“The institutionalized Roman Catholic Church...” Hozier begins, his voice losing affectation and his eyes darting toward the carpeted floor. He really doesn’t really go there again, but he understands that when your hit single is about religion and you’re an Irishman, questions on church and state are going to come up.
After hitting it big in 2013 with “Take Me To Church,” Hozier has spent the last six years touring the world and inadvertently becoming a leading voice for the Irish millennial. Initially, he indulges the political speak with sincere responses. The Vatican’s largely fruitless February sex abuse summit: “I can’t be shocked anymore.” The successful repeal of Ireland’s 8th amendment greatly restricting abortion, which he publicly supported last May: “We all have our values as citizens.” And Pope Francis’ woeful ignorance on Magdalene Laundries, abusive homes for “undesirable” unmarried and single-parenting women: “He claimed no knowledge such a thing existed. It’s just outrageous.”
But Hozier can only feign energy as an Irish pundit for so long. And because he’s so heartfelt, he’d rather stop and express his hesitance to not misspeak: “I’m really struggling going on the record talking about this. I won’t lie.”
What Hozier, born Andrew Hozier-Byrne, really wants to discuss is his new album Wasteland, Baby! The problem: he baked his advocacy into the music.
In September, Hozier released his second EP, Nina Cried Power, his first major project after a becoming Grammy-nominated household name. The ubiquitous “Take Me to Church” and his subsequent debut album in 2016 cemented Hozier as a tall, long-haired and brooding Irishman with Adele-level vocals and a penchant for R&B and cafe-ready folk. With Nina Cried Power, Hozier suggested an elevated self: more rock anthems ready for the concert halls he’s now selling out, as well as an gospel sound influenced by what he listened to growing up. With Wasteland, Baby!, he presents the completed product of Hozier 2.0.
Immediately, he calls back to his political ideologies with the lead track, “Nina Cried Power.” Accompanied by blues legend and civil rights leader Mavis Staples, he righteously name-checks Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday and other songwriters of American protest anthems. Hozier maintains the track is a thank-you letter, not a call to action. “I even would go so far as to resist the definition of protest music,” he said. “It’s trying to write something that honestly feels like it reflects the way you’re experiencing the world at that time.
At the end of 2016, when he wrote “Nina Cried Power,” Hozier was feeling the weight of an increasingly polarized world and found solace in the blues artists he grew up on. Coming off an exhaustive and unexpectedly lengthy first tour, he went home to County Wicklow, about two hours south of Dublin, while the rest of the world heated up with climate change debates and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. “If you’re familiar with the Doomsday Clock, we were two minutes to midnight on that,” he said.
Hozier has a knack for immediately recalling historic events. “I just know what I’m interested in,” he says. But there are few people that can immediately recall in detail a 1996 episode of Charlie Rose featuring Irish poet Seamus Heaney. “He was talking about the sense of infiniteness that he was left with after his Catholic upbringing, thinking about your eternal life,” he says. “I found that quite an interesting way of putting it.”
The “it” he refers to is his ongoing shedding of a Catholic upbringing in an increasingly secular Ireland. “People continue these things as tradition,” he says, again referencing the repealed 8th amendment on abortion. “You’ll find the church has lost so much influence and sway with everyday people.” And then there’s his birthday: March 17 a.k.a St. Patrick’s Day. He’s only celebrated once stateside, in 2015 when performing at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. “We just found a quiet bar and got trashed,” he said. This year he’ll turn 29 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
For all his Irish Catholic roots, Hozier is missing a key aspect of the identity: he’s not actually Catholic.
“My folks decided to raise to their kids as Quakers, not Catholics,” he said. However, Hozier and his brother Jon attended St. Gerard's Catholic high school in Bray, Ireland. Hozier, then just Andrew, would tune out his classmates preparing for their religious confirmation. “I would sit in the corner with one of the other students whose folks were from China,” he said. “We would be like ‘Right, just start my homework.’”
Watching Hozier perform at a recent taping for an upcoming episode of PBS’ Front and Center, it’s clear he’s not nearly shed the Catholic pomp and circumstance. His stage presence is unassuming. He wears a simple, one-tone suit and is accompanied by a band and cohort of backup singers all uniformly dressed in black. But once he starts singing, his voice drops several octaves, and the religiosity ascends. On the low-tempo track “Shrike,” string chords call to his Gaelic roots, the poetic lyrics tell a fable of grief and an angelic melody that recalls Gregorian chants wraps it all in joyfulness. “The joke is always once the cross goes in, it doesn’t come out,” he says.
Once more he cites inspiration from another famed artist. This time it’s Irish-American singer Tom Waits, who once said, “We all like bad news out of a pretty mouth.” Hozier may not technically be Catholic, but he knows all too well the dichotomy of shame and salvation. “In a Catholic tradition,” he begins again, carefully choosing his words,“what lies beyond death is judgment: judgement of yourself as a person, how you failed to be the best person you could have been, and how you failed your God.”
As Hozier continues to reckon with his Catholic identity, he’s reached his own Judgement Day, rebuking the identities thrust upon him by the Church, his fans and press. He repeatedly expresses indifference to being categorized as a one-hit wonder and avoids discussing the meaning behind his songs.
It makes it difficult to understand who Hozier is. But perhaps it’s because he’s still learning to understand himself. “The lyrics sometimes make more sense to me when they’re read with an Irish voice,” he said of the culture’s wry, sarcastic humor. But he’s happy to be on the journey, wherever it may lead him and his career. “Nothing is scared. If you cannot laugh about things, if you cannot smile about them, really what is the point?”