Growing up in New Zealand - surrounded by sea, snow and space - has had a huge influence on Hayley Westenra''s impressive international career as the best selling classical artist of the 21st century.
"There are quite a few songs where, as I sing, I picture myself walking along a beach. It''s usually the beach at Sumner, in Christchurch," says Westenra, who was born in the South Island city in 1987.
"It''s so serene and so beautiful and I know it influences the way I sing certain songs. I think if I had grown up in a busy city, like New York, I would sing quite differently - choose a different repertoire. But living in New Zealand, I guess I am compelled to sing like I do."
These days Westenra is spending less and less time in the country she loves, as her popularity demands worldwide appearances. Fresh from entertaining UK troops in Iraq in October, she found herself on ITV''s This morning carving Halloween pumpkins with Dawn French and Jerry Hall.
She recently returned from a trip to Ghana as part of her ongoing support for UNICEF. Westenra is the youngest ever UNICEF ambassador and is helping raise awareness for a new campaign that educates children about clean, safe drinking water. The new project follows Westenra''s hugely successful ''Bikes for Ghana'' campaign that provided 6000 bikes to help young Ghanaian girls attend school and find a better future.
A comprehensive UK tour to coincide with her River of Dreams album sold out in many centres in November 2008, but the British public will have another chance to hear Westenra in February 2009 as part of a special ''Valentines'' tour with Jonathan Ansell.
Westenra recorded her debut international album Pure with Beatles producer Sir George Martin and his son Giles. The album went straight in at #8 in the UK pop charts and #1 in the classical charts, making her the fastest-selling debut classical artist of all time. The album hit gold in the UK in its first week and has since hit double platinum.
The album name Pure has a lot to do with the way she sees New Zealand.
"People say that my voice and my music is pure, and the treatment of the songs on the album has been pure," she says. "But it''s also about the fact that I come from New Zealand - a country that is 100 percent ''pure''. I think that reflects a lot in the songs I''m singing."
Two songs from the Pure album, which rushed to #1 on the New Zealand charts and became NZ''s all-time best selling album, are well loved, emotive Māori songs - Pokarekare Ana, and Hine E Hine.
Westenra says she has an affinity with Māori music, having grown up singing Māori songs in school, and today she is entranced by the melodic lyrics in the native language.
"I really enjoy singing Māori music - I think it is beautiful and the vowel sounds are gorgeous," she says.
"I have grown up with it. We''d sing Māori songs at school - every week a teacher would grab a guitar and we would all sing along to them.
"When you are away from New Zealand, songs like Pokarekare Ana immediately bring you home - the memories of home and your family come flooding back. It''s hard not to get emotional.
"Pokarekare Ana is about someone parting with a loved one, heading off to sea. It''s distressing in a way, but such a beautiful song. Hine E Hine is a lullaby, which translates as ''maiden o maiden'' - a mother singing her daughter to sleep."
Westenra, whose great-grandfather was Māori, says she is always enthusiastic about learning more of the Māori culture. She has happy memories from her childhood of learning to weave the flax plant - a traditional Māori craft - at her favourite holiday spot, Golden Bay.
Golden Bay is located at the top of the South Island, bordered by beaches and mountain ranges. No matter how crazy her schedule is, Westenra''s family always make sure she spends a Christmas summer holiday there each year.
"We get a campsite for our tent right on the beach, take our canoe, swim and lie around in the sun. It''s so restorative," Westenra says.
"Nearby is a town called Takaka, where they have busy little markets and the people are so relaxed and friendly. It''s the perfect holiday really."
New Zealand beauty
Westenra says friends she has met overseas come to New Zealand and are "gobsmacked" by her country.
"They just can''t believe the scenery. They go through rolls and rolls of film trying to capture it all in photos," she says. "They are just blown away by the beauty of the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, and Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown, and the wild beaches of the West Coast.
"I really miss all those places when I am away. I miss the space we have in New Zealand. When I''m staying in London it feels really cramped and I just long for my big backyard at home.
"And I miss the lifestyle we have - where we can go to the beach and ski on the mountains in the same day."
Westenra says the relaxed but fun way of life in New Zealand has played a major role in moulding the performer that she is.
"New Zealanders are very creative people, which has a lot to do with our lifestyle," she says. "New Zealand really encourages its kids to get up and perform. When I was eight years old, I was in a busking competition around the malls in Christchurch and it gave me the confidence and encouragement to go out and sing.
"The support that New Zealanders give their performers and artists gives them the kick-start they need to go out on the world stage."
Hayley Westenra Fact File
- Hayley''s debut international album Pure went straight in at #8 in the UK pop album charts and #1 in the classical charts, making her the fastest-selling debut classical artist of all time. The album hit gold in the UK in one week, then double platinum.
- Pure is the all-time best selling NZ album - 12 times platinum, 18 weeks in the pop charts. It hit platinum in Australia, gold in Hong Kong, and made top 10 pop charts in 11 countries.
- Along with her second album Odyssey, Hayley has achieved combined sales of over three million albums internationally.
- Has performed for HM Queen Elisabeth, President Bush, Tony Blair, Prince Charles, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.
- Youngest ever UNICEF ambassador; a former ambassador for Save the Children Fund - Hong Kong; patron of the Raukatauri Music Therapy Centre in Auckland; involved in WEN (Women''s Environmental Network).
- Has performed at Carnegie Hall, the Sydney Opera House, Wembley Arena, the Royal Albert Hall.
- Duets with Andrea Bocelli, José Carreras, and Bryn Terfel; appearances with leading orchestras including Moscow Philharmonic, Boston Pops and Royal Philharmonic.
- Film and TV appearances include NBC''s American Dreams; and themes for Al Pacino''s Merchant of Venice, two Disney films, Terrence Mallick''s New World, BBC''s Jekyll series (starring James Nesbitt) and ITV''s Flood (Robert Carlyle, Tom Courtney, Joanne Whalley and David Suchet).
- Hayley has performed national anthems before many major sporting events, including football (FA Cup Final, European Champions League), baseball (NBA - USA), tennis (Mercedes Cup in LA) - and NZ''s national anthem for her beloved All Blacks rugby team.