Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Hil St Soul: Admired Form Afar

Hil St Soul
Hil St Soul Hil St Soul Hil St Soul Hil St Soul

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

With Hilary’s international acclaim beginning with her rootsy, street soul-flavoured 1999 debut album Soul Organic’ finding success on America’s 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 ‘Later…With Jools Holland’ - her two most recent albums (2006’s ‘SOULidified’ and 2008’s ‘Black Rose’) 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 ‘Release’. Which - in addition to its new, funky title-track - sees Hil’s more recent US chart singles like the sexy ‘Hey Boy’ and warmly laid-back ‘Goodbye’ sitting comfortably alongside her early American breakthrough hits. Which include her 2000-released Smooth Jazz Top 10 cover of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Until You Come Back To Me’, plus 2002’s powerfully-melodic shuffler ‘Pieces’.

“Yeah, what happened is that my last two albums were released in the US by Shanachie, but I didn’t really have anyone over HERE to put them out”, begins an ever-articulate, down-to-earth Hilary: “So 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 I’ve been up to recently. Because, with me obviously having been very quiet in the UK, a lotta people over here think I’ve not been doing ANYTHING! And the thinking behind the title ‘Release’ 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.”

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 she’d 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 - Hil’s aforementioned ‘Soul Organic’ - 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, 2002’s ‘Copasetik & Cool’) - that she first hooked up with prominent US contemporary soul indie Shanachie Records, who have since released all her material Stateside.

“Well, the CEO of Shanachie - Randall - has since told me he’d actually been following my career right from the days of ‘Soul Organic’”, she recalls clearly: “You know, he’d 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 ‘Copasetik & Cool’ album from them. And with Shanachie getting a great reaction in particular from the track ‘Pieces’ - 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 they’d done a great job FIRST time round with the ‘Copasetik…’ project.”

“I mean, when I look back on my career to date, what stands out to me is how it’s always been very much a word-of-mouth thing”, she continues thoughtfully: “You know, I’ve never had bucket-loads spent on promotion of the Hil St Soul project. It’s always been about people just genuinely liking what I’m doing, wanting to find out more about it, and then just tapping INTO it. Especially in America, where there’s always been a really strong underground buzz around my music.”

Indeed, the strong and credible connection Hil has made with America’s contemporary soul scene is evidenced on ‘Release’ through Detroit neo-soul don Dwele guesting on the sensual ballad ‘Baby Come Over’, and Grammy-winning India.Aire - no less - co-penning the optimistic, acoustic-flavoured ‘Life’: “Yeah, Dwele came about due to Randall at Shanachie thinking it would be a good idea to get a male artist to duet with me”, she explains: “So we put the idea to Dwele’s management, and he was up for it - though we didn’t actually get into a studio together, because at the time I was over here and he was in Detroit. But, a little while after we’d 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 ‘Life’ 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 ‘Yeah, we’d LOVE for Hils to record the song!’.”

Meanwhile, as an independently-released artist who’s 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: “With America being such a massive market, what you do find is that over there there’s like a niche for every style of music”, she observes “I mean, you hear stories of artists selling millions just within the confines of the State in which they’re 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 you’re doing. You know, if you’re not in the charts and you’re not getting support on, say, Radio l or Radio 2, it’s kinda like ‘Well, who ARE you?’… 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 there’s 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.”

The album ‘Release’ is out now through Dome

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