Just a few days after he went home empty-handed at the Grammy Awards, Hozier was still raising his arms in equal parts victory and salutation to the singer who stole the Grammy show. It wasn’t him, but rather the person who took the microphone from him.
“I was just flattered and excited to be up there with her,” said the newly famous Irish singer/songwriter of “Take Me to Church” fame, referring to his Grammys performance partner Annie Lennox.
The Eurythmics singer walked out as Hozier was doing his big hit and truly took the audience to church as she segued it into “I Put a Spell on You,” the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins classic from 1956.
“She’s an absolute legend. I was just trying to hold my own with her,” said Hozier, who makes his Twin Cities debut Friday in a sold-out show at First Avenue. “You can imagine how exciting it was to be next to her for that.”
That was just one of the first in a steady stream of humble, awww-shucks comments in a phone interview last week with the soulful singer born Andrew Hozier-Byrne (rhymes with “cozier”; friends call him Andrew). Calling before a gig in Sacramento, Calif., the thickly accented, long-haired bellower, 24, came off as unfailingly polite and levelheaded.
“I’m actually a little relieved to be returning to the road,” he said, acknowledging that all the Grammy hubbub “wasn’t what I’m used to.”
Hozier has been on quite a ride since U2 producer Paul Kirwan discovered him two years ago and helped “Take Me to Church” take the No. 2 slot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. He has since earned high praise from fellow one-name soul-pop star Adele, and rumor has it that he’s dating Taylor Swift (“just friends” is the going line).
Likes Prince, Morris Day
After a flurry of TV appearances that also included “Saturday Night Live” and the “Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show,” Hozier will land in Minneapolis at First Avenue, a venue he knows by reputation even though he wasn’t born when “Purple Rain” came out in 1984.
“We play a lot of Prince on the road, and I’m actually personally quite fond of Morris Day and the Time, so playing there will be a big deal to us,” he said.
The Minneapolis gig sold out in September, which was about 19,000 spins ago for “Take Me to Church” on the local FM dial. Up for song of the year at the Grammys — it lost to Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me,” which actually helped set the stage for Hozier’s success — the song can be heard locally everywhere from 89.3 the Current and Cities 97 to KS95 and KDWB.
Hozier laughed when asked if even he’s sick of hearing the song everywhere he goes.
“It’s incredible, isn’t it?” he said. “I honestly never thought it was the kind of song that could be a hit. So when it first started getting just a little attention, I couldn’t believe it. And now look at it. So that’s what I think when I hear it: I still can’t believe it, really.”
He’s right that “Take Me to Church” hardly seems like a pop hit.
Laced with traces of American gospel and southern R&B music, it sounds darker and rawer than Smith’s and Adele’s similarly blue-eyed-soul work. Also, the lyrics and especially the song’s music video are partly inspired by a touchy topic that even his sound-alike singer Elton John would have been timid about tackling 30 years ago: the Catholic Church’s and other organizations’ stance against same-sex marriages and homosexuality.
“The song is about how sexuality and love are such a basic, integral part of humanity,” Hozier explained.
“For the church or any organization like a government to question who you love or who you have sex with just seems to go against humanity. I’m not condemning the church or religion on the whole, just that one policy, which seems so wrong to me. And obviously I’m not alone in thinking that.”
“Take Me to Church” and several other songs on Hozier’s eponymous debut album (issued in October) were written and demoed when he was still living at his parents’ house in County Wicklow, about an hour south of Dublin.
“It was a rural upbringing by the seaside,” he recalled. “A real quiet place surrounded by fields. I had to travel into town for school and stuff like that.”
He also had to rely heavily on his dad, a drummer in blues bands, for much of his musical education in lieu of nearby record stores and radio stations. “His record collection was my introduction to music, so I’m still into a lot of American blues and jazz,” he said.
He mentioned “The Blues Brothers,” the 1980 movie starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, as a major influence. “I was just mesmerized by it.”
That latter influence can be heard in the Hozier song “Jackie and Wilson,” a buoyant R&B toe-tapper inspired by late 1950s/early ’60s legend Jackie Wilson. It is one of two follow-up singles helping to push Hozier past one-hit-wonder status. The other, “From Eden,” is more of a serene, lightly swaying soul-pop ballad that he said “was written jokingly from the perspective of the devil.”
Other material on his album ranges from the truly bluesy howler “To Be Alone” to the folk ballad “In a Week,” a duet with Irish singer Karen Cowley, whose part is sung by Hozier’s cellist, Alana Henderson, while on tour.
Touring is pretty much Hozier’s life now. He’ll be working his away across North America through March and then bouncing between festivals on both sides of the Atlantic through summer, starting with Coachella in April. He didn’t sound at all daunted by the schedule, though.
“It’s a dream to get to do it, really,” he said, noting “how relatively normal” the road life now seems. “I spent a lot of last year on tour, too, so in a way it’s really sort of comfortable to get back on a bus after the Grammys to hit the road across America and get back into that routine.
“The main thing is, I can’t stay up late partying when I’m on tour. That’s not good for my voice or my health in general. I’m quite tame as touring musicians go.”
Funny that the man behind “Take Me to Church” would wind up sounding so much like a choir boy.