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LONDON (Billboard) - It's not every day that a music industry executive compares a group of singing clergymen to a superstar rapper.
But when he talks about the Priests, an act he recently signed to his label, Epic Records U.K. managing director Nick Raphael insists that "they're just like Jay-Z."
The comparison between a trio of parish priests and one of the world's most influential hip-hop artists may not be an obvious one, but Raphael sees parallels.
When Raphael was working at Northwestside Records, the label he founded with Christian Tattersfield, he signed the then-unknown Jay-Z "because we loved his work and we wanted to be cool. We weren't expecting him to become the seminal artist he now is."
In April, Raphael signed three clergymen from Northern Ireland -- tenors Eugene O'Hagan and his brother Martin, plus bass-baritone David Delargy, their childhood friend -- in the belief he was facilitating a lifelong ambition of his friend, producer Mike Hedges, to make a recording of a Latin Mass.
But when the trio signed its 1 million pound ($1.5 million) deal on the steps of Westminster Cathedral, the Jay-Z effect took hold.
"The media suddenly went ballistic, and we realized they had the potential to be huge," Raphael says. "Here are three men who are going to remain priests, who have fantastic voices and who sing with conviction."
The priests have been singing together since they were children and attended the Seminary in Belfast and the Irish College in Rome. When they lived in the Italian capital, the priests were invited personally by the papal master of ceremonies, Monsignor Magee, to sing for the pope in the sacred liturgy.
"From a marketing perspective there are so many angles," says Mark Flaherty, New York-based senior vice president of marketing for RCA Victor, which handled the stateside release of "The Priests." "We have a built-in audience of more than 70 million Catholics in the U.S."
That audience is being targeted with an album that contains such classics as "Ave Maria," "Pie Jesu" and "Panis Angelicus." It was released November 18 in more than 30 countries and is on sale in more than 300 Catholic bookstores across the U.S.
Martin O'Hagan, who says a significant proportion of the royalties earned from sales of the album will be poured into a charitable foundation, is not about to give up his day job.
"It's all happened so fast, and we are really spinning plates here," he says. "Two of us are the only priests in our parish, and it's not been easy. But music has always been part of our lives, and it's great to be able to do something like this with it."
The lives of recording artist and man of the cloth may not seem compatible, but O'Hagan says with a smile that "our contract makes it clear that pastoral duties will come first."
Still, the Priests face a busy promotional schedule, which includes a concert at Armagh Cathedral that will air as part of the PBS December pledge drive. They'll also appear December 19 on the Eternal Word Television Network's Christmas special. EWTN claims to be the largest religious media network in the world, attracting a potential audience of more than 180 million.