HOTPRESS - Hozier: The Secret of His Success
14 Apr 2015
14 April, 2015
As he moves from one career high to another, Stuart Clark talks to the people who were pivotal to Hozier’s meteoric rise to the top – and will be proudly looking on when he headlines the opening night of Longitude.
It’s 7.15pm on a crisp spring Sunday as Hot Press makes a turn onto 34th Street and sees a huge crowd gathered in front of Manhattan’s 2,200-capacity Hammerstein Ballroom. Fearing a crush when doors open in 45-minutes time, security has been out forming people into as orderly a queue as possible, given the circumstances.
Andrew Hozier-Byrne’s in town and it’s a complete sell-out with one scalper asking for – and getting – $200 a ticket from desperate fans. A woman is coaching her daughter with the words, “When we get in, go straight to the front! We can go to the bathroom later.”
It appears to be a legal requirement in any American newspaper or magazine article about Hozier to describe him as an ‘overnight sensation’. Understandable given the indecent haste with which ‘Take Me To Church’ tore up the Billboard Hot 100 – peaking at no. 2 before Christmas, it remains at a lofty no. 12 a year-and-a-half after its release – but the reality is that an awful lot of hard graft has gone into the making of Ireland’s newest global rock superstar.
“You don’t just ‘come out of nowhere’ with an album that’s as accomplished as Andrew’s is,” proffers his manager Caroline Downey, who’s also the co-owner of MCD. “He sang with Anúna, Nova Collective, Zaska and the Trinity Orchestra, and has been gigging around on his own since 2012. Andrew was in class with my daughter, I saw him perform in school and asked him to send me stuff, which he did. We recorded demos to try and hook him up with Universal here in Ireland, but that didn’t really work out, so he went off and started working on his own in his attic.”
“I remember Caroline calling me and saying, ‘I judged this talent competition at St. Gerard’s in Bray; the guy who won it has an incredible voice, can he come and sing for you?’” recalls Universal Ireland CEO Mark Crossingham. “He came in, blew away the whole office but it wasn’t his own original songs. The voice was great, but he needed to go away and develop the writing side of things.”
As Caroline Downey notes, it wasn’t long before something magical started happening in that attic.
“When he sent me those recordings I said to Denis (Desmond, her husband), ‘This is really good; he’s great, he’s talented, we should do something with him on Rubyworks’, which is the label run by Niall Muckian who’d done a great job breaking Rodrigo y Gabriela internationally. Niall loved the songs, arranged for him to work with a couple of producers who again didn’t work out, and then brought in Rob Kirwan, who Andrew immediately clicked with.”
A vastly experienced engineer and producer, the Dublin-based Kirwan had previously worked with such heavy-hitters as U2, 30 Seconds To Mars, The Horrors, Depeche Mode and PJ Harvey, who he’s been back in the studio with recently.
“Rubyworks sent me three of the attic demos he’d done for the first Take Me To Church EP,” Rob recalls. “They wanted me to get Andrew to re-sing the vocals and then just mix the tracks. As it turned out, when I got my hands on the audio we did exactly the opposite; we re-recorded everything apart from the vocals he’d sung in his parents’ house. I said to him, ‘The structures are perfect. They’re really unusual and interesting; let’s keep ’em.’
"That was in May 2013. I think he was quite taken with the fact I’d worked with PJ Harvey. When we later did the album, we listened to a lot of Feist and bits of St. Vincent, Little Dragon and The National. Not to imitate but as sort of reference points. From a writing and structure point of view, he was fully formed. The main thing we worked on was the sonics, which he was very open to.”
Kirwan dispels the myth that Hozier’s virtuoso vocal performance on the album is the result of Fleetwood Mac-esque multiple takes.
“Andrew’s voice is so unbelievably brilliant; he really can sing like a bird. Sometimes musically he thinks, ‘I need to do this again’ – he has a perfect ear, which I don’t – but three or four takes maximum and we had what we needed.
"My studio isn’t a big Star Trek place,” he reflects. “It’s just a living-room with a load of gear in it, so I don’t think he felt in any way overawed. He was a little bit nervous in terms of presenting his art to somebody he didn’t know very well at the time, but he soon let go.”
Rob admits that he’s surprised Hozier’s career has taken off as spectacularly as it has.
“I thought he was really good, but that he’d be a slow-burn career guy, like Nick Cave. You know, doing the treadmill for five years and then getting some kind of really credible acclaim. I was actually working on a Delorentos album and they asked, ‘Have you heard this guy? He’s absolutely amazing.’ They showed me the ‘Take Me To Church’ video, which at that stage had got 350,000 hits in four days and I was like, ‘Yes, I remember doing this!’ Some people say he really lucked out with the video, but I think he would have gone global anyway.”
Rob renewed his studio relationship with Hozier in January when they gave ‘Work Song’ a rejig ahead of its single release.
“The guy doesn’t have two seconds to himself,” he observes. “I hope he’s enjoying it and not freaking out in terms of having to write his next record. I suppose that’s what success is though, isn’t it? Not having time to write your second album. That’s what everybody dreams of!”
Whilst immediately taken with his talents, Caroline Downey insists that her managing Hozier wasn’t originally part of the plan.
“It started out with me just wanting to help him. At the same time as we put Andrew in with Rubyworks, we got one of the MCD bookers, John Foley, to start getting him support gigs and the experience of being on the road. He went out with the Original Rudeboys, and played the last Oxegen in August 2013, so he definitely served his live apprenticeship.
"At a certain point Rubyworks asked the very reasonable question, ‘Who’s going to manage him?’ I think Andrew and his parents had just assumed it would be me, so somewhat to my surprise I found myself saying, ‘Okay, I’ll give it a go’. It’s fair to say that having spent half my life running MCD, I’ve encountered pretty much everything there is to encounter in the music industry. I’ve also a very finely calibrated bullshit detector, which comes in handy! Rubyworks is the mothership here in Ireland, we’re with Island in the UK and Universal in the States.”
The Island deal was enthusiastically brokered by Mark Crossingham, who’d caught that Oxegen show.
“Caroline got him a daytime slot in one of the tents,” Mark says, “and I was knocked out by how good he was. There were technical problems but he handled them really well, making me think ‘He’s got what it takes’. The live show now is just incredible to watch.
"Anyway, I sent Island President, Darkus Beese, the ‘Take Me To Church’ video and he replied within minutes saying, ‘I love this, we have to sign him, who do I talk to?’ I put him in touch with Caroline, who’d done a great job developing Andrew in tandem with Rubyworks, and the deal was done pretty quickly after that.”
The ‘Take Me To Church’ video that so enthralled Beese, who’d previously signed Amy Winehouse and Florence + The Machine and gotten an OBE partly because of it, was directed by young Corkman Brendan Canty and his Feel Good Lost team.
“I heard ‘Take Me To Church’, which was available online as a free download, and thought, ‘This song is fucking awesome!’” he tells us. “I tweeted and posted about it and 20 minutes later Roger Quail from Rubyworks got on to me asking if I wanted to do a video and I said, ‘Yeah’. The budget was originally €1,000, which I said was too small for what we wanted to do, so we settled on €1,500! Crazy when you think what he’s worth now, but okay money for us back then.
"Our original idea was to do a totalitarian State suppression of religion type thing, but Andrew was like, ‘Why don’t we address the homosexual angle and what’s going on in Russia?’ which was very topical at the time. The box and trying to hide it was a metaphor for their love.”
Asked what his first impressions of Hozier were, Brendan says: “He came across as a very humble and intelligent guy with a strong idea of what he wanted to do, but open to collaboration. I think he knows when he can trust people and was like, ‘This is my suggestion, but if you want to approach it differently…’ I met Andrew recently at the Iceland Airwaves festival and amazingly considering everything he’s been through, he hasn’t changed a bit.”
Concept agreed, Canty had to find the right people to do the subject matter justice.
“With the kissing scenes and all that you needed actors with a strong understanding of what we were striving for. Luckily I know these guys, Emmet O Riabhaigh, Daniel Coughlan and Patrick Sheahan who have a comedy group together, the Derrynane Robot Club, that I’ve worked with since I was 16. They’re clever actors, but most importantly they’re best friends and trust each other 100%. They’re straight guys but very liberal and supportive of the anti-homophobia cause.
"Location-wise, the urban wasteland was the inner city area around Togher, and the house was at the time my Aunty’s. We were able to set a fire on their land, which made things easier.”
Delighted as he was with the end product, Brendan didn’t in his wildest dreams expect the video to rack up 163 million views – and counting – on YouTube.
“It was a slow start, but then I got a text from Andrew saying, ‘The video’s gone up on Reddit’ and the next morning, holy shit, there were a hundred thousand views. Then you had the likes of Stephen Fry and the Huffington Post tweeting and posting about it and it snowballed to a million, ten million, twenty million. There’s no way you can predict that sort of response.
"Interestingly, I met the Head of Polydor, Richard O’Donovan, afterwards and he said: ‘I talked with my video team and we agreed that if we’d received a treatment idea like the ‘Take Me To Church’ one, we’d have thrown it out the window. It was too much of a risk’. And it was risky. One shot different and it could have been the total opposite and come across as anti-gay. It was such a sensitive subject.”
Being the man responsible for that video has given Canty’s directorial career a major boost.
“We’ve signed a deal with Lock It In, the London agency which looks after people who’ve directed videos for Beyoncé, Haim and Pharrell Williams,” he enthuses. “As we speak, I’m in the edit of a lovely video for a UK act who supported Hozier in London, Seafret. It’s a brilliant pop song that we’ve given a big ‘Where The Wild Things Are’-style treatment. After that we’re doing a gritty, coming of age, inner city Dublin video for Gavin James. The Hozier association is definitely opening doors for us.”
Another huge turning point in Hozier’s career, says Caroline Downey, was him journeying last March to the 2014 South By South West showcase festival in Austin, Texas.
“Of the 3,000 artists performing, he was put in the top 10, which when we went to Los Angeles is something a radio DJ immediately commented on: it was a massive deal,” she recalls. “He was invited to play in, aptly enough, St. David’s Episcopal Church by the Communion Music people, who include the keyboard-player from Mumford & Sons, Ben Lovett. Every single TV booker from Ellen and Jimmy Fallon to Jimmy Kimmel and Saturday Night Live were sat in the pews with us and wanted to book him there and then. We knew on the spot that he was going to connect with America, and quickly too.”
With Nick Mulvey, Sam Smith, and Vance Joy also playing that night, the St. David’s gig has become the stuff of SXSW legend. Hot Press snapper Kathrin Baumbach was at another of his Austin showcases in the rather more godless Maggie Mae’s.
“It was in their Gibson Room, which has a tiny stage that he’d somehow managed to squeeze his band, string section and backing singers on to,” she recalls. “It was less of an industry crowd than in St. David’s and everybody was blown away. During the day I’d scouted this really cool looking alley to take photos of him in afterwards, but when we went back at 10pm there were a dozen junkies shooting up there. He was like, ‘Er, perhaps not!’ We found another place near Maggie Mae’s though and got some great shots. Despite SXSW being a big deal he seemed very relaxed. Nobody knew who he was or bothered us, which I doubt would be the case today!”
Those ‘turning point’ moments, as Caroline Downey calls them, have kept on coming.
“A lot of people thought the Victoria’s Secrets show was a weird decision on our part, but actually it was a very smart move because it opened him up to a whole other audience,” she insists. “And what 24-year-old boy in their right mind doesn’t want to stand on stage with a bunch of Victoria’s Secrets lingerie models?
"It had an audience of ten million and went into 180 countries, so why would you not do it? It was also fun and they looked after us well, so it was a win-win.
"The other huge one, of course, was duetting at the Grammys in February with Annie Lennox. They met on the Monday, rehearsed on the Tuesday, soundchecked on the Wednesday, Andrew had his own gig on the Thursday, they did the camera blocking on the Friday and performed at the awards themselves on the Sunday. It was the producer of the Grammys who came up with the pairing, which was an inspired one, because they both draw from that classic soul well. She liked him, he liked her, and together they absolutely nailed it.
"Andrew’s on the cover of Billboard this week, which is another big deal in terms of recognition.”
The American trade bible has Caroline’s charge sharing a couch with Father John Misty and Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, as part of its ‘Coachella’s Cool Kids’ cover story. Asked inside about his first festival experience, he reminisces: “I was 16. I waited in the pit for hours to see James Brown. My back was breaking, and I was fainting throughout the day. I got to be in the front-row, and it was incredible.”
“Coachella’s a big gig for him, as is supporting the Foo Fighters at Slane and headlining the Friday night at Longitude,” Downey says. “Going back there to Victoria’s Secrets – for each offer we accept, there are an awful lot more we turn down. A major part of my job as manager is saying to Andrew, ‘That’s a good fit, this one probably less so…’ When I’m not with him, we text or mail every day and talk on the ‘phone if there’s something we need to have a proper discussion about. He’s got a good handle on life and the industry and doesn’t need mothering. There’s also a great crew out on the road with him if anything crops up.”
A lot of artists wait until they’re established before they start making statements or championing causes, but Hozier was straight in with the ‘Take Me To Church’ video’s anti-homophobia message and while he doesn’t actively court controversy, he doesn’t back away from it either.
“Quiet guy or not, he speaks his mind,” proffers Mark Crossingham, “which adds to the sense of honesty you get from his music.”
“He’s very smart and intelligent and from a family who’d talk about their day and debate things at the dinner table,” Caroline Downey expands. “That’s not going to alter just because he’s gone in to the public domain. With his brother working in film, his mother an artist and his dad formerly the drummer in a band, it was also a very creative environment to grow up in. If you ask him a question, he’ll answer it honestly and without thinking, ‘God, am I being politically correct here?’ – but at the same time he doesn’t want to be preachy. It’s sometimes safer in this business not to express an opinion but that’s not how Andrew’s wired.”
That was evident last month when independent Irish Senator Fidelma Healy Eames tweeted: “Happy Mothers’ Day all! Hope we can continue to celebrate it after Single Sex Marriage is passed. In some US states Mother’s and Father’s Day banned. #pcgonemad.” A factual inaccuracy, which eight-hours later elicited a response from Hozier in which he derided her “nonsensical associating of SSM equality with robbing families of the right to celebrate motherhood.”
Earlier in March ‘Take Me To Church’ prompted Richmond, Virginia pastor Rick McDaniel to pen an “open letter” to Hozier in The Christian Post.
“Dear Andrew,” the evangelist wrote, “I have been meaning to write this for some time but when I saw your performance at The Grammy’s it finally moved me to action. When I first heard about your song ‘Take Me To Church’ I was intrigued. I thought it was good someone would write a song about going to church. I listened to the song, I liked your voice, I liked the arrangement and I liked the song. But then I listened again, I read the lyrics and my thoughts drastically changed. The song sounded good until the words began to sink in: ’I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies/ I’ll tell you my sins so you can sharpen your knife/ Every Sunday’s getting more bleak, a fresh poison each week/That’s a fine looking high horse, what you got in the stable?/ We’ve a lot of starving faithful.’
"Why so much hate? Lies, poison, knife. Every Sunday’s getting more bleak for the starving faithful. Really? According to interviews you seem to have animus toward the Catholic Church and definitely an issue with Russia’s laws against homosexuals. Still to indict all of Christianity seems quite harsh. It is worth noting you wrote this song when you were only 22-years-old. Your fellow Irish rocker Bono has arrived at a very different view of the Church and Christianity with a few more years of life experience. Maybe given some time and a few more interactions with Christ followers you might have a change of heart.”
As we’re sure Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie and Ozzy Osbourne would tell him, when you’re getting up evangelical Christian noses, you’re doing something right!
The temptation from a commercial point of view is to keep Hozier on the road until he’s squeezed every last sale out of his self-titled debut album, but that’s not going to happen.
“We’ve drawn a line in the sand in terms of coming off the road, which is the end of February 2016,” Caroline Downey reveals. “Andrew will have two weeks off in August, and then it’s back out, with a return to Australia in October. The decision to do that is his, not mine or the record company’s. He can go back into the studio in 10 months time and spend however long he wants – a year, two years, three even – making his second record. There won’t be any pressure or time limit put on it.”
Back in Manhattan, having convinced a sceptical security guard that we’re on the guest-list, Hot Press is allowed to skip to the front of the Hammerstein Ballroom queue. The hall is large and lofted with the mezzanines of an old Broadway house and the sticky, concrete floor of a nightclub. George Ezra, another singer-songwriter majorly on the up in the States, is opening and gives a brief but impressive performance, in particular thrilling the young audience with his breakthrough hit ‘Budapest’.
By the time Hozier takes to the stage, the atmosphere is at fever pitch. The Wicklow singer’s sound is deeply rooted in Americana – his influences including both Chicago and Delta blues, as well as jazz and gospel. He’s a soul singer who trained from the time he was a child up until his short time at Trinity, but his sound as a musician is hugely informed by his abilities as a writer. His lyrics are complex and often paradoxical – Hozier is a romantic obsessed with death and decay. The same dark grandeur is evident in his music, though the arrangements and production are always listener-friendly. It’s a clever mix of light and shade, which has allowed him to connect with a mass audience – and royally piss off bible-belt pastors.
Next to us on the floor is Jodi, a thirtysomething writer from New York. “I heard him on the local station and after one song I was hooked – I couldn’t get enough,” she enthuses. “I wanted to support him by coming to one of his shows.” As we’re talking to Jodi, a young, rather intoxicated man earwigging on our conversation screams, “You tell them, ‘Fucking thank you, because we fucking love him!’”
Such giddy levels of excitement are the norm on a night that emphasises Hozier’s new-found star status in the US. He’s surrounded by a band that apart from drummer Rory Doyle is all female, although he does perform a couple of solo numbers. Throughout the gig, he remains calm and collected –– and effortlessly cool. During the encore, we squeeze our way to the back where couples are slow dancing and kissing to the music.
Once the gig ends and the lights go up, we text Patrick, our photographer, to meet us by the merch table so we can get a couple of shots of the venue’s exterior. This is easier said than done. The lobby quickly turns into a mosh-pit full of folks clamouring to get a t-shirt or a CD.
One of the fans stocking up on t-shirts is Angela Vanderbilt, a bright-eyed 18-year-old who’s travelled in from New Jersey. We ask her how she discovered Hozier. “This is a little embarrassing,” she smiles, “but I’m a Taylor Swift fan. He was opening for her and I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ Then I checked him out on YouTube and saw this incredible live performance he’d done of ‘From Eden’. I got all my friends into him too, which is pretty cool. He’s just amazing.”
The final word goes to Mark Crossingham who points out that, “At the moment in Ireland we’re on our fifth Hozier single, ‘Someone New’. It’s no. 2 on the airplay chat, which means it’s his biggest radio hit here. The rest of the world is still on ‘Take Me To Church’. By the time they catch up I really do think you’re going to be looking at Adele-type numbers.”