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Hayley Westenra
Biography - Decca Classics
June 2003

Hayley Biography courtesy of Decca Classics 20030609

The scene is a performance of a primary school Christmas play. The expectation from adoring parents is for the children to sing flat, fluff their lines and maybe trip over the scenery. Everybody expects a few laughs, no one expects brilliance.

It was at just such a show that New Zealanders Jill and Gerald Westenra first witnessed their daughter Hayley's extraordinary talent. "Her school put on a show called The Littlest Star," Jill says. "Hayley was just six and all she'd said to me was, `Mummy, I need my ballet gear.' So we went along and found that in fact she was the star of the show - the littlest star."

A teacher approached Jill after the performance and told her that Hayley was pitch-perfect and suggested that she take up a musical instrument to encourage her talents. Hayley Westenra began violin lessons; it was the beginning of a relationship with music that's been the driving force in her life ever since.

In stark contrast to most children who have to be forced to practice, Hayley took every opportunity to perfect her talents - quickly adding piano and recorder tuition to her violin lessons, and learning to read music by the age of seven. It was also around this time that her passion for musical theatre began to take shape. By the age of eleven, Hayley had appeared in over 40 stage productions, sung on TV shows and performed in major concerts. "It's a really great feeling," recalls 16-year-old Hayley, "when you're on stage you are in darkness and then you step out into the lights and it is like you've moved into a different world."

In 2000 Hayley recorded a demo album, mainly as what she called " a momento". This personal souvenir - just 1000 copies were pressed - unlocked the key to her future. On the day the recording of the CD was completed, Hayley and her younger sister Sophie (both vocalists, violinists and pianists while younger brother Isaac plays the flute), busked in their hometown, Christchurch. The pair quickly drew an enthusiastic crowd. "A woman asked us if we'd recorded anything." The young busker's fan was a journalist with a local television station and Hayley soon appeared on air. The appearance captured the attention of a New Zealand concert promotion company, and a deal with Universal Music New Zealand soon followed.

Her debut self-titled recording for Universal New Zealand featured an eclectic mix of show music and classical pieces; it went straight in at No.1 in the pop charts (where it remained for 4 weeks), turned triple platinum and made Hayley the fastest selling local artist in New Zealand's history. This was soon followed by the Christmas album My Gift To You.

New Zealand opera legend Dame Malvina Major, offered Hayley lessons after hearing her sing. She says of her voice, "It's absolutely musically true. A lot of young singers have beautiful voices but they have to be guided into that sort of clarity. She has it naturally."

The relationship has become close, and invaluable for Hayley. "Dame Malvina has taught me so much," says Hayley. "She's such a lovely person too and helps me in other areas as well - not just technique, but discussing things about my career with me and about performing on stage, too."

Hayley smiles easily and her eyes twinkle with enthusiasm as she talks of her passion for singing. "I always dreamed about being a singer but I was quite realistic about what I hoped for. I thought, well, maybe when I'm older I could do part-time professional singing and have a job too. Once I got to the stage of getting a record contract with Universal, that's when things started to get exciting. Now I've got an international contract with the Decca Music Group and I'm doing things like singing with Russell Watson - it's really exciting!"

"I come from a really musical family," says Hayley. "On my mother's side, my grandma and grandfather used to go round performing in pubs - Granddad would play the piano-accordion and piano and Nana would sing. On my dad's side, my grandma used to sing on the radio. I guess I inherited some of that musicality from them." Hayley's strong Celtic roots have also influenced her. Her great grandparents emigrated from Wales and Scotland while her grandfather originated from Ireland.

"It's important for a vocalist to be able to sing in any language," she says. "To portray the emotion in a song you need to have an understanding of what the song is about," she says. "And if the song is in another language then I try to find a translation." Already studying French and German at school, Hayley is now adding Italian to her repertoire.

Away from the stage, Hayley is a typical teenager. Music is her top priority but she is also keen on netball, swimming and indoor rock-climbing and has represented her school at cross-country running. "Other than music, I also enjoy ballet dancing [she has performed with the Royal New Zealand Ballet], reading, watching movies, shopping and hanging out with my friends! I also like listening to music. My favourite artists are Nelly Furtado, Craig David, Shakira, The Corrs and Vanessa Carlton."

During Hayley's whistle stop visit to the UK in spring 2002, she performed in concerts with Russell Watson in Cardiff, Newcastle and Wembley. "We have one of his CDs at home so to get a call saying `We'd like you to sing with Russell Watson', was like, wow!"

Russell returns the compliment. "The first time I met her in New Zealand, I saw this tiny girl and then this voice came out and it was incredible. The only word that I can use to describe it is angelic. I think she's a phenomenon."

"I'd like to write my own songs in the future," says Hayley. "But for now, I'm looking forward to performing around the world and experiencing singing in front of different audiences. That will be so cool!

"If I could be anyone in the world, I'd actually choose to be me, where I am right now, because I'm so excited about what I'm doing and I'm loving it totally. It's incredible; the opportunities I've been given. I really didn't expect this to happen," she says with wide-eyed wonder. "It is amazing how one thing leads to another."

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