Photographed by Nina Westervelt.
Even at the Newport Folk Festival, where it’s cool to play an Appalachian murder ballad at 2 o’clock on a sunny afternoon, Andrew Hozier-Byrne, a.k.a. Hozier, has the look and sound of an exceptionally old soul. Tall, scruffy, thoughtful, and soft-spoken, the 24-year-old Irish troubadour writes soul-leveling blues-folk tunes about the stuff that really matters: god, sex, love, and death.
At Newport, he had a few hundred people standing out in the rain, listening with rapt attention, and later on this year, when Columbia releases his self-titled debut album, he’ll cast his spell over millions more. Before taking the stage, Hozier was nice enough to chat with us about his roots, songwriting technique, and distaste for modern pop.
You once said that sex, god, and death — the main topics of blues songs — are “pretty much everything.” What’s it like to grow up on that music? "From the time I was a teenager, I had no interest in the music my peers were into. I wasn’t listening to the Top 40 stuff. I had a fascination with the blues and a fascination with American music, and a lot of American folk music. It does influence the songwriting a huge amount. A lot of those things come up in blues music and gospel music, even if it’s just references to the devil in gospel music. Gospel music has a wonderful way of looking at death compared to Catholicism’s more 20th century look at where you’re going and being scared of it. Gospel is more about going home."
You write extremely nuanced songs about human relationships. Are you an avid people-watcher? "Yeah, big time. Growing up, I was obsessed with human behavior. People-watching was a big thing for me. I wasn’t much of a talker, not much of an exhibitionist, socially. So, as a teenager, and in unhappier days, I would people-watch a lot. I wanted to be a research psychologist for a long time. I was quite obsessed with human behavior and why people do what they do, and the effects people can have on each other without them knowing it. Not that it’s a conscious, deliberate thing I put into the music, but human interaction and behavior and how certain things affect humans and what their core workings are are very interesting."
Photographed by Nina Westervelt.
Your most recent EP, From Eden, speaks to your blues roots, but it also sounds somewhat modern. Is that what fans can expect from the album? "We remain true to a lot of folk-blues elements. There are songs on there that still exist in the realm of [the 2013 EP] Take Me to Church. But, I felt From Eden explored a slightly brighter, slightly more modern production side. There are a few tracks like that [on the album], stuff that’s even a bit more fun. Not every song I write is as heavy as 'Take Me to Church.' There’s a little more fun stuff on there, a little more soul influence."
Speaking of “Take Me to Church,” that video, which commented on the situation facing homosexuals in Russia, went viral. It seemed to reaffirm you can still reach people and spread messages with music. "I think you still can. That’s not exactly what my intention was. I want to be a songwriter first, but regardless of whether you try to or not — or whether it’s intentional or not — every piece of art that’s made, every song that’s written, is a snapshot of a moment in time. Whether it’s a Bruno Mars song or Justin Bieber singing 'Baby, baby, baby.' From an analytic standpoint, you say this reflects the values of that time, and the values of that time were shallow bullshit, or whatever it is. And, here at a folk festival, you see people being honest, even if it’s not intentional, even if it’s not a protest song. It’s not deliberately trying to make a point. I don’t want to do that. I can’t do that."
In “To Be Alone,” when you sing about the “anthems of rape culture,” is that a dig against modern pop and hip-hop? "A little bit. I think that line was written around the time of Robin Thicke [releasing 'Blurred Lines']. It’s quite on the nose. It’s not really a metaphor for anything. A huge amount of songs in the Top 40 can be seen as nothing but anthems of rape culture. I’m not trying to start a fight or anything like that. But, it doesn’t sit right with me. There are a lot of songs on the album that are about feeling alien in the culture, being in a culture that feels invasive, that makes you feel ill, makes you feel sick."
If you were going to turn a young rocker kid onto blues music, what would you recommend? "I would probably say start with someone who’s interpreting blues today, then work backwards — artists like the Black Keys, people using blues influences really well and creating new music with it. Jack White is a really great example of that. The Black Keys’ Rubber Factory. Or, if you want to go back all the way, I used to listen to Howlin’ Wolf’s London Sessions quite a bit. I thought that was awesome."