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Faith in Practice

Spoken in jest

After a modest beginning playing Irish rock in Chicago coffee houses, the singer- songwriter MICHAEL McDERMOTT went on to hit the US Billboard charts and tour with Van Morrison.

If anything can be gained from the life I've led then perhaps it is worth it. I am a cautionary tale.

I was brought up in the Irish Catholic community of Chicago. I would not describe myself as a Catholic now-is practising the right way to phrase it? My faith has evolved, deconstructed, reconstructed, changed forms, shapes and colours. I don't feel I need to define it or give it a name; God Himself is undefinable. I have a better relationship with Jesus than with God. That said, if Jesus Christ is not the son of God then I am as dirt.

'I Shall Be Healed' draws on the Catholic idea of calling on His name to find healing, from whatever dark or distant place you find yourself, 'then I stood at an altar, the weight had caused me to kneel.'

When I was growing up I would pray, 'God, make me a poet, make me a singer.' I began playing guitar when I was fourteen. Growing up I would be the kid sitting in the corner of the cellar bar with my sunglasses on straining to read the likes of Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg in the gloom. I went to college for one day. I came home and told my folks: I just want to play music.

I was signed as a rock and roll singer/songwriter, not as a Christian artist. I was just twenty years old and taken on by Warner Bros. I had a hit single, a video on MTV Buzz Bin, an article in Rolling Stone and a lot of expectation surrounding my first album.

God's delays aren't God's denials. Maybe I wasn't ready. If I had reached the heights of people's expectations, I would most likely be dead now. That said, the early success was great for a young man, until it became overwhelming. I wouldn't have done all I have if I'd been in insurance.

After that first record wasn't as successful as had been hoped, I had a lot of fear and doubt. I felt I had to press on; I equated it to a Messianic complex. God, make me a poet make me a singer. Like Jesus, who had been riddled with fear at the garden of Gethsemane, I was scared and I was uncertain, but I felt I had a duty, and a fear of fucking it all up.

On the back of all these feelings I wrote my next album, Gethsemane - by then I was with EMI - Christian radio etc. thought it was too secular, but everyone else thought it was too Christian.

There isn't really anything I haven't done. When I was first signed I was still a residual altar boy, it was a few years before I started drinking heavily and the cocaine. You deconstruct yourself bit by bit. Prayer was still a part of my life, but so was that full rock mode of heavy drinking, women and drugs.

I have had many dark nights of the soul; I've had a dark decade. It started in 1996, in parallel to my career snowballing downhill. New Year's Eve my friends found me crying into a plate of cocaine, they took me somewhere safe but it was a struggle from then.

In 2003 I was at a friend's concert in California. They frisked me as I went in and found the bulge, so the bouncers cuffed me. The police came and took me to Cook County Jail, where I stayed overnight. I was there breathing on the glass writing out 'Help me' with my finger! Foxhole prayers I talk about in my song The American In Me relate to that night; prayers that atheists in the trenches would call out to God in fearful religious fervour. But I felt mine that night were a bastardisation of prayer, I deserved to be there. In the aftermath I had to join a drug recovery group, where I was with the lowest of the low. I could not believe that I was that bad, or was I? I had managed to walk through the rainstorm without getting wet; I don't want to be a victim, but I wear the clothes.

I don't know what other Christians think about the lifestyle that I lead, I have too many more things to worry about.

What God thinks of me? That's scary. I feel I'm here for His entertainment, I'm His jester. He does worry about me. It's a delicate balance trying to figure out knowing what you need to do and doing it; it's hard to have things to aspire to when you can't see that far ahead.

American in Me is about aspiration. It is ostensibly about my country's politics, where I and how I hope it might change, 'Don't mistake dissent for disloyalty.' But it is also an exploration of the way your upbringing shapes you, defines the course and character of yourself and your life.

Oh my God, yes I want a stable life. A therapist told me once that Michael McDermott had buried Michael Murphy. Sometimes I wonder if I've become a character from one of my songs, but that is probably overstating it; most of my characters have redemptive qualities. The person that writes these songs is a beautiful person, he's amazing. But the person I look at in the mirror makes me feel disgusted. I hope I didn't glamorise a gutter life and then live it.

It is naive to imagine money's not an issue, but I would define success as peace. And yet as Bukowski says, 'no writer ever worth a damn could write in peace.' I have been given the tools for my trade but my path is a maze. Right now I feel as though I'm on the edge of a precipice of I don't know what. I can tell by the rumbling. It could be the edge of a deep canyon or the beginning of something wonderful. I always take the long way round, but eventually get where I need to go.

I am a poet and a singer. Now I would ask God for peace and stillness, for a better understanding of myself and my place.

Michael McDermott was talking to Hannah Kowszun.