Hozier taking the music world to ‘Church’

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BY SELENA FRAGASSI | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA

When Hozier guest-starred on “Saturday Night Live” earlier this month, it was almost 22 years to the day that Sinead O’Connor infamously ripped up a picture of Pope John Paul II on the same stage. The visual was admittedly on the mind of the descendant Irish singer-songwriter as he prepared for rehearsals — and although he didn’t affect any charades during a live performance of hit “Take Me to Church,” the song has become his own protest.

While much has been written about the deep and sultry number (ironically O’Connor released an unrelated track with the same title earlier this year), Hozier says the message of “Take Me To Church” is ultimately about loving somebody. “Sex and love are the most natural and wonderful things a person can do, and [the song] puts that up against an organization like the Catholic Church or any institution that would undermine what it is to be a human being through its doctrine,” says Hozier, the son of two reformed Catholics.

Hozier When: 9 p.m. Oct. 26 Where: Metro, 3730 N. Clark Tickets: Sold out Info: Visit metrochicago.com

When it was released in September 2013, the accompanying music video was just as sensational, with black-and-white footage directed by former Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty that centered on the backlash received by a gay couple in Russia, which mirrored the experiences of the country’s LGBT community in real time. It was a boon for both the crusaders of gay rights and also Hozier’s career.

The video went viral, racking up more than 14 million views and transforming the 24-year-old, born Andrew Hozier-Byrne, into an overnight sensation. His self-titled debut (released Oct. 7) is already one of the best charting albums of a new artist in 2014, and a string of dates through March 2015 are sold out.

“It’s incredibly flattering,” he says, chalking up the whole experience to a whirlwind he never really expected.

The artist grew up modestly in Ireland, the son of a working blues musician who introduced his son to a vast catalog of Chicago-style greats. “Muddy Waters was a huge influence. I listened to him and Howlin’ Wolf endlessly as a teen,” he recalls. John Lee Hooker was also a mainstay as Hozier started to teach himself guitar at 15 on a “cheap Strat replica” someone had given him.

He spent his youth singing in blues-rock bands with his older high school peers and eventually joined the acclaimed Celtic choral group Anuna before entering college. The choir gave him an education in texture and harmony, he says, but it was short-lived as Hozier opted to drop out of both the musical group and school to focus on his solo material full-time.

“I had to make the choice to be an instrument in someone else’s dream or be my own,” he says of the decision, which was fortuitous as major labels started asking for demos.

By now he had discovered lyricists like Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, singers like Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Otis Redding and a breadth of writers that “captured a new kind of earth,” including Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, W.B. Yeats and the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. Together, they started to impact the way Hozier thought and how he wrote his folk/soul/blues-inspired songs, which were perfected by playing open mic nights and small support gigs.

Many of them transferred to his self-titled album, which includes numbers like “In A Week,” about the rampant deaths in his countryside hometown of Wicklow Hills, or “Cherry Wine,” a musical talk piece on the gravity of domestic violence — heavy stuff for the pop nomenclature.

“Those are the things I’m drawn to and think about,” he says, dismissing any notion of being controversial. “There are enough people writing about dancing in the clubs. That doesn’t move me.”

Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.

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