Chart-topping nuns - Praise the lord and pass the album deal

Monks, dentists, fishermen, airmen... record labels will take them all if they can hold a novelty-hit tune. Now it wants nuns. By Fiona Sturges about Date Night, her new comedy with Office star Steve Carell
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Just when you thought things couldn't get any more desperate in the record industry, this week brings news from Decca, former home of the Rolling Stones, that it is launching a global search among religious orders for a troupe of chart-topping nuns, or, as the label's general manager puts it, "a Sister Act for the 21st century".

The London-based label is looking to record an album of plainsong and chant to release in time for the UK's papal visit in September. The idea came about, we are told, when an old recording of singing nuns was found during an office move. According to Decca executive Tom Lewis, "When you hear the sound of nuns chanting, it's like an immediate escape from the challenges, stresses, pace and noise of modern living. You're given a glimpse into another world, a world of peace and calm."

This announcement comes hot on the heels of Universal's £1m record deal with a group of Cornish fisherman called – why of course! – Fisherman's Friends. The group, from Port Isaac, whose oldest member is 70, had been entertaining visitors and locals for 15 years with their repertoire of traditional sea shanties and Cornish folk songs before a record producer on holiday last year spotted them performing in a pub. The group are already booked to perform at this summer's Glastonbury festival, while their album, recorded in a 15th-century church in nearby St Kew, is now due for release in late April. Wisely, none of the fisherman have plans to give up their day jobs.

Without wanting to diminish the importance of plainsong and sea shanties in musical history, the more cynical observer might wonder what has been going on at record companies lately to lead them to the conclusion that the future of music lies in nuns and fishermen. Are consumers really so bored of the look-at-me effrontery of Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Beyoncé and friends, that they have demanded a return to the musical values of the Middle Ages? Are talent scouts and A&R operatives now being trained up to lurk at sea-ports and builders' yards to hear what the tradesmen are humming? If so, what will they come up with next? Whistling traffic wardens? Barrow-boy rappers? How about Merry Metal, the blacksmith's sound of Olde England?

Of course, we've been here before, and not without success either. During the Sixties, Sister Luc Gabriel of the Dominican Fichermont Convent in Belgium was reinvented as Soeur Sourire ("Sister Smile") and had a hit with the song "Dominique". She was nicknamed The Singing Nun, and was later the subject of a film starring Debbie Reynolds.

In the 1990s the album Chant was recorded by a group of Benedictine monks in Spain, and sold an astonishing 16 million copies. And last year we were introduced to The Soldiers, a British Army vocal trio who swiftly went platinum with their covers LP Coming Home.

For the singers in question, a record deal might seem the perfect opportunity to bring their previously unrecognised talents to a wider audience, while in many cases raising money for a worthy cause. For the record companies, however, it's a continuation of a longstanding pop tradition in which they search out the most unlikely, and ultimately uncool artists in an attempt to subvert their own pop formula and fashion a whole new type of singing star. The resulting albums can, irrespective of the music's quality, veer dangerously into novelty territory, in that they appear as musical oddities made by people apparently impervious to notions of fashion and originality. Put simply, it's novelty music but without the fun.

It's not so much the music that leads to huge sales, but the people performing it. Like the contestants on The X Factor, Britain's Got Talent and even the now-defunct Big Brother, consumers and record companies are buying into the notion that ordinary people can become overnight stars. How else can you explain the success of the plain, middle-aged, cat-loving Susan Boyle? In an era where pop stars regularly parade their wealth in front of fans while offering themselves up as aspirational figures, humility is becoming an increasingly attractive proposition. And in the absence of another Susan Boyle, who could be more humble than a fisherman or a nun?

So who on earth buys this stuff? In the case of The Soldiers, the act of buying an album of covers by a pair of Sergeants and a Lance Corporal is bound up in sentimental notions of soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and, of course, the desire to give money to charity.

A group of singing servicemen might also be perceived as a welcome and more grown-up alternative to the usual brand of preening, ambi-sexual boy-band. Either way, this is not the kind of music that is bought by people interested in pop's bleeding edge.

As for singing nuns and monks, you imagine that laypersons of a religious bent with little interest in contemporary pop might well be tempted to buy their music, while for aficionados of plainsong and chant they are doubtless heaven-sent.

But there is a wider appeal. Whether you are a believer or not, Gregorian chant comes with an aura of old-world mysticism, not to mention a relaxing ambience similar to that of the so-called "chill-out" music popularised in the Nineties. If Enya can make a killing out of it, why not a group of monks? Ultimately making money is what it's all about, perhaps not in the minds of the nuns or fishermen or soldiers who find themselves with a record deal, but certainly for the labels that seek them out and sign them. The burning quest for innovation has long since been abandoned by an industry which now prizes profit above all else. The executives at Decca records can spout forth all they like about the meditative qualities of chant but ultimately the quest for singing nuns is just their latest money-making wheeze: selling music sung by women dressed in habits.

Don't give up the day job: the people who bid for stardom as a second career

Hedgehoppers Anonymous
One-hit wonders from 1965 made up of members of the Royal Air Force who were discovered by Jonathan King. "Hedgehoppers" is RAF slang for low-flying planes. Their hit was the protest-themed "It's Good News Week".

The Singing Nun
Jeanine Deckers sang and performed at her Belgian convent. In 1963 she made an LP, and its jaunty ear-worm "Dominique" hit No 1 worldwide. A life-story movie followed, and she left the retreat in 1967, but a follow-up was elusive. Even her contraception anthem, "Glory Be to God for the Golden Pill", hadn't a prayer.

The Singing Dentist
Billed as "the new Russell Watson", 35-year-old Andrew Bain's only audience were his patients until he signed a four-album deal with SonyBMG in 2008. He hasn't been heard from since.

Cistercian Monks of Heiligenkreuz Abbey
These monks from Austria hit the big time in 2008 with "Chant: Music For The Soul" – alleged to be one of the Pope Benedict's faves.