On new EP and tour, Hozier draws ‘Power’ from the sounds of soul icons
At 15, Andrew Hozier-Byrne must have made a funny sight running around his native Ireland. Just short of a decade before his self-released 2014 smash “Take Me to Church” would catapult him to success on a global stage, the boy who would be Hozier was fronting an eight-piece soul band, earning raised eyebrows from locals — and praise from his blues-drummer father — with ardent covers of songs by Stax legends Booker T. Jones and Otis Redding.
“Discovering soul, gospel, and jazz music, it was like a light that had switched on in my heart as a child,” says Hozier-Byrne, now 28. “It’s never switched off.”
On the contrary, Hozier has spent his whole adult life guided by that light. So it comes as little surprise that when he sat back down at the piano 12 months ago — admittedly weary after two years of touring — Hozier returned to the same creative wellspring, inspired by how the pioneering art of soul and gospel musicians has shaped the vast majority of today’s popular music.
The result: “Nina Cried Power,” a stirring four-song EP released earlier this month, a tribute to his idols and the spirit of protest many of them have embodied throughout their careers.
Speaking by phone from London’s Heathrow Airport, where he was preparing to head to Montreal and kick off a fall North American tour (which includes a House of Blues stop Monday), Hozier discussed the EP and how it resonates in the politically charged atmosphere of 2018.
Q. You’d never toured on the scale that you did after “Take Me to Church” blew up. Did that experience inform your approach to writing new music?
A. Some of the decisions around how to write the songs and what I wanted out of them was informed by spending so much time playing on the road with a limited catalog. The music that I was listening to on tour was also very rhythmically led, and so the new music leans a little bit more into that approach. It hits a bit harder, I think. I was in a quiet place after the tour, playing and writing on the piano in the countryside, and I let my voice open up a bit more.
Q. “Nina Cried Power,” as an EP, has this forceful, almost ominous energy to it. What led you there?
A. A lot of the album’s mood and attitude came from this feeling of a desperate sort of powerlessness. Global politics was in a really weird spot [when I wrote it], and there was this upswing of bellicose rhetoric, of nations isolating themselves. It was that feeling of being two minutes to midnight on the doomsday clock, facing this existential risk to humanity and looking at how global political leadership at that time was falling by the wayside on both sides of the Atlantic. So the songs started from a place of hopelessness and tried to reach for something that was hopeful, to address these uncertain times of “What do you say? Where do you start?” by looking back on this legacy of other artists who were brave enough to stand up and speak out for what they felt was important.
Q. Two such artists, Booker T. Jones and Mavis Staples, appear on this EP. That must have been powerful, to have them in the studio with you.
A. Booker T. had actually reached out at one point when I was on the road, saying that if there was ever a chance to work together, he’d love to. I was completely shocked. . . . Booker T.’s music and legacy is just a huge part of my heart. So on this record, when we were talking about whether an organ would make sense, I took a chance on it. He flew over to London and spent seven days with us, and it was just amazing to watch him up close and working. Similarly, Mavis Staples, we had a few near misses. We nearly crossed paths at Byron Bay Blues Festival in Australia and at Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, and there was some talk between camps about us doing some work on her most recent record. Sadly, I was on tour and couldn’t make it happen. When I was writing [“Nina Cried Power,”] it soon became clear that it was important to have Mavis involved. She saw where the song was coming from, she dug it, and she was really up for taking part.
Q. How does the EP connect to the album you’ve said is coming next year?
A. The EP is a sample of what’s to come; it’s tip of the iceberg. I’ll be releasing another single in about a month. They’re from the same world. I can’t say that the whole record, though, deals with the same optimism of “Nina Cried Power,” the single. There’s a certain hopefulness, a sense of what can be and has been overcome, that the song tries to credit. But there’s a sense of doom that hangs over the rest of the record. And I mean that in a tongue-in-cheek way; the record looks at very desperate circumstances, some from a hopeful place and some from — [laughs] — let’s say a less hopeful place, sometimes a nihilistic one. Some of it is crediting what can be lost.
At House of Blues, Monday. www.ticketmaster.com