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Raising Her Voice

Dionne Wilkins Comes Into Her Own as a Solo Artist

Sam Holden

By Petula Caesar | Posted 4/30/2008

Dionne Wilkins with Erin Markey, Jenni Olson, Nicole Reynolds, and Wolfgang

Charm City Kitty Club's "The Sweet Smell of Excess--Pussies With Dirty Whiskers

May 2 and 3, Creative Alliance at the Patterson

When Dionne Wilkins decided to pursue music about a decade ago, not even her mother thought she could sing. The adventure since has included several stops and starts--interrupted college studies, an uncompleted record-label internship--and she has had her moments of fear and self-doubt, such as when a producer asked her to sing on the spot and she couldn't. Wilkins has, though, earned a local following with her self-described "neo soul/hip-hop/alternative," and her journey continues this week when she performs as part of the Charm City Kitty Club's latest event.

If Kurt Cobain and Meshell Ndegeocello ever had a love child, she might be 27-year-old Parkville native Wilkins--"just Dionne," as she prefers to be called. And while she personally doesn't stick to any one of her influences over the other, when she meets with music industry professionals, they tell her she can only pick one. "And the one they pick is neo-soul," Wilkins says, seated in a local restaurant. "That's fine as long as they understand that's not all I am. . . . I'm not always going to be `old soul.' I'm not always going to be `peace and blessings,' though I am a part of that `consciousness' crowd and I give off that look."

That she definitely does, with her milk-chocolate brown skin, the soft fuzzy curly locks sweeping past her shoulders, the square, almost schoolmarmish eyeglasses, and the strategically ripped and tattered jeans. But when you hear her "Atonement," "Directions," and "Love Elevate," you hear more than the aforementioned neo soul/hip-hop/alternative blend--you hear folk music, soul, classic rock (she mentions listening to the Mamas and the Papas), and even hints of blues and jazz in her arrangements and vocals. You also hear the influences of spoken-word poetry in her delivery, which was one of the first places her words found an audience.

"I'm not a spoken-word artist," Wilkins quickly clarifies. "I'm a writer, a songwriter, and a poet, yes, but not really a spoken-word artist." What's the difference? "Well, they both stem from the basis of writing," she says. "But to me poetry expresses itself more through writing, and spoken word is meant to be performed. . . . Sometimes I just get up and read off the paper. There is no spitting, shouting, reaching out to grab you--that stuff is spoken word. I still like to go to the smaller venues and just share, but it was always my intention to do music."

Wilkins' upbringing foreshadowed her musical pursuits, even though she didn't always see it that way. Her father, Samuel, was a songwriter and guitarist, and Wilkins grew up surrounded by all kinds of records and instruments. She was even active in choir from elementary school through high school. In spite of that background, she enrolled in Essex Community College after graduating from Parkville High School in 1998, majoring in psychology.

Only in her early 20s did she seriously consider music as a career, in spite of her fears. "I didn't see myself as a solo artist," Wilkins explains. "I thought you had to have a more conventional voice. I had to work to overcome my fear of not sounding like others."

It wasn't just Wilkins that didn't get it. "Even my mother didn't believe I could really sing," she says with a laugh. "I had to prove it to her because she was like, `You need to go back to school.' And I was like, `No, music.' So she finally heard my first track, and now she is my biggest fan."

She eventually left Essex in 2000 to begin performing at various open mic venues and talent shows, becoming a featured performer, circa 2003-'04, at notable events such as Organic Soul Tuesdays and Artscape. And she earned a significant local underground following. "I would go places, and people would know the words to my songs, and they'd be asking, `Where can I see you next' or `When can I get your CD,'" she says. That feedback encouraged her to record a debut CD, which is still yet to be completed. She initially began seeking out producers in 2003.

She laughingly talks about how that search began. "My first meeting was with Maurice [Carroll]," she says. Carroll, of Rawtech Productions, is a sought after local producer who has worked with poets and vocalists, such as the 5th L, Love the Poet, Kelly Bell, and Jonathan Nelson. "We talked about my vision and what I had in mind for my CD, what I wanted my music to sound like, and then he said, `Well, sing. Let me hear what you got.' And I was so nervous, I wouldn't sing. I know it sounds crazy. So I left, and before I did he said, `Now when you come back, I want to hear you sing.' I said OK and I never went back.

"It was a fear of rejection," she continues. "It really made me go home and think about whether or not I wanted to do this."

She finally found a production home with Barrack from Family Tiez Productions--"he is originally from New Jersey and he's worked with local hip-hop and soul artists," she says--and Musse Mus from Baltimore's Uniquity Productions. "Barrack came along at a time when I thought I wouldn't find anyone who could understand my sound, when I was very frustrated with that whole thing," she says. "Musse is also very creative. I've been blessed with producers open to my ideas. They never tried to take over the songwriting part. . . . I tell them, `Don't soul me out too much, to the point that I don't sound like me.'"

A 2004 stint as an intern at Hidden Beach Recordings, the American independent soul and gospel label home to Onitsha and multiple Grammy winner Jill Scott, was an attempt to "learn more about the business side," Wilkins says. "It's the worst thing in the world to want to be part of something you know nothing about."

Wilkins enjoyed the experience at Hidden Beach, but it was a letdown in some ways. The label "definitely encouraged you to go out and network and meet people," Wilkins says. "And I made some lifelong friends. But I thought I was going to be doing something more like A&R, helping find artists and giving them an opportunity to get themselves out there. I was more like a street-team person, but I did learn a lot." Among other things, she learned "people respect you more if you stand by what you believe and what you want as an artist," though she observed that the "known artists get all the pushing as far as public relations go, even though they don't really need it as much as some of the lesser-known artists that are really good."

Wilkins tries to get her music to the public by playing to as diverse an audience as possible. "I play all types of crowds," she says. "Older crowds, younger crowds, artsy, hippie, stuff for rights and causes. The music just resonates with people. . . . plus there is nothing better than performing live--especially if you have good musicians playing with you. I love the way I feel when I vibe with the music."

Wilkins' burgeoning singing career has forced her to cut down her hours at Catholic Charities through the Archdiocese of Baltimore, where for the past five years she has worked with disabled adults. "My 18-year-old brother is autistic, and this is something that my whole family has always done," she says. "So the tradition was already there. But it's challenging. . . . You have your good days and bad days." Now Catholic Charities sees her on a part-time instead of a full-time basis, and it's better for Wilkins that way. "I know I'm never going to be happy doing anything until I'm doing my music full time," she says.

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