It was at Wellington Malayalee Association's 2011 Onam celebration that I first got to know about Jessie Hillel. Some names have an immediate, celebrity-like appeal about them – I'm not sure what it is, perhaps a particular symmetry or the fact that they roll off the tongue when you say them out loud – and hers jumped out at me as I scanned the printed programme I'd found on my seat while waiting for the show to begin. When it came to her turn to perform, this tiny girl calmly walked out onto the stage, took up a microphone to the right of the seated dignitaries, and delivered an energetic and pitch-perfect rendition of Elton John's 'Benny and the Jets'.
A few kids even younger than Jessie herself rocked out in the aisle, but the majority of the audience watched in silence. There's a good chance they had sadhya on the brain. I, however, was transfixed and overloaded with questions: who is this pocket dynamo, and how did she learn to sing like that?
Jessie and her family – parents Rabi Hillel and Sigy Susan George, along with sister Julie (who is a talented pianist in her own right) – were kind enough to host me at their Wellington home so I could find out more about this ten-year-old enigma. Cryptically, the Jessie Hillel story starts back in Nashville in the 1960s.
“In the car on the way to preschool, there'd be a song playing from the radio and sometimes CDs, and there was one CD – a Jim Reeves CD – that played over and over again. I'd just sit in the car seat, three years old, going, 'Oh, yeah, that's a cool song'. Then one day, I sang a song from start to end, and I think my parents were like, 'Oh. Well. I wonder what we can do with that?'”
Despite what that last statement might imply about overbearing family figures, there's no hint of any undue parental pressure in this child singer's life. Except for a long tangential discussion between myself and her parents reminiscing about Kerala (from which they came to New Zealand in 1996) Jessie's voice dominates the interview, with mother and father only offering rare interjections to clarify minor facts.
Jessie's voice, by the way, is surprisingly deep and worn-in for a ten-year-old girl. On the phone I mistook her for her older sister, and in speaking to her face to face I often had to remind myself of how young she was. Only ten years old? Her age seemed at odds with how comfortable she was talking about herself and her general self-awareness.
She runs through her life achievements: winner of multiple New Zealand talent contests, recording artist with The Starbugs, regional Wellington performer, television appearances and international performing arts competitor (at the World Championships of Performing Arts [WCOPA], Los Angeles, 2010). On top of that, she reels of a list of the dozens of countries she's visited across Asia, Europe, the Americas and more. And despite a wealth of relatives back in and around Kottayam, whom she dutifully visits every time she goes back, she's happy to say she's a Kiwi kid, too.
“I was born here [in New Zealand]. And I think I've spent most of my life here.” She thinks for a moment. “Not that I have a long life. I'm only ten.” In this moment, she seems to have an understanding of how young she is but also a clear picture of just how much she's done, and perhaps even a view of the possible highlights of her future. She certainly seems focused: when I ask her what she wants to be when she grows up, there's no hesitation: “Singer.”
It's in talking about the act of performing for an audience, however, that Jessie Hillel really lights up.
“It's just the energy in the performance, it's all really fun. When you see other people enjoying it too, you really feel the pleasure of it and all the hard work you've done on that song pays off.” She speaks of it as an interactive experience between herself and the audience: “It's like, passing the meaning of the song, so if it's a soulful song it's giving the meaning out, or if it's an energetic song it's getting the audience in it... it's really fun, you do get lost in the song; it's like you don't want it to end, you want the audience to keep clapping. It's the feeling that you get when you're really into something.”
Apart from Jim Reeves, two other musicians come up a few times during the conversation. One is Michael Jackson. First of all, Jessie shares a birthday with him – something she only learned on the day he died, making it more meaningful to a young girl who, not surprisingly, looked up to him as a performer. Second, Jackson's former vocal coach heard about Jessie from her WCOPA appearance and expressed an interest in working with her regularly – an opportunity which she had to refuse as it would have meant relocating the whole family of four to the United States.
“It didn't work out,” says father Rabi, “because that wasn't something we could just do.” He's mindful of the fact that such an upheaval may ultimately not have been beneficial. “We need to find the opportunities for her, but she is still a kid and needs to enjoy herself.” It's this balance which Rabi and Susan strive to achieve, though it seems Jessie retains ultimate control. “Dad asked if he could be my manager when I'm older,” she says with a smile in his direction. I ask what she replied. “Maybe,” she says with another smile.
The other musician whose name again surfaces, just as I'm about to leave, is Elton John. He's Jessie's favourite artist at the moment, especially since she learned to sing 'Benny and the Jets'. I compliment Jessie on her performance of it at the Onam show; she thanks me, and then her face lights up. “Have you heard it? The original?” I shake my head, and she scampers off to get the CD.
As Elton's familiar piano starts up, and his voice scales an increasingly high pitch, the rest of us talk idly. Jessie, however, sits literally on the edge of the couch, rocking in time to the music, her eyes slightly glazed over. You're so into it, I say. She looks at me, smiles for a second, and then continues rocking along to the song. For young Jessie Hillel, the connection between performer and audience is everything, whether she's the fan at home with a CD player or the focal point on stage for a crowd of thousands.