February 28, 2019
As he releases his long-awaited second album, the Irish singer-songwriter tells Roisin O'Connor about the aftermath of viral fame, working with his heroes, and his reaction to the controversies surrounding 'Take Me to Church' dancer Sergei Polunin
Hozier interview: I think the worst is yet to come with #MeToo and the music industry
Andrew Hozier-Byrne was just another struggling twenty-something musician when he began writing a song in his parents’ attic. He was recovering from a miserable breakup, and poured all his frustration into the lyrics. Raised as a Quaker by lapsed Catholics, but educated at a Catholic school in the bustling coastal town of Bray, 15 miles down from Dublin, he had tried the religion on for size and didn’t like what he saw.
The resulting song, “Take Me to Church”, was released as part of an EP with no great fanfare in September 2013. But by the next year, aided by a video depicting homophobic repression in Russia, it had gone viral. It became the most streamed single of 2014. It has now been listened to almost a billion times on Spotify alone – a streaming figure more typically associated with artists such as Drake and Ed Sheeran.
And those lyrics, which take aim at how the Catholic church preaches shame to sexuality, still startle. “I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies, I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife. Offer me that deathless death? Good God, let me give you my life,” goes the blistering chorus, with Hozier’s resonant croons supported by a reverb-drenched piano and haunting, choir-like backing vocals.
Fame arrived like a tornado. At the end of a world tour in support of his debut, self-titled record, after endless chat show appearances, festivals, interviews and TV spots – not to mention a duet with Annie Lennox at the 2015 Grammy awards (where he was nominated for Song of the Year) – Hozier retreated to his home in the countryside. For months after that he was on his own, for the first time in years.
“You do go mad for the first few months, you crawl up the walls,” he says. Hozier is 28 now, and sitting opposite me in a bar in Fitzrovia, nursing a half pint of Guinness. His eyes are framed by black, square-rimmed glasses, and his tousled dark hair is tucked into a wool hat (more because it’s comfortable, than for fear of being recognised), which accentuates his sharp cheekbones. When he stands, his slender frame towers over everyone else in the room. El Greco would have adored him.
It's nearly five years since he released his self-titled debut album, a long time for any artist to wait between releases. He just needed to feel normal again, he says. “I was following a lot of current affairs journalists on Twitter, so after the tour I thought I’d reconnect and find out what was going on in the world… big mistake,” he continues with a laugh. “But if there was pressure [to make a new album straight away], I didn’t feel it, in fact I was given quite a long time to explore.”
Hozier interview: I think the worst is yet to come with #MeToo and the music industry
Wasteland, Baby!, his upcoming album, has some of the reverent, sermon-like ballads that made listeners latch on to “Take Me to Church”, although he won’t place a bet on any quite matching that song’s success. Yet you can hear echoes of the dark sensuality heard on “It Will Come Back” in his single “Movement”. On “Shrike” – named after the carnivorous butcherbird, known for impaling its prey on thorns – he finds a suitable metaphor for his favoured themes of love and death.
He drums the table with the flat of his palms, cringing, as I mention a moment that appeared to pinpoint where his rocketing career trajectory seemed to get out of hand – when he performed “Take Me to Church” at a Victoria’s Secret show at the end of 2014. While there wasn’t exactly a furore over his performance, there did seem to be a collective eyebrow raise at what on earth he was doing there.
“That was totally out of my comfort zone,” Hozier admits. “Something like that… there are hard decisions that are made, and some that are made for you. I have to say, those are people who are very hard-working, who are dedicated businesswomen, and are very proud of what they do…” he trails off, then adds: “It’s probably less appropriate at a wedding than it is at a fashion show.” He’s referring to how friends occasionally asked him to sing “Take Me to Church” at their weddings, certainly an odd song choice given its subject matter. “You do ask yourself, how did I get here?” He pulls a face and gives up.
I ask whether he’s been following the news about American musician Ryan Adams, who was recently accused in a New York Times investigation of sexually inappropriate behaviour towards a number of younger female artists. Hozier is aware of some of his work, but not the details of the accusations. He does bring up the allegations against post-punk band PWR BTTM – who all but disappeared after singer Ben Hopkins was accused of serious sexual misconduct in 2017 – as something he was “devastated” by. Hozier is, however, certain that the “worst is yet to come”, as the music industry slowly catches up with the #MeToo movement that began in Hollywood.
“With every story like this that comes out, it inspires people to share their own, and that’s only ever going to be a good thing,” he says. “It’s taken a while, I think, but there has to be more to it. This is not something that’s specific to any one industry, any one type of work.”
It feels good for him to be moving on and (finally) releasing his second album. After experiencing an onslaught of negative news about politics and society, he wanted to make a record including songs that are “ridiculously ‘end of the world’”, but also ones that are more tongue-in-cheek, such as the title track, which are “hopefully more uplifting”. There’s a stronger blues influence on many of the songs, and Hozier managed to get not one, but two of his biggest idols onto the record: Mavis Staples on “Nina Cried Power”, and Booker T Jones.
“That was amazing… he’s a total hero,” Hozier says of the moment Jones got in touch and asked whether he wanted to record something together. “It was really wonderful to see him work on something I’d written, that was surreal.”
Hozier’s first band was a soul covers group, when he was 15. He’s aware that sounds odd – four Irish schoolkids raiding charity shops for suits to try to look the part, and enlisting a three-piece horn section for shows at local community centres. “We were s**te,” he admits happily. “But being able to tell Booker T what he meant to me growing up, that was great.”
In the video for “Nina Cried Power”, Hozier contextualises his tribute to “the legacy of protest” with a video that stars prominent Irish activists – from Repeal Project founder Anna Cosgrave to LGBT+ rights activist Maria Walsh – who are shown listening to the song for the first time.
“It’s been encouraging to see people exerting pressure on the government, and watching something happen,” Hozier says. “It’s so easy to feel things are hopeless and that we’re going down this endless road. But these young people were showing real leadership. It gives you cause for optimism.”
His other recent single, “Movement”, name-checks a man who has been causing controversy for all the wrong reasons: Sergei Polunin. The Ukrainian dancer, known as the “bad boy of ballet”, rose to a more mainstream kind of fame after his performance to “Take Me to Church” in a viral video directed by David LaChapelle. To date, the video has over 26 million views on YouTube.

As a kind of “thank you” from one artist to another, Polunin is name-checked in Hozier’s lyrics for “Movement” and dances in the official video, where he faces off against different versions of himself. Shortly after the video’s release, however, Polunin sparked uproar after revealing a huge tattoo of Russian president Vladimir Putin on his chest. It was a bizarre move, not only for a man clearly aware of tensions between his native Ukraine and Russia, but also for a dancer who had earlier linked himself to a song that takes direct aim at countries where homophobia is deeply entrenched within its culture. This was further compounded when Polunin posted a series of homophobic, sexist and fatphobic comments about his fellow dancers on Instagram in January, causing the Paris Opera Ballet to drop him from a scheduled production of Swan Lake.
“It’s troubling,” Hozier says of the drama that unfolded after “Movement” was released. “I don’t have a personal relationship with the man, but a lot of what he’s been saying is pretty out there. I remember standing with him on the shoot for a day and he didn’t have the tattoo [of Putin] then, so it all seemed to come out of left-field.
“When you bring somebody into your art, there’s a sense of trust and belief that they understand where you’re coming from,” he continues. “So to see all of that was really deflating. For somebody with such artistic potential – I was struck by the vision he has and his dedication to his work – for him to be hijacked by this strange cultural war, it’s really saddening.
“I offered a nod to his work with my work, as something that I felt was coming full circle. When you do that, you’re bringing somebody in, in a very personal way. So it’s very f**king depressing.”
We elect to have another drink. “Why not,” Hozier says. “It’s the end of the day.”
He hopes that it won’t take another five years until his next album. “It depends on how long this tour is,” he jokes. “But it’s good doing this the second time round, because now I know what to expect, and what I’m capable of.”
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