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A pilgrim in death's shadow

LIAM Lawton has no problem waxing lyrical and at length about subjects close to his heart. Such as? The fact that the prestigious Chicago Symphony Orchestra publicly performed his work which was narrated by the legendary Gregory Peck, or the fact that one of his tracks, The Clouds' Veil, from his forthcoming album Another World, was used in memorial services across America for

LIAM Lawton has no problem waxing lyrical and at length about subjects close to his heart. Such as? The fact that the prestigious Chicago Symphony Orchestra publicly performed his work which was narrated by the legendary Gregory Peck, or the fact that one of his tracks, The Clouds' Veil, from his forthcoming album Another World, was used in memorial services across America for victims of 9/11.

However, the closer you get to the subject of his own heart, and emotions, the more uncomfortable the man becomes. This was particularly apparent at one point during this interview when Liam was asked if, as a priest, he feels he may have "moved from the cradle of the arms of his original family into the cradle of the arms of Christ", meaning he's still an "emotional infant" in ways. Lawton does finally answer that question but only after much prevarication and when pushed to do so.

That said, one can appreciate why the guy is so sick of having to say to interviewers, "Talk to me as Liam Lawton, musician, not Liam Lawton, priest." But as he himself says in There Are Two Sidesto Every Story, another track from his album, "how can you separate the singer from the song?" and the fact remains that Lawton is a priest and his album does evoke the kind of spirituality - swathed in layers of melodic beauty - that comes from his soul. Music has been part of his "legacy" for as long as hecan remember.

"But what I really remember is the feeling of the freedom to sing at home and the freedom to sing ballads and not be embarrassed by it," says Liam, who comes from Cork and asked me not to disclose his age, out of sensitivity to his twin brother. "That was the first form of self-expression I knew, and even at school I could play traditional, pop, rock, anything, by ear. But my epiphany occurred when I was 16, went to the Gaeltacht and heard the work of Breton harpist Alan Stivell. His music had soul, and that's what made me want to find a creative form of expression, like that, for myself."

Liam also became a big fan of Horslips, formed a band and stayed in it after he started studying at Maynooth, though at first he had "absolutely no intention" of becoming a priest. What was Lawton's family life like? Was there any form of emotional rupture?

"No," he says. "My upbringing was normal, but I grew up in a time where you didn't believe you were particularly good for anything or would do anything. That's how I felt about myself for a long time, it wasn't that my parents didn't feed my self-esteem, they did. But I felt geographically and culturally inferior because I came from the country. Yet, then, in Maynooth I started writing music and they had competitions for songwriters - purely commercial stuff - andI won that three times so thisgave me the confidence I needed."

Nevertheless, even when Lawton went on to win the Castlebar Song Contest and was told by Shay Healy, "Keep writing, we need more Chris de Burghs," (as in "singer-songwriters", Liam understandably rushes to explain!) he didn't tell anyone he had already decided to become a priest. So why had he made that decision?

"Partly because I really didn't believe I could make it as a musician," he replies. "But mostly because a lot of people I knew, who were training in the seminary in Maynooth, went to places like Chile and were inspired by the whole social justice ethos, and I began to be attracted to that because I already had this altruistic streak. Though when I did tell friends and my family that I had decided to become a priest they were totally supportive. Particularly my parents."

Had Liam a girlfriend at the time, was he in love?

"I was involved in a college affair but it wasn't really serious," he says. "But I was the first in our family to go to college, I couldn't get a grant, so I had to work my ass off and that became my focus. And even in college I took on too much, so I didn't have time for love!"

With all due respect, that sounds like a cop-out. Many hard-pressed kids go to college and still find time to have their first love affair.

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"OK, the truth is that I didn't believe in myself enough at the time, when it came to loving someone, and that went back to my low self-esteem," he admits. "There also was a part of me that was afraid to make a full commitment to this woman because I knew I might have to leave her to become a priest, and this, then, would hurt. And, in the end, it did, though I tried not to."

So how does Liam respond to the cliche that many men join the priesthood in part because they know they could never make it in terms of the demands of marriage or the more earthly love of a woman rather than the relatively ethereal love of Christ?

"Within the generalisation there is a truth," he says. "Yet no one ever accused me of anything like that." But did Liam ever think it of himself? "You should be a counsellor!" he responds, laughing nervously. "But I would hope I am not lacking in any sense now when it comes to love. Yet for me, growing up in a caring home accounts for a lot. In that sense I was always secure in love and, to answer your original question, I may have projected that on to God."

This leads us to that question of whether he moved from the cradle of the arms of his original family into the cradle of the arms of Christ, which would mean he still is an infant, emotionally.

"I wouldn't like to think I am emotionally immature and I don't believe I am, because I've seen enough in life not to be," he says. "Though I have had to ask myself along the way do I have a real longing for love in my life. And intimacy. Of course I do. Yet this whole question is tied up with my music and how I express myself in every way. For seven years after I became a priest I was serving at the cathedral in Carlow and wrote no music at all, though I did some work with a choir.

"So although I thought I was fulfilled within the priesthood I'll never forget those times when I'd visit a psychiatric hospital to try to help patients, just by being there, listening to them, not preaching, and I'd end up feeling so useless. I'd even feel guilty walking back out into the sunshine knowing they didn't have that freedom. But one evening after such a visit I drove up the hills, sat in my car, played a piece of music and cried and cried and cried."

That composition was "a sacred piece of music" by American composer John-Michael Talbot and it became a "conduit" for Lawton.

"It was like imploding, something getting right to the coreof who I am and making merealise I had to write music again," he continues.

"So I did start writing again. I also had always loved Moya Brennan's voice. It brought me somewhere else, it was transcendent, and that's the kind of music I wanted to write - somethingas spiritual."

Lawton subsequently wrote many pieces of music, but everything seemed to crystallise when he composed what may turn out to be his most famous, and most personal, work - The Clouds' Veil, out of shadows that had engulfed his own life.

"Six years ago, an uncle of mine was killed in a crash and I was very close to him, he was a music mentor of mine," Liam explains. "I'd stood by the graves of other people, but when death comes to your own family you are propelled into a grief you hadn't expected, a shocking numbness. And I couldn't write for weeks afterwards. But then someone sent me a card that said, "When it's dark and grey I'm still there," which was based on an old Celtic prayer, and I sat down that night and wrote The Cloud's Veil. So when that was later chosen for 9/11 memorial services - partly because I had written 'when the dark clouds veil the sky I am by your side' and the 'I' could be the Lord or someone close to you - it made me realise the power music has to transcend tragedy and how privileged I am that something written out of my grief could help others grieving."

That realisation sits at the soul of Another World. But despite all he said earlier on this subject, does the soul of Liam ever cry out for companionship, marriage, a child?

"On this question there is another aspect of emotional fulfilment I didn't mention earlier," he responds. "When you are an identical twin there always is somebody there for you from the moment of conception. So my search for companionship, at this level, too, mightn't be as intense as it otherwise could have been."

But you can't marry or have a baby with your brother, Liam!

"Sure, and I remember the day I first held my brother's child and thought, 'would my child look like this?'" he says. "So, of course I sometimes regret not marrying. And the most difficult time of the week for me is Sunday night when I leave my family after visiting them and drive back to where I live. There definitely is a void there, a loneliness, a sense of isolation, but that too, comes across in some of my music."

Yet did Liam ever have a crisis of faith as a result of falling inlove with a woman since he became a priest?

"I'm not saying I didn't fall in love but I didn't have a crisis of faith over it" he responds,cautiously. "And the real point is that, in the end, I didn't leavethe church."

All of which leaves only one question. Liam Lawton admits he didn't leave the church for a woman but would he say, "Yes, my lord and master", if Satan suddenly appeared and said, "Leave the priesthood and I'll grant youall your long-cherished dreams as a musician"?

"I don't know," he says, readily acknowledging that it is telling he didn't immediately say no. "But nowadays I just say, 'thank God it's been a good day' and that's as far as I look. If I've to make a decision about leaving the priesthood I'll make that decision tomorrow. After all, I am just an infant when it comes to the music industry, so who knows what will happen? My favourite song on the album is Labyrinth. Not just because Moya Brennan sings on it but because it's about the mythology of the labyrinth, where we all make our own pilgrim path, and that song in particular - as well as the album itself - mirrors my own journey in life. So who knows where this album will lead me?"

© Joe Jackson

Liam Lawton starts a nationwide 37-gig tour next Wednesday at St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin. For dates and ticket details see www.liamlawton.com. 'Another World' is released in November

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