Pluck Of The Irish: Hozier Interviewed

Clash meets the 'Take Me To Church' songwriter at SXSW…

Eight masked men drag a resisting victim to a fireside, then proceed to kick him mercilessly, as his boyfriend, who’s rushed to find and save him, watches on silently and helplessly in the shadows.

No, this isn’t a South By Southwest homophobic horror story (Austin is way too liberal for that – we hope), it’s the shocking and graphic conclusion to the video for ‘Take Me To Church’, the breakthrough hit from Hozier, which echoes the violent and oppressive treatment of the LGBT community in Russia.

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Hozier, ‘Take Me To Church’

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“The song was written long before the video was planned, but the themes are similar,” the soft-spoken Irishman, full name Andrew Hozier-Byrne, explains. “The themes are about organisations – whether it’s the church or the state or a political organisation of any kind – and the damage they can do in undermining humanity systematically, and using the justification of the greater good or God or whatever. The video also reflects that too, but just in a different way.”

As a statement of intent, ‘Take Me To Church’ deftly succeeded in introducing Hozier’s perceptive songwriting – “I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies,” the chorus runs, “I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife” – to a wide and empathetic audience. Just days after its YouTube premiere in September 2013, Stephen Fry tweeted the link to his 6.6 million followers.

“We just wanted a video that we felt strongly about and was something that was maybe worth saying,” Hozier says. “We didn’t think that it would take off in any massive way, so we were very, very shocked when it did, and very surprised.”

Venturing beyond that song’s piano-based sensitivity, which evokes a somewhat meatier James Blake, one uncovers the breadth of Hozier’s talents. ‘From Eden’ is charming husky folk; ‘Like Real People Do’ is a gorgeous, delicate acoustic love song, which improbably featured on an episode of the teen TV version of Teen Wolf; and ‘Cherry Wine’ recalls Jeff Buckley at his captivating best.

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I would write a lot of songs and then turn around and go, ‘Well, they don’t reflect me’

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It’s been a gradual yet dedicated journey for Hozier. Born in County Wicklow, his earliest inspiration came from the blues and soul records his drummer dad played at home. Teaching himself to play guitar in his teens, the prospect of a life in music led him to study it at Dublin’s Trinity College – though he didn’t last long there.

“I wasn’t interested in theory or history. I wanted to write songs that people could listen to, and people could sing. While I was in college I got an opportunity to do some demos for a label out in Ireland, at the cost of missing exams, and I was okay with that. I thought four years of [college] wouldn’t get me closer to what it is I want to do. I’d be finishing college around this time now. But I want to do this.”

A spell in Trinity Orchestra, a student-run ensemble known for their orchestral translations of contemporary songs, found Hozier attempting to emulate the likes of Freddie Mercury, but more crucially, confirmed his desire to strike out on his own. Dublin label Rubyworks kept a close eye on his development, but didn’t put pen to paper until he was truly happy with what he was writing.

“I would write a lot of songs and then turn around and go, ‘Well, they don’t reflect me’. But also, just production-wise, I worked with a lot of great producers, but I felt that there was always something that I wanted to articulate, or I was unable to get out of it unless I’d maybe produced it myself.”

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Hozier, ‘From Eden’

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By producing his own songs, thus controlling their textures and ambience, Hozier progressed onto more realised visions – and the first project to meet his satisfaction was the songs that made up the ‘Take Me To Church EP’.

Now working with producer Rob Kirwan, Hozier’s album is set for release late summer, and though we predict great things for him, he’s apprehensive about the consequences.

“The idea of doing large gigs is something I’m not too enamoured with – I like small, quiet gigs,” he finishes. “So, if things do pick up, that’s something I’m gonna have to get used to – the large numbers. That could be quite stressful.”

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Words: Simon Harper
Photography: Katherine Squier

This article appears in issue 94 of Clash magazine – head here for the full details, and to buy a copy.

Hozier online. The ‘From Eden’ EP is out now.

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