We’re all going to die eventually, but Andrew Hozier-Byrne, a.k.a. Irish singer-songwriter Hozier, has been reckoning with his mortality -- and the fate of humanity in general -- by writing through it.
“There’s something Tom Waits said about bad news [coming] from a pretty mouth, which is something I’ve always enjoyed,” he says. We're talking about Wasteland, Baby!, his sophomore album, at the New York City headquarters of his label, Columbia Records, when the conversation turns to the title track. The song features some of his gentlest, calmest crooning on the record, even though he's quite literally singing about the death of the planet and end of humankind. He’s not exactly smiling when he quotes Waits, but there’s a mischievous glint in his eyes when he speaks about this collection of “love songs for the end of the world,” as he introduces them.
“It’s dealing with the absolute worst case scenario to a comical point,” he explains. “[If] it’s an absurd love song that’s about the world ending in no metaphorical way, at least make it a whistle-able tune… You get great results out of just approaching that light and dark.”
Hozier devours the news and keeps up with all of the political unrest, environmental catastrophes and violent clashes contained therein. His consumption of it all has yielded a haunting and challenging yet ultimately satisfying listen that anyone genuinely worried about the state of the world will find relatable.
The sharpness of the subject matter isn't a huge surprise for fans who were moved by the music videos for past singles “Take Me to Church” and “Cherry Wine,” which examined homophobia and domestic abuse, and loved last year's Nina Cried Power EP, which featured collaborations with his heroes. (The set's title track -- Hozier’s highest-entering chart debut -- features the talents of Mavis Staples and Stax Records legend Booker T. Jones, who played organ on the song and produced the bulk of Wasteland, Baby!'s songs.)
His willingness to confront difficult topics and world-shifting calamites takes different shapes across Wasteland, Baby!: Uplifting tunes ripe for festival season like "Almost (Sweet Music)" and "Nobody" offer brief, flirtatious reprives from doom, while "Dinner and Diatribes," the song he's most excited to play for audiences on tour this time around, is imbued with a far more erotic (and fatalistic) urgency: I’d suffer hell if you’d tell me what you’d do to me tonight.
But "Wasteland, Baby!" is the mission statement, and it ends the album not with a bang, but a Sufjan Stevens-esque whisper. The end of life on earth as we know it is directly addressed in the lyrics, as is the hope that something new will follow: When the stench of the sea/ And the absence of green/ Are the death of all things/ That are seen and unseen/ Are an end, but the start of all things that are left to do.
In a conversation with Billboard, Hozier explored this “light and dark” of his Wasteland and spoke about working with Staples and Jones, the negative trade-offs of success and why he found the apocalypse to be a fitting muse.
The last time we spoke, our conversation landed on a heavy note: Your Nina Cried Power EP is about optimism in dark times, and Wasteland, Baby! is... not. How does the process of making and putting out Wasteland compare to the process behind Nina?
All that work was made around the same time, so all the work was written in the same period. That said, songs that were on that EP, like “Nothing Fucks With My Baby” -- that's very much another love song for the end of the world. It draws less from environmental disaster and plays with a kind of biblical apocalypse, drawing from Yeats’ “Second Coming” poem and how he characterizes that happening. I’m happy with the work, I’m proud of the work. I just hope people enjoy it and know where it’s coming from.
I know that Booker T played on "Nina Cried Power," but he has a stronger presence on Wasteland than he does Nina, right?
Certainly, yeah. He’s maybe on one or two tracks on the EP, but we did eight or nine songs with Booker in studio. There’s an extended version of "Nina Cried Power" which hasn’t been released which has him playing a lot more. He’s across a huge amount of those songs. Working with him was a total dream. The first band I ever was in, we were covering mainly Stax Records tunes -- Booker T and the MGs, Sam and Dave, soul music and blues music. Booker T was the Stax band leader and arranger, and he wrote a lot of blues classics, like “Under a Bad Sign” by Albert King. He’s a genius. He’s a total dude.
What’s something you learned from working with him?
There’s a kind of quiet genius to Booker T’s presence. He’s had such an incredible career. For me, the hardest part of the game nowadays is to have a career in four years' time, in forty years' time, as opposed to writing a quick smash hit. I wouldn’t find that as much of a challenge. Yeah, you can write a trendy pop hit, but for me, the challenge is to have a career and still be working and contributing music at Mavis or Booker T’s age. There’s something incredible about that. It’s also wonderful talking to him about the music he listened to and what switched the light on. For him, it was seeing Al Jackson’s band perform once. That was the thing that changed his life, which was awesome talking to him about. His music was one of the things that changed my life.
Speaking of hits and longevity: You had a massive hit out the gate with "Take Me to Church." Is that something that stresses you out, this goal of staying present and continuing to make music for years to come?
I’ve been fortunate with that success. Ultimately it can’t stress me out, because if people connected with "Take Me to Church" for whatever reason that they did, if I was to go into a writing room and try to create that four times over, I wouldn’t be writing from the same place I wrote that song, and there’d be something disingenuous about it. It was important for me to take a step back and take stock of what it is that I wanted out of my own work. That was very much the intention with this record and writing something like "Nina Cried Power." I didn’t consider how it could impact. Everybody has a duty they feel they need to make. I wanted to just write something that I felt I wanted to hear being written. Whether I would write it or someone else would write it, I wanted to write music I wish I heard more of.
Wasteland has a lot of what your fans loved about the first album: the folk strains, the choir elements, the bluesy underbelly. But it just sounds like there’s more on this album -- more voices singing, more hands clapping, the presence of more people. Was this a more collaborative effort in general?
The band that I had last time round, we were seven-piece all in all. It was always big, there were always harmonies that needed singing. Now there’s one extra player, an organ player who’s trying to fill the void of Booker T. I was listening to a lot of folk music, a lot of Alan Lomax recordings and blues music before writing some of this stuff. They’re recordings of music just being performed and played by congregations, people singing for its own sake as they go about their day. I like listening to some Irish folk music as well, too. Folk music is very much at the core of where I started writing. There are a lot of hand claps and natural sounds -- the sounds of people making noises with their own instruments, their own physical bodies. I still find that to be a really, really powerful sound. It has something to it, with hands and feet stomping and voices in harmony. There’s a good element of that.
I consider myself a singer before anything else. I’m not a guitarist’s guitarist; I’m not a great guitar player, and I'm sure as hell not a good keyboard player. So for me, I often explore the arrangements of a song with just vocal parts. I might write parts as voices that end up being played as other instruments when I’m in the demoing process, because it’s far easier for me to sing the part I hear in my head as opposed to transposing it and finding it on guitar.
So much great folk and soul music came out of fractured moments in history. You wrote these songs a year ago, but now they have a whole new context. Has Wasteland intensified for you between the time you wrote it and its release?
At the time, I was just reading the news and trying to reconcile these anxieties and concerns with what we might be facing as a global community over the next few years. I won’t speak to whether I’m hopeful or what my outlook is, but some of the songs are trying to confront those concerns. Sometimes answer them, sometimes not. Sometimes they just yield to that anxiety, the dread -- like “Wasteland, Baby!”
In some cases, the stuff I was reading and worried about [was] still down the line, but it’s amazing to see how shit has gotten far, far worse in regards to environmental crises or disasters. There was a report funded by NASA sometime in 2016 which concluded that organized society as we know it, in 50 years or 100 years time, could alter irreparably. It’s interesting seeing stuff like that, or the "12 years" talking point, which someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was pushing -- a United Nations report that said, "Look, there’s 12 years to make severe change to the way we consume energy, or we could be in a runaway global warming scenario." It’s interesting seeing how much things have changed, and not always for the better. Sometimes you look at that, and it’s like, Jesus. Sometimes you think twice about why you wrote a song. I don’t think on this one, with cases like that, I don’t necessarily regret writing the tune.
Why Wasteland, Baby!? Where did the name come from, and why is this the final song we hear on the album?
I stood back from the main body of the work, which was maybe 15-20 songs at first. The songs all either carried consciously or unconsciously some element of doom and gloom approaching, or they were taking stock of something or saying farewell to something. Like “Shrike,” which says, “Remember me in the next life when this is all said and done,” or “Would That I,” which is just obsessed with fire and the burning of things.
When "Wasteland, Baby!" was written, it seemed to sum up a certain vibe across the album. I think it certainly felt at the time, in 2016, 2017, with the kind of civil discourse and political discourse that was taking place at home and abroad in Europe and over here of course, like we were moving towards -- in regards to our leadership -- a bit of a moral wasteland. It was just really leaning into that. “Wasteland, Baby!” the tune, with its exclamation mark and this wry smile to it, seemed to just sum up some of that kind of gallows humor that’s across all the songs. It’s dealing with the worst case scenario, but maybe it’s a very Irish thing -- if you don’t laugh, you’d cry, so you try to meet these things with a smile on your face.