They say one has to be at Nashville to break into the music scene. They also say that one has to have, besides musical lineage, golden locks of hair falling down to the shoulder and a hamster for pet etc. Jessie Hillel was 8188 miles away on a tiny little island and was three years old when, unbeknownst to any, the muses took her. If it wasn’t for the Jim Reeves CD that was playing for the umpteenth time in the car, the world would have lost some of its present charm. But clearly, this magnificent a talent would never have gone unnoticed. Now, nine years later, this small girl is walking the same strides as the giants of the music industry and is well capable of dethroning them from their current spotlight. But being the compassionate and genuinely humble girl that she is, had only but respect and love for her fellow contestants of New Zealand’s Got Talent that saw her coming runner-up to the 15-year-old Clara van Wel in 2012. Talent got her so far, but it was her that won the million hearts in New Zealand and around the globe. Standing ovations are deficient in that it fails to provide an accurate gesture of the audience’s emotion towards her.
After a similar standing-ovation at JTPAC after her performance, I sat down with Jessie and her sister – Julie Hillel, a talented pianist in her own right – and started shuffling a deck of cards hoping to make better use of our time than bombard her with questions that we already know the answers for. It was very evident from her NZ GT performance that she was very familiar with the demands on being on stage. At 5, she entered her first public singing competition at North City Plaza Mall in Porirua, NZ – even before she could really comprehend what a competition was. She then has gone on to record songs with The Starbugs and has performed for the International Children’s Concert for CCTV, China. She is also an international performance arts competitor, singing for team NZ at the World Championship of Performing Arts, Los Angeles in 2010. Michael Jackson’s former vocal coach was so impressed with her performance at the WCOPA that he expressed interest in working with her – an opportunity she refused as it would have meant relocating her family to the United States. Today when she left JT PAC, she had an entourage of fans and music-lovers around and she associated with them better than the top divas I know.
Talent, in most cases, is not something you discover by chance or something that you happen to have already. It is often the result of your ardent desire that the universe conspired to help achieve. I asked her whether she has ever dreamt of performing live to an audience. At the Grammy, she said smiling.
Apparently, dreams are the way to do it. Not hard work. But then again from the wrong side of the desk, I probably wouldn’t know. The artist, she says, must always be placed between the determinants of their immediate setting – cultural, social etc. Jessie owes a lot of her success to her family; especially her mother, who I believe, is her perfect fan. Julie Hillel had been accompanying her often and knows the right trick to prepare her little sister well for the show. They play a geography game together, listing the names of countries until Azerbaijan evades them both. Speaking of geography, growing up in New Zealand has given her easy access to different genres of music. She took pop lessons when she was three and later, at the age of five, decided to pursue classical music. It was her love for classical music that catapulted her to where she is now and with that voice, it is not very surprising. When not singing, she is helping Make a Wish foundation make realize the wishes of young children.
She is well aware of the very grown-up realities that she may soon have to face while under the limelight. Needless to say her parents have prepared her well. It is very evident from her on-stage charisma and the compassion with which she conducts herself. But for the occasional criticism or bad review that might come her way, she has her own mantra to keep the demons at bay. DON’T EVER GIVE UP! Mistakes can be corrected, she says, and failures can be worthwhile experiences. Sometimes the cheer of a loved one can drown the thunderous boos of thousands. Her love for performance arts cannot be shaken. It is just the energy in the performance, it is all really fun, she says. When you see other people enjoying it too, you really feel the pleasure of it and all the hard work you have done on that song pays off.
A singer, she affirms with an unquestionable self-belief. It is all she wants to be. To be able to sing everyday is her heart’s desire. I have not thought about anything else, she says. Nevertheless, she is eager to explore songwriting as well. On April 26th Sony Music has proudly released Jessie’s highly anticipated debut album “With Love”. The CD will feature the three outstanding songs Jessie performed on ‘New Zealand’s Got Talent’ along with some of her most loved songs including “Castle In A Cloud” from the academy award-winning ‘Les Miserables,’ Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” performed with a children’s choir, and “Pi’s Lullaby” from the critically claimed motion picture ‘Life Of Pi’. Sky really is the limit for this little champion and Jessie Hillel knows it well.