With his scraggly hair and mopey demeanour, you could at first glance mistake Andrew Hozier Byrne for just another busker off to terrify Temple Bar tourists with his repertoire of Pogues and REM dirges.
In fact, this tall and lushly locked Wicklow native is one of the hottest new artists in music – tipped for success by Billboard magazine, appearing on Later... with Jools Holland (September 26), championed by Taylor Swift and David Letterman and set to top the Irish charts with his debut album, which is released today.
It's turning out to be quite a journey for the 23 year old, one accompanied by a fair amount of hype. Managed by Caroline Downey, co-owner and director of MCD,the first most heard of the former Trinity College music student was when he announced a show at Dublin's Unitarian Church last September, a gig he immediately sold-out. Next came Take Me To The Church, a bluesy ballad which, sounding like a mash-up of Coldplay and Bon Iver, ticked so many boxes you pictured Hozier walking around with his pockets stuffed with spare biros.
"I was essentially raised on blues music," he told New York magazine over the summer. "My dad was a blues musician around Dublin when I was a baby, so the only music I would listen to growing up was John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. It's music that feels like home to me. Then I discovered Motown and gospel and Delta blues and jazz, so a huge amount of my influences are all African-American music. Blues is a very physical music. It's often about sex, whether it's through innuendo or not. "
Hozier's self-titled debut album cover, created by his mum Raine
Of all his talents, perhaps the most useful is a knack for wooing the international media. Take Me To The Church gained widespread attention thanks, in part, to its pro-gay rights video (this at the time Russia was ratcheting its clampdown on sexual minorities); in his tête-à-têtes with overseas reporters, meanwhile, Hozier is happy to address Ireland's reputation for religiosity– the idea that the country continues to strain beneath a figurative crucifix being manna for reporters in America and Britain.
Speaking to chattering classes bible The Guardian, for instance, he professed astonishment that Take Me To The Church's 'controversial' lyrics - addressing the death of faith and the divinity of romantic love – were deemed appropriate for airplay in Ireland ("That it got on Irish radio, the fact of that was amazing"). Further in, the article sketched a picture of a songwriter who had grown up practically at the ends of the earth, his upbringing so rustic there was a bus to civilization 'maybe every two hours'. This came as shock to friends of the singer; taking to the newspaper's comment section they pointed out that, actually, he'd spent the bulk of his childhood in the deeply mystical environs of suburban Bray.
Given the dizzying pace at which the future is hurtling towards him, Hozier (his full name was judged too much of a mouthful for the masses) probably hasn't had an opportunity to reflect on the sobering reality that hype and Irish artists don't go terribly well together. In that regard we are closer in spirit to the United States, and its traditional leeriness of rock press 'buzz', than the UK, where music can feel like an extension of the fast fashion ethos propounded by Topshop et al.
There, the appetite for tomorrow's big thing is insatiable. Here, we prefer for our stars to put in the long hours first. Overnight sensations are greeted with suspicion, if not outright hostility. We were, for example, thoroughly baffled when, in the early 2000s, the UK music press gave its blessing to Dublin posh boys The Thrills – and stumped beyond words, as, several years later, a rag-tag outfit called Humanzi (drawing a blank? you are not alone) were similarly heralded by scribes across the water. Our skepticism proved prescient as both acts were eventually revealed to be a triumph of haircuts and soundbytes over substance.
In Hozier's case, you suspect the outcome may be different. To begin with, his songwriting is exceedingly solid – ethereal and esoteric but not to the point where it will frighten anyone listening to 2FM at four in the afternoon. He is also, by every indication, exceedingly conscious of the pitfalls ahead. Hozier is, for instance, known to have been upset following what he – and dozens of YouTube commentators – deemed a subpar performance on David Letterman in May. He'd arrived in New York exhausted and did not feel he had a chance to adequately recover in time for the recording. Hence his oddly phrased vocals (he sounded as if he had gargled dishwater before going on ) and awkward body language.
A lesser artist might have pretended the setback never happened or, failing that, collapsed in a puddle of doubt. Hozier chose neither option. Instead, he took his punches, resolved to do better next time, put his shoulder back to the wheel. Self- belief tempered with groundedness is a rare quality in the entertainment industry. Add to the equation that soaring voice and shampoo commercial hair and who is to say how far he might go?