Father Ray Kelly Talks YouTube Stardom & Balancing the Priesthood With Music

Father Ray Kelly
Barry McCall

Father Ray Kelly

Last April, a video surfaced on YouTube of an unassuming Catholic priest singing Leonard Cohen's tragic classic "Hallelujah" at a wedding ceremony (good thing the lyrics were changed). Father Ray Kelly renders the song in near pitch-perfection, letting slip an impish grin at one point when the impressed audience's titters become audible. "I didn't mean to shock you," he says, taking the pulpit to thunderous applause.

Now at nearly 40 million views, Father Ray's "Original Big surprise for Bride and Groom...Chris and Leah O'Kane" has led to a record deal for his debut album, Where I Belong. Already out in Ireland and Germany, the 12-track effort arrives in the U.K. next week and stateside on Mar. 9 via Universal imprint Manhattan Records. 

A mix of originals, covers, Celtic songs and church hymns, Where I Belong was recorded in Father Ray's parochial home and at a studio in Vienna last year.

A fan of Andrea BocelliCeline Dion and Michael Buble, Father Ray, 62, has been singing for most of his life. Even when he wasn't -- before becoming ordained, Father Ray worked for 10 years in the Civil Service of the Irish Republic in the '70s -- he would participate in talent competitions at the local pub. "Sometimes I would win, sometimes I wouldn't, but it was always good to bring a few friends," he says with his typical come-what-may attitude. 

Now, he leads a quieter life, maintaining his voice with "lots of honey in my porridge" and practicing for his two Cavalier King Charles spaniels. That may change in the spring, when Father Ray is considering a U.S. tour behind his album. "It's St. Paddy's Day time as well, so it'll be very Irish over there," he says, adding that the plan is more for TV performances and talk show appearances than concerts. 

"I'm fortunate that my bishop has supported everything that I do, and if I ever needed to go away he could get me a replacement," he says. "It's comforting to know that the people in my parish wouldn't be without a priest, or something like that." 

What happened when you posted the video online?
It was posted by the guys who recorded it at the wedding. It was totally done unawares to me until I got an email from the Tuesday after the wedding, which was on the fifth of April last. I got an email from the bride and groom to thank me for the service and the mass and the liturgy. "And by the way," they said, "you're on YouTube!" They sent me the link and lo and behold, there I was, singing at the altar! (Laughs) Within an hour, the phone started ringing and it was neighbors and friends and people on Facebook and Twitter: "Father Ray, you're at 1000 hits! You're at 2000 hits! You're at 5000!" 

Was there ever a moment when you thought, "Is this really happening?"
The local radio station started ringing me -- not only the local stations but ones in the U.K. and America. I was on breakfast television in Australia, and then, the big show in Ireland here is the Late Late Show, which goes on a Friday night. I was invited to sing, give an interview on that. That's when things got really serious and I started thinking, "What's going on here?" I was working day-to-day as a priest -- and still am -- in the parish here in Oldcastle in County Meath. The pressure of trying to do your work, and then all this media stuff was building up, so I did need advice on where I was going to go next.

Have your services become packed since you became famous?
During the summer months there was an increase in numbers, and people I met after the liturgies at Sunday Mass came up to me. Some people flew in from the States on holiday, and their first port of call was Oldcastle, to meet me and hear me sing. Sometimes they would then extend their holidays for two or three weeks! They were all such interesting, lovely, beautiful people, all so enthused by the story of an Irish Catholic priest that could sing like that, and then flash his eyebrows at the wedding couple and give them a wink! 

When did you discover you had perfect pitch?
I've heard it referred to as the perfect pitch, but in all fairness that video caught me on a good day. The other days I could sing that song my voice might not be in as good shape. I must have been around nine or 10, going into some local talent competition, and I probably had a very strong falsetto voice. When [my voice broke], for most young lads, it'd be around 13 or 14. I was well into my teens when it happened. I developed laryngitis and I couldn't sing, couldn't speak for a month. When it came back, it was the tenor side and I was disappointed because I felt that my voice was gone and I couldn't sing anymore. It was a frightening experience in one sense, but I coped with it very well. 

How did you start singing?
I was working for 10, 11 years in the Irish civil service defense department, which had to do with the army and navy, paying them and dealing with inspections and things like that. I decided to become a priest, and then I studied for seven years in the seminary. Then I worked in South Africa after being ordained for a couple of years, and I came home to work in Ireland. For nine years I worked at a parish in Navan, Ireland, where I did musicals with St. Mary's Musical Society like Jesus Christ Superstar, Guys and Dolls, loads and loads of them. 

Tell me about your album.
The album is very Celtic in its origins, a mixture of some church music, some Irish songs like "Danny Boy" that every singer in Ireland can sing, as well and a couple of new songs. And the "Hallelujah" song as well -- we're delighted to be able to record that with the new wedding words to it. There are also covers of R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts" and Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven." There's another original wedding song, "Together Forever (Wedding Song)," that was recorded with a Nashville songwriter, Marc Copely. We recorded most of it in the parochial house in Oldcastle where I live. The producers decided to accommodate me as much as possible, so they built a mobile recording studio in my living room for about two months. The boys had their computers connected to it. 

How do you reconcile having a music career with being a priest? If this had happened earlier, would you have changed directions in life?
I don't know, really. I'm at it for 25 years now, and I love being a priest. At the moment I've incorporated both lifestyles very well. One of the big questions I've always been asked is, "What am I going to do with the money if I make any money?" I tell people, "First of all I haven't made any money, and if I do make money, it's not going to change me in any way." I'm fairly grounded at this stage in life. I'm happy with the job that I have, the music is going to be a fantastic sideline, and I'm going to enjoy it as much as possible. As long as I enjoy it I would keep doing it.