Last year Decca Records asked me to help them on their search to find a supergroup of singing nuns. I’m not really sure what qualified me for that particular job – perhaps because I got on very well with a group of Austrian monks who sang Gregorian chant and sold over a million records worldwide.
I was tortured by nuns at convent school and I’ve always had a fascination with them; a lifelong quest to find a different experience. Plus, who isn’t fascinated by a woman who has given up every essence of herself for God and lives in such an extreme way, cloistered in a habit among her sisters?
The search was long and fascinating and it answered my questions. Are nuns authoratitive and frightening? Or are they beatific and enlightening? Each community is startlingly different.
It took in over 70 convents in 15 countries (including Ireland, Spain, Wales, USA). The first thing we learnt was that nuns are extremely difficult to get hold of because their lives don’t revolve around everyday deadlines, and a lucrative recording contract seemed not to be of great importance.
First off we visited a remote order of Benedectines at Abbaye Notre Dame de L’Annonciation du Barroux in Provence. They are a cloistered order and may never leave their stone abbey. They are very traditional and we had to talk to them and photograph them behind a grille. No close-up photos allowed. It’s about the group, not the individual.
Also with us in front of the grille were the nuns lawyers hoping to sign an immediate contract. The Mother Abbess had a commanding presence. Immediately fascinating that this authoratitive woman would give a vow of obedience. She said, “It’s a paradox; obedience is freedom.”
The sisters range in age from 19 to 88 and they all have beautiful skin. Their sound is pristine and pure. I could tell that Tom Lewis and Oliver Harrop, A&R for Decca Records, felt that these were the perfect nuns.
My perfect nuns were in Wales – Poor Clare Colettines at Ty Mam Duw, Hawarden, north east Wales. They write their own songs, channelled from the source. There are 14 of them. They wear brown habits, are vegetarian and don’t wear shoes. They too are an enclosed order behind wooden bars, but from the minute I met them I felt no boundary.
Sister Juliana in particular draws you right in when she speaks. Although she is 55 and hasn’t heard any contemporary pop songs, the songs seem very of the moment. Mother Damien explains, “If you live a life in prayer you are never far from the world. God keeps you modern.” Their songs do not have the cool detached ambience of the French nuns who are pure Gregorian chant. The Poor Clare’s songs are intriguing, inviting and have wonderful lyrics. The sisters here write poetry and draw.
This community all had an interesting past before they joined. Some of them were not even Catholics. Sister Juliana’s conversion came when she was working for her gap year in a hostel for the homeless in Notting Hill, London. “A few houses down there was an old prostitute. Her name was Ruby. She was very ill, very drunk and very maudlin. She seized my hand and said ‘Pray for me.’ She taught me the rosary. After that I didn’t want to go on to university. I felt life was more urgent.”
I love them because they are as much of this world as separated from it. They talk inspiringly about the power of prayer. They get up at midnight for the first prayer of the day. Recently it’s been the feast of Saint Colette who you pray to if you want to have a baby. They’ve had many emails saying prayers worked better than IVF.
Their latest song Mother of Millions is inspired partly by this and partly by an underground Catholic leader, Bishop Julius Jia Zhiguo, in China, who has been constantly incarcerated and subjected to interrogation because he doesn’t support China’s state-sponsored Patriotic Church. Says Sister Juliana, “If you haven’t got a certificate you haven’t got the right to bring your baby into the world. If your child is handicapped it is also forcibly aborted.
Twenty years ago somebody left a badly damaged new born on Bishop Jia’s doorstep. He took it in and then others appeared.” Thirty nuns help him look after these children.
“In between prison and re-education camp and house arrest he has cared for these orphans. The Chinese authorities now demand the bishop should sign over the children or spend the rest of his life in re-education camp.”
The song is a prayer for help and to attract media attention to save the children’s lives. “In a way in our lives consecrated in chastity, we are mothers to millions.”
My final convent visit was to the west coast of Ireland in the Connemara countryside. We went to the beautiful Kylemore Abbey. It used to be the home of one of Ireland’s most exclusive convent schools. It is not an enclosed community and the sisters are very embracing, clever and funny.
They need a new roof and several of the older sisters have had to move out, some to a farm and the older ones to a retirement home. They really need a record contract. I felt incredibly touched by them. They talk about real things; relationships, depression.
Harrop and Lewis felt they simply didn’t sing well enough to be awarded the contract. I made a passionate plea that Madonna doesn’t sing well but she knows how to make people connect to her. The problem was I wasn’t connecting to anybody.
I had specifically asked that the documentary crew didn’t film any of my meetings with nuns. But if they’d filmed my meetings at Decca Records they would have had explosive television.
Decca wanted the French nuns – they sang Gregorian chant – they wanted to repeat the success of the monks. The brothers though could leave their convent and sit on a TV sofa. Plus their depth and timbre made Gregorian chant sound earthy and warm. I thought that people would not connect with the nuns who could never leave their convent walls. And not only had they taken a vow of silence – they are French!
The nuns in Boston are all about communication – make apps for iPhones and have a consistent Facebook presence. Lewis says, “Nothing ancient or mysterious about them. With them it was about how quickly can we get the next gizmo. They already have iPads. They are the complete opposite of Avignon. There is no mystery. We want a record where even if you ask an atheist you will be transported to another world
“The French nuns are a well-oiled machine. They move together and have a sense of overall oneness.” He felt their austerity and separateness was an appeal in itself.
For me the compelling hook was the paradox – being separate from this world but very much part of it – that’s real mysticism.
I have stayed in touch with the Irish and Welsh nuns because I wanted to help them. I had been in talks with another major record company about signing Kylemore Abbey.
Louis Walsh helped put together a list of great Irish songs for an album. The musical director, Sister Karole, is studying in Hungary for a year, so we await to see if the record will go ahead when she returns.
The community in Wales continue to write songs and have been asked to contribute to a record with the Welsh Guards celebrating the Royal Wedding, along with Shirley Bassey.
The French nuns record managed to do well internationally. How well remains a topic of debate. Industry insiders say that more money was spent on the record than was made. But a voiceover at the end of the documentary says they went to Number 1 in the classical charts. I am told it sold 100,000 internationally ( rumoured only about 15 per cent of that in the UK). So a happy ending, for the documentary at least.