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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Hozier reflects on expanding soundscapes a decade after ‘Take Me to Church’ catapults career

Hozier will perform to a sold-out crowd at Live Oak Bank Pavilion on Tuesday. (Photo by Ruth Medjber)

It’s been a decade since the arrival of “Take Me To Church,” the crossover hit single that made Hozier a worldwide star and established the native of Wicklow County in Ireland as a new artist to watch on the music scene.

The video for the song was posted on YouTube on Sept. 25, 2013 and almost immediately went viral. 

This response got the attention of bigger worldwide labels and Hozier was signed by Columbia Records in America. Songs from his 2013 debut EP and a second EP, “From Eden,” as well as newer tracks were assembled to create Hozier’s self-titled debut album, released in September 2014.

“Take Me To Church,” naturally enough, became the album’s lead single and reached No. 2 on Billboard magazine’s all-genre Hot 100 singles chart that December. By the time touring behind the debut album wrapped in late 2016, the self-titled album had gone double platinum and Hozier was a bonafide star.

“I was sort of operating from quite an indie or alternative space,” Hozier said in a Port City Daily interview recently, “and then that song catapulted me into very, very popular spheres in the way it charted. It absolutely changed my life.”

Sometimes, though, signature songs can also come with unwelcome side effects. Artists can get judged by the success of a monster hit and mocked if they don’t reach those benchmarks again. Or the song can wear on artists as they feel required to perform it at every concert, year after year, onward.

But Hozier has no such afflictions when it comes to “Take Me To Church.” He takes great pride in its writing and message — one that somewhat feels timeless.

“In some respects, that song feels more applicable now than it did at the time 10 years ago,” he said. “So I’m very happy to say I still have a very good relationship with the song, and singing it to crowds and watching their reaction is something that charges me up with a lot of renewed sort of energy each time I sing that song”

Hozier is getting plenty of opportunities to do just that in coming months as he continues an extended round of touring. It stops at Wilmington’s Live Oak Bank Pavilion on Tuesday, May 14.

Born 34 years ago, Andrew Hozier-Byrne has had more hit singles in the last decade — including “From Eden” and “Someone New” from the self-titled album and “Almost (Sweet Music)” from his gold-certified second album, 2019’s “Wasteland, Baby!”

Just last month, “Too Sweet,” the single from his newly released EP, “Unheard,” which includes four songs from the same sessions that produced his current full-length album, “Unreal Unearth,” became his first song to top Billboard magazine’s all-genre Hot 100 singles chart.

He’s also showing considerable artistic growth. “Unreal Unearth” is easily Hozier’s most ambitious and accomplished effort yet.

The soulful pop-rock sound that first defined his music remains intact, but the album is more varied stylistically and has a considerably richer wide-screen sound. It has horns, strings, vintage synthesizers and acoustic instruments, all woven through most of the tracks.

“First Time,” for instance, is essentially a grooving soul ballad, but strings and expansive production give the song an uncommon breadth.

“Francesca” and “Abstract” are pop-flavored and take on an epic feel, with layers of rich instrumentation and atmospheric effects.

“Damage Gets Done,” which features guest vocals from Brandi Carlile, is a soaring pop tune anchored by its loping rhythm.

“Who We Are” is one of “Unreal Unearth’s” several downright beautiful songs, with Hozier’s emotional vocal ascending to strikingly melodic heights.

Even songs that start out modestly, such as the mainly instrumental “Son Of Nyx” and the gentle, largely acoustic ballad “I, Carrion (Icarian),” gain heft with swells of strings that envelop the tracks. “De Selby (part 2)” seamlessly blends funky synthetic sections with a string-laden orchestral

After doing the songwriting on his first two albums — sans two songs he co-wrote — Hozier opened his creative process a bit to collaborate with a number of songwriters/producers on the project. Jeff “Gitty” Gitelman, Daniel Tannenbaum and Jennifer Decilveo are primary contributors, while a variety of musicians also received songwriting credits on various song built out and refined from jam sessions.

From the start of the project, Hozier wanted to take his sound to new heights.

“I knew I wanted it to be broad,” he said. “I was gaining an interest in vintage synthesizers — and especially working with Jeff ‘Gitty,’ he has this wonderful collection of old synthesizers, so to play with that as a texture next to organic sounds and acoustic sounds, like violins and acoustic guitar, I kind of didn’t want to limit anything. I just wanted to explore and make sense of it afterwards, let each song be what it needed to be and explore the spaces they needed to explore. In that way, it became kind of expansive and it became varied. I played around with a lot of sonic textures.”

Thematically, “Unreal Unearth” is rich as well. The 16 songs offer a journey from darkness into light that reflects the pandemic experience and also alludes to “Dante’s Inferno” and Dante’s walk through the nine circles of hell. Hozier uses these as a backdrop for lyrics that he said relate to a range of uncertainty and upheaval he experienced himself or witnessed with people he knew, spanning loss and love, feelings of disillusionment and a resolve to recalibrate daily lives to better align with personal goals for work, social lives, family lives and relationships.  

“Like any album, if you’re writing from a personal place, you’re processing and sort of exorcising and examining personal experiences over a period of time, or [making] personal observations or whatever of the world around you,” Hozier said. “But these all took place in a very, a lot of these experiences took place in a very, very particular, unique and prescient time for the world — in a pandemic. I wanted to acknowledge and to gesture and sort of credit those conditions of coming into something and coming out the other side, without necessarily writing songs or writing an album that focused specifically on the experience of the lockdown, the experience of the pandemic.” 

To translate the kaleidoscopic sound of “Unreal Unearth” (as well as a healthy selection of songs from his first two albums) to the live stage, Hozier has put together a large touring band with plenty of instrumental and vocal versatility. There are nine moving from city to city, including two string instrumentalists, as well as a violinist and cellist who both play guitar, and organ and synth player and Latin percussionist.

“Everybody is a multi-instrumentalist in some way, shape or form, and everybody is a singer,” he said. “So we have nine voices on stage and nine multi-instrumentalists.”

Hozier’s show in Wilmington is sold out.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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