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Issue 1084

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Feature

Hil St Soul: Admired Form Afar

Hil St Soul @bluesandsoul.com
Hil St Soul @bluesandsoul.com Hil St Soul @bluesandsoul.com Hil St Soul @bluesandsoul.com Hil St Soul @bluesandsoul.com

One of the UKâs most quietly-consistent soul music exports to the US, London-raised singer/songwriter Hilary Mwelwa - aka Hil St Soul - discusses her new compilation LP âReleaseâ with Pete Lewis.

With Hilaryâs international acclaim beginning with her rootsy, street soul-flavoured 1999 debut album Soul Organicâ finding success on Americaâs jazz and urban airwaves, three further Hil St Soul albums have since all impressively charted Stateside. In turn leading to Hil spending most of her time working over there, while simultaneously remaining somewhat under-appreciated in her British homeland. Where - despite occasional TV appearances at Glastonbury or on âLaterâ¦With Jools Hollandâ - her two most recent albums (2006âs âSOULidifiedâ and 2008âs âBlack Roseâ) have not even attained a UK release.

All of which is one major reason behind British-based soul indie Dome Records now putting out the aforementioned, new 16-song collection âReleaseâ. Which - in addition to its new, funky title-track - sees Hilâs more recent US chart singles like the sexy âHey Boyâ and warmly laid-back âGoodbyeâ sitting comfortably alongside her early American breakthrough hits. Which include her 2000-released Smooth Jazz Top 10 cover of Stevie Wonderâs âUntil You Come Back To Meâ, plus 2002âs powerfully-melodic shuffler âPiecesâ.

âYeah, what happened is that my last two albums were released in the US by Shanachie, but I didnât really have anyone over HERE to put them outâ, begins an ever-articulate, down-to-earth Hilary: âSo I just kind of put to Pete (Robinson) at Dome the idea of us releasing a UK compilation of songs from my last two albums with maybe a few bonus and older tracks on there too. He was up for it, and so I guess the main purpose of this record is just really to get my British listeners up-to-speed with what Iâve been up to recently. Because, with me obviously having been very quiet in the UK, a lotta people over here think Iâve not been doing ANYTHING! And the thinking behind the title âReleaseâ is just to reflect how for me music is really just a way of releasing the tension. You know, I do find expressing myself through my writing quite a therapeutic thing.â

Born in Lusaka, Zambia, Hilary moved to North London with her parents at the age of five. While she later went on to study biochemistry at The University Of London, a music career nevertheless beckoned after an a-cappella demo sheâd recorded eventually got into the hands of her now-long-term producer and co-writer Victor Redwood-Sawwyer (a founder member of acclaimed London rap outfit Blak Twang). While the first album project the twosome worked together on - Hilâs aforementioned âSoul Organicâ - was released in the UK through Dome, it was actually later - while Hilary was signed to the then-larger London independent Gut Records (who released her sophomore LP, 2002âs âCopasetik & Coolâ) - that she first hooked up with prominent US contemporary soul indie Shanachie Records, who have since released all her material Stateside.

âWell, the CEO of Shanachie - Randall - has since told me heâd actually been following my career right from the days of âSoul Organicââ, she recalls clearly: âYou know, heâd always been very interested in what I was doing creatively and had been keeping tabs on me from the beginning. So obviously - when he found out we were looking for a home in the US - he approached Gut Records, and as a result licensed the âCopasetik & Coolâ album from them. And with Shanachie getting a great reaction in particular from the track âPiecesâ - which got played on a lot of American adult urban radio stations - I ended up releasing my next two albums with them over there, because I felt theyâd done a great job FIRST time round with the âCopasetikâ¦â project.â

âI mean, when I look back on my career to date, what stands out to me is how itâs always been very much a word-of-mouth thingâ, she continues thoughtfully: âYou know, Iâve never had bucket-loads spent on promotion of the Hil St Soul project. Itâs always been about people just genuinely liking what Iâm doing, wanting to find out more about it, and then just tapping INTO it. Especially in America, where thereâs always been a really strong underground buzz around my music.â

Indeed, the strong and credible connection Hil has made with Americaâs contemporary soul scene is evidenced on âReleaseâ through Detroit neo-soul don Dwele guesting on the sensual ballad âBaby Come Overâ, and Grammy-winning India.Aire - no less - co-penning the optimistic, acoustic-flavoured âLifeâ: âYeah, Dwele came about due to Randall at Shanachie thinking it would be a good idea to get a male artist to duet with meâ, she explains: âSo we put the idea to Dweleâs management, and he was up for it - though we didnât actually get into a studio together, because at the time I was over here and he was in Detroit. But, a little while after weâd each recorded our vocals in separate studios, I was lucky enough to actually meet Dwele when he came to London to do a show at the Jazz Cafe. We got to hang out a bit, and he turned out to be a really lovely guy, very humble and down-to-earth. Then the âLifeâ track came about through Randall being very close to Blue Miller, the guitarist who works very closely with India. So, with Blue having written the song with India, Randall basically approached them both - and they were like âYeah, weâd LOVE for Hils to record the song!â.â

Meanwhile, as an independently-released artist whoâs enjoyed acclaim from soul music lovers on both sides of the Atlantic, Hilary ends our chat with interesting views on the differences between the two markets: âWith America being such a massive market, what you do find is that over there thereâs like a niche for every style of musicâ, she observes âI mean, you hear stories of artists selling millions just within the confines of the State in which theyâre based. Whereas in the UK obviously, to be perceived as a successful artist, you have to get your music into the national mainstream charts and everybody has to like what youâre doing. You know, if youâre not in the charts and youâre not getting support on, say, Radio l or Radio 2, itâs kinda like âWell, who ARE you?â⦠So to me the main difference between the two countries comes down to the size of the market, and the way the infrastructure caters to that. While America is so big that thereâs a sizeable market for jazz, for soul, for rock or whatever - over here to succeed your music has to be accessible to a mainstream pop audience.â

The album âReleaseâ is out now through Dome
Words PETE LEWIS

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