COVER STORY | Hozier Charts the Infernos of Desire

We caught up with the singer/songwriter about writing through intimacy, the weight of Sinead O’Connor’s legacy and the influence of Irish literature on his new album, Unreal Unearth

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COVER STORY | Hozier Charts the Infernos of Desire

10 years ago this month, Andrew John Hozier-Byrne—known simply as Hozier—released a song called “Take Me to Church” and it became a smash hit across the globe. It was the kind of track that, instantaneously, anyone could recognize the singularity of. “Take Me to Church” was going to, to put it plainly, be a crucial part of the musical zeitgeist for a long, long time. And, in many ways, it absolutely has lived up to that prophecy. But that’s not to say that Hozier’s career can be dwindled down to just that singular song, or that his future will stretch only as far as it will continue to take him. It’s much more than that, especially given how now, in 2023, he’s just put out the greatest album of his career—a spiritual, intense and pleasurable masterclass. His voice, one that is gargantuan and soulful and can pull the most innate, abounding plangency from listeners, still carries across a room—across a stage, a theater, a stadium—remarkably, perhaps even greater so now. Currently, Hozier’s holed up in New York, about to make an appearance on Good Morning America and then, later, play a gig at Duggal Greenhouse in Brooklyn before setting out on a massive tour and taking Unreal Unearth far across the world.

But his career began in a much smaller way, as he was a 23-year-old struggling to make a living as a musician while playing open mics all around Dublin. Yes, “Take Me to Church” was the Irish singer/songwriter’s debut single and, very quickly, it became a massive, global hit—infiltrating the Top-5 on nearly every chart keeping score. But it was penned at his parents’ place in County Wicklow and demoed in their attic. Now, you can put the song in conversation with all of the other tracks that were dominating the radio at that time and you can immediately recognize how much of an outlier it was. No other #1 hit from 2013 can even stand up with it, not even Lorde’s “Royals” or Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball.” The song might go down as one of the greatest #2 hits of the 21st century—as it, weirdly, stalled out just before ascending to the top spot. When I think about that period of music, I don’t know if there’s a track that sticks out more—it truly felt like “Take Me to Church” had taken over the mainstream.

And, with a first outing as anthemic and moving as “Take Me to Church,” you wouldn’t be wrong to imagine that such a massive amount of success would set its maker’s aim towards replication or trying to capture lightning in a bottle twice—but Hozier’s intentions have been much more grounded than that. “I wasn’t moved to just change tact and make charting music,” he tells me. “It’s a very different motivation, it’s a very different set of tools that you use. In 2016, I felt pressure to write music that, in some way, was useful or helpful or, at least, addressed or acknowledged some elements of the social change that happened.” And that’s exactly the trajectory he took. After putting out his debut, eponymous album in late 2014 (more than a full year after “Take Me to Church” was unveiled as a single), Hozier took a hiatus—returning to Ireland in an effort to re-center himself and connect with his surroundings. It wasn’t until 2019, when he released his sophomore album Wasteland, Baby!, that things started to click back into place for the songwriter.

The catalyst of Wasteland, Baby! was when the Doomsday Clock moved two minutes closer to midnight in 2018. Though not rooted in anything but communicating the faults of present-day humanity, the Doomsday Clock symbolizes chaos and man-made end-times. Whether it’s through nuclear warfare or the ongoing perpetuation of climate change or the very real and very small and devastating undercurrent of systematic and scientific apocalypses, there is something existential and visceral about what we are collectively, as a country and as a planet, going through. In turn, the clock is currently 90 seconds from midnight, the nearest it’s ever been in its 76-year existence.

“When the stench of the sea and the absence of green are the death of all things that are seen and unseen,” Hozier muses across the bridge of “Wasteland, Baby!” “Not an end, but the start of all things that are left to do.” The lines were inspired by the terrible bleakness and grayness of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame—a tragicomic, one-act play about a disabled man, his servant and his geriatric parents eroding away in the face of a post-apocalyptic hellscape. During the pandemic, Hozier had revisited Endgame and Not I—living in the austerity of Beckett’s work in new ways and marveling at how the playwright could envision such destitution in still darkness.

“In Endgame, obviously, it’s this terrifying picture of the future, where this man—who owns everything that’s left to own—has one servant who he screams at to come in and, every now and then, asks him to pull out the ladder so he can climb up to look out a window and see if the ocean is still there,” Hozier says. “They have this line, ‘Everything is dead, there’s nothing still living.’ There’s this other great line, ‘Nature has forgotten us,’ and he’s like, ‘No, I ache. I am bleeding. I’m aging. Nature is still with us.’ There’s this ‘Thank God for that,’ this terribly bleak humor. I think he wrote Endgame after Waiting For Godot because he wasn’t happy with how optimistic people thought Waiting For Godot was.”

I think back to my first spring semester of college, just a few months after Trump was elected into office. I took a seminar called “Apocalyptic Comedy,” in which we would read, watch and study various comedic approaches to the end of the world—be it Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle or, of course, Beckett’s Endgame. The previous semester, the school’s theatre troupe performed a rendition of Waiting For Godot. Back then, I hadn’t really understood the weight—the magnitude—of those texts or connected with them. I was fascinated with the human inclination to laugh through devastation, of course, but I’d not yet lived through the type of aimless wandering and disenchanted curiosities that plagued what Beckett was writing about. When COVID happened, I—and I suspect many, many others—found something to consider when it came to massive isolation and an unnecessary, almost-inescapable cycle of death that consumed us. In retrospect, having a record like Wasteland, Baby! to turn to was a gift—as it, unknowingly, set a precedent for exhuming love through the caverns of massive, relentless sociological and environmental destruction.

In late 2019, Hozier had gotten off the road from a long tour. Two months later, the pandemic shut the world down—giving him the space to check out of a scheduled lifestyle and tap into some semblance of a community back home. He worked on his next batch of songs in solitude, assimilating into a workflow he could then, once lockdown lifted, take to Los Angeles and finalize what would become Unreal Unearth. He found something familiar to mine through in Brian O’Nolan’s The Third Policeman, an Irish novel that so deftly considers the idea of identity or lack thereof—a soul separate from the carrier himself, so to speak. It’s an apt mirror to what life turned to during the pandemic. But, near the end of 2020, the visual imagination of Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century poem Inferno, along with the relentless catastrophe unraveling in his own backyard, is what sank its hooks deep within Hozier and really began influencing and shaping the album’s architecture—continuing his very noticeable interest in identifying how other folks write about and present end-times and finality and damnation and making sense of how he might begin interpreting it through his own art.

“At this time, living on my own in the countryside at the beginning of the pandemic, looking over Italy—which was Ground Zero, in some respects—news reports each day were what the death toll was and what the case numbers were,” he says. “There was something surreal, something dreamlike, about that. Governments were looking at public buildings to see which would be appropriate makeshift morgues, and news stories of prisoners being put to work digging large grave sites in case things got really out of hand—we weren’t really sure what the death toll could really rise to. There’s these lines in the poem that just resonated with me, at a time when there was so much potential loss hanging in the air—every single one of us knew somebody who we could lose, every single one of us was in such a sea change that we had to re-contextualize the way we understood the simplest of social interactions and the simplest gestures of social justice, physical contact and being in a space with other human beings.”

The potential energy of loss and the disintegration of jobs were both alive in Hozier’s mind. There’s a line at the beginning of Inferno that captured him immediately, when Dante reaches the Gates of Hell and reads the inscription above it: “…through me you enter the city of woes. Through me you enter into eternal pain, through me you enter the population of loss…abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” The way Dante tried to make sense of how death could undo the lives of so many was a catalyst that led to Hozier’s work taking the shape of a multi-part opus—a descent, a nod to the nine Circles of Hell and then seeing the sky for the first time in a long time.

“Although I’m totally adverse to writing songs that focus too much on what that lockdown period was like, what that experience was like and what the pandemic experience was like, I do have an allergy to indulging in that,” Hozier says. “It felt wrong to not acknowledge, in some way, shape or form, the passing through of something, the journey into some new condition and out the other side—and to mark that and acknowledge that and credit it in some way.”

The extension of Dante even makes its way onto the Unreal Unearth cover, where we see Hozier buried in the soul, only his mouth visible beyond the mulch. The dark, negative space—a mouth and teeth floating in the ether of natural interment—was something he was drawn to. Dante moves through a similar continuum in Inferno, where he’s met with different voices and opinions and grievances. “Every circle he gets to, he meets another character who just tells him his story and offers their view and their regrets, their sorrows,” Hozier says. “To play with that, to not impose too much of my identity onto the cover—it was important to me that each song is allowed to just be what it needs to be. Having plenty of negative space, I think it offers some freedom.”

The early demos of Unreal Unearth found Hozier fixating rather heavily on Inferno, holding the text quite closely and writing about events and perspectives of characters from the poem in the songs. He would let go of the majority of that, apart from a song like “Francesca,” which finds him interrogating the second circle of Hell—lust—and attempting to make sense of love and commitment and the double-edged sword of devotion, all through a narrative that mirrors the tragedy of Francesca da Rimini. “Heaven is not fit house a love like you and I would not change it each time,” he sings in the outro, monitoring the confines of cosmic, spiritual space and its propensity to bear havy souls. “What I found was I held [Inferno] too tightly, and it became too narrative-driven, it became too musical theater,” Hozier explains. “When I loosened it and let myself reflect on the themes more so, it broadened it. It expanded it a little bit and made it a bit more universal—allowing the structure to nod to [Dante’s] journey rather than these very specific references to the text itself.”

Unreal Unearth is augmented into segments that are meant to, partly, mimic the sections of Inferno. Rather than make another straightforward record, he instead put this huge weight of consideration into the sequencing and construction of the project—achieving a separation that makes for really lovely compartmentalization, but one that didn’t arrive without its fair share of hitches. “It presented a challenge, I won’t lie,” Hozier laughs. “Because, it meant that I didn’t have full freedom to go, ‘Okay, what is the optimum flow here for a tracklist?’” Before he even had much of the record finished, he knew that the two-part “De Selby” would be at the beginning—in an effort to reflect on the infinite space that you receive when you’re in sheer darkness. He knew that the curve of the record had to follow the shape of lust, greed, gluttony and the rest of Hell’s circles.

“What was good was how much work had been made at that point,” Hozier explains. “In many cases, there were a few different songs to choose from. Heresy, in particular, had a few, Violence had a few—many of which won’t be released until, maybe, next year. We ended up recording 26 songs, and I’m proud of all of them. It meant that I was locked into a structure that I had to see through. And that offered freedom in ways that it relieved me of certain considerations.”

Perhaps the most intimate allusion to Hell on Unreal Unearth comes on its lead single, “Eat Your Young,” where Hozier elects to use Gluttony as a proper mirror for putting a critical lens onto war profits and class struggle and global poverty. “Get some, pull up the ladder when the flood comes, throw enough rope until the legs have swung,” Hozier sings. “Seven new ways that you can eat your young. Come and get some, skinning the children for a war drum, putting food on the table, selling bombs and guns.” It was an idea he’d wanted to put into a song for a few years, this idea that his generation and the one beneath it were being placed into circumstances with zero mobility—inheriting existential threats to immediate futures and the unlikelihood of shedding systematic exploitation and violence and destruction at some point within the next century.

“I always wanted to get that feeling into a song,” Hozier explains. “Having these themes offered me license to do it and to take it head on. I think [‘Eat Your Young’] is supple, in that the verses sound like they nearly could be romantic. And the choruses, the text and the lyrics of them, are very direct and grotesque. [Inferno] offered me license to just be playful in that and adopt a new voice that’s not exactly my own, this unreliable narrator. That’s something I enjoyed in writing this album, allowing myself to take a step back from the perspective of that song and the voice that is singing that song.”

Hozier Unreal Unearth

Much of Unreal Unearth contains some of Hozier’s most poignant songwriting yet. His duet with Brandi Carlile, “Damage Gets Done,” is a profound, mature take on realizing that the worth of love is fleeting; “All Things End” muses on personal and romantic exile, as Hozier sings from a solemn, introspective place about holding a desire for someone who has moved on. “We’ve gone long enough to know this isn’t what we want and that isn’t always bad,” he croons. “When people say that something is forever, either way, it ends.” Operatic album closer “First Light” harkens back to that darkness that plagues Dante, especially when Hozier sings “One bright morning goes so easy, darkness always finds you either way. It creeps into the corners as the moment fades, a voice your body jumps to calling out your name.” At the heart of it all, through the pitfalls of Heaven and Hell, a beacon sits fixed in the faraway distance. Painted the color of passion and wanting, Unreal Unearth begs to make better sense of how we might begin to love better behind our closed doors.

There’s a strong sense of wide-ranging devotion on Unreal Unearth, with a focus pointed directly at how we might continue to embrace the intimacy and sexuality in our own commitments to other humans. With that comes an opened-up entry point for listeners—an innate, poignant sense of accessibility where people from all walks of life can tap into the personal intricacies that Hozier has chosen to archive his music around. He has long been someone who refrains from speaking publicly on his love life or getting into the specifics of his personal ventures—save for the music, where he often gets confessional and tries to make sense of how his life has changed or the redemption he is gifted through experiencing intimacy.

“I look back at some of the work and the way it approaches intimacy and closeness and, yeah, some of my experiences with that were so revolutionary to me and they changed my sense of personhood,” he adds. “I think your life can be changed by loving somebody or being loved by somebody. A lot of the work has been trying to make sense of that. Because I’m a person who thrives—and has thrived, to his detriment—in solitude and in keeping people at arm’s length, some of it, admittedly, is written from a place and a view of yearning. I look back at a song from eight years ago and say, ‘Christ, that’s a pretty vulnerable-sounding lyric.’ And, at the time, I didn’t even think about it, it never really was conscious. It’s just how it came out of me and what felt right at the time.”

Something about Hozier’s work that I admire is how open for interpretation it has always been—and his fanbase is always decoding his songs online in ways that make the most sense to them as a listener. Whether it’s the queer undertones of “Take Me to Church” or the conversations about BDSM around the track, or how “Run” might about a romance between pagan spirits, there is something so poetic and lyrical about Hozier’s efforts that ring in as universal to such a diverse landscape of people. There’s a strong intersection of sensuality and sexuality and spirituality in his music, and many folks have taken a strong kinship with that—there’s something in these songs, in the push and pull of sin versus pleasure and the themes of worship and the interactions between grief and loss and sex, that feel very present on Unreal Unearth, as well.

“It is the knotted jumble that is where the personal, the spiritual and the sexual cross over into each other,” he notes. “Trying to wrestle those away from the traditional frameworks of religion, there’s this mysterious crossing over that is very much so ingrained and so deep in the private internal world and the infinite space of the internal world; it’s trying to wrestle that away from the external, institutionalized language and orthodoxies and dogma and stories created and perpetuated by powerful organizations and their forces—and trying to make sense of something that is so deeply personal and so deeply of the self that you could nearly call it something spiritual, it’s where this experience of love and grief and sexuality and personhood all meet.”

Hozier has long been a prominent figure of allyship, be it in the LGBTQIA+ community or in community with women. His queer fans have deemed him a sapphic icon, while his 2022 single “Swan Upon Leda” became a stark, anti-patriarchal anthem in the wake of Roe V. Wade being overturned. Much of that is attuned to Hozier’s ability to flood his own catalog with effortless empathy. At his core, he is a very, very good person. When we began our interview, there was an immediate gentleness to him and the way he carried himself through the hour we spent together. He paid attention to every word I brough to him, and he didn’t hesitate when giving such thoughtful responses. To put it bluntly, he gives a shit—a truth that is so often lost in the cluttered, exhausting noise of press cycles. And his interest and genuineness speaks volumes when I broach the topic of his continued performance of musical genres prominently built off the backs of (but not always popularized by) Black artists.

Because much of Unreal Unearth is greatly indebted to the work of R&B, soul, disco, funk and blues. On Wasteland, Baby!, Hozier sang “Nina Cried Power” with Mavis Staples and paid his respects to activist musicians of the generations that came before him—notably name-checking Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday, Patti LaBelle, BB King and countless others, including the song’s namesake Nina Simone. Simone had recorded her own rendition of “Sinnerman,” an African-American traditional spiritual arrangement from the 1950s, in 1965—and it includes the lyric “I cried power.” Hozier often pays homage to the singers and performers who laid the groundwork for the life he gets to live in music, and he’s long been someone who’s conscious of injustice and inequity. His father, John Byrne, was a blues drummer in County Wicklow—so he grew up in a close proximity to the genre, and blues has its own dense history in Ireland. But, when American soul musicians with white skin attempt to take their turn in the genre, it often arrives like an artist hijacking a tradition that doesn’t belong to them for the sake of furthering their own mark.

On “Nina Cried Power,” however, Hozier aims to recognize how Northern Ireland wouldn’t have had the Civil Rights Movement that it did in the 1970s had it not been for the Civil Rights Movement in the United States a decade prior. Much of Hozier’s work is out of his deep appreciation for the work of Black artists and naming that—along with admitting just how much there is to be thankful and grateful in that truth. “If I weren’t to write music that was authentic to my influences, I would no longer feel [like] an authentic artist,” he asserts. “But what wouldn’t feel right is to not mention that all of my influences—the vast majority of my influences—come from Black artistry.” He likens it to how, if someone from Poland or Scotland came to Ireland and were a remarkable uilleann pipe player and they carved out a life and a career and were rewarded for their pipe playing, but didn’t mention Seamus Ennis or Finbar Furey, it wouldn’t make sense to him. “All I can do is keep pointing back,” he adds. “What I try to do is create breadcrumb trails to constantly signpost in the work where it is coming from—whether it be naming a song after Jackie Wilson or, in a song like ‘Almost,’ there’s something like 18 nods to jazz songs.”

The island where Hozier comes from has its own history with survival and escaping the horrors of colonial rule. Even though he donated 100% of the publishing money from his single “Jackboot Jump” to the NAACP, he can’t answer for America’s history, nor can he rise to the question of answering for America’s particular failures towards Black people—or how they are still, actively, kept out of conversations around becoming the beneficiaries of industries that make fortunes off of the music that is built from their innovations.

“I listen to music everyday that’s released in America and I find gospel chords, neo-soul chords, jazz chords, R&B beats, hip-hop beats, the legacies of funk,” Hozier says. “Gospel and jazz are constantly used in modern popular music, but what isn’t part of the conversation is that, no matter what, the music is all influenced by Black artists and it rests on the shoulders of the achievements of Black artistry. All I can do is be honest about that and try to honor it where I can. The idea of writing music that isn’t influenced by Black artistry, that ship has sailed. It’s impossible. I challenge anyone to do it, but I don’t think it can be done. If you look back at Frederick Douglass and his travels to Limerick, meeting Daniel O’Connell—our emancipator—the struggles are tied. The question of anti-racism, it’s a global question—so I try to just acknowledge that influence and honor that work.”

A few weeks before Unreal Unearth’s release, Ireland lost one of its greatest children, Sinéad O’Connor. While many folks in America were never truly able to achieve a great intimacy with her critiques of fundamentalism and what the damages of Christofacism were on a global scale, it’s almost impossible to explain just how much grief washed over Western Europe when she passed. Her approach to advocacy imprinted on not just Hozier’s own approach to advocacy, but in his relationship with the world at-large. “As is so often the case—and, unfortunately, for many, was the case here—the true value and size and significance of an artist isn’t measured until you are making sense of their loss,” he says. “That’s when the measuring happens, when you’re trying to quantify the significance of this artist and their life’s contribution into the fabric of our collective identities, our collective values, our collective psychic space.”

With Sinéad, it was the case of a creative and moral force disappearing many decades before anyone thought they would ever have to reckon or reflect on that type of loss. As Hozier puts it, it seemed like everyone in a close enough proximity to her gravity would continue to be beneficiaries of her moral clarity and unapologetic view of the world. She was somebody who explored her spiritual identity in ways that were removed from the dogmas and traditions of a religious sector that laid the foundations of so much global horror. The impact of her work in Ireland across generations is almost unquantifiable, because it’s woven into the tapestry of the country and its people. In Hozier’s own words, her view of the world “changed the color of the water and made it clearer.”

“It’s hard for me to make sense of what her impact meant to me, because it was the water I swam in,” he adds. “She shaped the fabric. I owe so much to Sinéad and her rattling the sensibilities that people had in their aversion to the moral question of abuses in the institutionalized Roman Catholic Church. She was absolutely right in her observations; she was unapologetic, but she had this searing, sharp moral clarity that she presented in the courage and the brilliance of her own artistry and in the way she conducted herself. And people were deeply uncomfortable with that. And, like anything that people don’t have the collective courage or stomach to face, they find a reason not to look at it—and, in many ways [Sinéad] paid a high cost. But she opened that door in a way that was no doubt uncomfortable to a lot of people, painful for a lot of people. I can’t say for sure whether, without that, I would feel in full allowance to play with the themes that I was playing with on ‘Take Me to Church,’ because that door had been opened before my time—and she paved those roads at a great cost to herself.”

It’s difficult coming to terms with the fact that “Take Me to Church” is now 10 years old, much like it’s difficult to wrap my head around how Hozier has been making music for almost half of my life and has only just now made his grand, career-defining statement. I remember being a young, closeted queer kid in a rural, religious town and finding solace in that song. In Hozier’s songwriting, I, too, had a voice—even if I didn’t know I’d been silenced all that time before. On Unreal Unearth, perhaps more so than ever, Hozier has seen the finality of a fixed life—but he chooses to unfurl his own exile in the name of re-learning how to love another person and another body before it’s too late. It’s a hopeful avenue to look down. I think back to a quote from Beckett’s Endgame, when he wrote: “The end is in the beginning and yet you go on.” On Unreal Unearth, all we can do is grin at what curiosity is still alive in the DNA of our own futures. It’s easy to find sincerity when the last sentence of a life has already been written, when there are still pieces left to lock back into place.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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