Hozier fans were treated on Wednesday night (Oct. 23) to an intimate performance at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, and a peek behind the curtain of his 2019 album, Wasteland, Baby!
Following the mega-success of his 2013 breakout hit, “Take Me to Church,” the crooner released a full length debut album the following year, and subsequently toured nonstop for the two years after. When the craziness all wrapped up in 2016, Hozier admitted that “creatively, I was a bit scattered.”
Deciding that he “needed a hobby,” he delved deep into the newscycle, which in 2016, was quite tumultuous politically due to the effects of the Brexit decision in his home country of Ireland, and the election of Donald Trump across the pond in the United States. “I was following a huge amount of political correspondents and realized that this was just exhausting. I just hit this weird emotional burnout of panic and distress and worry,” he explained.
But the chaos wasn’t all bad, as it struck up inspiration needed to write his four-song 2018 EP, Nina Cried Power, a “thank you note to great artists and the spirit of protests that they embodied in their works.”
On the title track, Hozier references musical icons who were known for standing up for human rights: Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday, Joni Mitchell, Woody Guthrie, and Mavis Staples (who is featured as a collaborator on the track). “There’s a reason why the artists that are named in that song are heroes,” he noted, before adding that Staples herself is the “kindest, warmest, most generous person with her spirit and time.”
“I would have given my right arm to work with Mavis, and still would to do it again,” he added with a chuckle.
“Nina Cried Power,” and its uplifting video that features today’s strongest activists such as Bernadette McAliskey and Saoirse Long, for Hozier, acted as a reminder of the importance of protests, and that a lot of our everyday luxuries that we take for granted came from someone who fought for it.
“In 2016, this was kind of a time where protests were fatigued and people were turning against it and didn’t want politics in their cornflakes,” he explained. “They were sick of it, and I get that. People get fed up with it and turn against that propensity to protest. That’s fine, but it was a reminder to myself to just remember that every single f—ing thing that we have, even down to the weekend and the five-day work week then Saturday and Sunday, exists because somebody protested. Tiny things like that, everything we have to enjoy, every right that we have, every civil right, every human right, nothing has ever been granted out of the good, gracious hearts of the ruling class,” he added cheekily.
In that case, should there be more protest songs? “There’s this question offered to musicians, ‘Do artists have a duty to sing about XYZ?’” Hozier pondered. “I think you have a duty as a citizen to be honest about what you see in the world and duty to be informed about the world around you and be honest about how you experience that. I would love to see a bit more honesty.”
The EP also includes a song called “NFWMB,” which touches on another theme Hozier followed throughout the record and Wasteland, Baby!, the idea of love even when the world is ending–a slightly morbid yet beautiful spin on the political chaos that can often feel like the apocalypse. The song opens with a reference to a poem by William Butler Yeats, titled “The Second Calling.” “When I first saw you/The end was soon/To Bethlehem/It slouched and then/Must’ve caught a good look at you,” Hozier muses over a dark piano beat and acoustic guitar.
“[The poem] is quoted a lot, this line at the end that says, ‘What rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?,'” Hozier explains. “Evoking this sort of Anti-Christ figure, written as if it were a fever dream, this awful experience this man is witnessing and what he imagines the Anti-Christ coming to be born.”
“I took that as a starting point. I guess this is where the hopeful thing is,” he continued. “I’m always trying to find, in love and in interpersonal relationships, the resilience of it and how much hope and strength can be drawn from just the simple, remarkable and everyday existence of love that people have for one another and their willingness to stand by each another. [The song] just describes the objectivity of affection, in this case the far more horrifying thing. I’m coming on like, ‘This is great, it’s terrifying, I’m in love with you.’”
He continued pulling ideas from greater concepts for the full-length album, which skyrocketed to the top of the Billboard 200 albums chart. While many of Wasteland, Baby!‘s songs were drawn from literature and poetry, “No Plan,” on the other hand, was actually inspired by an astrophysicist named Katie Mack. “I was always fascinated by science—first of all, biology, my favorite, and just the awesome complexity of everything fascinated me. So I was following a few scientists on Twitter, and Katie Mack shares a lot of links to articles and interesting stuff.”
The song definitely isn’t science-y, it’s actually quite romantic. “There’s no plan, there’s no kingdom to come/I’ll be your man if you got love to get done/Sit here and watch the sunlight fade/Honey, enjoy, it’s gettin’ late/There’s no plan, there’s no hand on the reign/As Mac explained, there will be darkness again,” he sings in the chorus.
But if it’s anything we’ve learned about Hozier throughout the evening, it’s that the sweetest of love songs come from the heaviest ideas, and that beauty can truly be found in the darkest spaces. “Katie Mack, fascinating mind, has a book I believe coming out soon detailing the five most likely ways the universe will end,” he noted. “Sometimes, when I’m introducing the song, I have to describe one of the most likely things called heat death, which is, to put it simply, every star in the universe has a finite amount of fuel and has to burn itself out. There’s a period of coldness and darkness ahead of what’s sometimes referred to as the springtime of the universe—bountiful, fertile, warm, light, life-giving moment—and then this eternity of winter. Whatever Trump is, there’s far more magnificently worse things to look forward to,” he said…inspirationally.
The night didn’t end on the topic of the apocalypse, though. Joined by his band, the crooner performed a stripped-back set of “Almost (Sweet Music),” “Shrike,” “Movement,” Wasteland, Baby!‘s title track and of course, “Take Me to Church.”
Hozier’s honeyed vocals, along with the soaring harmonies, poetic lyrics and moving instrumentation, captured the essence that the crooner was trying to evoke. In that half an hour, it didn’t feel like the world was falling apart, with all its turmoil, violence and oppression. Instead, the performance felt like fresh air, and hope that love will prevail over it all.