Hayley Westenra, the international multi-million selling classical star, is armed with a brand new Christmas album and is currently preparing for a string of UK live shows. Hayley has kindly taken time from her hectic schedule to talk to Classical-Crossover.co.uk about her upcoming album, her Christmas tour, life on the move and just who she lists as her favourite crossover artists!
Your first international Christmas album, Winter Magic, is out in November (congratulations!) but you released another Christmas album in 2001 in your homeland, New Zealand. You were fourteen at the time. What made you decide to work on another Christmas album?
I guess it's just the fact that when I recorded that album in New Zealand it was admittedly quite rushed. I was very young at the time so since then I have had the opportunity to discover lots of underground Christmas gems - I've been compiling a list of songs for this album for the last few years. It's been eight years since My Gift To You so I felt that enough time had passed for it to be okay to make a new Christmas album.
The album has a consistent spirit and sound - did you have a solid idea of what you wanted the album to sound like before you started, or was it work in progress?
I did have a vision for it; a soundscape in my head, but it kind of developed as I was working on it. I guess I must have had some idea. There is quite a variety of styles on the album, I have 'Sleigh Ride' on it which is a very upbeat number, and then I have the haunting carols like 'The Coventry Carol' and the 'Corpus Christi Carol' and they are a completely different mood. I'm not sure about the whole album, but the fact that I wanted to make this album for so long meant that with each track I knew exactly how I wanted it to sound.
How difficult is it to select songs for the final tracklist? Did you have to let some songs go because they didn't fit?
There are a couple of tracks we recorded and they didn't make it on to the album because we had a set space for a certain number of tracks. With other albums, I had faith in all of the songs; that they would work so I didn't have to record twenty songs and then cut any out; they did all really work in my opinion.
So were there any special tracks that narrowly missed out on Winter Magic?
No, not really. There are a couple of ones that I recorded and they just didn't quite match the other tracks and seemed unnecessary.
How about choosing songs to perform on tour?
Well, certainly for this Christmas tour I am going to be performing many songs from this album, in fact, almost the whole set will be made out of this album along with some other tracks. On previous tours, I do have a set that I base all my shows on and then add a couple of songs or take a couple of songs out, just mixing a few songs around depending on my mood or what type of show it is or if there are any special requests.
Would you like to tell us a bit about your upcoming UK Winter Magic Tour?
It begins on the 23rd November at Peterborough Cathedral up to the 21st December in London at the Barbican Hall. I'm going to have the string quartet, Raven, with me, and also a guitarist, pianist and a children's choir who will be opening the concert. It will be my usual band, and we are really excited for this tour. It's really fantastic that we have this band and we all really gel. I can't wait to hit the road! I am just hoping to get everyone into the Christmas spirit with the tracks, and I love cathedrals! All the venues that I will perform in on this tour will set my music up perfectly.
I am seeing you live for the fourth time this year; you seem to tour more frequently than other artists in your field. You have been doing it from such a young age that is it simply a way of life you are comfortable with?
I guess it is. Because I really thrive on live performing. Keeps me on the straight and narrow! (laughs) I find that if I don't perform for a while, I kind of get itchy feet to get back on stage! I have lots of international travel as well; that can take its toll - I've just been out in Japan and Taiwan and I had a great time but I'm quite exhausted from the trip. I used to do a lot more international traveling when I was younger but now I am trying to spend more time in the UK to make myself a home here. I'm definitely a homebody. But touring really does drive me, and I guess maybe one day I'll slow down a little bit but in the mean time I am pretty happy with this pace.
You have a loyal set of fans here in the UK that follow you all over the country, so much so that you must know many by name - do you have a similar experience in other countries?
Well, when I go out in Japan there are a group of fans that I tend to see at most concerts, but of course it's harder to communicate with them because of the language barrier. Certainly here in the UK I do a lot more concerts than anywhere else in the world so I am seeing a lot more of the HWIs [a dedicated group of fans]. But New Zealand, gosh, I haven't been back to New Zealand for a while (shame on me!) but I am planning on seeing them next year. I'm doing a lot of work over in the UK so it's difficult to get that kind of connection that I have in the UK.
You have been performing a new song, 'Talk To Me', at recent concerts. What inspired the song and will it be on your next album?
I'm not sure that it will be on my next album, as I have no idea how it's going to sound yet. I've been doing a lot of writing recently and that's just one of the songs that I wrote. I guess it's about being close to a loved one or a friend and trying to get them to open up and be a non-judgemental ear. But I really can't say if it will get on the next album. I'm exploring different genres and I think that writing is a great way of finding different styles and sounds; a great way of experimenting and finding my own sound. I still feel like that I'm doing that: finding my niche.
What is more exciting for you? Touring, or having the chance to get creative and work on an album?
I do like both. I love the album making process, the idea of making something concrete, something that's going to be around forever and it's a very creative process. But with touring you get that immediate response and the adrenaline rush and that's quite thrilling. I guess I can say that singing live is that more exciting and album making is kind of therapeutic in a way.
Your Japanese pop albums are completely different to your international albums. What direction do you think you will be taking on your next album?
I... really don't know! (laughs) I don't know if it's going to be with an orchestra, or with a band. I'm just keen to do more songwriting which I am fitting in towards the end of the year, and early next year. I'm planning to write with various people, and meeting up with producers but at the moment, I just don't know. I have a lot of ideas in my head at the moment!
Classical crossover is often misunderstood; casual buyers assuming it's classical music, and purists under the misconception that crossover artists are "pretending" to be opera singers. One of our goals as a website is to give the genre its own identity. Do you see classical crossover as a genre in itself and do you think that it can grow?
Yes, I think it's definitely a genre in itself, it can grow, and has been growing over the last few years. I think Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman are kind of the male and female leaders of the genre. I guess there a lot of different versions of classical crossover - a lot of different styles; it's a wide umbrella. I think reality TV, that produced artists like G4 and Faryl Smith, have really helped get a new audience to the genre. I like to think that the genre is growing and that there are people discovering classical music - not necessarily in its purist form - but maybe they'll take that initial step towards classical music by delving into the crossover genre, they might then go on to classical. Even if they don't there's nothing wrong with that, because as long as people enjoy what they are listening to then that's what's important. It's great that the genre is growing and getting more media attention.
Do you listen to other classical crossover artists? Who are your favourites?
(Instantly) Andrea Bocelli! (laughs) Sarah Brightman. I guess they are the two that I have grown up with.
Can you name your favourite crossover album?
Andrea Bocelli's Romanza. I get really nostalgic every time I put it on! I don't put it on that often these days but when I do it just reminds me of my younger years. When I was a child I had this massive CD player and sound system and I used to put the CD on and sing along to it. Then I had the opportunity to sing with him! So I hold that album very close to my heart.
Do you ever attend other concerts?
I don't attend as many concerts as I should. I would really love to see more music concerts and see what other artists are doing, and getting inspiration that way. I did see Tracy Chapman a couple of months ago and she was fantastic. Who else have I seen...? Erm, yeah, I need to get out more! (laughs)
Attending too many of your own, I suspect!
Before I ask you one last question, I offered our readers a chance to ask you a question. An overwhelming amount of people from all across the world wanted to know if you are thinking of performing concerts in their country - is there anywhere else other than the UK and Japan that you plan to visit in the near future?
Yes. I feel really bad about the fact that I haven't toured in New Zealand for a while, but unfortunately it's not always down to me to decide where I want to tour - it's the record company that have a lot of control as to what I do with my time (laughs). Unfortunately the record company, and my management are UK based but they are aware that I want to tour in New Zealand and that I need to tour in New Zealand before everyone decides to turn their back on me! Next year I am hoping to tour New Zealand, Australia, possibly China and I'll go back to Taiwan. I would like to do some concerts in Canada as well, and possibly some European countries. I really need to record the album, as that will dictate how the rest of the year turns out. Once I have an idea of when I'll finish the album then I'll work the tour dates around that.
Ben Mitchell asks that since you are playing the piano on stage, do you have any plans to play other instruments such as the guitar?
I do, I do. I really would like to get to that level. But before that I think I would like to spend a little bit more time on my piano playing. I would like to master the piano before I bring the guitar on stage as well. I do hope to; I plan to be around for a long time yet, so Ben, yes, it's on my list of things to do!
Mark Ellis has been bursting to ask you if you have any other deep ambitions in your life, either in music or out?
I would like to try some acting. I did some acting when I was young and it would be fun to try acting in any form - I'm not quite sure which. So, yeah, maybe some acting, but music is number one for me, really, I still feel like there is a lot of room for me to develop my skills and grow as an artist. I don't really want to start anything or get side tracked by anything else for now. Maybe in a couple of years time I'll take some time out and try some acting, and maybe dancing as well - would love to get back into it, but that can be quite time consuming, and I certainly would need to brush up on my technique!
Lastly, in a nutshell, what can fans expect from you in 2010?
If all goes to plan: A new album at the end of the year. Some touring in the UK and Japan. I am really itching to get back to New Zealand though. There is one concert there on 22nd January at Blackbarn, Havelock North, so if anyone is in the area, they can come along to that concert. It's my own show, and Fiona Pears, my violinist for some tours a while back, will be supporting with my band. I've done it before and it's a really beautiful place - the first one sold out so they were keen to have me back!
Hayley Westenra's latest album, Winter Magic, is out in the UK on 30th November; pre-order the album at amazon.
(USA release date: 11/24/2009)
Purchase tickets to Hayley's UK Christmas tour here.
Interview by Nicola Jarvis