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Hozier's success means great things for the future of music

Hozier just might be the future of Top 40.
Hozier just might be the future of Top 40.

Andrew Hozier-Byrne is a titan — musically and literally.

Since early November, Hozier's gospel-driven blues hit "Take Me to Church" has dominated American popular music with its howling chorus and soaring refrain: "amen," crooned over and over in a glorious tenor. The song hit the Billboard Top 20 on November 8 and refused to leave.

Hozier is also 6-foot-5. When he takes the stage at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington, DC, in March, wearing all denim and carrying a guitar that sparkles under the lights, he towers over the other members of his band.

A keyboardist, cellist, two backup singers, a drummer, and a multi-instrumentalist on synth and bass join Hozier on stage, but there are no guitar picks taped to the tall mic stand in front of him. He refuses to brush his fluffy mane of brown hair, writes his songs based off a feeling, and doesn't let a piece of plastic come between him and his chords.

He's a naturalist. He plucks the guitar strings with his fingers.

He's not a natural fit for the Top 40, though. "Take Me to Church" is a slow song focused on homophobia, and Hozier's set is lit with electronic candles instead of pulsing strobes. He's not a pop star, but he's made a home on the charts with artists like Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj, and Ariana Grande.

In some ways, his success points the way to a best-case scenario — in which his popularity represents the future of music and the Top 40 has room for all genres and tones and talent.

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Look at the sparkly guitar Hozier played at the Grammys this year. (Larry Busacca/Getty)

Popular but not pop

Hozier isn't a hit machine. His debut, self-titled album is solid top to bottom. In its entirety, it tells a brutal story of life and love and religion. But it doesn't sound like the albums dominating the Top 40 right now. There's not a single synthesizer present. Most of the songs are meaty, desperate, and honest about the world we live in.

Instead of the pulsing beats of Nick Jonas, Hozier has a slow, rhythmic guitar. He trades chanting Bruno Mars hooks for an urgent, calling plea. Where other artists hire songwriters to build out their hits for them, Hozier wrote his in an attic. That doesn't necessarily make his way better, but it makes it different.

"I think Top 40 radio is getting a bit more adventurous now, and I think a lot of that is due to guys like Sam Smith and Andrew," Justin Eshak, who signed Hozier to Columbia Records in the US in 2013, told me.

The Top 40 has always been variable. New genres are created and rise to fame. Rock, hip-hop, pop, and jazz all at some point managed to break through and become widely popular. What's interesting about Hozier is that he joins a smaller group of artists who seem to be drawing popular music in the opposite direction of pop — toward music that's more organic, instrumental, and emotional. Like Amy Winehouse and Adele before him, Hozier stands out on a Top 40 station because he simply doesn't sound like he belongs.

There always seems to be room for one or two bluesy soul singers in the Top 40. What's interesting about Hozier is that his hit, the amazingly catchy, overwhelmingly melancholy "Take Me to Church," isn't even the most radio-friendly song on his album. It isn't upbeat, and it certainly isn't the love songs of Sam Smith. Hozier's love songs come with an edge.

Before he played "Someone New" at his DC concert, he prefaced it with some context. "This is a love song," he said. "It's about love at its most empty and vacuous and futile."

Yes, pop music can be about those things, but not in the way Hozier's music seems to be about them. For all the richness of his throwback sound, it feels like something new, something unclassifiable. Is he modern blues? Is he gospel? Is he the future of rock?

"I think it’s hard to sum up, to be honest," Hozier explains. "I think words like 'indie gospel' work, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that. It’s blues-influenced. Maybe like a Southern gothic kind of sound or something like that. It’s difficult to give it one word."

At no point was this more obvious than when, in the post-encore section of his set, Hozier and the band diverted from his catalog to play Ariana Grande's "Problem," one of the truest pop songs there is. It's a song he and his band had worked on for BBC's Live Lounge, reimagining it in Hozier style.

To begin, Hozier led the audience to clap to create the backing beat for what is normally a pop song but on that stage became a gospel-driven, electric-guitar-heavy anthem, with Hozier adding lines like "If you smoke like I smoke / then you're high like every day," and hitting some of his highest falsettos of the night. Doing a cover like that was fun for his audience of Top 40 lovers, but it also proved just how different of an artist he is from a tiny, vocal powerhouse like Ariana Grande.

"I’m still trying to figure out why people were so drawn to it," Hozier tells me. He's talking about "Take Me to Church," but maybe what he should be questioning is why people are so drawn to him with his finger-picking and full band and dark, difficult love songs. By playing songs by blues legend Skip James and Ariana Grande in the same set, Hozier proves he's more than a one-hit wonder.

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Here's a black-and-white photo of Hozier. (Gabriel Olsen/Getty)

Raised on the blues

Andrew Hozier-Byrne grew up in Ireland listening to his parents' records, mostly blues. His father was a blues musician, and so Hozier was brought up amid the wilds of the Irish countryside and the sounds of American music.

"I was raised with a lot of blues music around, and then when I was older, I just had an affection and a connection with blues music and the music that’s associated with it — jazz and soul and gospel music," Hozier says. "I always come back to blues music. It’s kind of my first love. "

At the show, he clears the stage to play James's 1931 song "Illinois Blues." Under a lone spotlight, the rest of the stage dark, he plucks an acoustic guitar, and it becomes obvious just how talented Hozier is. He's not just "Take Me to Church," or even his best four songs. He's a man who knows his way around a guitar. As his fingers deftly move across the strings and his voice howls, he embodies the genre he loves.

At this point in his career, Hozier's song list is sparse. There are 13 songs on his debut studio album, which was released in October 2014, plus a few early singles that didn't make the album. So to extend his show, he plays Skip James, and he thanks as many people as he can think of, including the guy out front selling T-shirts. And he tells stories.

Before he plays "Cherry Wine," he tells the story about shooting his first press pictures in an old Irish hotel that had once caught fire. Initially, he thought the building could be the backdrop for a career built on burnt-up history, but when he arrived, the place was gutted, filled with graffiti. "Apocalypse chic," he describes it.

Out of this one experience came a song filled with heartbreak and carefully plucked guitar strings that explains an entire abusive, complicated relationship in four short minutes.

"The way that she shows me I'm hers and she's mine / open hand or closed fist would be fine / the blood is red and sweet as cherry wine," he sings.

Throughout "Cherry Wine," Hozier's voice sounds sadder, more distraught, and more exhausted than it does in the rest of the album. It's a love sonnet steeped in abuse.

"More so than the sound," Hozier told me, "I think people are invested in the lyrics. That’s very important to me."

From the deepest cuts on his album to the incredibly popular "Take Me to Church," Hozier has written every character, every morbid scene, every desperately beautiful, lyrical line. When we talk influences, he lists many — Sam Cooke, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Tom Waits — but he stops on Nina Simone.

"When I was younger, I just had a fascination with her voice, because it was so unique, and the fiery nature of her songwriting. Just her character — she was just a real powerhouse and an uncompromising writer," he says.

Those characteristics he admires certainly carry over to his own body of work. Though he has only released one full album, he says he's not interested in creating more hits just to have hits — he wants to create songs that matter, and move, and change people. And those songs are built of his words and his voice.

Hozier shows off his vocal range on songs like "To Be Alone," his voice soaring into a falsetto before immediately dropping into a tenor for the bridge. But his somewhat gravelly, slightly twangy Irish vocals make all of his songs identifiably his, despite how much they seem to vary in genre at times. Another unifying characteristic: they all sound catchy and sometimes upbeat on the surface, but are actually full of somber, melancholic themes.

"I was just being as honest as possible. I was just trying to push a little bit of grace into us," he told me when we talked about "Take Me to Church." Like the rest of his songs, it's a dark story steeped in holy positivity.

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Hozier performs an acoustic set during a radio show. (Mat Hayward/Getty)

Attic sounds in the Top 40

Hozier was messing around when he thought of the chorus for "Take Me to Church." He took the germ of the idea up to the attic of his home.

"I wasn't expecting success," he tells me, "because it had very, very, humble beginnings." Those humble beginnings were a barely equipped studio in his attic where he wrote, arranged, and recorded most of his debut album.

Those attic vocals are still on the version of "Take Me to Church" that has become a radio sensation. They give the song a hallowed feel, as if it were a praise song sung in a cathedral all alone.

"You don’t hear voices like that really often. Here you had this young guy who was mining all of these really great influences, combining blues in that tradition with Van Morrison and kind of those different sounds," Eshak told me. "He was a young man who had a point of view, who had something to say. It wasn’t just the standard fare."

And having something to say is what made Hozier a hit.

The video for "Take Me to Church" depicts a gentle love affair between two men who are followed by masked men attempting to hurt them. One of them spends much of the video trying to hide a steel case wrapped in chain link. His efforts, however, aren't successful, and the group of men capture his lover and torture him. Hozier has said in many interviews that it is meant to be a commentary on human rights and the relationship between institutional homophobia in Putin's Russia and the statements of the church.

"The visual is so overwhelming that it’s almost difficult to listen to the song. I realized that he was an artist and not just a song," Eshak told me. "I flew to Dublin the next day."

More than 41 million people have played the video since it was uploaded in the fall of 2013. The video, with all its symbolism, brutality, and beauty, put Hozier on the map in Ireland almost a year ago.

After Eshak arrived in Dublin the fall of 2013, he heard Hozier play at a charity event in a massive hotel ballroom, generally a terrible place to hear a concert because of how bad the acoustics are and how uninvolved the audience can be. But Eshak was entranced. Hozier signed with Columbia after meeting to promote his music in the United States. In the spring of 2014, his song appeared on a Nashville alternative radio station, where it was an immediate sensation.

When people heard the song, they wanted to know what it was — it became the most Shazamed song in Nashville. (Shazam is an app that allows users to let their phone listen to a playing song and will identify the artists and title for them.) Typically, high-performing Shazam songs follow the Top 40. "Take Me to Church" was the exception, because it went the other way.

"You had this story where you had an artist breaking in both Ireland and the southeastern part of the United States," Eshak told me.

Hozier didn't promote "Take Me to Church"; the song did the work for him. A programmer at the Nashville Top 40 radio station heard the song, saw its success on the other station, and gave it the promotion it needed to scale the charts quickly and stay there. More than 20 weeks later, "Take Me to Church" is still in the top 25 on the Billboard charts.

But ubiquity has its cost. When Hozier played "Take Me to Church" live, he was at his least passionate. Yes, every member of the audience sang along, and the glowing electric candles onstage created an appropriately holy atmosphere, but Andrew Hozier-Byrne was not into it. The heart that embodied the first half of his set was lacking.

Afterward, Hozier and the band walked off stage. He had played a 40-minute set and could have called it a night.

But after the first three minutes of the standing ovation, it was pretty obvious he'd be coming back. He didn't return to play one or two final hits though — he came back for six full songs. "Take Me to Church" was a false end to his set, but it's also a false reflection of Hozier's talent. He has so much more to offer.

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