A little less than two years ago, Andrew Hozier-Byrne sat down at the piano in his parents' home near Dublin to work on a song called "Take Me to Church." Hozier-Byrne was a struggling musician, often seen at open mics around town. In front of him was a notebook full of lyrics, some of which expressed his frustration with organized religion — and particularly the Catholic Church's history of mistreating gays and covering up child sexual abuse. "I was just fumbling around and I came upon the idea for a chorus," says the singer-songwriter, 24, who performs as Hozier. "Then I went up into the attic and made a little demo."
Today, the vocals he laid down at that session are the key ingredient in a global smash. "Take Me to Church" would eventually top charts around the world (and hit Number Two in the U.S.), win raves from Taylor Swift and Adele, and earn the previously unknown Irish singer high-profile gigs on Saturday Night Live and the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show. "I always thought of myself as a very, very obscure artist," says Hozier. "I never thought Irish radio would be turned on by my music — or any fucking radio station, excuse my French."
A soaring ballad that mashes together blues, gospel, folk and soul, "Take Me to Church" sounds like little else on Top 40 radio in 2015. Hozier credits this to the fact that he grew up in a vastly different environment from most hitmakers. "We lived far out in the Irish countryside," he says. "We had a very, very bad Internet connection." His main source of music was his father, who played drums in blues-rock bands and owned a vast collection of vinyl and cassettes. "I developed a fascination with the roots of African-American music," Hozier says. "I love Muddy Waters and Nina Simone. I also watched The Blues Brothers movie over and over."
Hozier taught himself guitar and sang in his school choir. He was admitted to Dublin's prestigious Trinity College to study music but dropped out, figuring his time would be better spent writing songs. Progress was slow and he eventually moved back home, where he had his breakthrough moment with "Take Me to Church." His rough attic demo got the attention of the indie label Rubywords, who teamed him up with producer Rob Kirwan, best known for working on U2's Zooropa, Pop and All That You Can't Leave Behind.
Kirwan heard tremendous potential in the crude demos. "He's got so much soul in his voice and he's only a youngster," he says. "He's a bit like Adele where his voice belies his age." They spent a few weeks replacing the programmed music with live instrumentation, though the original vocals on "Take Me to Church" were so powerful he dared not touch them. "I thought he'd have a slow burning career, like PJ Harvey," Kirwan says. "I never foresaw a stratospheric rise."
To promote the song, Rubyworks hired the tiny Irish production company Feel Good Lost to create a "Take Me to Church" video. Working with a shoestring budget, they created a stark, black-and-white clip about a homosexual man who gets brutally beaten by a gang of thugs while his lover looks on helplessly. It gets right to the central message of the song. "Growing up, I always say the hypocrisy of the Catholic church," Hozier says. "The history speaks for itself and I grew incredibly frustrated and angry. I essentially just put that into my words."
Hozier has been labelled an atheist by the press, but he says that's not the case. "That term is associated with a belief that maybe there is nothing," he says. "I'm very comfortable not knowing. I think searching for it is quite absurd. I think discussions about it are equally absurd. It's a tough one, but I'm very, very comfortable just not knowing."
The "Take Me to Church" video went viral after its September 2013 release (it's now up to 86 million YouTube views). "I remember someone texting me to say it was getting 10,000 views an hour," says Hozier. "I went home that night and watched the views rise hour by hour. It was just crazy."
The success of the video attracted the interest of labels from around the world. "He did one gig at a church where there were about 100 people and 20 of them were A&R reps," says Kirwan. "If a fifth of the audience at your show is A&R guys, you know something is up." One of them was Justin Eshak from Columbia Records. "My friend in the U.K. sent me a link to the video," he says. "The song was already rocketing up the iTunes charts in Ireland. The very morning after I first heard the song I hopped on a plane and flew to Dublin. I didn't want to waste any time."
Columbia won the U.S. bidding war for Hozier, convinced that "Take Me to Church" could find a place in the American pop landscape. "If you'd taken a song with a slow tempo and a heavy subject matter to Top 40 a year ago they would have looked at you like you were crazy," says Eshak. "But there's been a shift due to artists like Sam Smith. The music is connecting because when it gets on the air it's such a sharp juxtaposition to the existing material on Top 40 radio."
The song first popped up on an Adult Album Alternative radio station in Nashville. "Just from that it was the most Shazam'd song in Nashville," says Eshak. "It's very unusual for that to happen just off Triple A radio. Shazam usually follows the Top 40. A programmer at the Top 40 station in Nashville saw that reaction, listened to the song and decided to take a chance."
It became an enormous hit in Nashville, quickly spreading all over America throughout the summer and fall of 2014. Offers for live performances began pouring in, and Hozier found himself stepping onto American soil for the first time in his life. "The diversity there is just incredible," he says ."It's almost like the European Union. The states are enormous, almost the size of countries."
"You don't want a song to be bigger than yourself, do you?"
His first gig was at New York's tiny Slipper Room, but soon enough he was onstage at prestigious places like the Ryman in Nashville. Taylor Swift saw one of his shows and tweeted about it. "She has more followers than God," says Hozier. "So that was a big deal. We hung out a bit. She's incredibly kind and very funny. Adele saw me in London, though thankfully I didn't know until afterwards. I have such respect for her."
As Hozier criss-crossed America throughout 2014, "Take Me to Church" slowly climbed the charts. Eventually, the call came in from Saturday Night Live for an October appearance. "The Top 40 crowd is really just discovering it now," says Eshak. "Saturday Night Live really helped with that. It's one of the few institutions left in America, and in terms of credibility it's just huge."
The whole thing is still rather baffling for Hozier. "I'm still trying to figure out what's happening," he says. "I never wrote music for the mainstream. I think I was incredibly fortunate that the song crossed over and people connected with it. Spotify played a big role. It's a discovery platform and it's been invaluable to me over the past year."
Even though he spent the entire year of 2014 on the road, his calendar for his year is already booked straight though Christmas. "He's gotta make hay while the sun shines," says Kirwan. "His song is on the charts all over the radio and he's gotta capitalize on all that positive energy. But how will he have time to write a second album, let alone record it?"
Hozier is aware of the dilemma. "Sadly, I'm too busy to work on my second album in any meaningful way," he says. "But I have a guitar with my everywhere I go and I'll try to keep the ideas coming. I just won't be able to do much meaningful work until 2016, I think. We've just had some fantastic offers this year and we don't want to pull any punches. We're really going for it."
The possibility of "Take Me to Church" becoming too big does weigh on him. "You don't want a song to be bigger than yourself," he says. "I mean, do you? Maybe you do. I don't know. I guess I'll find out."