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  WINDY CITY TIMES

MUSIC Hozier talks musical activism, inspiration and 'Wasteland, Baby!'
by Julia Hale
2019-07-26

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Andrew Hozier-Byrne, the Irish singer-songwriter known mononymously as Hozier, will be performing a few times in Chicago in the coming months—including at Lollapalloza on Thursday, Aug. 1.

Since the 2013 release of his song, "Take Me To Church," which served as commentary on LGBTQ rights, Hozier has branded himself as a socially conscious and down-to-earth musician, even performing for free in the New York City subway last March to promote his sophomore album, Wasteland, Baby!

While the blues-inspired artist takes inspiration from musicians of the civil-rights era, including Chicagoan Mavis Staples—who is featured on the song "Nina Cried Power," which pays tribute to Nina Simone and other civil-rights musicians, including Staples herself, Billie Holiday, Curtis Mayfield and James Brown—he doesn't identify with the terms "protest music" or "music activism."

Windy City Times: With "Take Me To Church" and "Nina Cried Power," some have begun to refer to your music as music activism. How do you feel about this? Do you consider yourself a musical activist?

Hozier: I certainly don't. I think I take inspiration from certain music, which I think intended or hoped to tell the truth. For me really, it's just, I kind of write about what I feel is interesting and what is worth writing about. Part of that is just what I love about songs. Songs as documents, as an account of how you witness the world as it is and how you experience it. So for me it's really just about trying to tell the truth. Your own truth, as you see it.

WCT: Yeah, absolutely. Did you always know that you wanted to advocate for political and social issues or did it just sort of happen naturally?

H: I think it just happened naturally. I don't know if the decision was ever made. "Take Me To Church," when it was written, was one among a kind of clutch of songs that I started when I started producing the work a bit more myself. It wasn't a decision as such, it just was something that, I think, had been working its way through my mind for a long, long time. It'd been building up for some time and ... it just felt natural to write it.

WCT: In "Nina Cried Power," you're honoring Nina Simone, among others. Can you talk a little bit about where the inspiration behind that came from?

H: Yeah, there's a lot of different points. One of them is listening to music they made. [It came from] not hearing an awful lot of ( and I shy away from from from the term[s] "protest music" or "protest song" ) songs that we might consider to be subversive in some way, [it came from] not hearing that a lot on radio, and wanting to write something then that speaks to that legacy.

[I want] to write a song that points to the legacy of artists like those mentioned in the song. [The song is] saying, "Well, look, here's a starting point, all of these artists. There's a well to be drawn from here." It's just wanting to celebrate that. There is that difficult question as to where do you begin. What is even the point in writing? Is there value in trying to do that, and where do you begin? There is a starting point. When The Staple Singers "Long Walk to D.C." or something, I think that's leadership, you know, I think that's something that you can look to. That's a well you can draw from.

WCT: You mentioned The Staple Singers, and you worked with Mavis Staples on "Nina Cried Power." How did that come about, and what was it like recording that song in Chicago?

H: It was a dream. It was a dream recording. Mavis is, I have to say, one of the most wonderful people I've ever been blessed to meet. I think anybody who meets her, gets to know her, would say the very same thing. She is a very, very special person. We crossed paths at a few points, there was talk of us getting together at some point. I would have given my—and I still would—my right arm to do anything with Mavis.

Our schedules, we were [both] touring so much, it never came to fruition. But when that song was being written, it was kind of written with her in mind, I suppose. As a sound formed, it just made absolute perfect sense. I mean, she's one of the names mentioned in that song. We flew out to Chicago—myself and Markus Dravs, who produced it—and spent the day with her. It was my first time actually sitting down with her and talking with her and it was just a dream. She's just a marvelous person.

WCT: Is she going to perform with you at Lollapalooza and in November [at the Chicago Theatre]?

H: I'm not sure about Lolla, so I have to check. I know we have a few opportunities to kind of get together coming up in Newport, Rhode Island.

WCT: Who are some other artists or icons that you would want to collaborate with?

H: There's many, obviously. As a teenager, I fell in love with Tom Waits' work in a big, big way. His music was my treehouse; it was my kind of, you know, secret hiding place. There was just something marvelously crooked about the worlds that he painted. It kind of just opened my imagination in a big, big way.

WCT: Can you talk about the meaning behind the song "Wasteland, Baby!?" Why did you choose to name the album after that song?

H: To me, it kind of summed up certain elements of the album in an extreme way or in an extreme example of it. [The song is] imagining a kind of a fantastical end of the world scenario with two final people left on Earth. [The song is] just trying to imagine, hopefully, that the last human act on Earth will be an act of kindness after all is said and done and all atrocity has tired itself out. That little silver lining or that little squeeze of the hand is kind of what I was drawing from.

WCT: So what else besides injustice and world goings-on inspires you to create?

H: I think I would always be inspired to create in some way, shape or form. I don't know why, I just find that to me it's most interesting to try and write something that reflects honestly the moment and the world that you're living in, that moment in time.

A lot of the songs that I, as a teenager, fell in love with and as a young kid fell in love with were written long before my time. When it was old blues music that I was falling in love with, [it] was written, sometimes, a hundred years before I discovered it—and I still found something very urgent and very human and very necessary, very engaging about that music. A song then becomes a keyhole through which you're looking at a very different point in time, albeit you can still see the human element. I think that kind of encouraged me to reflect. [Music] does live beyond you.

WCT: In March, you had sort of a mini-concert in the NYC subway. How did that come about? What was it like?

H: Super-fun. That was the week that we were launching the album. I was in New York, I was doing a lot of stuff at the time. It was organized maybe, at most, 24 hours before we actually did it, and then maybe about an hour beforehand, a couple of hours beforehand, we just posted on Twitter. We made sure that the cops were cool with it obviously. It was nice cause it was just a nice way to say "hey" to fans. I think a lot of people passed just thinking, you know, "who's that dude covering 'Take Me To Church.'" But it was a really sweet moment, it was nice to meet a few people and sing a few songs.

WCT: What's your biggest challenge as an outspoken artist with such a big following?

H: You're trying to write things that irk you and that fascinate you and horrify you at times, but also not wanting to be anybody's poster boy. I just mean being defined as any one thing or as a protest artist. We live in tricky times cause people tend to differentiate between what they view as something that is political and the non-political, political music and non-political music. Seamus Heaney, an Irish poet, I think he was quoting W.B. Yeats when he's talking about trying to hold, at one time, in your mind and in your work, reality, in the same hand that you hold hope and justice. That's tricky, because you're trying to be honest about your experience and at the same time you're trying to hold onto reality and justice in the same hand, which is something I kind of reflect on. That's an ongoing challenge for anybody.

Hozier will be at Lollapalooza on Thursday, Aug. 1; and at the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St., on Sunday-Monday, Nov. 3-4. See Hozier.com, Lollapalooza.com and MSG.com/the-chicago-theatre .


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