Photographer: Lionel Hahn/TNS
Andrew Hozier-Byrne was just another struggling 20-something musician when he began writing a song in his parents’ attic. He was recovering from a miserable breakup, and poured all his frustration into the lyrics. Raised as a Quaker by lapsed Catholics, but educated at a Catholic school in the bustling coastal town of Bray, 24km down from Dublin, Ireland, he had tried the religion on for size and didn’t like what he saw.
The resulting song, Take Me to Church, was released as part of an EP with no great fanfare in September 2013. But by the next year, aided by a profound music video, it had gone viral. It became the most streamed single of 2014. It has now been listened to almost a billion times on Spotify alone — a streaming figure more typically associated with artists such as Drake and Ed Sheeran. Hozier followed it up with a world tour in support of his debut, self-titled record.
It's nearly five years since he released his first album, a long time for any artist to wait between releases. He just needed to feel normal again, he says. “I was following a lot of current affairs journalists on Twitter, so after the tour I thought I’d reconnect and find out what was going on in the world… big mistake,” he continues with a laugh. “But if there was pressure (to make a new album straight away), I didn’t feel it, in fact I was given quite a long time to explore.”
Wasteland, Baby!, his new album, has some of the reverent, sermon-like ballads that made listeners latch on to Take Me to Church, although he won’t place a bet on any quite matching that song’s success. Yet you can hear echoes of the dark sensuality heard on It Will Come Back in his single Movement. On Shrike — named after the carnivorous butcherbird, known for impaling its prey on thorns — he finds a suitable metaphor for his favoured themes of love and death.
For somebody with such artistic potential — I was struck by the vision he (Polunin) has and his dedication to his work — for him to be hijacked by this strange cultural war, it’s really saddening.
It feels good for him to be moving on and (finally) releasing his second album. After experiencing an onslaught of negative news about politics and society, he wanted to make a record including songs that are “ridiculously ‘end of the world,’” but also ones that are more tongue-in-cheek, such as the title track, which are “hopefully more uplifting.” There’s a stronger blues influence on many of the songs, and Hozier managed to get not one, but two of his biggest idols onto the record: Mavis Staples on Nina Cried Power, and Booker T Jones.
“That was amazing… he’s a total hero,” Hozier says of the moment Jones got in touch and asked whether he wanted to record something together. “It was really wonderful to see him work on something I’d written, that was surreal.”
In the video for Nina Cried Power, Hozier contextualises his tribute to “the legacy of protest” with a video that stars prominent Irish activists — from Repeal Project founder Anna Cosgrave to LGBT+ rights activist Maria Walsh — who are shown listening to the song for the first time.
“It’s been encouraging to see people exerting pressure on the government, and watching something happen,” Hozier says. “It’s so easy to feel things are hopeless and that we’re going down this endless road. But these young people were showing real leadership. It gives you cause for optimism.”
His other recent single, Movement, name-checks a man who has been causing controversy for all the wrong reasons: Sergei Polunin. The Ukrainian dancer, known as the “bad boy of ballet,” rose to a more mainstream kind of fame after his performance to Take Me to Church in a viral video directed by David LaChapelle. To date, the video has over 26 million views on YouTube.
As a kind of “thank you” from one artist to another, Polunin is name-checked in Hozier’s lyrics for Movement and dances in the official video, where he faces off against different versions of himself. Shortly after the video’s release, however, Polunin sparked uproar after revealing a huge tattoo of Russian president Vladimir Putin on his chest.
It was a bizarre move for a man clearly aware of tensions between his native Ukraine and Russia. This was further compounded when Polunin posted a series of sexist and fatphobic comments about his fellow dancers on Instagram in January, causing the Paris Opera Ballet to drop him from a scheduled production of Swan Lake.
“When you bring somebody into your art, there’s a sense of trust and belief that they understand where you’re coming from,” Hozier says of the drama. “So to see all of that was really deflating. For somebody with such artistic potential — I was struck by the vision he has and his dedication to his work — for him to be hijacked by this strange cultural war, it’s really saddening.”
He hopes that it won’t take another five years until his next album. “It depends on how long this tour is,” he jokes. “But it’s good doing this the second time round, because now I know what to expect, and what I’m capable of.”
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