Not many artists have been in a position to release a Best Of album at the age of 21, but there’s never been anyone quite like Hayley Westenra. She began performing when she was 6 and made her first recording in a professional studio at 12. She was still only 16 when she released her debut international CD, Pure. It rapidly became the fastest-selling debut album from a classical artist, and reached the Top 10 of the pop charts in 11 countries. Her albums have sold more than four million copies worldwide to date. “Pure” was certified by the official UK chart compilers as the best selling classical album of the 21st Century.
Her popularity and approachability have brought all kinds of opportunities, including offers to perform for royalty and assorted heads of state. She’s also UNICEF’s youngest-ever ambassador, an energetic supporter, both in awareness and financially, and is now on her second project in Ghana, Matron of the Women’s Environmental Network (WEN), and the first patron of Classic FM’s charity, Music Makers. After recording theme songs for several high-profile movie and TV projects, she’s now eyeing up potential acting opportunities.
But it’s the mesmerising appeal of her music which has provided the platform for her other endeavours. Her new collection, River Of Dreams, is the perfect place to sample the full breadth of her work as it roves effortlessly across genres. Filing her under “classical” only tells a fraction of the story.
"I know I am often referred as a classical singer," she says, "it’s a lazy description in this iPod world where people are listening to music because they simply enjoy it and not being led by feeling the need to be tied to a particular genre. This makes it a good time to be making music, and as a singer I record songs I want to sing, and choose them simply because I feel a connection to them. It’s a cliché, but I am drawn to lyrics, but I also love a great melody, hence my choice to record a lot of classically based music, its quality proven by it still be popular after centuries have passed. So I see myself as a singer, full stop, who does perform classical music but also one that performs folk and contemporary “pop”.
"River of Dreams" contains selections from her three bestselling Decca albums — Pure, Odyssey and Treasure — combined with three newly-recorded songs, River Of Dreams is a statement about how far she has come while dropping hints about where she might travel next.
"Originally I thought ‘a Greatest Hits? Come on, at least give me a few more years,’" she admits. "But the feedback from fans was that a simple retrospective would be good for them to help convert their friends. I also liked the idea of combining new songs with previously released material, my voice has developed and I’m learning as I go, about getting inside songs and adding a more personal interpretation “
”Usually I’m very critical of my work, but looking back now I really do appreciate what I managed to achieve. Rather than thinking ‘oh, I could have done a better version of this one or that one’, I’ve been saying ‘that was a great recording for someone aged 16’. I must admit I’m quite proud of my work."
The new album opens with Pokarekare Ana, the traditional Maori tune which gave many listeners their first opportunity to be amazed by the purity and clarity of Hayley’s voice.
"It was the lead track from my album Pure," she explains. "It’s basically New Zealand’s unofficial anthem, so whenever I was given the opportunity to sing just one song I would always choose this one because I’m very proud of my country. Despite being in Maori, which most people don’t understand – including most New Zealanders — it really does work internationally and people respond very well. It has a sort of musical aura that is enhanced by the somewhat mystical sound of the Maori language “
Another piece with a Kiwi connection is the Enya composition May It Be. It comes from the soundtrack of Peter Jackson’s movie The Fellowship Of The Ring, which was shot in New Zealand.
”Yeah, that reminds me of New Zealand whenever I perform it," says Hayley, “and I can’t resist dropping in a few comments about New Zealand’s scenery and just how great a country it is. I was a huge fan of the Lord Of The Rings films, so I had to record the song.”
But the globe-trotting star can’t restrict herself to being the Voice of New Zealand, and several tracks give the album a distinct international flavour. Her pride in her Irish roots surfaces on a tear-jerking old favourite from the Emerald Isle Danny Boy. Then the focus moves across the Atlantic to America and its folk and country music traditions, in the shape of Amazing Grace and Shenandoah.
"Shenandoah is a classic American folk song which I recorded for the Treasure album, and it’s a great tune. As for Amazing Grace, I actually released that twice as a single in Japan. The first time was a solo artist, then I did it again this year with Minako Honda, who was a pop star in Japan. After I released my version she recorded her own version, then sadly a couple of years later she passed away from leukaemia."Both versions topped the Japanese mainstream pop single charts and helped establish Hayley as one of the handful of best selling Western artist in Japan, where her recent Japanese album made the domestic top 10 album chart.
Hayley’s classical leanings are expressed through her treatment of Puccini’s exquisite O Mio Babbino Caro, from Gianni Schicchi, and in Karl Jenkins' stirring Benedictus. Classical themes also underpin Never Say Goodbye and River Of Dreams.
"Never Say Goodbye was the one song I didn’t want to record for Pure, and then it got a great response from everyone so I recorded it anyway," she remembers. “It was kind of the surprise hit. It was based on Ravel’s Pavane, while River Of Dreams was based on Winter, from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. We just felt inspired by that track when we used it for the album’s title. It’s a great crossover track, and a fantastic example of how you can take a classical melody and give it a new lease of life.”
Although music critics sometimes enjoy pouring cold water over the Idea of “classical crossover”, Hayley is in no doubt that it can be a valuable way of bringing new listeners to classical music.
"I think if there was no stepping stone between classical and more popular types of music, there’d be far fewer people going to classical concerts," she argues. "There’s no harm in experimenting with different styles of music, and I think it has definitely helped the classical music industry. I know from personal experience that my music has introduced people to classical music, as it has myself “
Having said that, she’s always keen to have a shot at a classic pop song. For instance, Joni Mitchell’s haunting Both Sides Now has become a Westenra favourite both on disc and in concert.
”I belatedly discovered Joni Mitchell when I was recording my second album Odyssey, and I became a huge fan. I knew I had to record Both Sides Now, and it always gets a great reaction from audiences. I especially enjoy the lyrics, and I interpret them a little bit differently depending on where I’m at in my life. My interpretation has definitely changed as I’ve got older."
Hayley has also found that Who Painted The Moon Black strikes a loud chord with her listeners. “It has quite a pop feel to it, but what made it fit onto Pure was the lyrics,” she explains. “They’re beautifully crafted and they paint these beautiful images. It’s a song a lot of my younger fans really enjoy, and they often write me letters saying it’s their favourite.”
Additionally, River Of Dreams offers a glimpse of Hayley’s own writing skills in the shape of Summer Rain, which she wrote for the Treasure CD. Summer Rain was a particular favourite in Japan where the huge confectionary company Bourbon used this song and also asked Hayley to front their TV advert. Songwriting is a side of her talents she’s keen to develop.
"I’m going beyond arranging to doing more writing for each subsequent album," she confides. “I don’t want to fall into the trap of over-extending myself, but I know I’m capable of writing good songs and I want to develop as an artist. I find songwriting really enjoyable and really cathartic.”
Westenra devotees will be itching to hear the three new songs she has recorded for River Of Dreams. Once again she has gone back to her Kiwi roots for Now Is The Hour, a popular song adapted from a traditional Maori tune and one recorded over the decades by such titans of popular music as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Rochdale’s finest, Gracie Fields. Then there is a Hayley-ised version and Fleetwood Mac’s Songbird , and a rendition of the Bach/Gounod "Ave Maria “, a request made many times over by her fans online.
With Songbird, written by Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie for the classic Rumours album, Hayley had the much-loved version by Eva Cassidy to live up to.
”Eva’s version has become very famous, and my version is not dissimilar to hers," she acknowledges, “but again it’s my own take on the song. We did it with just piano and a few strings and I really enjoyed performing it phrase by phrase and really digging deep into the lyrics. I’m very proud of it and I hope everybody likes it too.”
So Where Next Columbus ? “I love performing live and I’m told that I do too many concerts each year by people thinking I will ruin my voice or health . I find I get stronger and enjoy performing all over the World , taking in cultures and local music , collecting ideas for my own songs . I am only 21 and I know there are a lot more songs I want to sing and even more that I would love to write.” Perhaps that’s the real reason for the “Story So far” , a transition from girl to young woman , in music and in life.