After more than two years of constant touring in support of his debut album and massive hit “Take Me to Church,” Irish singer-songwriter Hozier needed time to recuperate. The grind of the road as well as the general state of the world—this was 2016, after all—had taken a toll and he needed to decompress at his family home outside Dublin before heading back to the studio.
But if Andrew Hozier-Byrne has anything to do with it, fans won’t have to wait as long for his third album. Speaking by phone from a tour stop in Boston, the demure musician and vocalist explains how he made time to rehearse and go to a studio during a couple of free weeks between legs of his current tour in support of second album Wasteland, Baby!
“I was eager to get some more stuff done where I could knowing this year there’s a lot of touring going on,” Hozier says. “Some of them are ideas that I didn’t get a chance to record for the record. Some of them are brand new ideas, and I was just keen to—if I could—hopefully release something by the end of the year. I don’t know if I should be saying that, but there you go.”
This year, as well as next, are shaping up to be as depressing as when Hozier got to writing his new album. With worldwide nationalism and racism, autocrats in power of major governments, drug epidemics, the climate, sexism and #MeToo, and Brexit, Hozier is keenly tuned in to what’s going on.
The artist is socially active. He paired “Take Me to Church,” itself an indictment of how the Catholic church shames sexuality, with a video showing homophobic repression in Russia. Another track from his debut album, “Cherry Wine,” was about domestic abuse. The 29-year-old also spoke out publicly about Ireland’s marriage equality referendum, as well as healthcare and reproductive rights.
Some of that awareness stemmed from family discussions and arguments at the dinner table. Growing up, Hozier was fascinated with Irish history and how it related to the rest of the world.
“It has such an interesting but troubled history, for such a small part of the world,” he says. “There are wonderful people, incredible culture, but very, very deep history of a lot of stuff. The more I read about that, the patterns that you see across the world. … It’s a microcosm. I just find that fascinating and just how history kind of returns to itself.”
To the artist, the big problems facing the world right now are connected and systematic—a “coalition of ultranationalist agenda.” He sees some hope in people fighting to make things right. But Wasteland, Baby! is not a very positive album.
The album, which Hozier released in March, is a toast to the end of the world. The tone is often funereal and pleading. The cover, painted and arranged by his mother, a visual artist, shows Hozier literally underwater. His shirt has images of refugees in boats and a cloud of black smoke.
“Remember me in the next life when this is all said and done,” he sings on “Shrike.” The title track, which closes the album, has these foreboding lines: “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.”
Numerous songs are dark and seemingly hopeless. It begs the question: How close did Hozier get to his material; how close did he come to getting sucked into that vortex?
“Yeah, that’s me before breakfast. That’s me maybe three times a day,” he says. “Of course, despair and fatigue, they absolutely creep in, and they certainly did at many points.
“A lot of people, certainly like a lot of Irish people … have a very, very close, healthy relationship with despair, which is not always a bad thing; you know what I mean?” he continues. “I think there’s wonderful things to explore in that. I might be being a little too glib when I put it that way, but we’re living in very interesting times, and in many ways, unprecedented times. I’ve always held that there’s always that holding onto a sort of optimism at some point, finding some silver lining, something to hang onto, and something that provides you with some amount of hope and gives you some sense of faith in people and faith in the kindness that people are capable of.
“I think there’s this joy that people are capable of. That’s what a lot of the songs on the record were trying to reach for.”
The songs Hozier is talking about include “Movement,” about finding joy in dancing; “Almost (Sweet Music),” name-checks songs by inspiring artists like Billie Holliday and John Coltrane (who have inspired Hozier over the years); and “Nina Cried Power.”
The video for “Movement” garnered some controversy after the actor pictured in it, Ukrainian ballet dancer, Sergei Polunin, made homophobic and sexist posts online and then got Russian president Vladimir Putin’s face tattooed on his chest—significant because of the tensions between those two countries.
“Nina Cried Power,” which Hozier first released on an EP of the same name in late 2018, is about the legacy of protest songs and features Mavis Staples. The song names 14 artists, including Pete Seeger, Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, Joni Mitchell, James Brown and Mavis Staples, who also guests on the song. It’s named for Nina Simone and references her song “Sinnerman,” in which she literally cried “power.”
Hozier said he would have given his right arm to work with Staples on his debut album, but their schedules hadn’t lined up, which made this collaboration all the more special.
“Here’s a song about protest singing, I suppose, or about singers who wrote protest songs,” he says. “The Staples singers were central to one of the lynchpin moments in Western democracies—the civil rights movement, which influenced civil rights movements across the world, certainly in the north of Ireland. Some of the songs that they … sang; there was just incredible bravery and incredible leadership and an incredible truth telling. To me, [Mavis Staples is] a very important artist.”
The obsession with apocalyptica (as Hozier calls it) of Wasteland, Baby! also pulls from literature, such as T.S. Elliot, W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming,” and Seamus Heaney’s “The Cure at Troy” and “Anything Can Happen.” The latter was written in the aftermath of 9/11 with elements of Greek tragedy reflecting the horror of the atrocities committed on that day.
Given how the album includes many sarcastic winks about embracing the end, it’s surprising that Hozier has never seen 1964 classic Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb—though it’s one of his musician father’s favorite films.
As Hozier works on what will become his next album, he’s aware that with the next U.S. Presidential election, things could go one of two ways. Rather than think that far ahead and worry about whether his next collection of music will be listened to in 2019 or 2020, he’s just happy to be writing and recording again.
“What’s nice and what I’ve found quite invigorating is to get in the studio and begin working on this stuff,” he says. “That really puts the wind back in your sails creatively.”
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.