In September, Irish songwriter Hozier released the video for his gospel-inspired epic, “Take Me to Church,” a cavernous song that uses love and ecstasy as a religious metaphor. The video depicts two men’s gentle intimacy, followed by brutal gay-bashing at the hands of masked vigilantes against lyrics like, “I was born sick, but I love it / command me to be well / Amen. Amen. Amen.”
The song serves simultaneously as a message about human rights, a commentary about Hozier’s upbringing in what he calls a “cultural landscape that is blatantly homophobic,” and a strong statement about the institutional homophobia in Putin’s Russia. In the months since its release, the video has gone viral (and we’ve been playing it over and over) — bringing the 23-year-old artist into sharp focus. (He turns 24 on St. Patrick’s Day.) This week, Hozier — born Andrew Hozier-Byrne — is in the States for the first time, where he will play twice during SXSW and then tour around the country. The Cut spoke with him about the meaning of “Take Me to Church,” sexuality, James Joyce, and good hair.
There is a lot of Americana and blues in your music, but you’re from Ireland.
I was essentially raised on blues music. My dad was a blues musician around Dublin when I was a baby, so the only music I would listen to growing up was John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. It’s music that feels like home to me. Then I discovered Motown and gospel and Delta blues and jazz, so a huge amount of my influences are all African-American music.
Do your influences affect your lyrics?
Blues is a very physical music. It’s often about sex, whether it’s through innuendo or not. It’s often about the relationship between two people. So in that sense, in a lot of my songs, there’s a lot to do with the interaction between two people.
I figured we were just going to talk about sex, God, and death.
Yeah, that’s pretty much everything!
Is your music diaristic, or more literary?
There are a few Irish writers who have a very strong influence on me, especially on the Take Me to Church EP. James Joyce’s The Portrait of an Artist As a Young Man. It’s very much about a man’s struggle to find his own identity in an oppressive culture of church, in an age influenced heavily by the Catholic church and a nationalism that he just wants to be free of.
“Take Me to Church” is a critique of oppressive institutions, with a woman or female pronoun used as a sort of savior.
“Take Me to Church” is essentially about sex, but it’s a tongue-in-cheek attack at organizations that would … well, it’s about sex and it’s about humanity, and obviously sex and humanity are incredibly tied. Sexuality, and sexual orientation — regardless of orientation — is just natural. An act of sex is one of the most human things. But an organization like the church, say, through its doctrine, would undermine humanity by successfully teaching shame about sexual orientation — that it is sinful, or that it offends God. The song is about asserting yourself and reclaiming your humanity through an act of love. Turning your back on the theoretical thing, something that’s not tangible, and choosing to worship or love something that is tangible and real — something that can be experienced.
But it’s not an attack on faith. Coming from Ireland, obviously, there’s a bit of a cultural hangover from the influence of the church. You’ve got a lot of people walking around with a heavy weight in their hearts and a disappointment, and that shit carries from generation to generation. So the song is just about that — it’s an assertion of self, reclaiming humanity back for something that is the most natural and worthwhile. Electing, in this case a female, to choose a love who is worth loving.
The video parallels that — it’s a statement against state oppression and homophobia in Russia.
Absolutely, yes. It references the very organized attacks against LGBT youths that are carried out with impunity, without action from law enforcement. There are a lot of far-right guys who film these attacks. Because the song was always about sexuality and about organizations that would undermine humanity at its most natural, we thought that — in Ireland, the church doesn’t really have that kind of strength that it did, but there will always be organizations that will, and there will always be organizations that try. Hopefully there won’t be one day, but there are, and this is a pure example of that.
It’s people carrying out terrible acts through the justification of far-right traditionalism, and also a long campaign to make homosexuality equivalent with things like pedophilia and bestiality, which is absolutely appalling. So that’s what we wanted to show. The video wasn’t overexaggerating anything. We just wanted to tell it how it is.
Throughout the video, the characters bury and unearth a chained, locked chest. What does that represent?
I won’t go into that. I think it’s better that it’s open for whomever to decide what it means.
Does the church proliferate institutional homophobia in Ireland?
Not so much from the church still, but there is that kind of public relations, tactical retreat of saying, “We love the sinner, but we hate the sin.” It’s a backhanded way of telling someone to be ashamed of who they are and what they do. But right now there’s a referendum next year for marriage equality — for equal marriage. We have civil partnerships, but we don’t have equal marriage. It’s only recently in the last month there’s been quite a hullabaloo over using the term homophobia in the media. But it’s changing. It’s getting better.
Is there a personal reason that you are outspoken about homophobia?
No, and I don’t think there needs to be. To me, it’s not even a gay issue or a civil rights issue, it’s a human rights issue, and it should offend us all. It’s just simple. Either somebody has equal rights, or they don’t. And certainly in the Irish constitution, marriage is genderless. There’s no mention of a man and a woman. I didn’t even have that many close LGBT friends or anything like that, but I suppose it was growing up and becoming aware of how you are of a cultural landscape that is blatantly homophobic. I’m sure it’s the same over here. Where you turn around and say, Why did I grow up in a homophobic place? Why did I grow up in a misogynistic place? You grow up and recognize that in any educated secular society, there’s no excuse for ignorance. You have to recognize in yourself, and challenge yourself, that if you see racism or homophobia or misogyny in a secular society, as a member of that society, you should challenge it. You owe it to the betterment of society.
In the song “Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene,” you reference orgasm, but in contrast to “Take Me to Church,” the woman in the lyrics is positioned as more of an anti-savior.
I wouldn’t encourage you to read too much into it, only because I wouldn’t share too much! [Laughs.] When I write songs, I try to remove myself a little bit. Obviously they’re very personal to me, but it feels easier if I feel like I’m writing characters. I don’t know, man! There’s probably a lot of Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man in that song. I suppose it’s about feeling liberation … and a woman whose references might be questionable at best.
It’s your first time in New York. You flew out your family, too?
My father’s here, and my second cousins, who came up from Boston, whom I rarely see. I know New York is unique as a place in America, so the culture shock isn’t so deep, but once I get to Texas and L.A., we’ll see.
I saw your father. You both have very luxurious hair.
Thank you! We grow it ourselves.
Do you share hair-care tips?
Yeah! Just don’t brush it too much. I just hate getting my hair cut. Something in the water.