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'I'm kind of lucky'

She has a £3m record deal and now the fastest selling debut classical album of all time. The only problem for Hayley Westenra is finding time to do her homework. Esther Addley talks to the 16-year-old singing sensation.

Wednesday September 24, 2003
The Guardian


The story of how Hayley Westenra got her big break is such a beguiling one it's a real pity that it's not actually true. She was busking on the streets of Christchurch, New Zealand, so the story goes, singing "a lot of classical music, songs from musicals. I remember singing a Bee Gees song, it's called How deep is Your Love," when a passing journalist heard her, recommended her to a friend, and Bam! Off she rocketed to pop-classical-crossover superstardom.

That's the version her record company prefers; Westenra isn't yet quite cynical enough to play along. "What actually happened was, I would go busking with my sister Sophie at weekends, and after a while I earned enough money to put towards something, and I decided I wanted to make a recording of my voice. So I just sort of went into a recording studio, and I ended up recording about 12 songs. It wasn't going to be for anything in particular, but friends, family members, everyone was asking for a copy of it. And so, um. Yeah. We ended up getting 1,000 copies made, and getting them distributed through New Zealand, and basically I sent them off to some record companies in Australia and New Zealand. And Universal music in New Zealand picked it up!"

She was 12 years old at the time. It's difficult to know which of the two versions of the tale is the more remarkable.

Westenra is now 16, and has a £3m, five-album deal under her belt, to which, this week, she added the fastest selling debut classical record of all time. Pure, her third album (though the first to be released internationally) sold nearly 20,000 copies last week, beating anything Charlotte Church has managed - or Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli or Russell Watson, for that matter. She is also at number eight in the mainstream pop album charts, wedged between Daniel Bedingfield and the Black Eyed Peas. "Yeah! I just never expected what has happened!" she says in her whip-fast, jangling New Zealand accent. She is utterly charming - and entirely unconvincing. She looks like she was born to this.

We meet in the offices of the radio station Classic FM, where Westenra has been recording some acoustic versions of her songs for broadcast. She is on her third British interview of the day, having been awoken by her father after a couple of newspapers in New Zealand called wanting to talk to her ("important papers in New Zealand, so I said, OK, better do it, dragged myself out of bed"). Hello magazine has been on the phone; her manager Steve is trying to arrange for it to shadow her the following day, while she's doing the Des and Mel show for ITV - "otherwise we'll never fit it all in". Next comes more recording, then a tour with Aled Jones. She is already booked to record the Christmas Day broadcast of Parkinson.

She should be an absolute monster, especially when she says things such as "This is what I've always wanted. When I was younger I always dreamed of performing up on stage!" And yet she is the sweetest little thing, apparently entirely without cynicism or brattish vanity. Hayley Westenra's 16 is emphatically not Britney Spears' 16; she looks, if anything, young for her years, with her plump, white porcelain cheeks and her pre-Raphaelite curls and the sort of lithe little frame that you never keep for too many years past puberty. And yet she's got an intimidatingly confident stare and an impressive handshake, and you find yourself wondering if this little girl really does know no fear, as her manner suggests. It seems, in fact, to be simply an unshakeable sense of entitlement that is absolutely mystifying to someone outside her generation. Her future goals, for instance, include "performing to larger audiences". Last year she sang to 200,000 people in New Zealand.

It's a surreal life, all the same. Since being signed by Universal, Westenra has sung with Josť Carreras and Bryn Terfel and Russell Watson, performing at Carnegie Hall and the Sydney Opera House and the Royal Albert Hall. She has been appointed an ambassador for Save the Children and Unicef (their youngest ever) and, most recently, Amnesty. The string parts on the album are played by the Royal Philharmonic, some of them arranged and conducted by Sir George Martin. And this morning she got an email from her GCSE tutor. "He's sick at the moment, but I'm reading Wuthering Heights, and he said, 'Write an essay on the relationship between blah blah blah blah, Heathcliff, and you know, Cathy, and this should take you three hours,' and I'm like, 'No, that will take all day!'"

She must also spend all her time with people a lot older than her. "Yeah, I guess so. Actually, I was quite lucky, because the other day I went to a fashion show, and we had like an aftershow party, and luckily enough, there were two girls, they were sort of early 20s, and I was lucky enough, I just sort of hung out with them. But yeah, I guess a lot of the time I am spending time with adults. I don't really mind." On her rare days off she'll wander into Covent Garden, she says, either on her own or with her father Gerald, a "gemologist" ("he values jewellery") who is travelling with her for the second half of this year. Her mother, Jill, now at home in Christchurch with her younger sister and brother, did the first six months. "People assume they are really pushy, but it's not true," she says. "I think that just goes with the image of parents in music. With sport, it's OK if they are encouraging, but as soon as it's music, all of a sudden it must be the parents who are behind it."

Pure is a slightly odd album. Despite producer Giles Martin's assertion that he didn't want it to be "just a showpiece for a new singer's voice", it does feel a little like that: a couple of traditional Maori songs, a blast of Carmina Burana, one or two light pop numbers and a version of Amazing Grace arranged by Martin's father Sir George. What lifts it is Westenra's voice, which is genuinely remarkable; just maturing into a lovely warmth, she has a clarity to her upper registers which mercifully avoids the dreadful, bared teeth, window-shaking vibrato of many child sopranos. A cover of Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights sounds a particularly terrifying prospect: in fact Westenra turns it into an effortless, dainty little confection of a song.

As for Westenra herself, she likes to listen to Daniel Bedingfield and Coldplay, "and I've got a Celts CD that I quite like listening to. I'm trying to remember who else is on it. Some instrumentals, stuff from Lord of the Dance. That's quite nice." What about Victoria Beckham, who invited her to play at her World Cup party last year after her parents heard Westenra in concert and called their daughter in the middle of her set? "She's still recording, is she? I don't really know what she's doing now. I bought some Spice Girls albums. Well, I bought the first one. I was eight or nine or something."

And Charlotte Church? "I heard a bit of her first album, I haven't really heard any of her other stuff. But yeah, I like her. I mean, I don't really know what kind of style she has been doing." (There is one key difference between them: Church's money was held in trust for her until she reached 18, Westenra has access to hers now, "but it's OK 'cos I'm not extravagant.")

The last time she was here, in early spring, Church was all over the front pages thanks to her boyfriend troubles. "I thought, poor girl, being hassled by the media," says Westenra. "But I guess it's just that she wants to have, you know, a social life. She's just being a teenager. You could say that she probably missed out on... a lot." She seems to have entirely missed the irony.

Doesn't she worry about that herself? "I'm kind of lucky because I've had a bit more time, and I am a bit older." But wouldn't she resent it if the paparazzi started following her? "I guess if they're interested it obviously means that... it's just one of the aspects of being well known, isn't it?" She laughs. "Maybe I'm being completely naive, but I don't think I would mind! I'm sure I'll survive." And you hold your breath and hope you can't see her future.

Useful links
hayleywestenra.com
hayley-westenra-international.com

Item forwarded by Jon Milewalker with thanks to Guardian Unlimited (Click for original article)

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