Just imaging how much the world has changed in the 4.5 years since Hozier dropped his eponymous debut... 'Dizzying' doesn't come close. The 29-year-old Irishman (full name Andrew-Hozier-Byrne) was deep in the thick of that universal shifting, too – in the two years of breathless touring that followed the September 2014 release of Hozier, the indie-soul heart-melter saw love, loss and political disarray in every corner of the globe.
Hell, who wouldn't wanna take a few years off!?
Wasteland, Baby! picks up a short while after Hozier's internal catastrophies reached their peak. It's an album as smooth, soulful and sexy as the last one (perhaps even moreso in parts), yet worlds more intense and introspective; where Hozier felt consistently youthful and tongue-in-cheek, LP2 shows us a man whose smirk has wrinkled and eyes have grown weary. It's a brilliant follow-up to the album that sent Hozier himself into a tizzy of fame and fandom, and as he gears up to do it all over again, we stuck our heads in for a quick tour of the so-called wasteland he'll be dwelling on.
How does it feel now that Wasteland, Baby! is finally out there in the wild?
Yeah, it's a good feeling! There’s a bit of an un-burdening with that, I have to say, because y’know, this album has been burning a hole in my pocket for a long, long time. It’s just nice to share it with people and finally let them hear it.
I don’t think it’d be much of a stretch to say we’ve been waiting a damn long while for the record, coming up on five years since the self-titled one came out. What led to such a long break between drinks?
I know it seems like a long time, but for me, it felt a lot quicker. I was on the road for a good two-and-a-half years, living out of a suitcase and playing that first album around the world. And then I needed to decompress from that, and it took me another year. I wanted to take at least six months to a year off after all the kind of glitter and the roar and the madness of those two years, just to get back to a quiet place. I wanted to take my time with the work, also, and make sure I was writing music that I wanted to hear be written, with the same kind of ethos that I wrote the first record with.
Did your micro-sabbatical aide in brewing creativity, or did you find yourself stuck with the writer's block that a lot of other artists have when they come off a successful debut?
I wouldn’t say it was "writer’s block", as such. I mean, once I got into the actual flow of writing work again… Because it had been so long – it had been two-and-a-half years before I’d even had an opportunity to sit down and write, and actually have the time and space to focus – I had so many ideas, so many little bones of these demos, and a journal full of little scribbled notes. So y’know, I had a lot of stuff to sink my teeth into. I had a lot of ideas that just seemed to want to be written and seemed to want to come to life. So that wasn’t a struggle – the struggle was finding out what songs to leave behind, and what to not put on it.
Were you writing those songs with an album in mind, or did they start off as just loose ideas that sort of snowballed into a bigger picture?
I think the intention was just to write stuff that felt honest, and kind of played with some of the concerns and anxieties of the odd times that we were living in. I wrote a lot of songs that had no specific direction attached to them, and then when I stepped back from the work, having written maybe 15 or 20 songs, I felt that there was a kind of through-line through all of it. There was this feeling of grief and worry that kind of hung in the air. And then when I wrote "Wasteland, Baby!" – that song is about imagining the absolute worst-case scenario that can be imagined, and still trying to look at that with good intentions and find something optimistic in it all. It's a bit of a squeeze of the hand; just trying to find something that appeals to the warm centre of people, even in that worst-case scenario. And I think that really sums the record up for me.
Having binge-listened to the self-titled record at least once a week for a good three years there, I was surprised at how little Wasteland, Baby! is about sex, and how much it is about pain and heartache, and the taxing journey of coming into your own. You've lived a lot of life since that first record came out, hey?
It's a product of the time I was writing it in. I was definitely quite taken with – in mid-2016, 2017 – the whole political climate of the world. Y'know, it was kind of like the doomsday clock was being moved two minutes to midnight. It was a very weird time for geopolitics, and it was a really ugly time, I have to say, for a lot of political discourse and a lot of civil discourse – a lot of really ugly narratives were being given a mainstream platform, 24/7.
I was being swept up in the worst of the worst type of political discourse, and so a lot of [Wasteland, Baby!] became about looking at the limitations of what singing can offer us – the limitations of ourselves as people, and the limitations of love in that climate. It’s a hard one to define. Also, I just wanted to have a bit more fun with the music, y’know? There was definitely a tongue-in-cheek element with the first record, but I was keen to write with a voice that couldn’t be taken all too earnestly or all too seriously with some of the songs on this record as well.
I feel like blues music has always been, at its core, a very cathartic genre. Did you find that the musical framework you were working in helped you channel what it is you wanted to say with this record?
Yeah, my grounding is definitely in blues and folk music; it was my first step into the world of listening to and writing music. I think when you’re honest with your work... Y'know, we can throw the word ‘cathartic’ around, but I do find that writing about our concerns and our anxieties, and our fears... When you plumb the depths for those anxieties and those fears, and you hold them up and try to credit them in a song – try to put a name to them – you’re… At best, maybe you’re kind of reconciling with something. And y’know, that reconciliation can feel very helpful and worthwhile.
There's definitely something therapeutic about getting something off your chest in the form of a song. It gives you a sense of power over your anxieties, and an autonomy that other methods of coping can't.
I don’t know if it’s any better a coping mechanism than anything else – there’s no cure for Planet Earth, y’know what I mean? It’s pointless. It definitely helps to hold your own shit in plain sight of yourself.
On more of a positive note, what was the most gratifying thing about making this album?
It was a long process, but I'm already eager to write again; I'm eager to explore new ideas and different concepts. Something I'll never forget – an absolute joy and a total honour – was working with Mavis Staples and Booker T. Jones on "Nina Cried Power".
It doesn't get much more legendary than Mavis Staples and Booker T. Jones! What was that experience like?
Mavis is, hands down, one of the greatest people I’ve ever met. The life that she’s lived, the work that she’s been part of and the songs that she’s sung... On “Nina Cried Power”, it embodies what I was trying to write towards with that song. Y'know, the music of The Staples Singers was a witness to its own times – we have it now as a very important historical document, but it stood on its own back then as well. It witnessed its own times and sang honestly about them, and it confronted, kind of the world around us through its own values, and through the shared values of people who were collectively confronting that world. And that’s an incredibly important thing. I wanted “Nina Cried Power” to be a thank-you note to that, and a look up at that legacy.
Aside from that, Mavis has just been a really important artist in my life, and she's one of the most charismatic, generous, spirited, and kindest people I’ve ever met in my life, and I’m very, very grateful to have spent that time with her. She's one of those people that's just wonderful to be around in any mood. And Booker T. Jones was brilliant to work with as well. The first band I was ever in at, like, 14 or 15 – we used to cover Stax records and Booker T. & the M.G.'s records... That was my first experience, singing music, that really excited me. He was the band leader for Stax Records, so he arranged a huge amount of Otis Redding's music – Sam & Dave, etcetera – and hearing that music for the first time was just... It flipped the switch that never goes out, y'know, when you fall in love with something or feel passionate about something for the first time. Working with him was just surreal – an absolute dream come true.
On a musical level, this album feels a little more sparse, with the way the guitars, the strings and the keys really shine in their own keyed-in passages, rather than as a wall of sound. Was that something you had in mind heading into the studio, to maintain a bit of a less-is-more mentality?
It depends. Some of the production is definitely a little bit more pared back, depending on some of the songs. There’s three producers spread across this record, so it would be whatever we kind of collaborated on in the moment, y’know, and how each song ended up manifesting in itself. But with some of the songs, like “Movement”, I was writing either with just a voice and keys as a starting point, or voice and guitar, and we’d kind of build it from there.
Working with three producers [Markus Dravs, Rob Kirwan and Ariel Rechtshaid] – was that a situational decision, or one that came from trying to diversify the sounds on the album?
I was just writing so much material. I’d finished a session with Markus Dravs – which was amazing, and he’s a fantastic producer – but then I had some more pieces that I wanted to get out of my head. I knew that I would be hitting the road for another two years once this album was out, and I wasn’t content with having the amount of music that I had at that point. I knew there were songs in my back pocket or rattling around in my head that I needed to record, because I wouldn’t have an opportunity for some time afterwards. The process, for me – it's really just trying to get as much written and listenable as possible, and just let the songs get out there so that the people who connect with them can connect with them. So there was just one session followed by another session, followed by another. It certainly didn’t start out that way.
What guitars were you playing in the Wasteland sessions?
Acoustically, there’s a Takamine P3MY which I played quite a lot – that's the acoustic guitar you hear on “Shrike” and “As It Was”. It's the "Cherry Wine" guitar, too. And then there’s a Gibson 330 which I really love, and that saw a lot of action. I have an old Harmony guitar as well – I think it’s a ’63… I would have to remind myself as to the exact name of it, but yeah, those were kind of the main hitters, and then every few songs, there might be something slightly different that pops up.
I remember hearing "Cherry Wine" for the first time and just melting over that twang. What is it about that Takamine that keeps you coming back to it?
I don’t know – it's like a parlour guitar, which at first I didn't like, because I was never a big fan of that size and type. But it just has such a sweetness and a reaction to it that I really, really loved – and quite a softness to it as well – and it’s just very, very playable. The model that I have has a Cooltube preamp in it, which is this little glass valve in the pickups that warms up inside the guitar, and that comes in handy a lot on the road. When you're plugging in and playing in radio stations early in the morning, you don’t have a lot of time to get the right tune – but you can get a lot of warmth out of that guitar just from plugging it in, so it's become this stalwart, trusty little companion of mine on the road.
There's a decent bit of contrast between the Takamine and the Gibson 330. How did you fall for that little beast?
Initially, I had another Harmony guitar, which was really wolf-y. It just had a great warmth to it, and such a fuzzy and woolly character, and the pickups were just wild. I think it’s possible that we might have needed something that could stand as a sort of replacement for that, as a "just in case" – or Gibson might have gifted a 330 to me with the Bigsby on it, and it just took over the Harmony. It has a nice grip to it, and it’s not as clean or as refined sounding as a 335 – it has a little bit of bite and a bit of f***ery to it, which I really, really like.
Friday April 19th - Bluesfest, Byron Bay NSW
Monday April 22nd - Opera House, Sydney NSW
Tuesday April 23rd - Opera House, Sydney NSW
Thursday April 25th - Palais Theatre, Melbourne VIC
Friday April 26th - Palais Theatre, Melbourne VIC