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.”