THE PURSUIT OF AWESOME: HOZIER
Few artists are setting the music world on fire like Andrew Hozier Byrne. Since the release of his global smash Take Me to Church in 2013, the Wicklow native has gone on to win numerous prestigious awards including an Ivor Novello and a Billboard Music award too. Nabbing himself a Grammy nomination along the way, the former Trinity College student is the name on everyone’s lips and the future looks brighter than ever for the ambitious musician.
“My earliest memory of music is being a toddler with not much vocabulary. My Dad was a drummer at the time and if my foggy memory serves me right, I was at a daytime blues festival somewhere in Dublin where he was drumming for a blues band when I half toddled/crawled up the steps to him during a break in the set.
The first time I ever sang on stage was at St. David’s Hall in Greystones. I was singing Piasu and I must have been 7 or 8 years old. It was an absolute disaster. All I remember is going for the high note and my voice breaking-probably a dark omen of puberty to come- as I hit this horrendous note. I just froze and buried my head in my hands in front of a few hundred people. I didn’t really know anybody in the crowd except my family but it was terribly embarrassing. Not knowing what to do, I stood there mortified as this midi backing track of Piasu played out sadly, head in hands, until some old woman came up on stage and told me to get off!
It put me off performing for a long time. I had to do the same thing the following night and somehow I messed it up again. As a result, I didn’t like performing for a long time. It wasn’t until I became a teenager, until I had a deeper voice- closer to the voice I have now that I started singing again. It was more for the love of music because back then; I definitely didn’t enjoy being in front of a crowd all that much.
I think a lot of the work you do trying to become a musician, you do in a private space; in your bedroom, or away from everyone else- certainly while you’re finding your own voice or your own music, or your own way of playing an instrument. It’s something you don’t want to share with people until you’re ready. It’s good that I had those opportunities throughout school to do that- be it in talent shows or music events or whatever else.
Music was always one of the few things that I could do. As a teen, I was very interested in delta blues music. I’d usually get up and do a cover of something, like a Robert Johnson song. I suppose it came naturally as it was certainly one of the few things I was good at. I wasn’t athletic and I wasn’t winning sports awards but I was winning music competitions, which was great. Having the opportunity to showcase something that I’d been working on and practicing was fantastic but it wasn’t until much later that I started performing my own music.
I could go on forever about music and still not get to the crooks about why I love it so much. It being introduced to me at an early age, I formed a love for it before I could actually articulate what that love was. I was very close to blues music and rhythm and blues and soul music. Certainly the first time I listened to soul music or heard something that was definitively soul, was Sam and Dave singing Soul Man. It was like the first time tasting chocolate. It was amazing. It was explosive. It was just this uncontainable energy put to music, this fantastic fire put to sound.
At first I was coaxed into singing; you know, your parents find out that you have a voice and that you can sing. Initially I sang in churches while at school, singing the hymns at Christmas mass. Funnily enough, I always hated it. I never wanted to sing in front of people. I was always being asked to sing and I really disliked it until I found something that was very much my own, that I actually wanted to sing. I think that’s a big part about being a teenager. You find something that gets you through, that’s very much your own thing that nobody else has, that nobody else can take away from you. I remember being a teenager and it’s a really shit time- I wouldn’t be a teenager again for the world. It was awful and nobody tells you that either, nobody gives you a heads up or a warming. As you’re going in to it, nobody says “you’re in for an odd time, it’s going to be awful and the social hierarchy is going to be at its most harsh and wherever you are in the social hierarchy of your own community, you’re always going to feel like shit, whether you’re at the top of it or at the bottom of it. You’re going to feel alone, you’re never going to feel like you’re enough, and you’re going to feel insecure”. It’s a funny stage in life. Everyone’s lashing out at each other in some awful way to make sense of themselves but of course, ultimately, it all works out and it’s FINE. You’ll come out the other end a stronger person.
Even during those days, I wasn’t all that interested in the music that my peers were listening t. I loved classic rock n roll and blues music. Tom Waits was someone I looked up to. Music was something that I just loved, something I had a greater passion for than anything else and I think that’s stayed with me. My first musical education was Dad’s record collection and all of his tastes. The mix cassette tapes that he had put together for rehearsals of his own band as a young man- I loved those right up to the point when I was learning to drive in an old banger of a car, with an old tape machine and throwing in one of those blues tapes that I listened to in my teens.
I feel exceptionally lucky I had the opportunity to follow the dream I wanted to follow with the support of my parents and it always blows my mind how lucky I am. My parents didn’t have that choice. My Dad was drumming and supporting himself and my Mam before they had kids, but they didn’t have the support of their parents in the same way and they didn’t have the opportunities that I had. For him, he wasn’t able to continue drumming as a career, he had to get a career in a more traditional 9-5 sphere when children came along. It makes me think how lucky I am to follow my dreams and have my opportunity to do so and how glad I am that I did and that my parents were very supportive.
Mind you, it hasn’t been easy. Every step of the way as a teen I doubted myself but I kept going. In this industry, you have to have a blind passion or belief or faith. Faith and belief are funny things because you have to maintain them; sometimes with the whole idea of having faith in something, you have a belief in it regardless, without evidence of it.
After finishing school, I went to Trinity College to study music and I got through maybe six months of it. I knew in my heart that if I had done four years of it, I wouldn’t have been happy. Also theoretically, I wasn’t strong. I don’t know how they even let me in to be honest! I knew that I wanted to write contemporary music- music that would be played on the radio that people could enjoy. I knew going in there that I didn’t want to end up as an academic so that kind of helped my decision to leave.
I dropped out of college without having written any of the material that ended up on my debut album two or three years later. It’s funny, nothing was really happening for me at the time. If I was to go back and look at my work now - and I often do, I go back and look at my old demos and stuff I was writing- I would look at it with deep scorn and think it’s absolute crap. When I dropped out of Trinity, I knew it was going to be a while before I was going to get anywhere and I knew there were lots of skills I still had to learn but I had this iron belief it would work out somehow. I knew that if I didn’t at least try to walk that path and see how it went, I would never forgive myself and be totally happy. I would have never told my parents this at the time, but I felt like if it took me ten years or twenty years before I had my debut album and be able to live as a musician, I would still have to do it because I had to be true to myself.
Looking back, in those three years, I was completely lost and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was learning by trial and error. It’s the best type of schooling. Every failure, you fail and do it again and you fail a little bit better next time. The thing I am best at today, are the things I have failed at most through trial and error. I remember at the time my friends were going to college doing business courses or something that made sense- it was an applicable skill that would work for an associated job but I felt like I had to build this dream and not have any blueprints. I had nobody to tell me or advise me and nobody I could really ask so it was just a case of trying, blindly failing and then trying again.
To this day I still question myself and I still doubt myself and that’s something I think is important- you should never feel like you’ve arrived or achieved what you wanted to achieve. That’s a funny little punch line in life, it seems; that we’re never happy- you’re always looking forward to the next thing or always questioning what you could have done better and you always want to work better and more.
I appreciate everything I have today so much. I could never have expected for it all to happen so quickly. It’s an odd one. Making my debut album, I had no idea it could ever go this big. In my teens, late teens and early 20’s I thought was doing down the safe route, writing stuff that was soul pop or folk soul pop or something like that; stuff that I thought was palatable. I think with the album and a lot of the songs that ended up on the first EP, I made a conscious decision to write music that felt more honest to my influences and therefore I felt they would have been a little more left of field and obscure than just doing stuff that was stronger on the folk side or the rhythm and blues feel to it. I expressively made the decision to write stuff that wasn’t palatable for the mainstream so I was very surprised with the success of Take Me to Church. At the time of us finishing it and with everything that was in the top 10 at the time, Take Me to Church was not an obvious hit- I didn’t think people would get it. Certainly, I was very proud of the song and so excited about it but I felt a very small audience would appreciate it. I saw my career go in a slow trajectory. I saw it as a slow grower, a slow build and I was very comfortable with that. Things took off for that song in ways that I never would have expected it and the album came with it. Things have gone at a pace that I never would have imagined for my album.
It’s funny, sometimes you arrive at the point of this lucid moment of "WTF, how did this happen, what am I doing here, this is surreal". A lot of the time I never get a chance to actually sit and think about everything that’s happened and the experiences I’ve had. It’s only when you’re forced to talk about it and sit and think about it that it hits you. Usually you’re concentrating on what you’re doing that day or trying to stop yourself from freaking out or having a panic attack and just focusing on the job you have to do that day, whatever TV show it might be or whatever gig you’re doing. You’re more concerned about that and life in this industry busy. I didn’t know that I could physically be as busy as I’ve been the last year. I didn’t think it was physically possible to squeeze so much in. I have to rethink my whole idea of physics!
I’ve been very, very fortunate and very, very lucky. There have been a lot of fantastic events and TV shows but on a personal level, the Grammys was a huge honour and there was an Ivor Novello award, which was very special to me. You tick every box and I suppose because you’re freaking out at the time, you don’t grasp it in yourself and in your own heart that you’re ticking off a box that you’ve held for years. You’ve ticked off a dream that you’ve had for years. You don’t actually register when it happens because you're very busy.
One of the biggest highlights has been meeting other musicians who have inspired me along the way, whose music has shaped me, people like Paul Weller for example. I was also very honoured to sing with Bono and the Edge at an event in New York. Meeting Lisa Hannigan for the first time was a special moment too. I remember seeing Lisa perform on Other Voices for the first time. Because my head was buried in early 20th century blues music, I wasn’t listening to Damien Rice or Lisa so when I saw her performing Lille back in 2007/8 on her own, it was really special. She had her own brand of folk music and what she was doing was so much her own, there was such worth and value to it and so many ears for it and such love- that really encouraged and inspired me in a great way. It made me feel like it was something I could do also. To actually get to meet that person and hopefully getting to tell them that, that’s a big thing. It’s music and other musicians that make you love music as an art and as a way of life and getting to meet these people is hugely inspiring and fulfilling.
For anyone hoping to make it in this industry my advice is to do it yourself and don’t wait on somebody else. It’s easy to wait and fill in the gaps with what you think you might need before you can start going. You can give yourself a 1,000 reasons to delay or to stop. I procrastinated for a long time and I know what it’s like. I think the way our secondary school system works, you fall out of it burnt out and you don’t know what to do with yourself, you don’t know who you are. The education system caters nothing for actually figuring out who you are as a person, you just learn facts and recite them which I think is a crying shame. It takes time to figure that out and figure that part of yourself out but a lot of it you just have to do yourself and that’s all I ever did. Also remember that ultimately you have to stand over your music and choices by yourself but that you will get there. Whether you believe you can or you can’t, you are correct. If you believe you can do it, you’re correct; if you believe you can’t, you’re correct. You have to have faith. That was a big thing for me, it was this iron belief which stood up somehow in the face of absolute mediocrity when I was shit and making music that I wouldn’t rate now or then. I knew at the time when I was learning to write that it wasn’t good enough. Also, in this game there’s no harm in keeping your cards close to your chest until you’re ready to show them; there’s no harm in working on your craft until you’re ready to show it to others. Have a high standard for yourself.”
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