Interview with Hayley - "A 21st-Century Sweetheart"

3 Jul 2010

A 21st-Century Sweetheart

6:00am Saturday 3rd July 2010

By Ian Ray

If the papers are to be believed, then we’re all off to hell in a handcart. Pushed ever closer to our fiery damnation by the booze-sodden “youth of today”, we’re stopping only for them to get some more fags from the all-night garage on the way.

If Britain in 2010 really were that bad, then Hayley Westenra would surely stand as a beacon of exemplary behaviour to her young peers. The kind of young woman of whom your parents would thoroughly approve, there seems little danger of the 23-year-old songbird getting caught in a CCTV dust-up as she heads to Eastbourne for an evening to mark the 70th anniversary of The Battle Of Britain.

She’ll be wrapping the voice that’s sold four million records around some of the songs that defined the era in a fund-raising concert for the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund with the RAF Central Band.

“It’s been amazing to explore the songs of a different era more thoroughly. I really got into my 1940s music, so I’m looking forward to the concert, not just musically but because it’s very special in paying respect to people who lost their lives.”

That the New Zealander’s sentiments belie her youthful looks should hardly be a surprise; she started in the business young, busking and selling CDs in the street before getting picked up by global record giant Universal at just 14. The record went on to become the fastest-selling debut from a classical artist, but you’d think it would’ve been tough putting in the time at entertainment’s coalface while her pals back home were chasing boys and getting kicked out of pubs.

“Ha ha … well it was hard when I was away for four months at a time. I’d come back to find I’d missed out on a lot of social events, friends’ parties and things. That’s quite difficult at that age. But at the same time, I was just really enjoying what I was doing, and having an album out at that age was like a dream come true.”

Skip forward seven years and she’s performed for The Queen, presidents of the US and duetted with premiere league singers Andrea Bocelli and José Carreras, but says the most daunting audience would be made up of the friends she wished she saw more of.

“I think the hardest people to sing to would be a home crowd. Whenever I go back home to Christchurch [New Zealand’s second largest city] that’s a nerve-wracking gig. It’s great to see everyone, but it’s freaky having your old schoolteachers there. It’s all a bit too close to home.”

London has been Westenra’s base of operations since she bought a flat in the capital two years ago.

She heads back to New Zealand once a year and spends most of our winter with her parents, but much of her time is spent touring, something she says has taken its toll on her lovelife.

“It is very difficult. I remember when I was dating people; you’d meet someone and say ‘It’s really nice to meet you – but I’m away for six months from now on, keep in touch!”

Now in a long-term relationship (the details of which she’d rather keep to herself for now), she’s together, straightforward and perpetually looking to the horizon for the next project. The new album will see her team up with iconic spaghetti western soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone, and she’s been revising by watching Clint Eastwood DVDs.

“It’s all been a bit overwhelming,” she says.

“I’ve been going back and forth between Rome and London over the past few weeks. To be hanging out in his apartment, drinking coffee while he’s at the piano playing a piece he’s written for me – it’s incredible.”

Westenra’s also hoping to inject more of her own writing into her performances over the coming years, something she says has got a little easier with age.

“Who knows where these songs I’m writing will end up? But I really enjoy it. It’s a bit like writing in a diary. When I was younger I’d really wanted to write, but it didn’t flow very naturally, because I didn’t have much to write about, I guess!”

Her move from classical sensation to established, grown-up artist has been taking place slowly and unostentatiously in recent years. Now considered something of a new wave forces’ sweetheart, she made the bold decision to head out to Iraq to entertain the troops as part of the Poppy Appeal in 2008. Didn’t her parents ask her not to go?

“They were a little worried, as most families would be, but it was something I really wanted to do, both to raise money for the appeal and to go out and give the troops some support.

“They’re incredibly appreciative of any visitors from the outside world. I don’t think they cared if I was singing or not, to be honest.”

You can’t help but wonder if they’d have felt the same way over someone a little less easy on the eye, like Michael Ball, bless him, but the point remains that Westenra has shown admirable gusto. She’d previously been invited to perform at a concert marking the anniversary of the infamous Battle of Passchendaele in the First World War, where a distant relative of her own actually lost his life.

“To be taken out to the piece of land where they think he was killed was just … you can still find pieces of shrapnel on the ground there. It’s easy to think it was all so long ago, but it wasn’t really.”

In preparation for this concert, she’s immersed herself in the recordings of the 1940s, picking the songs she’ll play with the full force of the RAF Central Band behind her. Given the emotional investment people have in these songs, you’d think they’d need to be handled with care, but Westenra says it’s easier to dive right in.

“A lot of the songs of that time were very uplifting – songs of love and songs of hope and I think you just need to be swept up in them, rather than overanalysing them.”

* Their Finest Hour with Hayley Westenra will be at The Congress Theatre, Eastbourne on Tuesday.

Call 01323 412000. The evening will also include inspirational speeches and poems from the era, along with narration from Squadron Leader Tom Jones, a relative of Dame Vera Lynn. The RAF Regiment Band and the RAF College Band will also perform.

Credits: The Argus