Hayley Westenra’s Debut Self-Titled Album
When I put this album on again after so many years just to write this review, I found myself pleasantly surprised. After spending so many years insisting that this album was quite poor and was not worthy of any attention I must have lowered my expectations for it considerably, for I now feel quite differently and think that I was wrong to dismiss it so easily.
This album was recorded by Westenra at the tender age of thirteen, though you probably would not have been able to guess that was the case. It was released only in her native New Zealand, and then Australia in 2001. It charted extremely well, a kind of success that mirrored that of Charlotte Church over here in the UK. Of course, at such a young age, and being so unknown, there would have been an issue of what to record. Her company decided to play it safe, as you only can do with such young singers, and compiled some musical and traditional standards.
There is no denying that it was not possible for this to be a fantastic album. It could only be what it turned out to be. A sweet young girl, singing neutral songs with sincere innocence, not understanding any of the emotional depth of anything she sings. It might have been meant to be a quick cash-in, aimed at an older audience who would buy the album, think it is pretty, and then forget about her, as she will probably grow out of that sweet voice anyway. That is really all this album is, but taking that into consideration, it is probably the best of its kind.
Her vocals are technically perfect and whilst she performs with next to no emotion, she sings the songs with undeniable accuracy. The material is predictable, though I am partial to Andrew Lloyd Webber, who makes plenty of appearances on the album. Her young voice actually really suits some of the songs such as ‘Pie Jesu’ and ‘Walking in the Air’. Lyrically, almost the entire album in unsuitable (‘Memory’ is about being old and looking back on your youth, whilst ‘I Dream A Dream’ is about a life gone by). But taking the lyrical meanings seriously in conjunction with its performer is hardly the point of this album. What it does is take songs frequently sung by mature performers and shows us that this young, sweet girl, has the vocal talent to deliver the notes with complete ease. An album that shows a promising future for a girl that is obviously vocally talented, and, with age and maturity, will be among the best singers of her generation. Of course, Westenra is not the only child prodigy to attempt this kind of message.
So why has Westenra succeeded where so many others have failed with their first albums of this nature? The answer lies in the appeal of this album, and that is despite her tender age, there is definitely something special in that voice. It was not a gimmick. She was not a young girl trying to sing opera like Charlotte Church’s clear attempts. Here was a girl that just sang, and sang with utmost sincerity, making it clear to every listener that this is simply all she wants to do. There was nothing false about the Hayley Westenra package then, and there still is nothing false about it today.