New Zealand’s young singing sensation Jessie Hillel has her heart in the classical

At Jessie Hillel’s first competition, she was five. “I didn’t quite understand what a competition was,” she says. “All I knew was that I had to go up and sing. If they called my name out at the end, I would get to sing again; and if they didn’t, I wouldn’t get to sing.” After the first round was over, Jessie’s name wasn’t called. The little girl couldn’t stop crying, for she thought this meant she wouldn’t get to sing, ever again! Little did she know that she would actually spend the rest of her life singing, go on to become the runner-up of ‘New Zealand’s Got Talent 2012’ contest and record her debut album for Sony Music, With Love, all before age 12.

Jessie’s parents — Rabi Hillel and Susan George — first realised she could sing when she belted out an entire Jim Reeves song that she’d heard repeatedly in the car on her drive to pre-school. She was three then. By five she had enrolled with a teacher who taught her pop and contemporary singing and by seven she was learning classical singing with a tutor who still schools her. Singing competitions across New Zealand, where Jessie and her parents are settled, soon followed.

But Jessie’s big break came with ‘New Zealand’s Got Talent’ — a competition that involves performers from various arts. Her parents braved a three-hour long queue in the rain and cold to register her at the competition.

Incredible competition

She sailed through the auditions and became a national hit with her classical performances at the semi-final and final rounds. Although she didn’t win, Jessie says the experience was an incredible one. “There’s so much happening at the same time during the competition. You get to meet some fantastic people, and the atmosphere is really nice,” she says. Was it difficult competing as a child in a markedly adult world? “Not at all,” says Jessie, “I was the youngest at the competition. The oldest participant was 92. It’s a competition that lets you be who you are.”

The close of the contest brought with it much fame. People recognised her on streets then, and even today, almost two years down the line, she has fans follow her ardently. Her fondest memory is of an entire class of primary school students who sent her a box of handmade cards congratulating and encouraging her. Invitations to perform at dozen-odd countries have come her way and Jessie even sang at the Grand Hall of New Zealand’s Parliament. The highlight, though, was Sony Music’s offer to produce Jessie’s first album, With Love.

The album features 11 tracks, three of which are ones she performed at the reality show and the others are from Jessie’s favourites. They include a Tamil song, ‘Pi’s Lullaby’ from the film Life of Pi. Studio recording is quite a different ballgame from performing on stage, observes Jessie. “On stage you need a lot of quick thinking to adjust well to technical problems, interact with the audience, etc. In the studio, the microphone picks up absolutely everything but you get time to re-take parts of the song and make it perfect.” Her base vocals were done in three days and the instruments over the rest of the week. The album made it to Number 2 on New Zealand’s Top 20.

For a 12-year-old, Jessie speaks with immense maturity and respect for her art. It reflects on stage too. “When I’m singing a contemporary song, the audience is half of it. You’ve to draw them into the music. But with classical music, you sort of lose yourself in the music,” she says. Jessie has been noticed for her unusual choice of songs, especially for her love of classical music. “I’ve had kids younger than me tell me they love these songs. And that makes me very happy because classical music isn’t what kids our age would normally listen to.” Besides her classical influences, Jessies takes to Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin. While her parents don’t sing, her sister Julie plays the piano. They accompany each other quite often, says Jessie. “Between my singing, Julie’s piano playing and the radio on, our house can be quite noisy at times!”

During her month-long break in Kochi at her mother’s house, Jessie hasn’t stopped singing. She’s performed at JTPac twice, besides singing at colleges and halls in Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram. You can catch her again today at the Rock of Ages concert in Fine Arts Hall where she will be performing a duet arranged by acclaimed musician from Croatia, Branko Stark.