'Irish people have deserved better for a long time' – Hozier on God, feminism, Trump and what makes him angry about Ireland

‘Do you take milk?” Hozier asks, handing me a cup of coffee. “The colour of a man’s tea or coffee is his own private knowledge,” he laughs.

For the next two hours I will have rare access to the singer’s own private knowledge. There is a queue of fans all down 34th street and across 8th Avenue for the sold-out show of the night in New York City, at the Hammerstein Ballroom. The centre of all the attention is calmly sitting in his dressing room, sipping his tea.

All over New York City, there are giant billboards for Robert De Niro in The Irishman. But the biggest Irishman in New York City tonight is Andrew Hozier-Byrne. He has just finished a major interview with Rolling Stone magazine. Earlier that morning, his Cry Power podcast with Sinead Burke was released worldwide.

“A total hero and trailblazer, a wonderful soul,” he says of Ms Burke.

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This followed on from podcast tete-a-tetes with Bono and Annie Lennox. The former had the U2 singer and his heir apparent wax spiritually. When Bono said of Hozier’s early inner illumination with the Quakers – describing them and the Friends of The Earth as being prophetic and ahead of its time – Hozier talked of “the lack of hierarchy. There is no middleman. The relationship between the divine and the infinite is yours.”

I was curious about the man who wrote the organised religion-eviscerating Take Me To Church:

‘Take me to church

I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies/

I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife/

Offer me that deathless death/

Good God, let me give you my life. . .”

Is Hozier sceptical of religion but drawn to faith? “I don’t know how I would answer that in any definitive way.”

Because spiritual faith isn’t a science?

“I am fascinated by science and I am fascinated by how wonderfully complicated the physical world is, and that comes through in my work at times.” (For instance, his song No Plan – inspired by the writings of American theoretical cosmologist Dr Katie Mack – is about the heat-death of the planet.)

“I have great reverence for existence itself and for the fact that there is anything, for the fact that we’re here. I’m incredibly grateful for that, and I have explored faith in many, many different ways and my own faith in many different ways. How I would define it, I’m not sure. I reflect on existence quite a lot.”

Intriguingly, in the podcast with Bono, Hozier talked of getting to the temple only to find God has flown.

“That was a quote that I read,” he explains. “I think it is CS Lewis quoting himself in a book [Surprised by Joy], which was given to me by a fan.” Hozier read it on the road and enjoyed it.

CS Lewis, he says, was talking of gaining knowledge in terms of things that fascinate you. “He was obsessed with learning about Greek mythology and Norse mythology. It makes sense, I suppose, when you look at the Narnia tales but when he would be obsessive about a subject he would learn everything that there was possible to know about it – but the feeling of joy, the feeling of mystery that he associated with that thing before he studied it, that clarifies in his mind’s eye.

“His main point was that wanting to be close to something is a stronger feeling than actually having it. And when he studied everything that there is to know about it, that feeling of mystery and longing had dissipated. He described that as building a temple only to find that God has flown.”

Is that what happened to Hozier with God?

“No, not at all,” says Hozier who was born March 17, 1990. “I would take valuable things from different elements of faith. Let’s say in the Catholic faith, I would have explored that. I would have reflected upon it; but found in it, also, a great obsession with suffering, a deep obsession. And there are limits to how rewarding that is.”

Hozier also says that the Irish have a “close, healthy relationship with suffering. That is self-evident, really”.

What is also self-evident is that Andrew Hozier-Byrne had an enormous talent from a very early age.

“Andrew was in class at St Gerard’s school in Bray with my daughter Storm,” Hozier’s manager Caroline Downey tells me before the show in New York – the first of five sold-out shows in the city.

“Storm said there was this amazing singer at her school. So, I saw him perform in a school concert and was blown away by this 17-year-old’s performance. Initially I was more of a mentor and when Andrew left Trinity College to pursue music full time he locked himself away in his parents’ attic and wrote and recorded some great songs. Andrew sent me the demos, I loved what I heard and we signed him to Rubyworks,” she says of the independent Irish record label set up by Niall Muckian and co owned by Caroline and her husband Denis Desmond.

“We later licensed the album in a split deal between Columbia and Island Records.”

Take Me To Church came out of that top room of his parents’ home in Bray. In 2014, it went to No1 all around the world, was nominated for Song of the Year at the Grammys and went over five times platinum in America, won the Ivor Novello award, 2 Billboard awards and numerous other global accolades. The boy from St Gerard’s did well.

The young man from Co Wicklow – who has become a bona fide international superstar – has a serious reputation but he is also very funny to be around. When I propose dressing up in ridiculous costumes with giant shoes and juggle fish instead of talking about God and existence, he laughs and says: “That is a great plan. Where is my costume? Where is my fish? When do I get some shoes?”

Hozier’s father John was a drummer in a blues band, Free Blues. Hozier fell upon his father’s collection of old records by artists like Robert Johnson. “Then my fascination with it took on its own kind of thing. I was totally drawn to it. Also… this was music from the other side of the world. There is something very exotic about listening to Delta blues, something very faraway, geographically and culturally, and through time.

“I was listening to records that were recorded nearly 100 years ago and the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up. And then as I got older there were references to hoodoo in a lot of blues music. There is so much rich history there and I was fascinated by a lot of that.”

(In 2015, Hozier told the late Gay Byrne on The Meaning of Life about his dad’s unsuccessful spinal surgery when he was a child. “When I was about six or seven he had an operation on his spinal cord which, simply put, didn’t go well,” he told Gay. “That caused irreparable nerve damage. That’s where childhood ends. That was, I suppose, the watershed of childhood.”)

His mother Raine is an artist – she created artwork for Hozier’s latest album Wasteland, Baby! as well as his self-titled debut album in 2014. He describes her as “a strong fantastic woman”.

Did she inform his artistic and intellectual curiosity, Hozier says: “I think definitely but it is hard to tell. Healthy debates were always common enough around the table.”

“Andrew sang before he talked,” Raine told Una Mullally in 2014 in The Irish Times. “He had a beautiful singing voice when he was a little lad, a soprano singing voice.”

As well as being raised by a strong, fantastic woman, Hozier also has a lot of strong fantastic women around him – his manager Caroline Downey chief among them, to say nothing of on-the-road management associate Caroline Henry (“He is not just a phenomenal talent but an utter gentleman who treats all of his band and crew with respect”). Half Hozier’s band are female: Emily Kohavi on fiddle, guitar and backing vocals; Jessica Berry on keys and backing vocals; Kristen Rogers and Rachel Beauregard on backing vocals and synths. There are also five female crew on the road with Hozier: a tour and production manager; a production assistant, a photographer; and a lighting crew chief.

Does that female presence help inform Hozier’s own sense of feminism?

“You could put it that way,” he says. “It is a good thing. I don’t know if it helps inform my feminism. It is just a wonderful energy to be around. They are fantastic people to be around. I think one of the greatest boundaries when it comes to men approaching what we would call a feminist mentality is that most men don’t realise that women are people with rich internal lives… And so in that respect living and working closely with the band [being] half women and half men is fantastic.”

“John Updike and Saul Bellow hold their flashlights out into the world, reveal the world as it is now,” Philip Roth once said. “I dig a hole and shine my flashlight into the hole.” Hozier is bit of all three. Earlier this year, Billboard magazine wrote, in its review of Wasteland, Baby! that Hozier “has been reckoning with his mortality, and the fate of humanity in general, by writing through it.” He says he views songs as a keyhole through time, through history.

“It is a cave painting. ‘Here is a reflection of what was around me at the time.'”

There are thousands waiting outside to get into the Hammerstein Ballroom. Inside, Hozier plays a new song at the pre-show sound check. The song, as yet untitled, follows the line of a lot of the apocalyptic soul songs on his album Wasteland, Baby! The lyric goes: ‘If towers fall, if nothing stands/I’ll build again the world by my baby’s hands.’

Later in his dressing room, an hour before he will go on, Hozier puts meaning to the song.

“I remember there was a press conference or an interview that Donald Trump had given shortly after ‘the mother of all bombs’ was dropped in Afghanistan,” Hozier begins, “and it has a radius of two to three miles which causes permanent deafness in a region where about one million people live.

“This bomb was dropped in a great flurry of press and applause, and this great presidential act was this fairly destructive act. It was lauded. He was talking about how he was sitting down to dinner at one of his properties with the president of China and he was talking about that bomb over this gorgeous piece of Mar-a-Lago cake. You can’t satirize it.

“The line in the song is: ‘Anyone on the take/ or talking the slaughter over cake/ would kneel and break to speak of the love of my baby.’

“So essentially the crux of the song is that everything that claims to represent us and everything of authority that claims to represent our interests absolutely does not represent the best in people that I know or that I have spent time with and that I love. And so it is looking to the person next to you and saying, ‘There is far better things going on in you than there is in everything that claims to represent me out there.'”

There is another new song – this one released to the public two weeks ago – that has a similar theme of protest against authority.

‘All around the world/ You’d think that things were looking rough/But the jackboot only jumps down/ On people standing up!’ sings Hozier on new release Jackboot Jump. The lyrical concern is not so much George Orwell’s vision of the future as Hozier having seen “citizens donning jackboots, kind of weekend jackboot wearers in marches that were going on in places like Raleigh, here in the States, which were essentially…”

The men with the lit torches, I say.

“Yeah, Aryan Brotherhood lads.”

And lassies as well.

“Yeah, totally. And seeing that rise of a wilful celebration of this kind of authoritarian strong-arming… albeit very small… a neo-Nazi movement gaining bravery and showing its face, unapologetically and not in any kind of rebranding form. So, that kind of triggered it initially and then I thought about the jackboot and what it means.

“It is more about state repression of dissent. Standing Rock here was a protest against a pipeline in North Dakota, which has subsequently leaked, which is exactly what the indigenous communities said was going to happen; or in Hong Kong; or in the student protest in Russia over the summer. It was really looking at all that this year and all the things that have taken place in the calendar year, and thinking about, ‘If you were to sum up the feeling of the witnessing of that and looking at that Woody Guthrie legacy or that Pete Seeger legacy and saying, ‘This is something that has happened.’ A lot of Woody Guthrie stuff just bears witness to the time of the dust bowl.”

I ask him about Brexit.

“Brexit I would view as a ruling class con against well-meaning and struggling people. If you look at all the issues that it was said Brexit would fix, they were all political decisions, they were all political policies that were entirely domestic. They are not EU issues. Fund the NHS? The EU doesn’t withhold that funding etc. It is that kind of divisiveness, that kind of turning people against one another, especially people that don’t have as much representation and as much power in society; immigrant population, unskilled or what they would call unskilled labour coming in.”

It is a very polarizing time, I say.

“Absolutely, but I suppose, what I was going to say was: that kind of tactic is as old as the hills: turning people against each-other, throwing red herrings for days and saying ‘This is the fault of immigrants.’ When it’s not… it’s demonstrably not.”

Hozier hasn’t just started taking like this of late. He has been talking this way since he started. In 2014, he told New York magazine that “you grow up and recognise that in an educated secular society, there’s no excuse for ignorance. You have to recognise 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.”

Is Hozier conscious – like Dylan and singers like him in the past – of not wanting to be a spokesperson for a generation?

“That is a tricky one. I don’t want to be anybody’s spokesperson. Because I am not qualified to be anybody’s spokesperson. But what you do want to do is at least bare honest witness to the world as I have experienced it.”

He has been dubbed “truly the bard of the risen people” of Ireland. I ask Hozier what makes him angry about his home country 5,000 kms away.

“There’s plenty,” he begins.

“I love Ireland, I am upset because I think Irish people deserve better than what certain policies and political leadership have offered them. Irish people know that too. I am an Irish citizen; I vote in Ireland when I’m home and I fly home often to vote in Ireland,” he says, “but because I am out of the country for so long I am wary not to put my oar in. The things that upset me are more just knowing that there are so many things that Irish people have deserved better for a long, long time.”

The next time I see him, 30 minutes later, he is the King of New York onstage at the Hammerstein Ballroom, taking Manhattan. The Irishman indeed.

Hozier plays the 3 Arena in Dublin on December 10 and 11

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