New Zealander Hayley Westenra signed her first international recording contract with Universal Records in the UK at the tender age of 14. Her first release under the deal, Pure (2003), then became the fastest selling international debut album in the history of the UK classical charts.
Her new-found success meant spending months at a time in the Britain, being supervised by one parent at a time. They alternated between looking after her younger brother and sister back in Christchurch. “Looking back it was tough on both my parents,” she recalls. “My Dad gave up his job, it was proving too much.”
At the time there was certainly a lot going on in the Westenra world. Signed to a major label making international albums, needing to promote them and still fitting in schoolwork and GCSE exams, there was a huge conflict. She valued her education, but at the same time, “I was thinking I’m going to be a singer. A big singer or a small singer, that didn’t matter, but I was going to be singing.”
With successive albums, Odyssey (2005), Treasure (2007) and River of Dreams: The Very Best of Hayley Westenra (2008), Hayley proved that that early success was no fluke; to date, she has sold over 4 million albums worldwide. Her last album, Paradiso (2011), took her status to a new level, when she recorded in Rome with legendary film composer Ennio Morricone and his orchestra.
“Over the years I’ve learnt more and more about music and my interpretation of the music is different,” she explains. “I suppose I’m digging deeper and deeper in myself and putting more out there rather than just singing a song – it’s no longer singing without any life experience.”
After all, she has sung for such luminaries as George W. Bush and Tony Blair, has been personal songbird to Her Majesty The Queen four times and has sung for both Princes William and Harry.
Hayley has also performed at many prestigious sporting events, including football (the FA Cup Final), baseball (the MLB in the US), tennis (the Mercedes Cup in Los Angeles) and rubgy, with her proudest duty – singing the New Zealand national anthem in support of her much-loved All Blacks rugby team.
Since the release of Paradiso, Hayley has had the honour of appearing in front of HRH The Princess Royal at the Royal Variety Performance; she was the special guest on the Operastar 2012 series finale in Seoul, South Korea; and she performed at the closing ceremony of the Second Beijing International Film Festival with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra with conductor Michael Seal.
In autumn 2012, Hayley took part in the prestigious David Foster & Friends tour of the Pacific Rim in autumn 2012, appearing alongside Chaka Khan, Kenny ‘Babyface’ Edmonds, Paul Young and of course, the legendary David Foster himself. To round a busy year off, along with Sarah McLachlan, Loreena McKennitt and Andrea Corr, she guested at the Tim Janis American Christmas Carol gala concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall, in aid of the Golden Hat Foundation, a charity set up to aid people suffering from autism, which has Kate Winslet as its figurehead.
Despite her busy career, Hayley works tirelessly for charitable causes whenever she can. She collaborates regularly with the Royal British Legion to support British troops, and is now commonly referred to as the ‘Forces Songbird’.
Hayley was also one of the youngest ambassadors for UNICEF when she first stepped into the role in 2005. Her special project was bikes for Ghana, raising money so girls could ride to school. “I’m looking at starting a new project in Laos. People always say ‘oh, it’s so great that you do all this charity work.’ But it makes you feel really good inside and it’s given me the opportunity to give something back.
“I am now also vice-president of the Vera Lynn Trust. We support children with cerebral palsy, helping the parents, the children and the schools, which the government does not fund.” Vera Lynn had asked her round to her house for tea to take on the role. Dame Vera has always been extremely fond of Westenra and they have worked together on several projects. “I am her baton carrier – someone who can keep up the work she started.”
In recent months, Hayley has been working on a new album, entitled Hushabye, which is scheduled for release in mid-June 2013. No doubt it will open yet another chapter in this songbird’s successful career.