Hozier had a stratospheric 2023, but 2024 promises to be even bigger. Image: Julia Johnson
Quietly and unobserved by many, Irish singer-songwriter Hozier has become one of the hottest live acts on the planet. Tickets for his December tour of the UK’s arenas sold out long ago and 2024 will bring ever-bigger gigs across North and South America, along with massive summer headline outdoor shows at home. And most impressively, he’s done it on his own terms, with vital and subversive songs that speak truth to power, take inspiration from epic poetry and feature lyrics sung in native Irish.
Ten years on from his massive debut single Take Me to Church – a gospel-backed howl against institutional religion and LGBTQ+ oppression – the 33-year-old’s new album is connecting with audiences everywhere . It’s not a “pandemic album”, he emphasises, but it was forged in the fires of lockdown isolation, collective grief and the unravelling of relationships which couldn’t survive a world changed overnight.
Change a Big Issue vendor’s life this Christmas by purchasing a Winter Support Kit. You’ll receive four copies of the magazine and create a brighter future for our vendors through Christmas and beyond
His darkest and most expansive record yet, it’s Hozier’s guidebook to a reckoning, structurally themed around 14th-century Italian poet Dante’s Inferno. But just as in Inferno, the sun always rises on Unreal Unearth, even after an odyssey through nine circles of torment. The 500,000 people who – having seen out the worst of a pandemic during which the thought of sweaty, crowded rooms was unimaginable – bought a ticket to see Hozier live in 2023 are a testament to that.
“There are things from that time I still carry with me. I met the limitations of isolation,” musician Andrew Hozier-Byrne, to give him his full name, says. “And I say that as somebody who really, really enjoys being alone.” He hunkered down at his County Wicklow home during the pandemic, surrounded by literature and lush countryside, and watched the world tilt on its axis. “I was glad to have experienced that, because in some ways I needed a taste of it, to know there was a limit. But then I got my fill for sure.”
Unreal Unearth – ‘unearth’ denoting both something revealed and a world which no longer seems like itself – is the first Hozier album to feature co-writers, including producer Jeff Gitelman and Jennifer Decilveo, after he sought out collaboration as a tonic for the solitary years.
Hozier is thoughtful and self-effacing as he speaks on a brief stopover at home after a triumphant sold-out US tour and now gearing up to take the show to eager audiences across Europe and the UK. He’ll sign off the year with a three-night sold-out run in Dublin’s 3Arena just before Christmas.
“It’s a wonderful tour. Everything is great,” he says. “Playing with some new musicians, being able to play new songs, it always puts wind in your sails. And the crowds these days really seem energised by the appreciation of all getting to be in a room together again.
“I was super surprised by the response to the new material. It is always a lovely moment when you release a song then play a show a few months later, and people cheer like they’ve been waiting for this moment all along. Like it’s something very dear to their hearts.”
New album highlight Eat Your Young is a soulful, swaggering meditation on those kept in comfort by capitalist structures while others suffer, a pensive walk-through gluttony in Dante’s underworld, and a possible nod to Jonathan Swift’s 1729 satirical essay A Modest Proposal, in which it is suggested Irish families living in poverty could eat their children. It’s just part of a frank political thread running through Hozier’s work, from Take Me to Church onwards. A decade on, how does Hozier see that song now?
“In some ways, it’s more applicable now than it was then,” he says. “The video concentrated on a series of attacks that were being carried out by gangs against LGBTQ+ youth in Russia at the time. And I got a little bit of pushback from people saying this is not the society I grew up in. And my thinking was, well, the so-called justification for those attacks is similar to what we have here – something considered by a religious organisation to be intrinsically disordered. And, especially with the internet, we live in a borderless world. What I said at the time was that it’s a culture which can get across borders and find its way here unless we’re very aware of it and we’re sure about what type of society we want to live in.
“And now, there are places within the EU which are LGBTQ+-free zones, like Poland and Hungary. In the last year you’ve had armed militias menacing outside of queer spaces in the US. Some of what the song was dealing with has happened, those concerns are still there, they’re real and they’re louder.”
Hozier is speaking the morning after riots on the streets of Dublin, where vehicles were set alight and shops looted by far-right agitators following a knife attack in which three children and an adult were injured outside a primary school earlier that day. Garda commissioner Drew Harris said there was “an element of radicalisation” to the riot, after which 34 people were arrested, “supplemented by crowds only interested in looting and disorder”, and that violence was driven by “hateful assumptions” about the person behind the school attack.
“I think there are a lot of people in Ireland who would say that this has been coming,” Hozier says. “A lot of people are still processing it, trying to make sense of how things could escalate so quickly after an already horrendous day for the community. It was just a couple of years ago we saw a coordinated effort by a committed faction of, I suppose, ethno-nationalists to slander the name of a young black Irish man who died in an incident involving the police.” [In early 2021 protests broke out across Dublin after George Nkencho, 27, was shot dead by police following an incident in which he allegedly brandished a kitchen knife. False allegations were circulated online in the wake of his death, including that he had 30 criminal convictions – in reality he had none.]
Once an artist becomes known for penning protest songs and supporting worthy causes in their spare time, they can feel the weight of expectation to speak out. For Hozier, the answer is his answer to many things – chasing fulfilment and honesty over anything else.
“It comes back to this thing of trying to reacquaint myself with whatever it is that feels right and authentic,” he says. “It becomes clear to me when something feels like it’s trying too hard.
“There is a voice in your head that sometimes parrots what you think is expected of you,” says Hozier. “But all I can do as an artist is to be honest about how I witness things, how I experience the world. I’ve always strived for that. The danger is that it’s a vulnerable thing to be honest at times, it can come with pressure and be tricky.
“But some of that pressure comes from not wanting to be co-opted. I wouldn’t want my work to be co-opted into discussions that don’t represent me or my values. So there are all these sorts of challenges. All I can try to be, for me, is honest.”
He’s doing something right. Unreal Unearth became his first UK No 1 album, his surprise Glastonbury set lit up the festival (“now that was a party”), he appeared on stage as a surprise guest with boygenius in September, and his biggest shows yet are planned for 2024. He says his ambitions for the coming year are to be “busy, challenged and in active rooms with other people”.
Something Hozier has noticed recently is that new, younger fans are turning up. “Some people who could have been 11 or 12 when my first music was released, and they’ve grown up through their teens,” he says. “It’s really lovely to see, and it’s crazy because it means I’ve been allowed to do this for so long. You never feel like you’ve ‘made it’ but seeing this broad church of people assembled to hear your music night after night, that gets you a little closer.”
This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!