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nz logo June 30th, 2001
Entertainment News

Catching up with Hayley Westenra, chart angel

Hayley Westenra
'I love performing because it's just so exciting', says Hayley Westenra. Picture / Brett Phibbs

She has the voice of an angel, they say - her sweet singing will make grown men cry, encourage world peace and bring out the grandmother in all of us.

Clearly, Hayley Westenra is no ordinary 14-year-old.

Any other teenager in New Zealand would be watching television this evening. But this one is on the phone to a journalist. Before that she was having her photo taken by a national magazine. And before that it was a singing lesson with Dame Malvina Major.

The Christchurch fourth-former has frequently been compared to 14-year-old Welsh singer Charlotte Church, whose albums have sold millions in the United States and Britain, earning her family and her record company millions in the process. Church got her start at 13 on a televised talent show and, after performing for the Queen, the Clintons and the Pope, she has bought her parents a new home.

If Westenra's local sales are anything to judge by, it's possible that the girl whose own publicity describes her as "New Zealand's answer to Charlotte Church" really could be.

Her eponymous album has gone triple platinum (45,000 copies sold) since April and spent weeks at number one in the local charts - she's the bestselling New Zealand act of the year so far.

But she's not your regular commercial artist and you won't hear her on the radio, comments one industry insider. Her success was undoubtedly sparked by her appearance on 60 Minutes a week out from Mother's Day. Her appeal is to a market for light-operatic, easy-listening music that has been largely untapped.

That market is also older - most of the people who have bought the album have been 35-plus, says Roger Marbeck, director of Marbeck's Record Stores in Auckland. He agrees that introducing Hayley to middle New Zealand via the high-rating current-affairs show really started tills ringing: "She has a good story, good looks and sounds great and I think a lot of people took her to their hearts."

Hayley got her start performing in talent shows and school productions.

At 6, teachers noticed her perfect-pitch singing abilities and suggested she take up a musical instrument to encourage her talents. Violin, piano and recorder lessons followed, as did parts in more than 40 stage productions by the age of 11.

After he saw her on a Christchurch television station, Auckland promoter Gray Bartlett offered to manage her. A contract with local record company Universal Music followed shortly afterwards, as did a scholarship offer from Dame Malvina Major.

So who exactly is this child prodigy? And even if she does have the voice of an angel, can a teenager really be so angelic?

Most likely. Chatting to Hayley, her answers reflect two sides of her personality, neither of which would offend anyone. In some cases she speaks like a canny, mature-beyond-her-years professional; in others she chats like any happy, frisky 14-year-old.

Ask her if she understands what she's singing about on the likes of Ave Maria and "Of course I do" is the quick reply.

"To portray the emotion in a song you need to have an understanding of what the song is about," she explains. "And if the song is in another language then I make the effort to find a translation."

Which is part of the reason she is having German and Italian lessons. As for some of the more adult feelings she might have to relate to when she's singing pieces such as Memories or Love Changes Everything, Hayley says she thinks of sad or happy moments in her own life that she believes might be similar.

And ask her whether she aspires to become a pop star and she replies that her own voice is suited to more operatic songs. "I do sometimes dance to stuff like Britney Spears, but ... " (she hesitates to find words that would not be rude) "I find some of the pop stuff a bit, um, simple. I think with operatic songs they can be slightly more powerful, more emotional."

Of becoming famous in her home town, she sagely says: "It's quite strange that people want my autograph but kind of thrilling too. And I know I haven't actually changed as a person. It's just people's perceptions of me that have." All of which seems pretty sensible.

But then ask her about clothes or boys and her replies are the same as any teenager's. The favourite stores she names tend to specialise in teen-glam as worn by popsters such as Spears.

Local designer Sonya Smith makes special clothes for Hayley's public appearances.

"I just got these black trousers with a really big flare and Indian mirrors at the bottom. And a crossover top," she enthuses. "Oh, and I also got a pair of boots from Overland. And I just got a pair of Skechers shoes too," she continues happily. "I've never had anything like that before."


"Because I guess I didn't need it. But my friends are pretty jealous now," she concludes with a giggle.

Her friends will probably also be jealous when they find out she recently met Nathan King, of Zed. The group, who have a huge adolescent, mostly female, mostly hysterical following, also come from Christchurch and are Hayley's label-mates at Universal.

"I got to meet him when I was up at the record company in Auckland one time," Hayley says, and the way she says it you can imagine she's blushing right now. "They were being really funny, riding round the offices on scooters."

Most of the time, though, Hayley reckons her life is pretty average. "I like going to the movies with my friends, shopping, going to parties sometimes," says the schoolgirl whose favourite subject is science. "And I do my homework and practise my instruments. It's just that on top of that I have some other commitments."

Such as performing in front of 200,00 people at the Auckland Domain last year. Or jetting off to Europe to record her next album later this year. Or fielding offers from international record companies who would apparently like to see her and her siblings - 11-year-old Sophie and 7-year-old Isaac, who are also musical - all play together on one record.

Yes, lately things have been a bit hectic, admits Hayley's mother, Jill, who travels with her daughter everywhere.

"We're living in a minor state of chaos," she laughs. "Things seem to be racing along at a slightly ludicrous pace. But then again we never expected it to get to this scale. It's all been a bit of a fairytale.

"We're excited but cautious. Everything comes at a price and we know there will be some difficult decisions to make."

Slowly, she and husband Gerald Westenra are learning to draw the line, not wanting to overcommit their daughter. "We're spacing things out so that Hayley doesn't get too tired, and we're also concerned about the kind of music she'll sing," Jill explains. "For instance, she shouldn't sing arias at her age because it could damage her voice."

Jill isn't worried about the potential for exploitation. She then proves she's not one of those showbiz mothers by saying she believes the record company has Hayley's best interests at heart. Nor does she think Hayley will ever turn into a hard-livin', rock'n'rolling, former child star.

"I know her pretty well and she's just not like that," Jill says. "None of us was ever rebellious. I never felt like I needed to be because I had all the freedom I wanted. And I see that very much in Hayley too, in the way she approaches things.

"Actually I feel really spoilt," Hayley says. "So far this has just all been a really neat experience. I love performing because it's just so exciting."

And what she says next makes you think her Mum is probably right: "The other day, when I was signing CDs at a mall, this old lady came up to me. She held my hand and said, "Your singing is just so beautiful, I listen to it every day."

Something that might have made many other 14-year-olds cringe meant a lot to Hayley.

"I feel really lucky to be able to give pleasure to people like that," she concludes. "I think it's really nice."

* Hayley Westenra sings at Hamilton's Founders Theatre tonight and Auckland's Civic Theatre on Tuesday.

©Copyright 2003, New Zealand Herald
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