Irish singer/songwriter Hozier is releasing his highly anticipated third studio album, Unreal Unearth, this Friday (August 18). It is, like everything he has done thus far in his short career, magnificent. It is smart, soulful, daring, and true to what Hozier fans love about him while continuing to evolve his sound.
Having burst on the scene in 2013 with the brilliant “Take Me To Church,” Hozier seemed poised for a standout pop career. But, as he tells Sage Bava and I when we meet him in the L.A. offices of his Columbia record label, that was never his goal.
As someone who became a huge Tom Waits fan in high school, Hozier was always in this for the long term, like Waits or other artists he admires. And by continuing to evolve and push himself he has set himself up beautifully for the career he dreamed of.
We spoke to Hozier about the songwriting process, the new album, his admiration of Waits and Bruce Springsteen and much more.
Steve Baltin: We got to see a bunch of new stuff last night at the Troubadour, and it’s always such a fascinating thing when you debut new material on stage in front of an audience that hasn’t heard it. But you’ve been very fortunate in developing that fan base that allows you to experiment.
Hozier: Yeah, I think I’m blessed with a listening audience. It’s hard to find the perfect space of what’s music that you want to listen to and is really enjoyable, and in Rage [Against the Machine’s] case, you want to rock out to. And really, you’ll be charged with an energy that you’ll find in no other music, but then also if you want to dig, the layers are there. And there’s so much intention to the work, as opposed to it just being rock music for the sake of just rocking out. But yeah, so actually finding that space where the music is something people really want to enjoy and listen to. And then to know that there is something there for people who want to dig, it’s there. Many won’t, but there’s something wonderful about that.
Baltin: For you, who is that first artist where you discovered those layers?
Hozier: It depends on what the intention was. I think I told you once before, Tom Waits was a huge early influence for me as a teenager. But then I was listening to it, and I’m gonna out myself also for being a teenager with a dial-up internet connection. No ability to go to a record store and to just go and buy more Tom Waits records, so back in the LimeWire days, you would just type in Tom Waits and hope to God you’d get some lucky dip or something that came through. I remember getting songs of stuff from his [Robert] Wilson plays. Like he wrote the music for Black Rider and stuff like that. And to me initially, I was just like, “‘Oh, this is some weird, dark, twisted soundscapes.” And I really enjoyed them. And then it was like, “Oh no, there’s a narrative here.” And I suppose that that offers license, it’s like, “Oh, you can do that too, there can be a narrative, there can be stuff going on beneath this.” But on a more political side of stuff, so much of Irish folk music is codified ’cause for a long, long time, the elements of the emancipatory messages in a lot of old Irish folk music had to be coded into the songs because it was illegal to actually write about Irish nationhood under British occupation for a few centuries. So there is something to that. And I remember for the first time just getting into my dad’s record collection, hearing “Mississippi Goddam” for the first time as an eight-year-old boy in Ireland, having no understanding of the history of what that song was about, but just being fascinated by that as a musical piece and the intensity behind it, the visual elements in the lyrics, the pictures that it evoked, and then obviously Nina’s voice in it and Nina Simone’s performance. And then growing up and going, “Oh my God, there’s so much in this that I will actually never understand as well to any experiences behind that.”
Baltin: When you think of songs that you’ve written and even talking about the new album, Unreal Unearth, are there those moments where you channel into something very specific and then you’re surprised by how much people can respond to something special to you?
Hozier: There are a few moments on the record that if I was to open up the lyrics they’re deeply personal. They come from a deeply intimate or a personal place, but I think the beauty of having your work received and the whole reason that you make it is that it’s completed by the listener, they close the circle. You can have your intention, you can have the work, but you sing it in front of a thousand people, it’ll be interpreted a thousand times and all differently and they’ll all make sense of it in their own experience. There’s something very wonderful about that. But yeah, for sure, it is really affirming and I think if nothing else, you feel a little bit less alone to know that something that is very private or very personal, you can put into a work and then see it really resonate with people and really move them. And there’s a really great connecting point there, for sure.
Sage Bava: One of my favorite things about music is how it connects us to what I believe is the truth and the universe outside of this realm. And your title and the album cover just struck such a chord with that. I’d love to hear where the inspiration comes from in connecting to earth.
Hozier: Yeah, it’s funny you said that, the truth of the universe and stuff. I had a good chat with Katie Mack last week, who’s a theoretical physicist, and she’s doing research. It’s an institution that deals in letting people know really where they’re at with particle physics and stuff like that. But the truth of the universe she was trying to explain to me, the smaller they get, the closer they keep looking. Every time they try to measure something, they do something different, they point a light differently at it, and all of a sudden, they just can’t nail it down just yet. She was trying to describe, Everything that we’re looking at now is a process or a byproduct of something that’s happening behind a curtain that they just really can’t lift at this moment in time. But the Unreal Unearth title comes from… I started writing a lot of the songs at the beginning of the pandemic, and I hate to use the P word again. I know we’re all fed up with it but it felt very surreal in Europe as well too, when news was making waves of what was happening in Italy. And then for a long time, it was sitting in lockdown in those early parts just watching numbers rise and just news reports of like, “Here’s how many people died today, and here’s how many cases there were.” And I had friends working for the government who were making contingency plans. You forget some of the more macabre stories of like prisoners going out and digging and preparing for the eventuality of needing mass graves if it comes to that. Or government’s looking at ice skating rinks as possible makeshift morgues and stuff that. It was a really strange time. Thank God it didn’t get that bad, but they weren’t really sure how bad it could get, what the mortality rate could rise to. And it just seemed surreal, it was like, “Here is this is absolutely dream-like, completely surreal.”And also misinformation was really ramping up, I think, in a lot of online spaces. It was just a good time to be a conspiracy theory. And so that sense of an unrealness to the world. But then unearth also as verb, as to dig and to uncover, to actually unearth something, to dig downwards. And I think in that time, I’m sure a lot of people had to experience that verb. There was a little bit of digging to make sense of that time. To unearth, but then also the idea of an earth being unmade, an earth that is not itself, if that makes sense. So that’s where the Unreal Unearth title came from. And I wanted to credit something of a journey through that time and through that upheaval, this psychic social unrest and deep disturbance and horror as well too, and the journey through the personal, trying to credit it as a journey without making a “lockdown album”
Baltin: Was the process of creating this album very different than previous records?
Hozier: I think so. A lot of the material I wrote, like the rest of my material, that is in isolation, which I always loved, but it’s that thing of like it’s different when you cherish being alone and there’s other people nearby and you know that you’re being alone away from people, as opposed to being alone because you just have to. I lived out in the countryside, and in the middle of lockdown, I ran out of enjoying that loneliness. Eventually, you hit your own walls. So once I had written all that I needed to write, I couldn’t get into this thing. It was hard to move around, the borders weren’t exactly open, depending on where you were trying to go to work with certain producers. But so when I came in, I just didn’t waste time, I just was just like, “Let’s see what happens.” And that was very different, to just sit in with Dan, to co-write and actually let go of the reigns at times and just go, ‘”You know what? I love that idea.” And just accept that really, it’s great to put two minds together, three minds together and let somebody do what they’re amazing at doing in arrangement, in composition, etcetera. And so it’s the first time I really co-wrote at all, and that was new completely. Yeah, I really enjoyed it.
Baltin: Are there artists that you really admire for their freedom?
Hozier: Yeah, I think so. Bruce Springsteen, there are so few artists really who can do like he does it. There is no one who can do three and a half, four hours. And also to have a band as iconic as the E Street Band. It’s like you’re looking at this magnificent ship when when you’re at a Bruce Springsteen show and everybody’s role is so iconic and so important. I think it’s a really special model of what a rock and roll experience can be, what a show can be. It’s tricky, the first song I ever released was this crossover pop hit, but it was always about,”‘Can I do this when I’m in my 40s and my 50s and my 60s? Can I play this music in a way that feels half as joyful as that, and half as giving and generous as what the E Street Band do every night?”‘ I think there’s something magnificent about that. And how it’s dynamic, how it changes night by night, he’s just calling songs as it goes.
Bava: I’ve always been so intrigued how clear your sound is and how it’s so uniquely yours. Tell me about the process of discovering that, from “Take Me To Church” in the attic. Finding that sound and being like, ‘That’s me.”
Hozier: Certainly for “Church,” a lot of those sounds come back into a lot of the music across the catalogue, I guess. But I just arrived to it again through process of elimination. I’d worked as a teenager with a couple of producers who were like, “This kid’s got a great voice,” or whatever. And I didn’t really know how to express or communicate as an 18, 19-year-old, 20-year-old, “I like this sound, I don’t like this sound, but this feels right, this doesn’t feel right.” And it’s hard to say. You could have a song that sounds great, but it just doesn’t feel like it’s aligned with you,. And there’s some part of your internal world that’s like, “I know that sounds cool, but it’s not me.” And I think with “Church,” I didn’t know how to work with recording software, I didn’t know how to work with Logic Pro, but I just literally figured it out and I just made noises until they felt good, and that’s all I’ve ever been able to do. I wasn’t trained as a guitar player, I wasn’t trained as a piano player, and I wasn’t trained as a singer, so it was really just real DIY, like find something that feels good and trust in that. I wouldn’t say I’m winging it, but it would always was just trusting the gut and saying, “This feels absolutely right to me.” And just going with that.
Bava: For me, it’s sometimes a war to get to that child-like space. For you, is it quite a war zone to get that antenna up sometimes or do you have rituals that help?
Hozier: I think it’s like that thing where you take up meditation. If you’re trying to meditate, if you’re trying too hard, you’re doing it wrong. Where it’s like the hard part is dismantling. And I think the part of me that might feel at war or the part of us that might feel at war in that moment is like there’s so much of yourself that you’ve established, you’ve spent your life creating a matrix of thought about who I am as a person, as a man, whatever, as an artist or as a woman, whatever you’re invested into, the hard part is actually saying, “Well, no, I’m just here in this moment and I’m just doing this thing.” And it’s actually just letting go of yourself, and I don’t know if you can’t do that in an act of war. I think that it’s an act of surrender and retreat. But that’s really hard to do and, for me, it takes a great sense of awareness and peace and quiet and knowing that I won’t be disturbed as well too. And it’s very hard to get away, give yourself that space, that’s the tricky part, that’s the war.