Wednesday, July 28th 2004 11.22_

News Menu Button A classic(al) teen

Singer Hayley Westenra has made her mark on the classical crossover scene at the age of 17.
(Jim Cooper -- Associated Press)

Kate O'Neill Wisconsin State Journal

The first word that comes to mind when describing Hayley Westenra, who performs Wednesday night at Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's Concerts on the Square, is "cute."

Westenra, a 17-year-old singer from New Zealand, speaks in a ripple of bubbling banter often sprinkled with the words "like" and "you know what I mean?" Apparently immune to the Britney-esque stunts common to teenage singers, she chose to set off her cherubic good looks in a fuzzy parka in one album photo. And although she recently signed a $4.5 million contract with Universal Music Group, she says she usually does her own laundry on tour, because the hotel laundering service is "so expensive." (At the laundromat after the show? In the bath tub)

Lately Westenra has been building a rsum that is more than just cute. She recently performed for the Queen of England, Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush. She makes her U.S. orchestral debut tonight and will join the Boston Pops on its upcoming holiday tour. And "Pure," her debut album for Britain's Decca label, made her the fastest-selling classical artist in U.K. history. The album was a runaway hit in New Zealand, Australia and Japan, and debuted at No. 2 on Billboard's Classical Crossover Chart.

"Classical crossover" is, in fact, the best way to describe the album. The New Zealand folk song "Pokarekare Ana" and Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights" are paired alongside classical excerpts and ballads. Backed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the album was produced by Giles Martin, the son of Beatles producer Sir George Martin. Sir George himself contributed a pop song ("Beat of Your Heart"), and an arrangement of "Amazing Grace."

Not long before she cut the album, Westenra was singing in the streets of Christchurch. She recorded her first album at a local studio, and most of the copies (complete with cardboard covers folded by her family) were distributed to friends and local fans. The record caught the attention of Universal Records in Auckland, who signed Westenra and released her second album. The local release shot to No. 1 on New Zealand album charts.

The recording made its way to the Decca Records office in London. Decca president Costa Pilavachi happened to hear Westenra's voice floating through his office and signed her for an international deal.

Since then, Westenra has taped an episode of the NBC series "American Dreams," toured middle schools with Radio Disney and appeared on CBS News "Sunday Morning." Last week, Westenra took a break during her Canadian tour to answer some questions about her experiences as a musician and a teenager on the road.

WSJ: What have you been up to in Canada?

Hayley Westenra: I've been focusing on the "Lord of the Rings" symphony music, so I've had quite a few rehearsals since I've been here. I've been learning all this Elvish, which isn't easy to learn, you know. We had the first concert last night, and that was quite nerve-wracking, because Howard Shore, the composer (of "The Lord of the Rings" symphony), was there. It's a great piece of music, so it's great to be part of something so huge. Gosh, there's over 200 people on stage, with the choir and orchestra.

WSJ: What kind of music do you like to listen to? Any particular influences?

H.W.: I like to listen to all types of music. I don't really have one person that I've sort of idolized my whole life or anything. I enjoy listening to Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush - I actually got to sing one of her songs on my album, "Wuthering Heights." I like Alicia Keys, even though she sings a completely different style from me, I still appreciate her music. I also listen to Andrea Bocelli. He sings a similar style, sort of between classical and pop I guess. Sarah Brightman, I listened to her when I was younger and sang some of her songs.

WSJ: What was it like working with George Martin?

H.W.: He's lovely. He's just so lovely, he's the loveliest - he's very humble, very down-to-earth. Even though it was so nerve-wracking meeting him for the first time, because you know, he's a "Sir," and you don't really know what to expect. He doesn't really come in and push his opinions on everyone else. I think he sort of enjoys working with people and getting their opinions. It's just so weird that there are other people involved in the process. It's not every day you get to work with someone so experienced.

WSJ: What do you do to relax while you're on the road?

H.W.: Usually on my time off I enjoy doing ... not a lot. It's nice going out of the city and being amongst the trees and greenery. I love going out for a walk on the beach when we're in Santa Monica or L.A. Or if I'm stuck in the city, just exploring, just getting out and about, that's nice. I also enjoy turning the TV on as well, but ... (laughs).

WSJ: Who accompanies you on tour?

H.W.: I've got my dad with me. My family actually came over to L.A. for a couple of weeks. Generally I just have one of my parents travel with me, and occasionally my whole family comes over if it's a school holiday or something.

WSJ: What are you doing to keep up with your education?

H.W.: I've got a teacher in London, and although it's really hard, I do try and do what I can when I'm on the road, and I'm sitting some exams in November. I think the hardest part is just being disciplined. It's easy when you're in school - you have to work, you're in a classroom, and you can't switch off. Hopefully I'll pass (laughs nervously). It's kind of scary, you know what I mean? I don't sound like I've really ... well, I've just been spread out, I'll have to do a quite a bit of cramming.

WSJ: Do you stay in touch with your friends from home?

H.W.: I do my best. The only way I really stay in touch with them is by e-mail. I'm not that reliable. I always struggle connecting my laptop when we get to the hotel room. There always seems to be problems. The great thing is that I know when I get back, they'll still be there for me. They're really reliable friends.

WSJ: Will you make it back home for graduation?

H.W.: I just found out what day it is, and it might be a possibility, but I'm guessing that I won't get to it. I'll be around a few days where I think there will still be a few parties going on, which should be good. I don't know, I'll sort of do my best to have a good time ... (laughs).

WSJ:Does your schedule leave much time for socializing or dating?

H.W.:It's not very often. A lot of people ask, "So, you got a boyfriend?" But it's like, not really, there's not a lot of time. I'm not in one place long enough to meet anyone, and if I do, you're sort of off again. I'm OK for the meantime. I'm pretty focused. I want to make the most of this opportunity, well, this amazing opportunity. And then maybe later on I'll have a bit of time for a social life.

WSJ: How much do you get to determine your schedule and how you're marketed?

H.W.: It is kind of up to me, my image and all that, and the concerts I do. I just discuss things with my parents, and in the end, they go with whatever decisions I make. My manager, he's great. He respects my opinion and if I said, "I don't think I could do those two shows in a row," he's like, "Oh sure, we won't do it." I feel very much in control.

WSJ: What are your goals for the future?

H.W.: I think what I'd really like to have happen is just continue performing, continue recording. I just want to keep going up with what I'm doing. I want to start performing some of my own material, include it on my albums, and try a little bit more creative control in that area.

WSJ: How is life out of a suitcase?

H.W.: It's not ideal. I've been touring since February, and the hardest thing is actually keeping under the weight limit. I don't really buy anything, but the weight of my luggage manages to increase no matter what.

Contact Kate O'Neill at koneill@madison.com.


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Thanks to Roger Mansbridge for forwarding the link to this article
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