Andrew Hozier-Byrne talks about his No. 2 charting debut album, performing on Saturday Night Live, his Irish background, and reflecting on the human experience as honestly as possible.
I’ve always imagined it’s incredibly nerve-wracking to play SNL. How did it go for you?
It went OK, I hope [laughs]. Yeah, it was nerve-wracking. I was nervous. It’s a big dream come true in many ways. By the time you do the rehearsals and soundcheck and the dress rehearsal, then you’re kind of comfortable with the stage. You find out how everything’s going to go.
But yeah, it felt great. It felt good. It was great to be part of having Bill Hader back as well. I think that episode was 40 years to the day of the first one, too.
I remember watching the promos and it looked like you were trying hard not to crack up.
Oh big time, yeah. Bill Hader is a laugh. He’s great.
How difficult was it picking what second song you were going to play?
We were always going to go with “Take Me to Church.” It’s the lead single for the album. With “Angel,” it’s a decision that there’s a lot of people involved in. It has to work right. First of all, with the TV producers, it’s what works for the show and what’s appropriate for the show. I wouldn’t get up there and do “Cherry Wine” or some kind of soft folk song, I guess. Yeah, it was nice. I don’t get a chance to showcase “Angel” all that often.
The first song I heard from you was “Cherry Wine,” because it was on the Wish I Was Here soundtrack. I was amazed to hear that song was recorded live and outside. Can you talk about what that was like?
Yeah, it wasn’t our intention to go out there and record a song at all. I was doing photos for press shots and stuff with an Irish photographer called Dara Munnis. We wanted to go into an abandoned building, so we broke into this abandoned hotel, which was in a nearby town.
When we were in there, it was all moldy. It looked fantastic because it was all nature overgrowing. There had been fire damage, and water damage and stuff, so there was beautiful mixtures of rust and mold and charred black everything, with grass growing over it. It looked great, but we couldn’t get photos in there that didn’t look horrifically terrifying. It just looked like a murderer in a murderer’s den, so we went up to the roof and took some shots up there.
The night previously we went there at about 5 a.m. to try and get natural sunlight, and also avoid going in there during the daylight, when it was quiet. I just asked the photographer if his camera could take footage. I basically decided to go there with a microphone, like an old T-Bone, a very standard vocal mic, and a laptop.
We decided hours before going, let’s try and record a session. The audio from that was all recorded on one microphone, and that ended up being “Cherry Wine.” It’s amazing it ended up on a soundtrack for a movie like that.
Also, I know right as “Take Me to Church” was taking off, that was used on an episode of The Leftovers. What’s it like seeing your music now pop up in these different worlds and mediums?
It’s really surreal. Sometimes I don’t find out about it until I see it. Not so much with TV, but you might see it on a small ad or something like that, or a bit part in something. It’s crazy, but it’s exciting. It’s nice that people connect to the music. It’s a nice way to get a new audience too, I guess.
I understand you had been writing music for a while and then a couple years ago wrote “Take Me to Church, ” which reshaped what direction you ended up going in. Can you talk about how that went down?
I was always writing music for myself as a solo artist, as well as doing all these other projects. I was working on recording other songs around this time, but I don’t know. I worked with some great producers and stuff, but I felt like always something I wanted was to record. There was always something I wanted to get down and articulate, a sound or an atmosphere.
With “Take Me to Church” and two other songs at the time, “Angel of Small Death” and “Like Real People Do,” I just demoed them at home. I explored the atmosphere and the sound of that. I talked to Rubyworks, who are now my label. What do you think of these songs? Do you want to try and make something of them?
I wanted to be more a part of the production then in the past. That went well, and ever since then that’s the way I’ve recorded. “Take Me to Church” was the first time I really explored production myself.
People always seem to remark on how much American influences are in your music, with the blues and the gospel and stuff. Are people surprised to learn that you’re Irish?
Oftentimes, yeah, people are surprised, and especially in Ireland, too. You’d be amazed. Even a year after “Take Me to Church” had come out, even still, people were finding out that I was from Ireland and that I wasn’t an American act or something. People just assumed. Ireland’s a small place, I guess. When “Take Me to Church” was first on radio, no one thought I was from Wicklow, so that does happen quite a bit.
It makes sense. I mean, the majority of music I listened to throughout my whole life was only American music, only blues music. I guess a huge amount of my education comes from here.
There’s been so much great music to come out of Ireland over the years. How close-knit of a musical community is it over there?
It’s an interesting kind of place. It’s so, so small, but there is a huge amount of talent that comes out of it. I think because it is as small as it is, Irish artists try to look outside of Ireland, seeing if there’s a market for them in the U.K., or in America or in Europe. But it’s a wonderful community.
Like anything else, there’s different communities of different styles and genres and stuff. It’s quite nice around Christmas, when you often have some of Ireland’s most beloved musicians getting together to do concerts because everyone knows each other. Everyone ends up knowing each other anyway, so you get a nice homecoming in Ireland in December.
One of the things you’ve said you like to write about, particularly on this record, is about awful things but in a good way. Can you talk about how that process works?
I suppose it’s awful things in a pretty way. I don’t know. I try and reflect on human experiences as honestly as possible. Say looking at something like love, looking at the darker and more complex aspects to it. Something like love is never as simple as one emotion. It’s never as simple as one thing. It’s a huge, huge mix of a very conflicting and paradoxical process.
It’s like a mental illness in many ways. Not really, but I was trying to look at the more natural parts of being a person. How sad that can sometimes be, how limited you are and how lost you can be, but also how there is a joy and a wonder in that, too. You’re born alone and you die alone, but you’re alone together with other people.
You’ve said you drew inspiration on the album from people like James Joyce and Oscar Wilde. How much do you draw from your own life versus things you read about and stuff like that?
Oh, big time. The books would be more lyrical influences, I guess. There would be a few themes in Portrait of the Artist. It’s really just the construction of the sentences and the way language is used oftentimes.
The stories in the album, they do start in personal experience. They come from a place of personal experience. It’s when you read books like that, it opens your eyes to things you didn’t think about all that much before or you didn’t know how to articulate them. You were aware of them, but you weren’t sure how they could be put in words.
Ireland has a long and slightly complicated history with the Catholic Church, and on the album you use some of that imagery in different ways. It’s obviously a part of the single, but it’s also on songs like “Work Song” and “Foreigner’s God.” What was the inspiration for doing that?
It depends from song to song, to be honest. With “Work Song,” that’s more of gospel thing. There’s a lot of influences in that. I love blues music and I love gospel music. In their vernacular, there’s references to the devil and references to God. In blues music, the devil pops up as a character plenty of times.
With “Take Me to Church,” it’s using the language against itself, if that makes sense. It’s using the language to express that I need to be free of that language and be free of those concepts. Only being able to use those concepts, I suppose you would lift more particularly from those terms. Being from Ireland, God hangs in the air quite a bit.
The years leading up to this album, I was thinking quite a lot about the legacy of the Church and the history of the Church, and it stems from frustration. With “Foreigner’s God,” I was thinking about how sadly the only time I was going to use the word “God” or “Jesus” is as a curse word, as an expression of frustration and an expression of grief.
For a concept that over the planet, over so much time and over the entire Earth, has caused so much suffering and has been used as a tool to justify so much suffering and abuse, how apt and how fitting, how tragically appropriate it is that it has become a curse word.
I wanted to ask about one of the bonus tracks real quick, because I know you’ve always been talking a lot about the album ones, and that’s “In the Woods Somewhere.” I thought that was a really haunting song with some interesting visuals. Can you talk about that one?
Yeah, that’s one of my favorites. I’m sad in some ways that it didn’t make the cut. It’s massively influenced by Skip James. It’s a big Skip James beat, and also influenced by living in the countryside, I suppose.
I just wanted to write a story again about somebody finding a reason, if at least not to live, a reason not to die. It’s like a little story of a person who’s singing to a lover who’s already dead. They see something in the forest that scares the shit out of them so much that he realizes in that moment he didn’t want to die anymore.
I remember living out in Wicklow and hearing a fox for the first time. If you’ve ever heard a fox make the call of a fox at night, it can be quite a horrific experience. It sounds like a mix between a woman and a baby screaming. It’s a very, very piercing scream that sounds very, very human.
I remember the first time growing up and hearing that in the woods near where I lived. It was chilling. I thought something horrific was happening. It would move you to run out into the woods and check it out. I wanted to write a story based around that. It’s a heavy one. We had a lot of fun recording that because it’s heavy, so we beat the shit out of it.
On this album you get the sense that this is maybe only the first or second chapter in a long book for you. What’s that like experiencing firsthand, and where do you think the story goes from here?
I don’t know. For the most part, so much of the time is in doing it. It’s so busy and so hectic, you don’t get to experience it until it’s over. In one sense, it’s funny. You’re so hopped up on adrenaline. You’re so freaked out at the time.
Take, for instance, Saturday Night Live. It was yesterday, and even today you’re on a high from it. With any event, something happens and you don’t process it until you come down from it, and then you get to realize what it means to you as a person to have done Saturday Night Live. It’s so busy at the minute. I just hope the album is received well.
Next, I have a lot of touring ahead of me. A huge amount of 2015 will just be touring. I’ll be touring for the rest of the year. I’ll be touring for most of next year. The goal is somebody who writes songs. That’s where it started. That’s what drives me still. So I’m really looking forward to a chance to maybe get a few more new songs out to people, even if it’s a small offering of tracks or whatever.