The singing monk who made a recording vow
Mike Hedges is one of the most in-demand producers working today. His CV includes the Manic Street Preachers' acclaimed Everything Must Go and a later album from punk survivors Siouxsie and the Banshees.
But his latest studio collaboration could hardly be more different. In a remarkable clash of cultures, Hedges has teamed up with the young Italian monk, Friar Alessandro, for an album of spiritual classics.
One might be forgiven for assuming the handsome tenor is something of a record company creation, but the 35-year-old has been a Franciscan brother for 14 years. News of his vocal prowess quickly spread beyond Assisi where his monastery is based, and unbeknownst to him, a recording of his singing reached Mike Hedges. The British producer had worked on an album from Irish clerical trio The Priests and was keen to bring Alessandro's striking vocal to a wide audience.
Most musicians would jump at the chance to record an album at Abbey Road Studios which, as even the most casual music fan knows, is where The Beatles recorded the lion's share of their work. But Alessandro had to be convinced that taking a plane to London – his first time to fly – was not a violation of his vows of poverty.
And in an age when band managers and music agents battle hard to ensure the artist gets a fair share of the profits, Alessandro insisted that any royalties would go the Franciscans.
"What makes Friar Alessandro so unique is that the money that is generated through his singing goes directly to the Franciscan Order for its charitable works and not to Friar Alessandro," says his manager Brother Eunan McMullan, who is originally from Ireland but now based in Assisi.
The resulting album, Voice from Assisi, is a captivating collection that showcases his expressive vocals, and those keen to hear Friar Alessandro in a live setting can do so when he embarks on a mini-Irish tour tonight.
What's intriguing about the story is the fact that the album is being released by the venerable Decca, the label that famously turned down The Beatles and is now owned by the world's largest record company, Universal.
As the success of The Priests has shown, there is a large, hitherto untapped audience for spiritual compositions from clerical musicians. Their 2008 self-titled debut album, released by Sony Music, remains one of the fastest selling classical music records in Britain and subsequent releases have all done significant business in Ireland, the UK and elsewhere.
The Priests' success came in the wake of another Irish clergyman, Fr Liam Lawton, who has enjoyed considerable success since signing to the now defunct record giant, EMI, back in 2005. Glenstal Abbey in Co Limerick is also no stranger to chart success, having released one of the surprise hits of 1997. The album, Gregorian Chants, went platinum in Ireland that year and continues to sell steadily from their website some 17 years after its original release.
Meanwhile, Friar Alessandro is learning how to reconcile the monastic life with that of a touring musician. He may not be turning up at red carpet events, but he has – somewhat reluctantly – embraced the world of Twitter.
FRIAR ALESSANDRO PERFORMS AT MERCHANT'S QUAY FRIARY CHURCH, DUBLIN, THIS EVENING, GALWAY CATHEDRAL ON FRIDAY AND CORK FRIARY CHURCH ON SATURDAY. HIS ALBUM, VOICE FROM ASSISI, IS OUT NOW.