Hozier would rather chat about heady topics than hit records any day. A conversation with the musician born Andrew Hozier-Byrne — who broke through four years ago with his gospel-fueled smash “Take Me to Church” — tends to focus less on the challenges of his evolving career than on things like… the divide between the sacred and the profane, the relationship between the personal and the political, the link between love and subversion, and, for a whimsical kicker, the apocalypse.
“I could talk about stuff like this all day long,” he says, with a laugh.
The sweep of the conversation wasn’t a dodge from Hozier’s music. It was a dive into it. On March 1, the 28-year-old star will release Wasteland, Baby!, the crucial follow-up album to his self-titled debut, on which he tackles every one of the themes above, matched to a darkly romantic mix of rock, gospel, folk, and soul. It’s another leap ahead for a college drop-out who had no profile outside his native Ireland until 2014. One year later, he found himself with a platinum album in 11 countries and a nomination for the Song of the Year Grammy. Hozier’s 14-track follow-up recycles two cuts from the EP he issued last fall, Nina Cried Power, a salute to protest songs, highlighted by those of Nina Simone. The full Wasteland album expands Hozier’s political palette while reflecting the contention of the current world. At the same time, it grounds its politics in the concerns of the flesh.
Here, Hozier discusses his philosophy, along with — yes — the pressures of following up a hit, as well as the controversy over homophobic and sexist statements recently made by the star of his viral “Take Me to Church” video, dancer Sergei Polunin.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Nearly all of the songs on the new album deal with the darkness of contemporary politics, but you place it in the context of connection and love. Why?
HOZIER: I’m trying to look at the world through the lens of personal interaction. To me, the personal and the political are one and the same. There may be a looming sense of doom and gloom in the songs, but, ultimately, I wanted to credit the warm center of people that’s still there.
You take that idea to the extreme in the title track. It’s a love song set amid the apocalypse.
[Laughs] That’s as dramatic a song as I could possible aim to write. “Wasteland” is a way of saying ‘to hell with dancing around the idea of doom and gloom, let’s embrace it!’ It takes the absolute worst-case scenario, the apocalypse, then says, “Let’s see what’s left.“ The song is also a bit tongue in cheek. Some people don’t get that.
Many lyrics on the album equate love with transgression. Why?
Increasingly, I feel that love and solidarity between people is becoming a radical act, in the same way that telling the truth now can be seen as a radical act. In the case of the song “Be,” I wrote, “Be like the love that discovered the sin/that freed the first man/and will do so again.“ It’s about the myth of the Garden of Eden, about original sin. That myth is about two human beings being told what not to do and, in doing it, they perform an act of love, which upsets a greater power than themselves and they are cast out. I’m viewing their actions instead as liberating, and as a very necessary action. It’s not so much a sin as a vital act of protest.
Along those lines, it seems like you see no clear divide between the sacred and the profane. Are you saying the profane can itself be sacred?
Absolutely! I think it’s fun to challenge that divide. We dwell too much on sin. These are really just stories that we tell ourselves about how human beings should or should not be. The profane is as real and as vital to the human experience as anything else. Why not hold it in a sacred light?
The music also references these issues through its roots in gospel.
Gospel music to me is about liberation and emancipation. It’s a very different way of celebrating love and what we imagine God’s love might be.
You dealt with this directly in “Take Me to Church.” But there’s an irony at the core. The song critiques the church but also expresses the power of faith.
It’s drawing from the vastness of the internal life rather than from a formal church. What organized religion says about human beings’ relationship with the infinite, I don’t vibe with. Religion still defines so much of our society, certainly the society that I come from in Ireland. It’s a society that is maybe just now tearing away from the history of religious doctrine that controls government policy and controls people’s lives and morals. I find it very enjoyable to subvert that.
A controversy has arisen over homophobic and sexist statements made by Sergie Polunin, the famous Russian dancer who starred in the viral version of “Take Me to Church” as well as in the clip for your recent single “Movement.” It was especially surprising since an earlier video for “Church” specifically attacked homophobia in Russia. Do you have a personal relationship with Sergie that would help understand why he said what he said?
I can’t say I have a relationship with him. My first time meeting him was when the “Church” video was filmed. He appeared quite shy and thoughtful about his work. Which is why a lot of the rhetoric that has landed him in hot water was so surprising to me. It’s totally baffling, and quite disappointing. I’m sure that a huge amount of his colleagues come from the LGBT community. So, I just don’t understand it.
Obviously, “Church” became a worldwide phenomenon. Were you prepared?
I certainly was not. That was a very unlikely hit as far as I was concerned. I had dropped out of college and spent a few idle years working on how to shape the music. It was the first song I ever released, so it was a total surprise.
How do you deal with sudden fame?
You kind of don’t. For me, it’s just about focusing on what you want to achieve with your work. All of the noise that’s created around you and projected onto you, you keep that at a distance.
You had to work really hard to support that success by staying on the road for years. How deep a toll did that take?
It’s tough. You don’t get a lot of sleep for that period. And there are sacrifices to be made – plus the realization that you’re going to be away from loved ones for years. But when it’s your dream, you don’t really have a choice. To not put a shoulder to the wheel would be unforgivable to yourself.
You didn’t write all that time on the road. So, when were these new songs written?
It was a six–to-12-month period after touring. I was living in a bungalow in Wicklow, Ireland. I was ready for these ideas to come out.
How did you deal with all the pressure to follow up a massive hit?
I was not going to engage with the pressure of writing a song for the sake of writing a hit. To do that, I would probably have to compromise things I wasn’t willing to compromise. The one pressure was self-contained – to make sure I was writing music that moved me and I felt I needed to write. I wanted to approach the writing of the record with the same ethos with which I approached the first album.
You didn’t worry about being a one-hit wonder?
I hold that s–t at a distance, in the same way that I hold the success of “Take Me to Church” at a distance from myself. I don’t think that’s the best song I’ve written. And I don’t think it’s the best song I’m going to write. I also don’t think the charts are a strong reflection on what work is worthwhile.
The song “Nina Cried Power” is certainly one of your best. In it, you name check 14 different role models for protest, from Marvin Gaye to Pete Seeger. Why did Nina’s name become the title?
I discovered Nina Simone’s music when I was a child. I fell in love with her voice before I fell in love with anything else about her music, or the context of her music. As I grew up, I discovered more about the context in which her music was made, which made it resonate more deeply. Also, there’s a slight reference to her “Sinnerman” recording in which Nina her band are literally crying the word “power.”
Do you consider what you write protest songs?
I certainly don’t. I don’t think a lot of those artists [mentioned in the song] would view their work as protest music. They’re just writing about stuff that they feel is pertinent and is worthwhile to write about.
In the new song “Almost” you, again, reference music history, name-checking song titles from the “Am I Blue?” to “A Love Supreme.” Is this another way of paying your debt to music history?
It was just a fun songwriting challenge. I was also eager to point to some of the music that shaped my formative years. Then, it was a way to leave little bread crumbs for younger fans to follow a path to check those songs out. And it’s also a sort of farewell, a way to take stock of all the things that could be lost from the world which are worth cherishing.
There are some people who consider your lyrics poetry. Do you?
I think you do a huge disservice to poets by claiming that my lyrics can do what poetry can. I have huge respect for poets and the craft of their work. The music in poetry are the words themselves. Musicians have all the little tricks of sweet melodies and naturally affecting chord progressions.