Soul connection

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 November, 2003, 12:00am

SOUL SINGER Susie Wilkins, who made her mark as a performer at the tender age of 16 in 1993 at the Fringe Club's Open Mic sessions before moving to London, returns to Hong Kong this week to conclude some unfinished musical business.

Wilkins recorded her debut album, Half Empty, released last year on her own independent label, Rootless Records, live at the Fringe Club on a previous visit. She developed the tracks in small Hong Kong recording studios and finally mastered the album at Abbey Road in London. After all, it was good enough for the Beatles.

But at the time of the album's release, however, she was under too much emotional stress to promote it. Her father, who was critically ill at the time of the recording, passed away - even though he still made a point of buying four tickets to the concert, knowing he could not attend - and selling CDs was the last thing on her mind. Now she wants to give the album the push it would otherwise have had at the time, and to introduce some new songs she has been working on in her London home studio.

'For the past year I've been focusing on recording and I'm putting together music to try to get some more work in TV,' says Wilkins, who plays the Fringe Club tomorrow. 'I've been doing new stuff that I'm sending out and that's been really well received, so when I go back I'll be doing some showcases and stuff for labels.' A cracking band including powerhouse drummer Dave McKirdy, long-time sidekick Patrick Murdoch on guitar and multi-instrumentalist Sam Pleitgen brought a new rocky dimension to Wilkins' blues, jazz and soul-inspired songs - originally composed with and for just an acoustic guitar or piano.

The young but supremely soulful singer has made a point of maintaining a strong connection with Hong Kong. Her mother still lives here and she largely grew up here, and during the mid-1990s Wilkins could be heard regularly at the Fringe Club, Post 97, Cafe Des Artistes and the old Jazz Club, and made her living from her music for two years after finishing school before leaving for university in England to study drama. In the end she only lasted one term before going back to full-time singing and composing, and started to build a reputation in Britain via live performances and TV appearances.

'I realised that the main reason for going back to the UK was because I wanted to continue my music and I couldn't really concentrate on university because all I wanted to do was go out and sing,' she recalls.

Wilkins does not at this point make her living exclusively from music - web design was always a hobby and she finds work for IT companies in that area a useful supplement to earnings from gigs and modest royalties - but she has already made her mark on the British music scene. One of her songs was used in the popular BBC drama series Ballykissangel, and she has a loyal live following. Her two professional callings are combined in the website.

She works constantly on new material, and enjoys having the liberty to sing, play and record in her own space, but is a harsh critic of her own work. Many of her songs are unlikely to be recorded.

'I'm fairly prolific in that I'll write quite a lot of songs in one go, but then I'll only pick out one of them that's actually any good,' Wilkins says. 'For me it takes quite a long time to put together a body of work that I would think is good enough for an album, but there's definitely work in progress.'

In England she has been working with jazz musicians recently, which she says has left a stamp on the newer songs, and at the Fringe Club, where she appears tomorrow, she will be performing with locally based jazz guitarist Guy Le Claire, an old friend and musical collaborator. Originally she had planned to appear with a four-piece line-up, but last-minute problems led to a rethink and the decision to do a duo performance.

'The bass player that I thought was going to play with us [tomorrow] can't make it, and I haven't been able to find another, so I'm going to do it acoustically with just Guy Le Claire on guitar,' Wilkins says. 'I think it will be nice to just do an acoustic gig. A lot of those songs I started writing on guitar so it'll be getting back down to that again. I'll be doing all the stuff from the album plus new songs as well.'

After Christmas and New Year in Hong Kong Wilkins will be returning to London, and is looking forward to picking up where she has left off, although she plans to keep visiting her fans here. 'It looks at the moment as though some exciting things are about to happen,' she says, 'but I never want to say too much until they do.'

Susie Wilkins and Guy Le Claire appear at the Fringe Club's E & J Gallo Gallery tomorrow at 10.30pm. Admission is free.