Alex Cortright spoke with Hozier earlier this month at the Lincoln Theatre in D.C. They talked about his forthcoming album (due in ’19), taking time off, Blues and Gospel music, connecting with Mavis Staples and Booker T. Jones, and the Berlin Wall. You can listen in full, or read their conversation below. Enjoy!
Alex Cortright: I took the liberty of bringing you something that at first blush might be like, “okay what is that?”
Hozier: Okay. That looks like a rock.
AC: It looks probably not unlike a piece of concrete. The story behind that is I was listening to your song, “Nina Cried Power,” and the line about “its not the wall but what’s behind it” got me thinking about an experience in Berlin in 1990 right after the wall had officially come down. I was there, and I took a sledgehammer to it.
H: Oh, no way.
AC: I busted off a bunch of pieces.
H: Fair play.
AC: I was really nervous that I was going to get in trouble and the Stasis were going to come for me. But of course, it was all good and people were doing it and the whole big slabs were already gone.
H: That’s great, it’s a good thing to do, man.
AC: So, I thought I would bring you a piece of the wall.
H: Thank you so much. Can I keep that?
AC: Of course, that’s for you.
H: Thank you so much, and you were absolutely right to get it there and then. I think you can still find pieces of the wall in the same way that guys can still find pieces of the cross. But this is special.
AC: This is a genuine article. that is an actual cold war relic.
H: That is great, thank you so much.
AC: With your green reliquary there.
H: Thank you. That is really sweet.
AC: Of course, my pleasure. So, Hozier.
AC: Where the hell have you been? Were you locked up or something?
H: No, I had bit of quiet time to myself. I was touring the last record for two years. I think a lot of that time where music wasn’t being released I was touring and promoting which was fun, but very draining. I have to say, it took me a while to decompress after the tour and think about what kind of music I wanted to make moving forward. The latter half of 2017 is a blur of me. I kinda just hermitted myself into the countryside and worked on this work and the work that is yet to come.
AC: That seems to me like the smart thing to do because a lot came at you quickly. You know, your song which I believe is almost exactly 5 years old, “Take Me to Church,” released fall of 2013…
H: Yea, that is scary
AC: And then the next year exploded in the states, of course. But suddenly you were hanging out with Taylor Swift and you were at a whole other reality and that must have been a little like, okay I need to step back.
H: Yea, totally. And its important to know what you want out of the music you make and why you make music and what your contribution to music is going to be. Its kind of nice to stop and pause. Certainly, for me I found out what I love about music. Why did I stop making music in the first place? It was nice to unplug and take stock and go through a lot of phone memos. I came off the road with hundreds of phone memos, etc. But I think being in the countryside and not isolating myself, that little bit reconnecting with family and friends. I would say isolating is the wrong word in a lot of ways, being surrounded by loads of people and music. As you say, that song kind of crossed over and things were going crazy. In a way, that’s more of the isolating thing, or the more alienating aspect of music making, weirdly. The touring and the being in the center of its success is weirdly more isolating and alienating then out in the countryside and doing your own thing.
AC: You are not the first musician to say as much. People who have had great success with music I’ve talked to over the years, they’re about that 90 minutes on stage regardless of how big they’ve become. All the rest is noise. The interviews, the press, the promotions, whatever you have to do. Its essential and vital and important, but its really about the music. And that’s where the salvation is.
H: Yea. Totally.
AC: You are currently working on a proper album – because Nina Cried Power is an EP. It’s four songs. We’ve really been enjoying it at WTMD. Have you worked more with Mavis? I understand Booker T. is in the mix with this. Do tell.
H: So, myself and Mavis had a lot of near misses when we tried to connect a few times at different festivals. We kind of crossed paths a little bit at Newport Folk Festival one year and there was talk of us maybe getting together and doing some writing on her most recent record but that never really came to fruition. But when this song was taking form and taking shape and making more sense, it was quite important to reach out and see if she would want to be part of it. The song is kind of a thank you note to the legacy of work she has done and that truth telling in songwriting. Booker T., weirdly, I was on the road and I think Dave reached out and said if an option ever arose he would be up for doing something together, which at the time balled me over, but I was on the road. So again, when the talk came of how an organ would sound on some of these tracks, I was just throwing it out there to see if he was interested to join us for a few sessions. He flew over to London for a week, an amazing week of recording with him. Watching him do his thing, which was a dream I have to say.
AC: I find it really interesting you are an artist 28 years old from Ireland and you have this deep and abiding affection as many people do with much older music – soul and blues from the 50s and 60s. Talking about Mavis Staples and Booker T. Jones and many others. And of course, “Nina Cried Power” name checking very specific people for a reason, whether its Nina Simone or Billie Holiday. It got me thinking about the venue we’re sitting in right now. This is the Lincoln Theatre that was built in 1922 and was part of the Washington Black Broadway. And so you would have all these artists – Sarah Vaughan and Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington performing here. That is still a big part of your music and aesthetic.
H: Yea, to a big degree, I suppose it wasn’t until I was able to contextualize. When I was a kid it was just the music that was playing in the house. I mean, blues was just the sound of pre-language childhood. My Dad was a musician, a gigging live musician, and the catalog he would have been playing with the bands at the time would have been blues music and kind of rhythm and blues. In the same way that on from the 60’s there was such a fascination, like in the UK and Ireland in particular. The live music scene was shaped entirely by the upswing of blues coming to the ears of young players in Britain and stuff. Which set a lot of kids on fire. There you have Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles cutting their teeth.
AC: Van Morrison
H: Van Morrison. Yea. Cutting their teeth on blues music and soul music. And in a way, those were my Dad’s loves in his record collection, so my entire musical education was listening to Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and then discovering, as you say, Duke Ellington. Discovering Nina Simone was a big deal for me. It wasn’t until I was getting older and contextualizing the music and appreciating it for all different sorts of reasons. Although it draws from a kind of a gospel rock or gospel soul element in that track. It’s kind of Woodie Guthrie and Bob Dylan and people like John Lennon and Pete Seeger. It’s a thank you note to people who just spoke the truth and sang the truth in their music, and let their music be kind of a vehicle for the zeitgeist. Either way music always is a vehicle for the zeitgeist. But those who just embraced that and sang about the times.
AC: I love what Woodie Guthrie had carved on his guitar. “This machine kills fascists.” Right to the point.
H: Totally. Yea. Fascinating kind of dude. I mean, what he did was sing about the common struggles of people and the common difficulties we all face as fellow human beings and fellow citizens and how worthwhile that solidarity between peoples is. In singing about it and speaking about it and letting his guitar be a machine. In the same way that somebody like Bruce Springsteen does. Just sings about the simple commonalities of life and work and what’s beautiful and difficult about that, and what’s worthwhile about maintaining that kind of society. Its such a simple phrase, it kills fascists, its an enemy of fascism.
AC: You mentioned zeitgeist. You’re someone who is very aware of what is going on in the world. We live in crazy times it can be said, I think pretty safely. But I’m also detecting with a song like “Moment’s Silence (Common Tongue)” a real decided choice to sing about hope and connectedness and common tongue.
H: Yea, totally. That song is kind of like looking at intimacy and looking at love, and I suppose, in the context of an abuse of power. And that song I suppose, was trying to in a kind of tongue and cheek way, look at the relationship between an abuse of power with regards to an act of sex, let’s say. But in that, it’s reaching for how wonderful that intimacy and tenderness is between people and how that is as a respite, and how that is as a common tongue and something we all share.
AC: Hozier, its great to see you again and I’m looking forward to that new album in 2019, I’m assuming?
H: Yea, early 2019. I hope we’ll to have a song before Christmas.
AC: Great to see you, man.
H: Thanks you very much, you too.