The Times: The pop star who took on the Pope
09 Jun 2015
9th June, 2015
The Irish singer talks about how he wrote a song attacking Catholicism – and saw it become a global hit. Click on tab above to hear his debut album while you read (smartphone-app users go to thetimes.co.uk/music)
At the cavernous Roundhouse in north London, a lanky, bespectacled, long-haired Irishman is soundchecking for his show later this evening. He’s singing poetic songs of sin and redemption to an acoustic backing. As he works out volume levels with his band and tests out a quiet country blues number called To Be Alone, Andrew Hozier-Byrne seems like a serious-minded folkie of the John Martyn/Nick Drake school: a virtuoso on the acoustic guitar, a dab hand at evocative rhyming couplets, but hardly mainstream material. In fact, were it not for the queue of excited teenage girls snaking around the venue and all the way up to Chalk Farm Underground station, you’d never guess Hozier was a pop star at all.
There’s a reason for the Hozier phenomenon: Take Me to Church. Written over a few evenings at his parents’ house in Bray, Co Wicklow, the song, in which its protagonist chooses his lover over the oppressions of the Catholic church, not only went to No 1 in 12 countries last year but also became an anthem of sexual tolerance, in part due to its video depicting two men falling victim to homophobic attacks in Russia. The 25-year-old Hozier makes the kind of music you might expect to hear in a pub in Dublin, but Take Me to Church, which at 87 million hits was Spotify’s most streamed song of 2014, has turned him into a worldwide star. This year only Taylor Swift, George Ezra, Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith have outsold his self-titled debut album. And of that list, only Hozier sang his songs and also wrote them without the help of faceless professional songwriters. He is a conundrum.
“It took me by surprise,” says Hozier of his sudden success, speaking in a tiny dressing room after he’s finished soundchecking. That success has led to his touring constantly for the past two years, giving him no chance to move out of his parents’ house, where he heads back to two days after we meet to recover from a throat infection. “My background is in folk and blues and I never thought I’d end up on radio. I didn’t see myself as a charting artist, especially as Take Me to Church is a wordy song with changing time signatures and no bass guitar. It shouldn’t have taken off, but it did.”
Take Me to Church has that strange, indefinable magic possessed by all the best songs, but it also came out at the right time. In 2014 homophobia in Russia became something of acause célèbre and in the same year in Ireland the public learnt of the existence of a mass grave of babies at a former home for unwed mothers run by Catholic nuns in Tuam, Galway. The latter revelation followed the Murphy and Ryan reports into historic sexual abuse that rocked Ireland’s previously unshakeable faith in the Catholic church. On May 21 of this year, after collecting an Ivor Novello award for best song in London, Hozier flew to Dublin to vote in Ireland’s referendum to legalise same-sex marriage. The success of Take Me to Church, a plea for sexual tolerance and an attack on the concept of original sin that was written and performed by a straight man, had a part to play in the subsequent victory for the “yes” campaign — a result, according to Hozier, that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.
The Vatican denounced it as a “defeat for humanity” but Hozier sees it as further evidence of changing times. “Until recently the church in Ireland wasn’t questioned,” he says. “If you look at the formation of the Republic in the 1920s you can see how much of a say in it the church had, right down to monitoring the values shown in broadcasting. But the Murphy and Ryan reports put numbers and names to the lives destroyed by abuse by the clergy and gave evidence in no uncertain terms of the way that abuse was kept secret from the justice system. And then there was the mass grave of 800 babies that came to light in 2014 , so you could say my song came out in a year that wasn’t good for the Catholic church.”
In 1992, fellow Irish pop star Sinéad O’Connor ripped up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live in protest against sexual abuse in the Catholic church, an act that the New York Daily News called “A Holy Terror”. O’Connor received death threats; even that noted harbinger of moral virtue Madonna spoke out against her. Nothing so dramatic has happened to Hozier, proof of how different things are two decades on.
Did the song cause a backlash at all? A line like “There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin” could be taken as an apology for licentiousness. “Not really, unless you count the modern toilet wall of YouTube comments as backlash,” Hozier says. “There were a few open letters from Baptist preachers in America who took offence to the lyrics, but I stand by what I say in the song, which is really about the Irish Catholic church and what we now know has been happening within it.”
Hozier, whose parents rejected their own Catholic upbringings to take on the more forgiving tenets of Quakerism, started his musical career at 14 in Commitments-style cover bands, after taking inspiration from the blues-dominated record collection of his father, a former drummer who was forced to stop playing after suffering a spinal injury when Hozier was seven. That left his artist mother, who painted his album’s cover, to support the family on very little money. His father has since retrained as a sound engineer.
“There was always Chicago blues playing around the house and I got fascinated with the history of it,” he says in a quiet but rapid-fire tone. “That drew me back to blues pioneers like Robert Johnson and Skip James and the haunting, descriptive quality of their music. It wasn’t until I was 18 or 19 that I began to find my own voice, and it was rooted in the folk and blues and I loved.”
You can hear that influence on In a Week, a beautiful ballad with a horrible theme — it’s about the corpses of two lovers rotting away in a field, side by side — that’s reminiscent of an ancient folk song. “I definitely wanted to keep the imagery ugly and the music beautiful,” he says. “Tom Waits talks about bad news from a pretty mouth. I love the idea of expressing something awful in a pretty way.”
Meeting this sombre, thoughtful fellow, it’s clear he’s not one for shock tactics. And for all the swipes against Catholicism in Take Me to Church, Hozier’s album is filled with religious imagery. A lilting, Van Morrison-like song called From Eden is sung from the perspective of the devil as a real, living entity.
“The reason for that is twofold,” he says. “Firstly there’s the influence from blues music in which God and the devil are characters who walk around, who you have to deal with. The second reason is that in the Irish vernacular, God and religion is forever hanging around. If someone is skinny we’ll say you’ll find more meat on Good Friday. You can’t say hello in Gaelic without saying ‘God be with you’. And I’m consumed by the idea of God, of how the concept of it affects people.”
The writings of that noted scourge of religion Christopher Hitchens informed Take Me to Church, but Hozier does not identify himself as an atheist. “The idea of a consciousness in your mind that is not of yourself, but that watches you and judges you for every moment of the day … I think about it all the time. It’s like dipping your toes into the shallow waters of mental ill health,” he says of his own conflicted beliefs. “Take Me to Church is about putting in a human to replace the icons of religion, but you can’t get away from spirituality. Or at least I can’t.”
I offer to Hozier that once the cross goes in, it never comes out. “I’d agree with that,” he says, laughing. “It’s very hard to rid yourself of it. I admire someone like Richard Dawkins for being so sure that there is nothing out there, but I could never be so sure.”
There’s another, rather less metaphysical problem that Hozier is grappling with: fame. He has the air of someone who would be happier working in the props department of Game of Thrones than he would stomping across the world’s stages, so it’s not surprising that the sudden loss of anonymity has taken getting used to. “You’re looked at differently,” he says. “I’ve never been good at having my photo taken, so when it’s ten people on the street wanting selfies with you it can be uncomfortable. It’s alienating. You want to disappear.”
Does he feel objectified?
“When there’s a hand on your arse as they take your picture it’s certainly objectifying, ” says Hozier, who is single but, judging by the number of adoring women in the audience, is not short of offers. “But that is a small price to pay. I may not be able to go into a pub in Dublin with friends any more, but that’s the worst of it.”
Then, shortly before going on stage to be confronted with 2,000 teenage girls chanting a line from Take Me to Church — “I’ll tell you my sins if you sharpen your knife”— he concludes: “To be able to do this for a living? It’s a dream come true.”
Hozier plays the Pyramid Stage, Glastonbury, June 28 and the Forum, London, June 30. His single, Someone New, and his self-titled album are both out now on Rubyworks