The infant school teacher who picked six-year-old Hayley Westenra out of her class to take the lead singing part of Little Star in the school Christmas play certainly knew what she was doing. After the performance the teacher took her bemused parents aside and informed them their daughter had perfect pitch.Within ten years of that first star-spot the Christchurch-born prodigy would be one of the worlds most exciting singing sensations, with a crate full of platinum discs; and singing duets with the greats, heroes like Andrea Bocelli, Jose Carreras and Bryn Terfel and to audiences including everyone from the Queen, Tony Blair and Condoleeza Rice to fans at the Sydney Opera House, Wembley Stadium, Carnegie Hall and the Royal Albert Hall. She also recently sang at the unveiling of the monument to the sacrifice made by New Zealand forces in the Second World War in the presence of the New Zealand Prime Minister.The 19-year-old star is now releasing her third album Treasured in which she interprets the traditional songs of her native New Zealand, of Ireland, from where her family moved to the land of the big white cloud in 1850, and interpretations of opera arias that have passed into popular ownership.Having circled the globe many times, Hayleys fallen for the charms of the UK, setting up her temporary base here. First were able to catch the honorary Brit in London just before she flew to meet George Bush in the White House. I believe Unicef sent you out to Ghana as an Ambassador what did you see there? Sure I went over there about a year ago. It was my first field trip with Unicef, so it was quite a full on experience having only sort of seen the situation on TV, in documentaries, and coming face to face with it was quite an eye opening experience. Theres times when I was speaking to these bright-eyed children with big smiles and they put a smile on my face. It was fantastic to see them get such pleasure out of going to school and having three meals a day. So it was really fun, but there were also times when I was taken to rural areas where they had no clean water.
These kids were drinking some dirty coloured pond and exposing themselves to guinea worm, which is actually lurking in the water. It was awful, the guinea worm was causing them so much pain, they had open sores and they couldnt walk to school because of them. I was also taken to the city slums, where theres just no sanitation at all and these kids a lot of young girls were just children and they would come into a club from the rural areas, hoping to make money, more money than they would in their home villages. They would also be on the streets, open to all sorts of abuse and exploitation its just so sad, because you think - theyre younger than my brother and my sister. You think my god what would you do if my brother and my sister was out in this situation. I dont know how they would survive. The children and the people over there are just so strong. They really are strong people in general but it was really great to have the opportunity to help them. You set up your own personal project immediately afterwards didnt you?
Yeah, I left to the country to start up a project in New Zealand to raise money to provide bicycles in Ghana. Weve just gone over our target of 6,000 bicycles, which is terrific. A lot of people, including my fans, got behind the whole project. Im a singer and I suppose I enjoy that fact that I can help others because of it. Having the opportunity to save lives is so meaningful and fulfilling.
Youre also very passionate about the environment and the dangers of pollution whats been really angering you about this particularly huge issue at the moment?
Ive just become a matron for the Womens Environmental Network. The organisation deals with obviously the environment, particularly the issues relating to women as well as health issues from their perspective. For instance, the use of chemicals in cosmetics. The environment is such a huge issue at the moment were at such a really critical stage. What really does annoy me is the fact that the government arent taking real responsibility- which they need to do properly. I mean whilst I think people can do things to help in their daily routine, for instance turning down their thermostat a degree etc, I do think that the Government need to do more. For instance, George Bush really needs to put mandatory caps on carbon emissions and I dont think nuclear power is the answer at all. In the UK, the energy systems need to be decentralised for a start. Obviously there are concerns like the economy but were at the stage were money is not going to help us. (Laughs) Were all gonna end up in the same boat. In Ghana for instance they have no clean water of food, and we could end up like that in the UK if were not careful if we dont try and do our bit now. So fingers crossed that the Government do realise their responsibilities.
Theres a lot of history reflected in your album isnt there I was particularly intrigued by the mentions of your Maori and Irish ancestors and its dedicated to your Nana. Can you tell us more about the background?
Yeah basically my initial idea for the album was to record songs that had been passed down for generations, largely through my Nana. She used to be a great singer, well, she still is actually and my granddad he would play the pianoforte. They would both entertain at hotels and pubs. I come from a really musical family but I sort of expanded on the idea and decided to also include songs that I picked up on my travels. It also includes some self-penned songs as well which I think is really important to keep music alive but at the same time introduce new melodies and lyrics. I wanted to introduce my original ideas. So this album kind of documents my music history and all the songs on the album are very personal, which means that the whole album is a very personal album to me. Im really thrilled with it, and how it turned out. The feedback Ive had back so far has been really positive.
You were the supporting act for Il Divo at one stage. A lot of ladies love these hunks - so what was that particular experience like?
Yeah, totally. I went on tour with them last year from January through to May and gosh, yeah I feel very privileged to go on tour with four hunky men. (Laughs) But the audiences were pretty full on actually. There were a lot of females whistling and even throwing underwear at them. (Laughs) It was wild, but it was quite a new experience for me because I normally get quite a balanced crowd. Whereas there was a lot more females than males, as it were. I just enjoyed the whole experience.
I believe that animals go crazy when youre singing especially dogs and llamas can you tell us more?
Yeah basically, I was around practising at my managers place, and his dog has been trained not to bark. I was doing some vocal exercises in another room and the dog started going berserk when I was singing. Because hes been trained not to bark, my managers going hang on a minute you know (Laughs). Also in another recording studio Ive had another incident with animals so I think theres something in certain points of my voice that the animals are picking up on. It might be a tone thing, or frequency thing; Im not quite sure. But yeah its a bit bizarre.
Youve had a guest appearance in the TV show American Dreams and I heard that whilst you were doing that you went to a few auditions and read a few scripts would you like to do more of that?
Yeah acting is a lot of fun, but to be honest with you at the moment Im just so busy with my new album coming out. We dont even have enough time to visit all the countries that my album is going to be released in. You do promotion in such countries and then follow it with a tour but I do love to have a variety in my life. I deeply hope to try out lots of new things over the years and spread my wings. Keeping myself busy and being kept on my toes. So Im not ruling anything out. I would love to do some more acting in the future.
Youve performed in front of many dignitaries in your career including the Queen, Prince Charles and President Bush did you manage to have a chat with any of them afterwards?
Yeah, Ive spoken to them a few times actually. I remember President Bush once telling me that my performance capped off the evening and the Queen- I had performed for her a few days prior and I was performing for her again. She was like, Lovely Dear, Didnt I hear you earlier on in the week? I was like Actually you did, and Im performing for you tomorrow as well. (Laughs) She must have been sick of me a little. Im also going to the States tomorrow to kick off the St Patrick Celebrations. Were singing at the White House and I know Ill have the opportunity to speak to President Bush after my performance about some environmental issues that Im concerned about. I think it would be a waste of an opportunity if I didnt.
What advice would you give to somebody suffering from stage fright?
Find a situation that youre comfortable in. The more performing that you do, the less nervous you will be, so find a friend that youre comfortable performing in front of or a group of friends. Anyone, basically and then work your way up to a situation that seems daunting at the moment. I dont think picturing people in their underwear does much (Laughs).
One of the tracks on the album "Melancholy Interlude" did you especially say that youre scared all the hard core John Dowland fans are going to hunt you down, because you wrote your own lyrics to it?
Yeah Dowland is a renaissance composer. Its always scary when youre mixing with somebody elses compositions but I think I respected his work and just only put my own spin on it really. Ive just adapted the piece and turned it into a song. Im freeing the music. (Laughs)
Have you ever been bullied?
I was actually when I growing up. I think growing up a lot of the kids were just jealous of the fact that I was getting the teachers attention because of my singing and so they tried to knock me down and give me a hard time about it. I think it made me stronger though I think its really helped me to develop a thick skin and just be confident within my self.
Other veteran singing stars like Dame Kiri Te Kanawa have reportedly talked in the past about pushing young voices too far too fast what are your feelings about that?
I very conscious of protecting my voice and I am very focused on protecting it and not pushing it. Letting it develop naturally I have the odd singing lesson to help me learn how to pull my voice and develop new techniques but Im keen not to mould my voice just yet. Its important that I hold on to my identity and let my voice develop on its own accord.
What was your upbringing in New Zealand like?
I am very connected to New Zealand. Very recently I havent been getting much time there because Im just so busy and its such a long way to travel. But I had such a wholesome upbringing. New Zealand is such a perfect place to grow up really we have lots of space, there are great schools and I think there is a great pace of life as well. I had time to make my own tree hut with my friends. Its really helped me on my path now and to stay grounded and level headed when working in a very crazy industry.
Are you seeing anybody special at the moment?
Not really no, although Ive kept in touch with a few people. (Laughs) Its hard when you do so much travelling. You meet someone and then youre off the next day.
Finally, youre touring here a bit later in the year I believe what can expect from that?
Yeah, June and July Im touring all across the UK, so hopefully Ill be reaching out to everyone! (Laughs)
"Treasured" released around the UK on 26th February 2007
tagged in Hayley Westenra