Liam Ó Maonlaí knows that in the world of Irish pop there are those who would describe him as "a gorgeous gobshite". He laughs when reminded of this fact. However, look closely and you'll see that the laugh doesn't extend to his eyes. Indeed, these days, his eyes look less gorgeous than marked by time.
Particularly the past few years, a period in which his father died and his career, with Hothouse Flowers, collapsed. And, yes, Liam admits that his image as a pretty, vacant, neo-hippie probably does go back to the band's early days when, on one notorious occasion, he declared that, ideally, he'd love to spend his time sitting by a river eating wild berries and magic mushrooms. To some this simply suggested that the poor boy couldn't deal with reality.
"I didn't confront life, or myself, until my father died," he now admits, sitting in Dublin's Shelbourne Hotel. "I battled with it all inside, but probably did project this image of a romantic at odds with the world. Then again, that is true to who I am. Yet, in the beginning, with the band, a lot of what I was feeling also was the result of suddenly having been thrown into a world where people just wanted to make money out of what we were doing. Nowadays I want to make money myself but, even so, I still have a deep sense for the music and for my role as a singer who does go into the depths of his soul and comes out with something that never was created just for financial rewards. Though, as I say, a lot of people saw it that way and my confusion came from that struggle."
Ó Maonlaí could, of course, be speaking for countless Irish singers -specifically those who place themselves, as he does, "in a sean-noś tradition". As such, it's easy to believe him when he claims that the notion of "being able to walk into any country and paint a picture of what the soul of my country sounds like, and its history" still seems far more noble a goal, and achievement, than chasing after clichéd rock'n'roll dreams of "wealth, world-wide fame, all that". Ever since rock'n'roll began, it is comments such as this which have led to relatively naïve souls such as Liam Ó Maonlaí being left penniless, which is pretty much the state of his finances at the moment - yes, after nearly a decade as lead vocalist with one of Ireland's so-called "top bands", the original "next U2". And, yes, Liam does feel that his own naïveté was exploited, financially, by people in the music business.
"It suited other people for me not to be too fussed about the financial side of things," he says, cautiously. "And, in the music business there always will be sharks ready to move in and suck your blood out and be glad at your innocence. Or inexperience.
That's probably the strongest lesson I've learned from the whole Hothouse Flowers experience. We all feel much the same way. And the worst thing was that we got heavy with each other."
Liam also admits that the schisms which divided Hothouse Flowers are "at least part of the reason" the full band has not got back together. These schisms, he says, also led to the original break-up. "The structure was faulty, but we couldn't repair it while it was still moving, while new plans for the band were being made every day," he reflects. "Also, I needed a year to myself, so I called for a year off to put a halt to the whole thing. Now, we have a new manager, Chris O'Donnell, and we're all ready to get started again, stripped back to basics, musically and in every sense. At least three of us."
Ironically, the beginning of the period Liam took off to "restructure" his professional life, coincided with the time his private life fell apart, when his father died. "I went into shock, for at least that year," he says, softly. "But then my dad's death was totally unexpected. He was 64, fairly young, in good shape but had a massive coronary. Fortunately our relationship was really good at the time. We definitely were very comfortable with each other. Whereas, for years, we'd had a fierce relationship.
"Drink played a part, in a kind of subtle, middle-class, 'respectable' way. Dad's drinking was disguised. He never lost his job, never lost a complete grip on things, but he allowed our relationship to deteriorate. And it was the band that finally gave me the strength to leave home. And the money I needed. But, even during all that time the love was never completely blotted out. It's just that the way he expressed love was so hard. And even in the end, we never really did talk, in depth, about the love we felt for each other."
Liam married within a year of the death of his father. Yet he rejects the suggestion that this may have been purely a reactive move, an ill-focused desire to replace his original family. Then again he was, he says, "advised by a spiritual healer that it would be good for me to have a partner". And he agreed.
"I did, because I'd met someone before Aoife, who'd broken my heart and I never thought that would happen again," he admits. "My heart had been broken once before that, years before, and I wondered does that happen only once in a lifetime? Then that other person broke my heart and Aoife came along and did the same thing - which, though it hurt like hell, at least made me realise I still was alive, at that core level. So in breaking my heart she also tamed it, which is what I write about in At Last, on the new album.
"She's 21, and I'm 33, so there is that age difference but, from the time we met, we fell in love and talked about having kids and all that. I was ready. But I came on too strong, ended up being possessive, paranoiac. Then she just told me she didn't want me around any more! So I had to sit down and ask: 'what part of myself do I have to burn away to make this person come back to me?' And I realised it was the part of me that just didn't trust. Her, life, whatever.
Particularly after the death of my dad. Then Aoife and I went to Melbourne and she said that at one point, she just saw me in a new light. That's when I proposed! In Australia! And she said 'yes'!" Acceptance for Liam, and his subsequent marriage, meant rejection for at least one of his ex-lovers who, one night, sadly related her tale to this reporter. So, before Liam met Aoife, was he a "heartbreaker" or what some women would describe as "a real bastard"?
"Yeah. And there were women who probably thought they were 'right' for me because I projected this romantic image we talked about earlier," he acknowledges. "But, without meaning to make excuses for myself, at the time I probably was living one step removed from my true feelings, acting out that romantic fantasy, trying to love these women and hoping, each time, 'this is the one' but not being able to go the distance. And I really was woeful when it came to broaching this subject with women. I'd just run, instead of confronting them, or ever myself. I probably was a bastard, at that level." So, summing up, is Liam Ó Maonlaí, 1998-style, really as blissful as he claims in At Last, one of those two new tracks he wrote for the "Flowers" latest album?
"Yeah, that At Last feeling is very real," he says, smiling. "But I still wonder about the road ahead. Though I feel we've got the balance right on the new album, who knows, maybe it will all fall apart again and I will go solo. For now, I'm willing to give myself over to whatever the band asks of me. But who knows where we'll all be in another four years?"