For reasons she'd rather not get too specific about, Hilary Mwela, better known as Hil St. Soul, was feeling more romantic this time out. Her new album, the laid-back Soulidified, is heatedly sensual. Though never explicit, the CD flows with mature, sexy lyrics matched with seductive, bottom-heavy grooves. If her last release, 2004's Copasetik & Cool, felt like a carefree, sun-drenched afternoon, then Soulidified is the sultry evening on satin sheets with scented candles burning nearby.
"It really wasn't intentional," St. Soul says of the album's sensual undercurrent. She headlines the Birchmere in Alexandria on Monday night and Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis on Tuesday. "It's a reflection of where I am in my life, I suppose. Love kind of flows through the album."
Since its April release, Soulidified has garnered strong support on adult-urban stations, especially along the East Coast, where her following is steadily growing. The CD is her third, her second for New Jersey-based Shanachie Entertainment.
"With every record I do, it's about where my head is at the time," says the singer-songwriter, calling from her home in London. "I never have a particular plan conceptually for what the album will be. I can't work that way."
She worked with longtime collaborator Victor Redwood-Sawyerr to create a more individual sound this time. Although she doesn't stray too far from the bass-thick, Loose Ends-influenced formula that made her previous sets so engaging, St. Soul and Redwood-Sawyerr enrich the productions with more live instrumentation. A few unobtrusive (but still unnecessary) hip-hop touches are thrown in here and there. But rightfully at the center of everything are St. Soul's tangy, subtle vocals.
"The most distinctive thing about this record is that we have no covers on it," says the artist, who has previously recorded classics by Stevie Wonder ("Until You Come Back To Me" on her 2000 debut Soul Organic) and the Isley Brothers ("For the Love of You" on Copasetik & Cool). "For me, I wanted to get Hil across as opposed to relying on a cover - although people seem to enjoy the covers."
Soulidified opens strongly with "Hey Boy," one of the best cuts on the 12-track CD. Riding a mid-tempo, stop-start groove accented with programmed, syncopated strings, St. Soul sings: "Hey, boy/I got love on my mind/Let's share a glass of wine/Before we intertwine like fruits on the grapevine." She drops more mack-diva lines on "Sweet On You" before switching to lightweight spiritual matters on the Stevie Wonder-inspired "It's OK." "Goodbye," a heartbreak number, lulls a bit. "Better Days," reminiscent of Mary J. Blige circa Share My World, picks up the pace. But "Can We Spend Some Time Together," which samples the overused keyboard line from Eddie Kendricks' 1977 slow jam "Intimate Friends," is a dud. Fortunately, the rest of album continues the delicious, creamy vibe established at the start.
"I look at my records as a progression," St. Soul says. "I like to think that I'm evolving. We all go through things that contribute to our growth. And I feel that all the things I've experienced in the last couple of years have influenced the songs. As a vocalist, my vocals have become stronger. That comes from touring, I think."
This new confidence is reflected in the clever CD title.
"I try to come up with interesting album titles," she says with a giggle. "I wanted to describe how I was feeling in regard to my work. The whole idea was solidifying my role in soul. I've done three albums already. It may be a bit presumptuous, but sometimes you have to just claim it."
See Hil St. Soul at the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave. in Alexandria, Monday night at 7:30. Tickets are $35 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting ticketmaster.com. She's also at Rams Head Tavern, 33 West St. in Annapolis, Tuesday night at 8. Tickets are $22.50 at ramsheadtavern.com.