In 2014, Irish singer-songwriter Hozier hit No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 with his rafter-raising single “Take Me to Church,” a sampling of the Delta blues-inspired rock on his eponymous debut released the same year. The exultant track vaulted him from the streets of Dublin to international acclaim, putting him on an international touring circuit that took him through multiple festival stages, the Saturday Night Live studio and a list of sold-out venues that grew in size and number over the next two years.
But in late 2016, he hit a wall of exhaustion from playing the same records live. “In a way I hadn’t done before, I sort of hermited myself,” the 28-year-old says of the break, and the last six months of 2017 in particular. “I produced a lot of demos and just a lot of songs. I think that’s why we have a little bit more material to share this time around, but I worked obsessively in a way I’d never done before. For much of that time a lot of it was a bit of a blur.”
On Sept. 6, Hozier returns with his new EP, Nina Cried Power, with a full-length album to follow in 2019. The title track of the former, which is also the lead single, is inspired by the legacies of artists like Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, Billie Holliday, James Brown and Mavis Staples -- who lends her vocals to the song -- and “crediting the legacy of protest.” It’s a testament to his love of American rock and roll, a celebration of its gospel and R&B roots with musicians like Staples and Booker T. Jones, who contributes his organ-playing both to “Nina Cried Power” and other songs peppering the EP and forthcoming album.
“[Nina Cried Power] is best looked at as a little bit of a sampler, four corners of the world the album populates,” he explains. “That’s how I kind of picture it in my head. Every song is standing around the same awful bonfire [of the world]. Some of them are optimistic; some of them are terrified; some of them are really looking forward to just burning within it.”
Below, Hozier digs into his mission with Nina Cried Power, the message of its rousing single, working with artists who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement and more. (This conversation has been lightly edited for cohesion and brevity.)
Nina Cried Power is the loudest and hardest you’ve screamed on a project. What brought on this raw delivery?
Maybe part of it is just living alone in the countryside and having the space and freedom and no neighbors within earshot. A lot of the demos being made, it was just screaming into a microphone until late in the night. There is a certain sort of energy I wanted to capture across a lot of the songs. I wanted the songs to be enjoyable to perform and exciting to sing and exciting to perform live as well, too. I spent two years on the road with a very, very intense schedule, and it’s very, very hard to write and certainly produce and record music while on the road. It just wasn’t an option for me. After touring the first album I was super fortunate to be able to tour to that extent. It steered me into the position of well, fuck it, I want to write songs that are exciting and fun to play.
Naming your project Nina Cried Power is a bold way to show your appreciation for American rock.
My first introduction to music [was] Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, the music that my dad used to play in the house. From there, I just fell in love with the music coming out of black America. A lot of my folk influences would be coming from Ireland.
There is absolutely no rock and roll without blues music. There is no blues music without one of the most horrendous atrocities of human trafficking in the last few centuries. It is, of course, a really difficult subject. Everything that’s popular music swings off the work and the achievements and the legacy of black artistry… When writing [the title track], it was important to me to have Mavis involved. She was kind of there at the beginning of the song. Even when the song was in its embryonic state and the idea of it was forming, I wanted to credit the legacy of the artists in that song and the names were kind of popping into my head, [and] I knew it needed Mavis. I just felt incredibly fortunate and honored that she got where the song was coming from and vibed with it and was up for being a part of the song. That was a very integral part of the song for me.
When did you first meet Mavis? You’ve been playing in the same circles since “Take Me To Church” took off, but how did this relationship develop and how did it go when you asked her to be a part of this?
We initially attempted to hook up in Australia in Byron Bay, at Byron Bay Blues Festival -- there was talk between our managements because we were going to be at the same festival at the same time. I think we missed each other by a few hours, but there was talk of us getting together or doing a song or just having a chat. Then it was a good few months later -- sadly, we weren’t able to hook up -- the Newport Folk Festival, it was my second time doing Newport, I joined Mavis Staples onstage with loads of other artists for her last number, and it was a really, really beautiful moment. We all got together on stage and then after that her management reached out to see if I was up for doing a bit of writing on her most recent album. Sadly, I was up to my gills on tour. With this project, when I was writing this song, that was always in the back of my head. When I finally got into the studio and was talking about bringing this to life, I reached out to Mavis, finally. Third time’s a charm. We were able to get together on it, which was amazing.
You grew up in Ireland; you were interested and fascinated by American music, but is there a challenge that comes with participating in a narrative anchored in American history and its current national news cycle when you didn’t grow up here? How do you navigate that, having a foot in both worlds?
It’s a tricky one. Ireland had its own civil rights movement in Northern Ireland in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s with internments existing for Catholics and gerrymandering, etc., and trying to bring in a one man/one vote system. Of course, we have our own history with civil rights here. We’re a part of a global community at this stage. In the same way that culture and values cross the world now in such an easy way, we don’t really live in a bordered world when it comes to culture and media. When we are dealing with rhetoric or a global upswing of rhetoric that flies in the face of common human dignity, human rights and human decency, I think that affects us all. And yes, I didn’t grow up in America; that’s not to say that what happens in America doesn’t affect us here and doesn’t reflect, doesn’t make waves across the world, certainly when it comes to foreign policy as well. That’s a whole different kettle of fish. It’s other countries that bear the brunt of those consequences.
The purpose of the song is really to talk about how -- the civil liberties and civil rights that we do enjoy, the kind of common respect for the dignity of people that we take for granted now -- is not something that was ever given. It’s not something that was ever given freely. It was something that was sweated for, and wept, and bled for by people who we thankfully still have around today. We can still look to that legacy, and it is something that will go again and something that we can regress from, or we can progress with. These are tenuous times, but we do live in a global community.
When working with Mavis Staples and Booker T. Jones, did you discuss their experiences in the ‘60s?
I had a week with Booker, so we talked a lot over lunch and stuff. He shared a lot of anecdotes... With Mavis, the other day we were sitting down doing some video work together. We started talking about it … she was saying how the importance of those events were making themselves clear to her with more resistance. Listening to her describe the resistance that she faced and the resistance that movement faced, we look back to the achievements of civil rights as if it were something we were all behind, of course. Who could ever deny this group of people the vote, or deny that segregation or internment is wrong, or the brutalizing of this community is wrong? Who could ever be an apologist for the institutions that carried these policies, that enacted these policies? Who could ever disagree that it’s wrong? At the time, there was such, such resistance, and hearing her speak about that -- in the same way that, again, history so often does repeat itself, and even nowadays we see such resistance to even the simplest stuff, of statements of conscience and statements and decisions of conscience. Being around Mavis and listening to her account was really very unique, and I’m very grateful for it.
Nina Cried Power may serve as an introduction for some of yours fans to Staples and Booker T. Was this something you thought about when you set off on this collaboration?
Mavis and the Staple Singers shaped so much of the musical landscape of my head and heart. So too did Booker T. The first band I joined at 15 used to cover Booker T.’s arrangements and tracks. Some of his arrangements were the first examples of soul music I had ever heard. (This was something I was very grateful to say to Booker T.) Part of it is just because it’s an element of hero worship, for my own self -- it’s a dream come true to work with people who helped shape the landscape of my head and heart in such a way. But also, there’s such a rich history, a treasure trove of artistry and musical contribution, and a contribution of a spirit of bravery, especially in regards to Mavis Staples that I think is important to draw from and be aware of. If one of my younger fans checks out the Staple Singers as a result of that, then that is another reason to engage with that course of action. If a handful of people or one person decides to look up the artists mentioned in “Nina Cried Power” and look into it, like, “What’s this Irish fucker on about here?” and really have a listen to the stuff that moves me, great. That’s a job well done. There’s an element of being able to share, and just share something that moves me with other people as well.
I’m curious about the motivation to release two separate pieces and how exactly they’re connected. Are we exploring the theme of the album on Nina Cried Power, or do they touch on different themes?
Nina Cried Power is about crediting the legacy and the result of protest. It is a thank you note to the spirit of protest. I wouldn’t say as such that that is a through line for the album. The through line for the album certainly could be -- and I mean this in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way -- the end of days, basically. There’s an abiding sense of doom across the record. (laughs) At times, the songs stand around that same abiding sense of doom. Each respond a little bit differently to it. That’s maybe the best way I can try to describe that. “Nina Cried Power,” for me, unbridled optimism: it’s looking at a bad situation, feeling lost, and saying, “There is a legacy and a history we can draw from here, all is not lost!” That, to me, is the core of the song. The song swings off with, “I could cry power. Power has been cried by those stronger than me. People have faced this before. There have been uncertain times before. There has been bravery before. And it has been overcome.” To me, “Nina Cried Power,” it’s looking at the great bonfire of the world and standing in a place of optimism and hope and solidarity. Other songs, some embrace a certain nihilism; it can be anything from a “hurry up and get on with it” to just dancing around the fire and making a bit of noise.
So, optimism first, then nihilism.
(laughs) Yeah! Nihilism to come, I promise you that.