Sitting in his Wicklow studio as the world stood still at the beginning of the pandemic, Hozier began picking at the strings on his guitar with his mind set on making demos for his third studio album.
One of the first tunes stuck, capturing a small part of what would become “De Selby”. He kept in the rawness of his surroundings from that moment in the recording, including the creaking of his chair. From those initial experiments, the starting point for what would become Unreal Unearth was born.
Made into two parts, the opening tracks of the album hint at what’s to come: an adventure through one genre to another, all anchored by Hozier’s powerful, haunting words.
Speaking over Zoom from a Los Angeles sound studio many, many months after those tentative album beginnings in Ireland, Hozier sounds relaxed and passionate as he emphasises the consideration that’s gone into Unreal Unearth.
Evidently a deep thinker, it’s not long before he’s linking the parallels of the uncertain and restricted pandemic times to Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the first part of his masterpiece poem The Divine Comedy, in which the author outlines a journey through the nine circles of hell.
“There were things in that poem that resonated with me. It was March 2020, I was sitting down to read it, I had time,” he tells Rolling Stone AU/NZ. “There were poems like that, and some other classics that, just as a lyricist I was interested in, all these classic poems that changed literature forever.
“This piece of literature is about a man who finds himself in new uncertain and dark circumstances and walks his way through this path, through these things, and I felt that to be a fun and interesting device for nodding to the reality of passing through something. It felt wrong not to acknowledge in some way the reality that certainly I had in the time period that these songs were born in.”
While he didn’t want the songs to fixate solely on the lockdown experience, Hozier wanted to acknowledge in some way the uncharted territory that we all faced at the time.
“It was a really intense creative period and a new way, in some respects, of making music in some of the more collaborative songs,” he says in his unmistakable Irish accent. “I feel like I developed a whole new range of tools and skills in creating and executing a song in this.”
Although Hozier had a general preference to piece songs together in complete quiet, doing so while the world was so disconnected began to feel isolating past a point of what felt natural.
“On this album, I think I reached the limitations during lockdown of what solitude could offer me. That sense of peace and quiet kind of reached the upper limits,” he explains.
Coming out of lockdown, for the first time, he took a chance to jam with other producers, linking up with Dan Tannenbaum and his team.
“I’ve never really created like that before for my own music, so that was a new experience and it was very freeing to know, ‘Okay, there’s this, I also can stand in a space where people are just making noise, and shouting melodies down a microphone and make sense of it later.’ But I was experiencing spontaneous collective creation of music for the first time and that was really, really fun. It was less considered.”
Although not entirely sure where every sound would go, Hozier knew from the outset he wanted to play with acoustic and organic sounds, and bring them to life with vintage analogue synthesisers and orchestral compositions.
“You find this is often the case when you’re playing with an instrument that you have very little understanding of, but it has a character and a sound and noise all to its own self that you are totally unfamiliar with. It will pull out of you ideas.
If you were on something that you are very familiar with, you go back to places that you know; but you find instruments that are strange to you, you will pull out new and wonderful, strange things to you. That is also something that I would love to dive into more.”
The abrupt and harsh nature of the early days of the pandemic challenged his songwriting methods – but also presented new opportunities to try something new and adapt.
“There were some moments that were really rewarding in that collaboration. In “Son of Nyx”, for example, the piano piece that you hear is a phone memo that my friend Alex Ryan sent me, my bass player. I’ve known him since college and he sent me this piece of music. I thought it was beautiful, and asked if I could include it on the album.”
As far as Hozier is concerned, he’s the luckiest man he knows. From the time he was a teenager, he knew there was nothing in his life that he cared about more than music – nothing brought him closer to himself.
“I was most myself, most at peace, most fulfilled in the creation and singing of music,” he insists. “I’m so grateful to get to do what I do. I think I’d be somewhat in disbelief at how blessed I am and how it worked out for me.
“You spend years actually denying yourself the reality that you dare to dream something. There’s some things that you don’t want to admit to yourself that, ‘Oh, no, I really want that. You know, I would love to, I would love to do that.’ I feel incredibly fortunate.”
Hozier was just 22-years-old when he delivered the groundbreaking anthem “Take Me to Church”, a song which opened the gate to a triumphant career. 10 years later, his ability to provoke emotion through his moody and careful delivery hasn’t wavered; on his songs, Hozier’s voice reigns supreme.
His new album features a collaboration with the legendary Brandi Carlile, who gave added life to “Damage Gets Done”, a power ballad emotionally contending with the reality of growing up. Hozier met Carlile years ago at Newport Folk Festival, and he’s always found a great kinship with their work.
“Brandi is amazing. She’s an incredible artist who I’m very lucky to get to know over the last few years. When I was writing that song, it needed to be two voices, I kept hearing two voices – one was this powerful voice that there’s very few that I feel could rise to what that sound needed. She has one of those voices – soaring, powerful, courageous.
“I asked her if she had any time in her schedule – in her considerably busy schedule – and she managed to do it. And I’m so honoured she did.”
Now that Unreal Unearth is out, Hozier is excited to share the music and “let it be”.
“I’m proud of the album. I’ve been sitting on these songs for a while,” he says enthusiastically. “I’m excited to release it and let it go into the world and let people find it and discover it if they care to.”
Hozier’s Unreal Unearth is out now.