Andrew Hozier-Byrne, known by his stage name Hozier, is an Irish singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist that many of you have probably heard on the wireless. Turning 30 today, his two albums Hozier (2014) and Wasteland, Baby! (2019) are a pair of beauties that everyone deserves to experience, where he uses his public platform for all the right reasons, crafting thoughtful, uncompromising recordings, often performed solo or with the aid of a single drummer.
I’m wary of using a tired, cliched old ‘New Dylan’ tag, but through his music Hozier spreads messages of human rights, moral leadership, love, heartbreak, homophobia, social issues, drug abuse, domestic abuse, politics and even climate change.
The son of a County Wicklow blues musician, he joined his first band when he was 15, gravitating toward R&B, soul, gospel, and, of course, earthy blues. Citing James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, Leonard Cohen, John Lee Hooker, and community choral singing among his influences, Hozier rose to global attention in 2013 when his single Take Me to Church ripped its way through the establishment, first on YouTube and Reddit, then the charts. And if you haven’t heard it I can only assume the rock you’ve been living under is nice and warm.
As powerful as it is heart-wrenching, Take Me To Church directly addressed the discrimination and persecution of gays in the Catholic Church and the wider world. It was a stunning tour de force. It may even be the single of the decade.
A 21st Century sign of the times, many credit his meteoric rise to viral hype. Indeed, when you’ve caught the attention of serial Twitter person Stephen Fry, who “fueled the hype by tweeting a link to Hozier’s video” to his followers — all eight million of them — you know you’re on to a good thing. Indeed, Hozier thanked Fry directly for the help.
Cracking the upper echelons of the Billboard Hot 100 in stunning style, a shaggy, lanky singer-songwriter from a seaside resort in Ireland is not necessarily the type of person you’d expect to champion the cause of gay rights in Russia. But as our countries (largely) continue to embrace the LGBT community in ever growing numbers and ever loosening laws, Hozier did it with aplomb, placing Putin’s shocking record on equality firmly in the spotlight.
So, on to that video, which features an incendiary topic handled in a manner that’s spot on but immensely challenging whatever your persuasion. Playing into the context of our times, it features a gay couple kidnapped and attacked by a group of feral masked men, directly addressing the Russian Federation’s archaic and totalitarian approach to homosexuality.
Conceived on a budget of just 500 euros, the clip immediately went viral—notching over 230,000 views in the first week-and-a-half—as media attention turned to Russian politics ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games. Hozier had found his international audience.
Though, as we’re in confessional mode, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that, not being a particularly prolific YouTuber (hello to my YT subscribers out there, all six of you), I didn’t even get around to viewing the film until it suddenly burst on to the tv screen as I ate in my hotel’s restaurant in Ukraine in September of this year. That’s right, 2019. Six years almost to the day that it first made its almighty splash. I know, right.
The fact that I was viewing said video in a former Soviet country at war with neighbouring Big Brother Russia was an inescapable irony. It strikes a chord with anyone who’s suffered at the hands of bullies, mobs and aggressors. In fact, it’s such a devastatingly powerful piece of work that I can’t sit through it without welling up, and I only searched it out online for the first time today in the course of writing this article. If I can paraphrase Rag’n’Bone Man, I’m only human, after all.
Take Me To Church catapulted Hozier into a major-label contract for his eponymous debut, gaining platinum certifications in 11 countries, a 2015 Grammy nomination for Song of the Year, as well as praise from Annie Lennox, who performed a magnificent mash-up with her fellow celt at the ceremony.
Far from a one-trick dick*, other songs on Hozier’s self-titled debut album include In A Week, a love song delivered from the perspective of two decomposing corpses, and Cherry Wine, which is about an abusive relationship. The album still went multiplatinum.
Hozier returned with the 2018 EP Nina Cried Power, which featured a gorgeous gospel-infused collaboration with soul legend Mavis Staples on the title cut. His second full-length album Wasteland, Baby! debuted at number one in the US upon its release; it also topped the charts in Ireland and debuted at six in the U.K.
Across the 14 tracks, Hozier manages to offset his natural despondency with a little positivity, tilling the sediments of sex, art, and mortality, dragging ash from a cigarette into a grave and equating penetrating fingers to the double-digit swipe of a phone screen to a frantic drowning kick.
It’s a real mean scene. Happy birthday Hozier.
*My sister Stella caught Hozier live in Toronto in 2014 but told me she preferred support act, the now ubiquitous George Ezra, because “I only knew Take Me To Church.”