve as he takes the US by storm
The Bray man with the Pre-Raphaelite looks had an interesting last few months. Last Tuesday he upset the Irish Times' sensibilities by performing at a Victoria's Secrets show in London while models in various states of undress strutted past. On October 12, he held America in thrall when he performed Take Me to Church and then Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene on primetime American TV, Saturday Night Live.
A week or so later, Bono was telling Brendan O'Connor in an interview for the Sunday Independent: "That song Take Me To Church put the fear in me. Such a great lyric and a great melody and a great voice. That's a reason for me to get out of bed. Most things don't have that effect."
The young man who got Bono out of bed, Andrew Hozier-Byrne, says of the song that dramatically launched his career: "Whatever it is, it's not pop music." Take Me to Church is a soulful, bluesy, gospel-tinged anthem about worshipping at the altar of someone's sexuality. In his lyrics, the young Irishman (who performs under the name Hozier) aims sharp barbs at organised religion, tackling Catholic guilt and the doctrine of original sin. Discussing his inspiration, he quotes Elizabethan dramatist Fulke Greville's 1554 poem Chorus Sacerdotum and the atheist writings of Christopher Hitchens.
"Growing up in Ireland, the Church is ever present, and a lot of the feeling in the song stems from frustration with its hypocrisy and political cowardice."
The video is a disturbing black-and-white short film about homosexual repression in Russia, which has notched 29 million YouTube views. Take Me to Church has become a mainstay of American radio and Hozier's self-titled debut album shot straight to number two in the US charts last month. He has been a guest on most of the major late-night American television shows, and during his latest American tour the 6ft 4in, skinny, scruffily bearded blues obsessive performed to venues packed with adoring young women. Pop titan Taylor Swift has been spotted at several of his shows.
In a dingy corner of the Irving Plaza in New York where he is playing two sold-out concerts, Hozier admits to feeling a bit overwhelmed. "It's been a very steep learning curve. By nature I'm an awkward person, I'm a gangly introvert. I feel my duty is to make music. And then you get into this whole malarkey. I just came from VH1 and they're asking me about my hair."
He touches his bunched-up ponytail. "This is a man-bun, apparently."
But rather than progressing into a dubious whinge about the price of fame, the serious, soft-spoken 24-year-old talks thoughtfully about how the internet is changing the very nature of fame. "We are in a self-obsessed moment of mankind. Everything is marketed towards the idea of the self, but not the real self, rather what you want people to think you are. Social media is an advertisement for the superficial extroverted self. I'm uncomfortable with selfies and status updates documenting mundane pieces of my life."
Andrew Hozier-Byrne was earmarked for success fairly early on. He grew up in the Wicklow Mountains, a very rural existence that he characterises as "countryside farm stuff", although not without some degree of privilege. He attended St Gerard's, a progressive private school in Bray, whose alumni include the children of singer-songwriter Chris de Burgh, actor Daniel Day-Lewis and leading Irish concert promoters Denis Desmond and Caroline Downey (who now manages Hozier).
His singing talent was developed in the choir and highlighted during blues performances at school talent shows, and at 16 he became a soloist with highly regarded Irish choral group Anuna.
He dropped out of a music degree at Trinity College, Dublin, to sign a development deal with Universal Ireland aged 19. "There were a few cases of working with producers where I just didn't feel comfortable. In any kind of collaboration something gets lost. It's hard enough paring down your own songs to their essence without trying to meet somebody else's artistic vision halfway."
Hozier's sense of artistic purity stems from a lifelong obsession with the blues. His father was a drummer with Dublin pub blues band Free Booze and the young Hozier's favourite film was The Blues Brothers. He has a particular fascination with Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, where "the voice was everything," adding: "My interest even extended to early 20th-century music, like vaudeville. It was very raw sounding, when you have just a few microphones and you get the vibrant sound of a room. There's a part of me that pushes toward that timelessness."
After years of practising in his parent's attic "it all fell into place" when he sat down at a piano and wrote Take Me to Church. "It was the first song where I managed to cram in everything I wanted to say." It was included on his debut EP, which went to number one on the Irish iTunes chart in October 2013.
His album is filled with songs about mortality, repression and survival. "I'm fascinated with what a song can be in the eyes of history, a snapshot of an era, almost like a photograph of the times the songwriter lived in," he says. "Whether that's songs from the early 20th century mentioning rations and lines for food or Justin Bieber singing baby, baby, baby, you get an insight into the cultural mentality and society's values, hopes and fears."
His next single, From Eden, continues the religious theme of Take Me to Church, although Hozier proclaims himself an atheist. "From Eden is spoken from the Devil's point of view. I always loved in blues music how the Devil can be a character who walks and talks."
Not everyone, I suspect, is delving quite so deeply into Hozier's oeuvre. "I had an offer from a pastor to go and perform Take Me to Church in a maximum-security prison down south as part of a spiritual rehabilitation programme, a finding God type of experience. People hear what they want to hear. And that's all right."
Hozier's self-titled debut album is out now on Rubyworks/Island Records.
Hozier, who played Dublin's Olympia Theatre last Thursday, Killarney INEC last Friday and the Opera House in Cork last night, continues his Irish tour with: December 20: Mayo, Royal Theatre, Castlebar and December 21 at The Ulster Hall in Belfast.