Edited By Barry A. Jeckell. March 25, 2004, 5:00 PM

News Menu Button Kiwi Star Westenra Impresses The World

By Paul Sexton and Christie Eliezer

Jill and Gerard Westenra's daughter is making them proud. Not only for selling 1 million albums at 16 years of age, but also for managing to fly around the world while keeping her feet on the ground.

Hayley Westenra's voice, as pure as the title of her hit album, is a jewel discovered and developed in her native New Zealand and now reaching audiences worldwide.

On April 6, "Pure" -- which shows Westenra's fluency in classical, operatic and pop repertoire -- will arrive in North America on Decca Records, after selling more than 1 million copies worldwide, according to the Decca Music Group. Following its release by Decca Sept. 15 in the United Kingdom, "Pure" became the fastest-selling album in the history of the U.K. classical charts and hit the pop top 10, snuggling up next to mainstream giants like Daniel Bedingfield and David Bowie.

Bill Holland, divisional director of Universal Classics and Jazz U.K. and a 40-year industry veteran, remarks: "In some ways, it's the most phenomenal result I've ever seen for an artist."

"These sales figures still haven't sunk in," Westerna says. "I'd be singing regardless [of sales], but it's humbling that so many people appreciate it."

Few artists from New Zealand receive awards from their prime minister. But Feb. 20, the 16-year-old Westenra was acknowledged by Prime Minister Helen Clark as the first New Zealand artist to receive an award for tenfold platinum status in their home market. The album also holds the record for most weeks-18-at No. 1 by a New Zealand artist.

"There can be no better promotion for New Zealand than our artistic excellence," Clark said at the event, "and the success Hayley has forged will open new doors for other New Zealand musicians."

The young singer has been getting used to mixing with musical royalty. Last year, her idol Andrea Bocelli told her, "You have the voice of an angel." Andrew Lloyd Webber is writing a song for her. And she lived in London while recording "Pure" with producer Giles Martin, who co-wrote "Beat of Your Heart" with his father, George Martin. The venerable producer also adapted "Amazing Grace" for the album.

Giles Martin says, "I think her success is up to her, as opposed to me or the record company. She and I worked one-on-one for six weeks. When I met her, the first thing she asked was [if she] could make me a cup of tea, and I thought, 'This is going to be easy.'"

Westenra took her first steps onstage a decade ago. At age six, a teacher noticed her perfect pitch when she took the title role in a school Christmas play, "The Littlest Star." Encouraged by her teacher to learn the violin, she soon added piano and recorder. By the time she was seven, she was reading music, and she had made some 40 musical-theater appearances by age 11.

A year later, Westenra recorded a personal souvenir of her fledgling talents. After completing this self-recorded disc, she went "busking" -- street entertaining -- as she often did with sister Sophie and brother Isaac in their hometown of Christchurch.

At one point, the crowd that gathered to watch the trio included a local TV journalist. That led to a TV appearance, the attention of concert promoter Gray Bartlett and, eventually, a deal with Universal Music New Zealand.

When Decca Music group president Costa Pilavachi learned of the excitement surrounding Westenra in New Zealand, he flew from London to Wellington to see the teenager sing in front of 100 people during a corporate function at a rural racecourse. "I thought I should pop down to New Zealand and meet her," he says. "I was blown away by her charm and her family.

"Christchurch is very far from London and New York, and I thought if she and her family were really serious about having a major international career, it was important they know who they were dealing with," Pilavachi says of his meeting with Westenra and her parents, Jill and Gerald Westenra.

"I wanted them to audition me just as much as I wanted to see her in action. And, frankly, I wanted to meet the family," he continues. "There've been so many horror stories of young proteges with manipulative parents, I'd hate to be part of an exploitation like that. But they're lovely people. I was really impressed with the whole environment [she] came from."

A three-album deal with Decca followed, and Westenra says of Pilavachi, "He gave me more than the opportunity to be released internationally; he's part of my family."

On March 29, Decca will release Westenra's version of Kate Bush's 1978 No. 1 hit "Wuthering Heights," rerecorded from "Pure," as a U.K. single. "My mum had Kate's version in her record collection and suggested it when we were choosing songs for the album," Westenra says.

Westenra will immerse herself in her U.S. launch just as she did in the United Kingdom. "I'm going to be living in New York with my family for at least six months," she says. "It's a big challenge because there's so much area to cover, but I'm fine with it."

While singing is Westenra's main focus right now, recent showcases in Los Angeles had a bonus result of a few impromptu film and television auditions. The artist has already been booked to appear on a third season episode of the NBC drama "American Dreams."

"We just flipped over the sound of her voice -- it's so angelic," the show's music supervisor, Greg Sill, says.

Additional reporting by Anastasia Tsioulcas in New York.

News item thanks to Roger Mansbridge


View Source


News Menu 2004/1

Home Page