Originally posted on HerCampus
Andrew Hozier-Byrne, the lanky 6’5” singer/songwriter/musician we know simply as Hozier, came back this year with a new EP, Nina Cried Power, and brought us (ok, me) to near-tears. Prior to Nina Cried Power, I had only known of Hozier via his first hit song; after, I was astounded that anyone had ever overlooked his breadth of talent (myself included).
I was on Tumblr when I first decided to listen in. Someone in the comments section of “Shrike” said that his voice was, “pure comfort, like honey in tea,” and I was sold on the idea of him (at the very least).
The release of his EP (and my attention on him) happened to come around the same time I arrived in Boston, and coincided with the first inklings of fall; his raspy Irish drawl swept me off my feet and into a rust-colored-sweater-wearing frenzy. And thereafter, the silent moments of melancholy train rides and hazy afternoons were replaced with the gospel growl of his voice; and if you haven’t made this same choice yet, I’m here to explain why you should.
Hozier’s music is largely rooted in the gospel/blues sound–you can hear it best and most obviously in “Take Me to Church”–and within it, the tradition gives way beautifully to his warm baritone. This gospel tradition does double work in bringing forth a well-trained artist and allowing him to create a musical environment that is familiar to most listeners. Whether or not you were raised in a faith, gospel sounds permeate our entire musical cannon; from Christmas carols to pop songs with choral undertones, we all know the sounds of religious music. This familiarity in aesthetic and lyric is the grounding that makes Hozier’s music so comforting.
This familiarity is repeated in the instrumental melody. Throughout his music, Hozier uses chord progressions that are highly common in the pop genre, which only adds to the comfort we feel when we hear them. Emerson College psychology student, Ashley Miller, explained that we tend to find comfort in sounds that mimic what we experienced in the womb or hear in our day-to-day lives: Hozier’s rhythmic and common chords play on this.
However, Hozier takes a different route than most pop music does when playing these chords. Molly Wolf, an Emerson Creative Writing major with over a decade of guitar experience and years of music theory training, gave a brief explanation for me, and I’ll simplify even more. Take the chords in “Cherry Wine”: it’s a very simple and common progression (I – iii – V where the uppercase chords are major and the lowercase is minor), but he plays it repeatedly, on an acoustic guitar, and with very gentle finger plucking.
To see what makes this so different, let’s look briefly at “Mr. Brightside” by the Killers (possibly the most widely-known song of our generation). The leading guitar melody here uses a very similar progression (take a listen to the instrumental versions of “Mr. Brightside” and “Cherry Wine,” you can hear it), but as Wolf put it, “it sounds so totally different because ‘Mr. Brightside’ has electric guitars and it’s very bombastic, totally different style even though it uses a similar progression.”
Hozier also manipulates the playing of the music itself in ways most artists don’t, Wolf explained. Take the song “In a Week.” Rather than rely on an actual bass guitar to ground the instrumental, he plays both the guitar and bass part on an acoustic guitar. This lightens the overall sound of the music and gives it a more ethereal sound that isn’t found often in pop music. There’s even the possibility that he plays both parts on a single guitar, with a syncopated rhythm, which would be a demonstration to his skill as a guitarist.
This isn’t to say, however, that Hozier never uses bass in his songs. On the contrary, actually, a bass guitar is present in most of them. But, it seems that when he does include a bass in the mix, he does so to add drama to the music rather than just to ground the melody. This is particularly noticeable in “Take Me to Church,” which features a heavy bassline and rocks listeners into the drama of the lyrics.
“Take Me to Church” layers a dramatic vocal in the background (playing on those comforting gospel roots), a rough electric guitar, a mournful piano, and a steady bass/drum combination all within a somber minor key–with his powerful, major, vocals over top. This creates a unique experience for the listener, where you do, in fact, feel transported to a place requiring respect.
And this isn’t the only song where Hozier plays with switching out of a major key. “NFWMB” and “Movement” off of his new EP are both set musically in minor keys, of which carry you to this sort-of “living in a cabin in the forest” sound.
His music is created to transport us out of our busy lives, into whatever narrative he creates for us. So too, his ability to move us is a signifier of his training. As Erica Degen, a classically trained singer at Emerson put it:
“In songs like ‘Cherry Wine,’ he sounds sad and full of heartbreak. It makes the song lyrics sound like a sonnet, just by the tone of his voice. He is not interested in making hits but he is interested in creating stories using his voice. And he uses his vibrato in ways that most jazz, blues, and gospel singers use to tell their stories.”
So, whether he writes an apocalyptic love song like “NFWMB,” an emotional ode to the challenges faced by political powerhouses like “Nina Cried Power,” a celebration of individuality like “Someone New,” a piece like “Movement” which is inspired by and created for dancing, or a lament to abusive relationships like “Cherry Wine,” we feel what he does. Though the emotions change from song to song, the respect with which he treats them is consistent. It’s a quiet-for-the-sake-of-listening respect, an understanding-of-an-individual’s-feelings respect.
Through his music, Hozier gives us room to find comfort in our emotions–no matter what those emotions are. He gives us permission to feel what we need to feel, and the excuse to be quiet for our own sake. Both the self-titled Hozier album and the Nina Cried Power EP are respectful explorations into the self, and make perfect music to fill your silent, cold-weather moments.