Westenra: Me against the purists
Westenra will be the star of the classical Brits this week.
But can the 17-year-old diva win over a sceptical music industry?
Amy McLellan finds her ready to take on her critics
many teenagers who could be so cheerful amid the pressures
of GCSE revision, but the 17-year-old New Zealand vocalist
Hayley Westenra - who has been spending so much time in the
UK that she's chosen to do her exams here in November - couldn't
be more charming if she tried. She bursts into the room in
jeans and trainers, flicks her long hair over her shoulder
and apologises profusely for being late (a non-diva-esque
five-minute delay), before proceeding to chatter away in her
runaway New Zealand lilt about studying, clothes and life
on the road. Only her preferred adjective, "cool",
and the occasional nervous giggle betray the fact that the
poised young woman with the steady gaze isn't even old enough
to toast her success with a legally bought glass of champagne.
of course, a seasoned media hand, having been signed by Universal
New Zealand at the tender age of 13. It was an astute talent-spot:
Westenra's international debut album, Pure, has sold 1.5 million
copies worldwide, she is a double Classical Brit nominee (for
best album and female artist of the year) and is in talks
with US producers about adding film and television work to
her already impressive CV.
on that it all happened without her making much of an effort
and says "there was no real master plan" but she
has worked hard for her success: by 11, she had appeared in
more than 40 stage productions, sung on TV and performed in
major concerts. "This is what I always wanted to do,"
she admits. "When I was younger I dreamt of doing what
I'm doing now. I was aware that I lived in a small city [she
grew up in Christchurch, on the South Island] in a small country
and that these kind of opportunities didn't come along very
often. So I kept at it, kept busy and took every opportunity
that came up." That included using her earnings from
busking to fund the first recording of her voice when she
was only 12. "I just thought it would be cool to have
a memento of my voice," Westenra recalls. "Then
one thing just led to another. We [she and her younger sister
Sophie] would be busking, and people would ask if I had any
recordings. So we would take their details, and Mum would
make little cardboard covers for the CDs, but it just wasn't
economic to keep doing these one-offs. So we got 1,000 copies
made with the help of a family friend and eventually they
got sent round to some record companies."
up by Universal New Zealand, she released two chart-topping
albums for domestic consumption. The big break came when the
head of Decca, Costa Pilavachi, by chance heard a recording
of her voice and was so impressed he got on a plane to New
Zealand to meet her family. The result was the 2003 release
of Pure, an eclectic mix of opera, Maori lullabies, folk and
dismisses the notion that Pure was styled to showcase the
diversity of her vocal talents. "I wanted it to represent
the music I like," she says. "I enjoy a variety
of styles and I'm lucky to have the freedom to experiment."
The next album, likely to be recorded next year, will include
some of her own material. "I've always written little
melodies and lyrics at the piano," she says. "But
I usually get bored before I finish them but I'm confident
this time I'll complete a whole song - if I get time."
a precious resource. Apart from this three-week stay in London
for the Classical Brits - and a solid stretch of revision
with her London tutors - Westenra has been clocking up the
air miles. The recent tour included a number of back-to-back
dates and a whirlwind cycle of airports, hotel rooms and concert
halls across New Zealand, Australia, Japan and the UK, followed
by a stint on the Radio Disney Tour across the US.
little time for maintaining the social networks that dominate
most teenagers' lives. "Sometimes I wish I could see
more people of my own age. I can be so busy performing that
there's not a lot of time for socialising and going out,"
she muses. "But I've got a really solid group of friends
back home. I can just go back there and fit back in."
the release of Pure, she has performed at some of the world's
most prestigious venues and duetted with big names José
Carreras and Bryn Terfel. "Sometimes it can be really
nerve-racking," she admits. "My most nervous event
was singing to a small group of people that included Tony
Blair, George Bush and the Queen. It was a very small room,
just me and a piano, very intimate. I was scanning the room
and all these faces I recognised kept popping up."
a little starstruck when talking about her favourite classical
artist: Andrea Bocelli. "I would love to work with Bocelli;
that would be my dream come true," she gushes disarmingly.
"Romanza was the very first album I ever bought. I'm
a huge fan." There have been discussions about a possible
collaboration, although nothing has been confirmed. TV and
film work is now on the agenda but she appears unfazed by
the speed and scale of her ascent. "I would be singing
no matter what, but it's nice to know that people are appreciating
it too," she says modestly.
hasn't spawned a monster: she turned down the opportunity
to sing at the Beckhams' World Cup party because she had prior
commitments in her home town. "That isn't how I operate,"
she says firmly. "I want to be loyal." Any brattish
behaviour would also be quickly quashed by her family, who
accompany her whenever possible. The whole clan accompanied
her on her first international headline tour but this time
it's just her father. "I do get really homesick and miss
my family," she says, with an honesty that makes you
want to hug her slender frame. "But I'm lucky to have
one parent with me."
Gerald, is a quietly spoken man, who has shelved his jewellery
business to support his daughter. He stays in the background
while his daughter happily poses for photographs. "She
always drove things forward herself," he says. "It
was always violin lessons, ballet, musicals and talent quizzes.
We used to have monthly meetings to see what we could cut
back on. Eventually, it was a natural progression that singing
what was she wanted to do."
agrees that singing is her first love. She has a pleasant
voice that, combined with her repertoire, makes her very easy
on the ear - and one of the most successful crossover artists
around. Whether she can be labelled strictly classical, however,
is open to discussion.
Wells, chief executive of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra,
said he was impressed by the voice but added, "it isn't
yet a voice that I would expect to feature in mainstream classical
repertoire. In fact, I have been talking to our artistic planning
department and Hayley's manager about the fact that it is
time that she appeared with the NZSO - but what I have in
mind is our end-of-season Finale tour, in which we head for
the lighter end of the market and crossover programmes."
within the inner sanctum of the classical music world, the
common response is: "Heard the name but not the voice.".
Only a reference to "the new Charlotte Church" elicits
some recognition. "Oh, not another one," says one
leading agent wearily. Yet those who have heard her voice
are positive. "In many ways, the title of her CD, Pure,
is not just record-company PR but actually quite apposite,"
says Ian Maclay, managing director of the RPO. Purists may
sniff at her nomination for a Classical Brit, but Westenra
laughs it off. "I don't mind the 'crossover' label at
all, because that's what I am! I enjoy singing music that
combines classical and pop."
received coaching from the New Zealand opera legend Dame Malvina
Major and when in the UK books in for sessions with the leading
vocal coach Mary Hammond. "I've had a good grounding
so I know I am not straining my voice," she says. "My
voice has got richer and fuller with age. I can sing really
high notes but I don't always include them in the show, to
protect my voice." Even the "new Charlotte Church"
label with which she has been saddled is misleading. "Her
music is more classical than mine," says Westenra. Also
unlike Church, Westenra has thus far been cushioned from the
hard knocks of life as a modern celebrity. Although she is
a big name in New Zealand, press intrusion is negligible.
"We just don't have the paparazzi," she says of
her home country. "People do come up and say 'well done',
and I'm lucky to have that support from my fellow Kiwis."
also tend to gush about her demure appearance - there is no
Britney-esque flesh exposure at a Westenra gig - and unspoilt
feminine charm. "I usually choose my own clothes, because
I know what suits me," she says. About the media attention
likely to come her way with her growing international profile,
Westenra is calmly confident. "It really has not been
that tough for me. I may be known internationally now but
I'm not so young any more, so I feel I can handle it."
Source - Link thanks to Jon Voslo - Roger Mansbridge
and Gary Scovil both sent in the same prompt!
scan of article
2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd
NZ Herald ran exactly the same story, one day
later, but with the bonus addition of this lovely
picture of Hayley
Copyright 2004, New Zealand Herald
Westenra. Picture / Dean Purcell
URL thanks to Gary Scovil
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