Heavenly Hayley

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Thursday, July 10, 2003


Forget Avril Lavigne. Forget Charlotte Church. The latest teenage siren on the block is Hayley Westenra, who sings songs by classical music greats rather than self-penned, whimsical confessionals, and projects a voice that rivals Andrea Bocelli. IZUAN SHAH speaks to this talented young lady 

IT IS probably safe to say that 16-year-old Hayley Westenra is capable of overthrowing some of the current hot teen queens of music. Just listen to her singing voice, which can swell from angelic and serene to operatic and commanding and youíll know why. Hayley was six years old when she performed at the school Christmas play where a schoolteacher noticed her perfect pitch. It was suggested to Hayleyís mother, Jill, that Hayley take up a musical instrument to encourage her talents and so began Hayleyís musical journey, first with violin lessons, followed by piano and recorder lessons. 

By the time she was 11, Hayley had already notched over 40 appearances in stage productions, sung on TV shows and performed in major concerts. Her big break came in 2000 when a broadcast journalist heard Hayley and her younger siblings, Sophie and Isaac, busking in their New Zealand hometown of Christchurch and approached them. The chance meeting led to Hayleyís TV appearance where she caught the attention of a leading New Zealand concert promoter, Gray Bartlett, and later landed a deal with Universal Music New Zealand. 

Her self-titled debut album, Hayley, in Spring 2001 ousted the likes of Robbie Williams, Dido, Westlife and Craig David from the top spot of New Zealandís music charts for four weeks, and went triple platinum to make Hayley the countryís fastest-selling artiste in history. The Christmas album, My Gift To You, followed soon after.  

Hayley recently signed a contract with worldwide classical music label Decca Records (a subsidiary arm of Universal), and the result is Pure, which will be released in New Zealand this month. Pureís 14 tracks include a rich mixture of classical pieces, pop-tinged numbers, crossover songs that blend the two, as well as tracks that border on world music and new age epics. The teenager also delivers two songs sung in Maori as a sweet testament to her Kiwi identity.  

At a listen, Pure is atmospheric as a rule and constantly uplifting. The music is laden with styles as diverse as classical crossover, choir and traditional Maori elements, and Hayleyís versatile vocal range breathes life into the classic cover versions. The selected repertoire on the album (which includes compositions from Andrew Lloyd Webber, Leonard Bernstein, Johann Sebastian Bach and Charles-Francois Gounod) also reveals a rare taste for more sophisticated forms of music ó rare for someone her age. 

In this telephone interview from idyllic Christchurch, Hayley admits that she was brought up on classical music but loves listening to pop as much as the next teenager. To further attest to that, Hayley mentions that a pop radio station is playing in the background.  

You sound amazing on the album. Did you choose the songs and if you did, why 

Thank you very much. Yes, I did actually have a hand in that. I made it known to the producers that I really loved the songs that I was singing. Because you donít want to be singing something you donít like (laughs). On the album, thereís quite a mixture of music, from classical songs to pop songs, so Iíd say I chose the songs because I like different styles of music. Although thereís no particular reason why I chose each one, Iíd say I chose the songs I loved.  

How does it feel to work with the likes of (producers) Giles Martin and Sarah Class after busking in the streets 

That was really amazing. Youíd expect it to be quite nerve-wracking, but the people I worked with were really lovely and made me feel relaxed and comfortable. They certainly helped make it easier for me to perform well.  

How does it feel to perform in front of thousands of people 

(Laughs) Well, letís face it ó I do get nervous. But itís such an amazing feeling being up onstage with huge masses of people in front of you. Itís just a really incredible feeling. The audience gives you a real buzz and itís such a great atmosphere. I love it.  

Who are your musical influences 

Well, I wouldnít say they are influences but some of the singers I really aspire to are people like Celine Dion. Itís not like one particular person whom I aspire to though. When watching singers at concerts or on TV, I guess you just tend to pick up things from them and pay attention to them sing, and it all really helps you at what youíre doing.  

On the other hand, I donít want to copy anyone or anything. Currently, Iím just having fun exploring different styles. I havenít an exact idea of the sort of repertoire I want on my next album. Iím exploring crossovers, which is the area between pop and classical, so a lot of the songs on my album fit that category. The melodies are based more on classical melodies, and theyíve got English lyrics written to them, so itís a bit different from what people probably have heard or are used to hearing.  

How do you feel about having fans 

I have to say that at first, when I released my first album which was when I was about 14 years old, it was really weird to have people come up to you and ask for youíre autograph. It nice having them because it makes you feel good, you know (laughs).  

Do you have any other interests or passions besides singing 

I also play the piano and violin as well, and I also enjoy dancing. I love acting.  

You sing in different languages (English, Maori, Italian, French) as well. What propelled that interest 

Well, on my album, I have two songs that are sung in Maori. The reason why I recorded them is because theyíre both gorgeous songs and also I just really wanted to share some of that Kiwi flavour because thatís where I come from and I just wanted to share that with the rest of the world. 

If you were to make a full-on pop album, how do you think youíd fare against Avril Lavigne 

(Laughs) Umm, I donít think I do music quite like Avril Lavigne. I would probably do something more like Celine Dion, or definitely something more in between ó not straight pop. No, I wouldnít make a pop album.  

Whatís your favourite thing about singing 

I guess my favourite thing about it would be performing in front of an audience, because thatís where you get feedback from and it makes you sort of work hard for it. Itís just a really good feeling performing in front of a huge crowd. Like I said, you just get a real big buzz out of it.  

  • Hayley Westenraís debut album, Pure, will be available locally from July 21. The singing phenomenon is tentatively scheduled to be in Kuala Lumpur from Aug 11 to 12 for showcase performances and a concert

    Link thanks to Gareth K.


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