On a rainy Thursday night at a Manhattan track and field arena converted into a concert hall on the upper, upper, Upper West Side, Hozier and Tori Kelly are killing it.
The fledgling music superstars with distinctive soulful styles and respective glorious manes of hair are performing a surprise duet, a cover of The Beatles’s “Blackbird,” the bluesy Irish angst in his voice blending unexpectedly well with her Mariah-Carey-by-way-of-Taylor-Swift spunky belt.
Just minutes before, Hozier, the singer-songwriter who catapulted to stardom in 2015 after his single “Take Me to Church” found an international fanbase of worshippers, was named VH1’s Artist of the Year over runner-up Kelly, the 22-year-old YouTube phenom who made her major label debut this year.
Both had brought this house down earlier in the night, he with a reliably stirring rendition of “Take Me to Church” and she with a medley of her two biggest hits thus far, “Should’ve Been Us” and “Nobody Loves,” both part of VH1’s Big Music in 2015: You Oughta Know concert, celebrating the year’s biggest breakout music stars.
It’s fitting that the two collaborated for the night’s big climax, as it would be hard to argue for two stars having a bigger impact or a faster rise.
After being invited to perform on Saturday Night Live last fall, “Take Me to Church” exploded. It shot to No. 2 on charts, as Hozier was invited to perform at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show—a gig typically reserved for the likes of Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, and Taylor Swift—and duetted with Annie Lennox at the 2015 Grammy Awards, where “Take Me to Church” was nominated for Song of the Year.
His first album, Hozier, will be eligible at this year’s Grammy Awards, where he is also nominated for Best New Artist, a trophy pundits have him pegged as the frontrunner for.
“It’s a bit overwhelming,” Hozier says, taking a break from the You Oughta Know concert rehearsals to reflect back on the last year. “I don’t get a lot of time to stop and think about it.”
At the beginning of the year, when “Take Me to Church” was beginning its omnipresent takeover of the airwaves, Hozier told Rolling Stone that he always considered himself a “very, very obscure artist,” saying that he “never thought Irish radio would be turned on by my music—or any fucking radio station, excuse my French."
With 2015 coming to a close, however, “Take Me to Church” is one of the year’s top-selling singles, going five times platinum, and Hozier, his first full record, has sold nearly 1.5 million units worldwide. “It’s mind-blowing that my music has connected to an audience far greater than I ever imagined,” Hozier, no longer a very, very obscure artist, tells me.
He looks around at the New York venue he’s about to headline with other breakout artists from the past year. “You know, I’m in New York right now, and my last show was in Radio City,” he says. “For me, that’s mind-blowing, that in the space of a year I could sell out Radio.” Then that word again: “Just mind-blowing.”
Asked to recount what’s been the most mindblowing experience in his rise, he’s quick to answer the SNL performance, a gig he calls “one of the most coveted things I will ever do in America.”
SNL alum Bill Hader hosted the show week Hozier was the musical guest, a surreal enough experience in and of itself. “I’m a huge Bill Hader fan, a huge SNL fan,” he says. “As I child I would watch The Blues Brothers and John Belushi. Going there and seeing the people whose photos are on the walls—it’s astonishing.”
“It’s rare that I have a minute to really sit and look back,” Hozier says, astonishing himself again as he thinks about the whole thing. “I wish I could do it again knowing what I know now. I was totally green at the time. It was just insane.”
Asked the same question, to try to pinpoint the most surreal experience in her 2015 rise, Tori Kelly brings up her performance at a different hallowed pop-culture institution, famous for minting the industry’s next big stars: the MTV Video Music Awards.
“Just because of what that show meant for me as a kid,” Kelly says. “I think a lot of people didn’t know who I was before that show, too.”
With Kelly, especially, who landed a gig at the VMAs and even a Pepsi commercial this year before her single had really taken off, there’s a sense that she exploded onto the scene out of nowhere. But as she, like Hozier, reels at the opportunity to stop the jetrocket strapped to her back and reminisce about the last 12 months, she’s most struck by how that’s not the case. Instead, she says, her success is the byproduct of a decade of a hard work.
“I think a lot of people might look at my career and it might seem like an overnight kind of thing to them, when for me it’s been—I was signed when I was 12,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to do music. Looking back, it’s been a slow process, and a really awesome journey when I look back on it. Not just, ‘Oh this is my year! I finally made it!’ You know? It’s not that it all led up to this. It’s that it’s continuing to grow.”
The “I’ve been working my whole life for this!” mantra can seem insufferable when it’s coming from the mouth of a 22-year-old, but with Kelly, this is an occasion when it’s true.
When she was 12, she appeared on the reality competition America’s Most Talented Kids, defeating rival Hunter Hayes—who would go on to have a country music career in his own right. She signed her first record deal soon after. But it was only two years later, after she started posting music videos of herself singing cover songs, that her career started gaining traction in earnest. In 2010, she even auditioned for American Idol, making it as far as the famed Hollywood week before being cut prior to the Top 24.
She released two EPs and toured with Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith on her way to finally releasing her major label record debut, Unbreakable Smile, this year.
“Oh, that was probably one of the biggest highlights for me this year,” she says. “Because I think, as a kid even, that’s what I associated with being an artist. I always just wanted to put out an album. I didn’t really foresee any of the politics or the drama or the fame. I didn’t connect any of that with it, so it was such a huge moment for me.”
Another thing she didn’t foresee: joining the ranks of an exclusive class of pop stars that includes Britney Spears and Michael Jackson.
If you have a TV, you’ve likely been walking around with Kelly’s modified version of the iconic “Joy of Pepsi” jingle that she sings in a new commercial for the cola that’s been playing all the time recently. To even be asked to star in a Pepsi commercial is a big deal, not just for a new artist, but any musician: the small group of performers who have made one includes Jackson, Spears, Beyoncé, Ray Charles, and Nicki Minaj.
But the “Joy of Pepsi” jingle is an even more elite honor.
“It was a huge deal when I found out they wanted me for it, but I don’t think it really clicked until I realized I was the first artist to sing that jingle since Britney Spears 15 years ago,” she says. “I remember that commercial. And no one’s done it since? That’s when I realized how big of a deal it was.”
With Pepsi commercials, hit singles, and performances at the Grammys, SNL, and the VMAs between them, calling Hozier and Tori Kelly breakout artists might be an understatement. But is it also a liability?
Before we let them finish rehearsal for the concert, we asked them about that label, and whether being called a “breakout artist” carries with it any pressure to live up to any expectations it connotes—and, more importantly, to not fizzle out.
“I don’t know about pressure,” Hozier says. “It’s all very, very flattering. The only pressure I try to put on is from myself. To do the next album. To make it great. I’m really only in competition with myself.”
Kelly, on the other hand, embraces the designation.
“I would always hope actually to be looked at as a new artist, or at least approach every situation as a new artist would,” she says. “Because I think there’s so much passion with new artists. They all really want to make a mark and have a say. I think even as my career grows I would always want to have that mentality, to have that pressure.”
Then after one last reflecting pause before the frenzy of being one of the industry’s hottest acts kicks in again: “I think pressure’s good. It keeps you excited. Keeps you on your toes.”