Hayley Westenra: Me against the purists

Hayley 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
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The Independent Culture

It's not 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.

It's not 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.

She is, 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.

She lets 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."

Signed 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 pop.

Westenra 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."

Time is 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.

It leaves 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."

Since 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."

She becomes 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.

Success 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."

Her father, 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."

Westenra 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.

Peter 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."

Otherwise, 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."

She has 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."

Reviewers 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."

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