Talk about the song that just won't stop. When Andrew Hozier-Byrne — who performs simply as Hozier — first penned his somber piano dirge "Take Me to Church" two years ago, while crashing at his parents' house in rural Bray, Ireland, he had no idea the magnitude of the music he'd just created.
First issued on a 2013 EP, then on his self-titled debut disc last year, the track hit a nerve with listeners, who could simply enjoy it for the gospel-fervent melody or dig deeper to reach its scathing, anti-Catholicism core. A video featuring two gay lovers set upon by homophobic thugs — reflecting Russia's current anti-gay stance — took it one step further.
"Take Me to Church" would go on to top charts around the world, and even garner a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year. And while it didn't win, Hozier got to sing it live on the Feb. 8 telecast, backed by none other than Annie Lennox. Then last week, the song went viral again as the soundtrack for a surreal video shot by David LaChapelle, featuring tattooed Ukrainian bad boy of ballet, Sergei Polunin, doing an interpretive routine in an empty chapel.
While "Church" was written right after the singer split with a girlfriend, the singer says he doesn't consider it a breakup song.
"More what was in my head was taking a swipe at religion, or any organization that undermines the more natural vibes of the universe," he says. But it was the Catholic church, in particular, on which he set his sights, pulling inspiration from the writings of late atheist Christopher Hitchens.
"They have a very unique history and legacy in Ireland, even down to not being allowed to receive communion if you're divorced — just ridiculous stuff," says Hozier, who runs down a litany of organized religion's sins. "Plus the instituted gender inequality, or discrimination based on sexual orientation, or teaching people to be ashamed of their sexuality, or teaching people not to use contraceptives. It's just shockingly irresponsible."
Hozier has a rafter-rattling, old-school soul voice and a skeletal, straightforward way of songwriting that echoes vintage Van Morrison (see other potential smashes like "Work Song," "Jackie and Wilson," and "Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene"). By the age of 15, he was singing lead in his older brother's R&B band — "I was a very different performer back then" — before going on to attend Trinity College. He even joined Celtic vocal ensemble Anúna for a time, but then stumbled upon his "Church" sound while composing in his folks' attic.
"I was not living in the attic," he assures. "I was working up there, and I would work through the night. I had to move back to the country to get the work done. I'd been writing songs from the age of 16, and I'd worked on so many projects and nearly came to releasing things. But I didn't release anything until 'Take Me to Church.'
"It took me years to figure out how to articulate exactly what I wanted, the sound that was in my head," he adds. "In truth, I don't know where I'm going with this. I think I'll be learning a lot over the next year."