Underground Soul Legend Hil St Soul Is Back

“Music is just one form of escapism...”

A stalwart of Britain’s underground soul scene, Hilary Mwelwa A.K.A Hil St Soul is back after a thirteen-year hiatus.

Born in Lusaka, Zambia and raised in London, Hilary Mwelwa grew up on her father’s extensive collection of soul music records. Deciding to eschew biochemistry for music, she recorded a demo of Aretha Franklin’s 1973 hit ‘Until You Come Back To Me’ (co-written by Stevie Wonder). This caught the attention of a studio owner on London’s Holloway Road who then connected Mwelwa with producer Victor Redwood-Sawyerr and rapper Tony Rotton (A.K.A Blak Twang). Mwelwa and Redwood-Sawyerr went on to form a creative partnership that birthed four albums, a cult following on both sides of the Atlantic, and sell-out shows across London’s premier jazz and soul venues.

Yet, fans would be forgiven for wondering who exactly ‘Hil St Soul’ is. Early press referred to ‘Hil St Soul’ as a duo. However, Mwelwa unpacks how the nomenclature has evolved over time. “The [first] album was going to be called Hil Street Soul. And then it was like, ‘Why don’t we call the whole entity Hil Street Soul?’” she explains. But after their fourth album, 2008’s Black Rose, Redwood-Sawyerr took on other responsibilities including working for the Arts Council, while Mwelwa branched out too. “I am ‘Hil Street Soul’ now,” she clarifies. “It just made more sense to embody the whole thing.”

Hil St Soul’s debut album, Soul Organic (1999), shimmers with its lush but mellow production, laced with Mwelwa’s dulcet vocals. From the groovy ‘Nostalgia’, the muted funk of ‘Strictly a Vibe Thang’, and an acoustic rendition of ‘Until You Come Back to Me’, the record sits comfortably in the pantheon of British soul debuts. Though a lyrically upbeat record, Mwelwa lays down her disdain for the music industry in the song ‘Concrete Jungle’. She sings of ‘outside forces [trying] to mould you into something they perceive. They want to take a piece of you, add their own flavourings.’ “The song was talking about the struggles of being a female Black singer in the UK, just trying to get a little bit of the action,” she says, citing only Shola Ama and Beverley Knight as Black soul singers visibly enjoying mainstream success.

As Hil St Soul built their following, critics could not resist pan-Atlantic comparisons. The late 1990s saw a spring of female musicians emerging in the US, drawing upon the soulful sounds of yesteryear but with a contemporary flavour and hip hop sensibility, labelled, with degrees of contention, as ‘neo soul’. Iconic albums such as Erykah Badu’s ‘Baduizm’ (1997), Lauryn Hill’s ‘The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill’ (1998), and Angie Stone’s ‘Black Diamond’ (1999) are considered integral to the neo-soul canon. Critics often positioned Hil St Soul as the British ambassador for this movement, a parallel Mwelwa gently disagrees with. “My main foundation of what I do is soul music. That’s what I grew up on, and that’s what’s embedded in me,” she remarks. “I’ve never looked at myself as a neo-soul artist. I’m doing soul/R&B music, but just with my take on it, really.” She was nonetheless flattered and humbled by the comparisons.

Underground Soul Legend Hil St Soul Is Back

While not seeing any major chart breakthrough, Hil St Soul garnered radio play and a legion of devoted fans. Their sophomore album, Copasetic and Cool (2002), birthed two of their signature tunes. Firstly: the anguished R&B power ballad ‘Pieces’, inspired by a tumultuous period in Mwelwa’s romantic life, which Hil St Soul performed on Later… with Jools Holland. ‘This constant arguing is doing me in. I just can’t seem to win. And I can’t seem to please you,’ she laments. The second is the peculiarly titled ‘All That (+ a Bag O’Chips)’. Mwelwa cites inspiration from hip-hop artists such as Roots Manuva and Blak Twang and their use of British slang in their lyrics. The bouncy mid-tempo, which trickles with sexual intrigue, sees Mwelwa spotting a ‘visual feast’ of a man. “It just popped into my head,” she recalls. “I thought it’d be fun to write a song with that phrase, referring to a bit of eye candy as a ‘bag of chips.’” In 2006, Hil St Soul released SOULidified, including the fan-favourite tune ‘Hey Boy’.

Hil St Soul’s fourth album, Black Rose, came out in 2008. The title track, a poignant message of perseverance to Black women, makes a fleeting observation on the British music landscape: ‘English rose singing soul music they get praised for it. A black rose singing soul music gets no love for it,’ Mwelwa quips. In previous interviews, Mwelwa has spoken about the disproportionate recognition afforded to white ‘blue-eyed soul’ singers, a phenomenon brought into focus by the triumphant success of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back To Black’ (2006) – the UK’s bestselling album of 2007.

Black Rose was also released in the same year as Duffy’s ‘Rockferry’ and Adele’s ’19’, both of which had already scored mega hits with ‘Mercy’ and ‘Chasing Pavements’ respectively at the top of the year. Mwelwa’s contention is that, in elevating the likes of Winehouse, Adele, and Duffy as bastions of British soul, the media ignored the contributions of various Black British musicians who were making soul or soul-inspired music – artists including Omar, Tony Momrelle, Terri Walker (“She’s actually one of my favourite voices”), and Shaila Prospere. “Anybody should be able to sing whatever they want to sing,” Mwelwa clarifies. “It was more an observation. You only have to look at the charts at that time to see how many of us were having that kind of mainstream success, and there was hardly anyone.”

After releasing the compilation album Release in 2009, Mwelwa took a hiatus. “Sometimes, as artists, you need to just go away and try and find some inspiration,” she says. Though not releasing original music as ‘Hil St Soul’, Mwelwa was still musically active in this period. She worked in her native Zambia for a year, producing shows with local musicians. She also dabbled in soulful house, collaborating with producers Brian Power and D:Fuse. In 2014, she sang with American R&B singer Noel Gourdin on a remixed version of his track ‘No Worries’. From 2017 onwards, Mwelwa began reviving the Hil St Soul brand with live shows across the UK.

Underground Soul Legend Hil St Soul Is Back

And thirteen years since her last album, Hil St Soul returns with Back in Love. “I know people are going to think, ‘Oh, Hils is in love,’” she laughs about the title. “But actually, it’s really talking about falling back in love with making music.” She describes how the album pushes her to new heights artistically. “I’m more self-assured, just because I know what I’m doing when I go in the studio,” she says about her vocals. “When I first started, as much as Soul Organic sounds really accomplished, I feel like I was a little bit more limited in terms of my vocal delivery.” As her first album without production from Redwood-Sawyerr, there is a sonic shift too – looser, more carefree, and more adventurous.

But Back in Love still brims with the same ease of Hil St Soul’s previous output. Equal parts contemporary and nostalgic, the album is packed with tight song writing, feelgood grooves, and slick production from Regi Myrix, Lorenzo Johnson, and Prince Damon. On romantic slow-jam ‘King’, co-written with Johnson, Mwelwa ad-libs moodily over stacked backing vocals. She explains: “That was actually the last song that I wrote on the album. That song is really talking about being in love with your soulmate and being able to uplift them and be there for them.” Her duets with Gourdin on ‘Amazing’ and ‘Blessed’ sizzle with chemistry, and there is a luxurious treatment of The Ohio Players’ ‘Heaven Must Be Like This’. With just guitar and vocals, ‘Sweet Heaven’ is the outlier amidst the album’s rich production. “It’s a song that I wrote a while ago actually. And it’s just been sitting there. I didn’t really know what to do with it,” Mwelwa remarks. “I think it’s going to be one of those wedding songs.”

Those familiar with Hil St Soul’s discography will feel right at home with this album. And that is exactly Mwelwa’s intention. “Music is just one form of escapism,” she opines. “I like to write songs that hopefully will allow the listener to switch off for a hot minute and just transport them somewhere else.”

‘Back In Love’ is out now. 

Words: Fraser Morris

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