In mid-2015, Andrew Hozier-Byrne was living out what seemed like any musician’s dream. The Irish singer-songwriter’s independently released breakout single “Take Me to Church” sparked a U.S. label bidding war, skyrocketed to Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100, and, much to his surprise, entrenched itself on pop radio for several months. As if that wasn’t enough, only two years removed from life as a college dropout who’d frequent open mics around Dublin, the husky-voiced singer was booked on Saturday Night Live and then duetted at the Grammys with Annie Lenox.
Behind the scenes, however, the musician, who performs as Hozier, was struggling to cope with his stratospheric rise. “My head was spinning,” he recalls. “It took a long time for me to even make sense of it all.”
Meeting with Rolling Stone in May, Hozier settles into a couch at the airy house he’s been renting in Los Angeles’ Los Feliz neighborhood. He’s been living here for a few weeks, putting the finishing touches on some new material. “So I don’t want to dwell on the past too much,” he tells RS. “But yeah, there were some really rough moments at the beginning.” Not until more than a year into his headlining tour, he says, did he finally feel at ease onstage. Still, “there’s no moment where it all of a sudden clicks and you go, ‘I have it all figured out.’ That’s a total fallacy,” he offers. “I guess at a certain point you just stop fucking shitting your pants and feel comfortable.”
Something that never felt comfortable, though, was writing music while on tour. To that end, in early 2017, when the now-28-year old finally returned home for his first true break in several years, he began working on a new batch of songs almost immediately.
“I wanted to empty the pockets and get as many of songs down as possible,” Hozier says of the almost manic approach he took to writing and recording the four songs that comprise his forthcoming new EP, Nina Cried Power, out September 6th, as well as several more set to appear on his as-yet-untitled second full-length, due in early 2019. Sensing he’d be back on tour before long, “there was a bit of an urgency to get these songs written,” he explains of spending more than a year straight shuttling between studios in London and L.A. to record with producers including Markus Dravs (Arcade Fire, Coldplay) and Rob Kirwan (U2, Depeche Mode), who produced his 2014 eponymous debut.
He may have been happy to be writing again, but while doing so Hozier felt a darker perspective creeping in from the world at large. In the wake of the 2016 U.S. election, the self-described “news junkie” says he’d log onto Twitter every morning and shudder at what he saw. “It’s like the world is screaming into a fucking bonfire,” he says of our current highly polarized and tribal society. “Everybody’s angry at each other and just screaming their points of views into this furnace of discourse. There’s nothing reasonable about it. It’s just such bottom-of-the-barrel shit.”
This sense of impending doom filtered into many of the new songs Hozier wrote, including the moody “NFWMB,” which appears on the EP. Though, as the musician explains, rather than speaking to fear of an impending apocalypse, songs like the acoustic “Wasteland, Baby” and No Plan,” a disco-y stomper inspired by physicist Lawrence M. Krauss’ belief that we should rejoice at being so lucky to even have this relatively brief moment on Earth, are about greeting the chaos with a laugh and a shrug. “It’s like, ‘Well, here the fuck we are,'” he says with a smirk.
It’s the EP’s optimistic title track though that Hozier speaks of most proudly. A “song about protest songs,” the rousing, gospel-tinged “Nina Cried Power,” is Hozier’s way of honoring the freedom-fighting singers of years past — including Mavis Staples, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and, most notably, Nina Simone, who inspired the song’s title.
It’s also, Hozier says, a suggestion that the battle for equality these artists championed remains an ongoing and necessary one. “The fights that took place 100 years ago or 200 years ago for whatever — civil rights or workers’ right etc. — don’t stop,” he says. “There is no final victory.” The singer even went so far as to recruit Staples for a guest verse on the song.
“She’s the most amazing person, just fucking unbelievable,” he recalls of recording with her in Chicago earlier this year. “That energy is still absolutely there.”
Booker T. Jones, a Staples contemporary and a longtime musical idol of Hozier’s, also appears on the album. Earlier this year, when batting around potential Hammond B3 organ players for the record, Hozier and Dravs “thought, ‘Fuck, could you imagine getting Booker T?'” the singer recalls with a laugh. Jones it turns out, was down. The MG’s frontman spent 10 days recording in London with Hozier; he appears on several songs across both projects, including contributing a funky organ breakdown during “Nina Cried Power.”
“I had my mind blown,” Hozier recalls of watching Jones arrange several of his parts by ear. “He’s just so intuitive and such an incredible musical brain.”
Hozier says he’s looking forward to performing some of the new material on a headline tour of the States this fall. He’s hardly concerned, he says, with whether any of his new songs live up to the commercial success of “Church.”
“I just really want this material to be heard,” he says as he rises and prepares to head to the studio for the day. “Everything else is a bonus.” Plus, he says, given the general state of the world, he’s not letting expectations hang him up. “Times are fleeting,” Hozier says with a laugh. “So if anything happens, at least these songs are out there.”