Hayley Westenra’s “Pure”
After Hayley Westenra‘s tremendous success in native New Zealand, she was picked up by Decca and they aimed their new artist towards the international market. So, this slick, charming and creative album was made. The quality and amount of effort put into it seems to have exploded from nowhere. Whilst Westenra’s vocals had matured slightly, she still struggled with injecting any emotion into the songs. This album could have easily been another repeat of her debut album, but the song selection not only rescues it from such a fate, it also embodies the main strength of the release.
Pure works in a way that her previous album could never have done for two reasons. First, the tracklisting is quite adventurous. Any average music lover may have glanced over the tracklist and saw only two or three songs that they were already familiar with (I would guess at ‘Amazing Grace’, ‘In Trutina’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’). Most crossover albums rely on the majority of their tracklist to act as a security blanket to the buyer: if they know the songs, they know what they are buying. No risk. It is a little bit surprising then, that Westenra somehow managed to shift enough CDs in the first week of release that it became the fastest-selling debut classical album in the UK’s history. How?
Well, the second reason is that Westenra’s vocals had changed for Pure. Whilst her first two albums had an immature voice, they were actually packed with vibrato. She pushed that tactic to the side for Pure where it is only possible to hear her vibrato if you actually listen out for it with concentration. The omission of vibrato truly made Westenra unique in the field and one of the few vocalists that could actually name their album Pure with any real conviction. The risky tracklist was not as risky as it seemed, because she had a power tool in her marketing compaign, and that was to perform her rendition of ‘Pokarekare Ana’ on numerous television appearences and stun everybody with her pitch-perfect, crystal clear voice. The album continued to sell by the bucket load because customers actually got what it said on the box. She did not need a conventional tracklist to shift albums, she had what so many other artists lacked, and that was the voice alone.
If Hayley’s voice got the album from a shop to somebody’s CD player, what gave Pure its staying power? Crossover albums come and go but it took years for Pure to fall out of the classical charts, and it is the best-selling album of all time in New Zealand. There are some standards on the album, notably ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘In Trutina’, along with traditional Maori songs ‘Pokarekare Ana’ and ‘Hine E Hine’, but there are also some surprises. Fifteen year old Westenra fought tooth and nail with her record company to include Kate Bush’s classic ‘Wuthering Heights’. Then there is an inspired solo arrangement of Karl Jenkins choral piece ‘Benedictus’ which had only been circulating air waves for little over a year when Westenra’s team snapped it up. Then there is the usual crossover trick of taking a classical piece and making it into a song. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons becomes ‘River of Dreams’, whilst Maurice Ravel sees his music turn into ‘Never Say Goodbye’.
Among all this is producer George Martin (The Beatles) and composer Sarah Class (composer and producer of the Classical Brit nominated album Aurora) who both stepped in to add original material and arrangements. Their presence is what truly makes a difference to the quality material on offer. Class arranged eight of the songs, among them the albums three standout tracks: ‘Pokarekare Ana’, ‘Dark Waltz’ and ‘Across the Universe of Time’ (also composed by her). Martin also arranges a few tracks and composed ‘Beat of Your Heart’. It is clear that both know exactly what kind of voice they compose, write and arrange for, as the vocal and the material complement one another.
In short, there is a bit of everything on this album. It has the classics for the traditionalists, the unexpected for the more adventurous, and the original for the open-minded. All would be nothing without Westenra’s soothing tones to carry it all through. Again, she is not the epitome of emotion, but the beauty of the melodies and the accuracy of which they are expressed should be more than enough to evoke emotion.
The particular vocal highlight of this album is her performance of ‘Dark Waltz’. Already an extremely haunting and moving piece, Westenra’s vocals oozes poetic innocence that the lyrics suggest, whilst her clear highest notes sends chills down the spine. The song and Westenra’s vocals are the perfect match, and it is made clear from many music social sites that it is also her most listened to song. How and why it was left off of her River of Dreams: The Very Best of Hayley Westenra album boggles my mind.
Pure has enjoyed the kind of success that Westenra has been unable to repeat with subsequent albums. It was the right material for the right stage that her voice was at. The balance of songs verged on perfection, and her voice shifted back to its use of vibrato after Pure. Not that she should have stagnated her voice. It would just be miraculous to find the right album come along at the right stage of her life and at the right time in the market again as it did with Pure.