HOZIER interview – Evening Standard, 6 June 2014

Poor Hozier. While most musicians get to natter away about the wild extremes of touring life, he’s obliged to get straight down to Russian homophobia and the crimes of the Catholic Church after barely a sip of his coffee.

“I always stand by the song and the point that the video made, so it’s never a chore,” the quiet Irishman tells me. He’s talking about Take Me to Church, his first single, which swiftly went viral last year with its lyrics about Sunday-service “poison” and a shocking video depicting a homophobic beating. It’s far from your average pop hit, a gospel-flavoured slow burner with a vast chorus that talks about romantic love in opposition to religion’s “deathless death”. Yet it reached No 2 in Ireland and is on its way over here soon, accompanied by a noisy buzz for the most incredible voice I’ve heard in some time.

Born Andrew Hozier Byrne near Bray, a little way south of Dublin, and now a skinny, pale, 6ft 5in 24-year-old with big glasses, a ragged ponytail and a prickly chin, he looks like he should be manning the till at Games Workshop rather than carving a rock career from controversy. He says the wider world has been overwhelmingly supportive of his musical tirade. “There was no backlash, I wasn’t challenged by anyone really,” the singer says. “It got daytime airplay.”

He feels that the local climate has become more receptive to musicians criticising the Church after the Ryan Report and Murphy Report of 2009, which investigated child abuse in Irish Catholic institutions — not to mention the recent discovery of the remains of nearly 800 children at a mass grave connected to a religious mother-and-baby home in Galway. Still, things are not changing as quickly as Hozier would like.

“The damage done by the Church to the people of Ireland is completely irreparable, and the reparations are all too few. There’s still a lack of will to turn around and say, ‘This is not OK’. There are still things like regular news segments where they ask the local priest what he thinks. Why is it an organisation that is considered to have any moral standing at all? The track record is just appalling.”

Although Take Me to Church’s lyrics mention a female lover, the black-and-white video shows a gay man being dragged across a field and brutally kicked by masked men. A clip of a Cyrillic script banner places the action in Russia but it was filmed in Cork. “The song is about loving somebody, and the video is about people who would undermine what it is to love somebody. I’d been following what was going on in Russia, where far-Right groups were doing these organised attacks, filming them and putting them on social media.”

Hozier hasn’t been to Russia, and thinks he won’t be hurrying over any time soon. “It’s important to remember that it can happen anywhere. It’s very easy for a society to fall into hatefulness, to scapegoat people, especially when times get tough.” He isn’t gay either “but that’s not the f***ing point”. The video was shared by influential tweeter Stephen Fry and made it to the front page of Reddit, epicentre of all things viral on the web. At one point  Hozier was watching its YouTube views increase by 10,000 an hour.

He’s a smart chap, keen to talk intelligently about these issues and only occasionally attempting to draw the conversation back to music. He doesn’t want to come across like a certain other politically engaged Irish frontman, though. “If you can do a song like that right, you won’t sound like a preachy d***head,” he says. “I have huge respect for Paul Weller, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder — people who wrote about their own times and did it well.”

In any case, there’s something for saints and sinners alike in the rest of his music, from the Van Morrison lilt of From Eden to the sparse Delta blues of To Be Alone. Over two concerts at Notting Hill’s Tabernacle this week his covers ranged from a slow-motion take on Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love to a rampant version of Amerie’s 2005 R&B hit, 1 Thing. While he could do with more stage presence, Hozier’s voice is an intense holler that can bring a room to an open-mouthed standstill. Training in the Irish choral group Anúna from the age of 15 has paid off.

His work is dark stuff, mind. Take Me to Church seems to have set the tone for a heavy debut album due in September. There’s a weightiness to his songs. They feel significant. I was staggered by a folk duet with his cellist, In a Week, a love song told from the point of view of two corpses. His latest single, Sedated, tempers a superficially uplifting gospel chorus with lyrics about “death and guts”.

There was an element of bleakness to the singer’s childhood. He goes quiet when he speaks about his father, a drummer on the Dublin blues scene turned bank worker who was forced to retire when Hozier was six after an operation to correct a spinal problem left him with nerve damage in a wheelchair. “It was a tough old time — no money. Mum kept us together in a big way.”

Since then his father has improved physically and retrained as a sound engineer, while his mother went back to college to study art and has painted the sleeves of all his releases so far. His brother is a film-maker. They were raised as Quakers, their parents having rejected their own Catholic upbringings. “My dad went to a Christian Brothers school. They just beat the s**t out of kids.”

However, Hozier went to a Catholic secondary school in Bray and did try it out for size. “I went on Catholic retreats, stuff like that. There was a lot of pilgrimage-type stuff to holy places in Ireland. At the time I was very open to trying things, trying to get my head around it.”

And this thoughtful musician is still thinking. “I still wouldn’t define myself as an atheist — it’s too absolute. But I don’t have any faith. I think faith is an absurd thing but I’m OK with that. There are no answers because the universe never asked a question in the first place.”

Next up, he’s playing as part of the Bushstock mini-festival of gigs in west London venues. Where’s he on? A church, of course.

Hozier plays St Stephen’s Church, W12, on June 14 as part of Bushstock (0871 220 0260, bushstock.co.uk)