SHE shot to the top of the Belfast blues scene as frontwoman of the award-winning Mama Kaz band. Now the woman behind the big persona is stepping into the spotlight all alone – and she's more than a little apprehensive
AT 40-years-old, Kaz Hawkins burst onto the Belfast music scene as a relative unknown a little over 18 months ago performing a support slot for Nanci Griffith at the Belfast Nashville Songwriters' Festival.
Despite never having performed original material in front of an audience she delivered a captivating set, grabbing the attention of the east Belfast arts fraternity along with the hearts and ears of blues fans across Northern Ireland.
Within months the newcomer was invited to support the illustrious Van Morrison when he headlined the inaugural East Belfast Arts Festival, catapulting the band into a hectic, but highly-successful year.
They released a critically acclaimed debut single, won Best Blues/Rock act at the Ireland Music Review Magazine Awards and performed a slew of packed-out gigs across the country, with Kaz showcasing the raw, emotion-filled performances she has become renowned for.
Then, to much disquiet, Mama Kaz announced the band was no more.
Thanking the other band members and fans for their support, Kaz decided she was ready to go it alone and Mama Kaz the big blues singer became Kaz Hawkins.
All she says she's asking for is that people give her a shot at being the songwriter she feels she needs to be.
No stranger to taking risks or making bold decisions, Kaz has spent the majority of her life fighting for survival.
From her troubled childhood on Sandy Row to the troubled relationships, drug addiction and mental breakdown which followed in its wake, Kaz defies the odds merely by being alive, let alone successful.
Although music was a constant feature throughout Kaz's early years, it slipped into the background as she struggled to keep her life together.
A serious drug addiction, coupled with a mental breakdown after her mother died in 2000, resulted in Kaz putting her three children, Adam, Amy and Avril into foster care.
It is a decision she still finds difficult to reconcile, even though she became the first woman in the province to get three children back from foster care at the same time in 2007.
"It'll never be okay and I'm not proud, but I worked really hard to get the children back and since then to try to rebuild the bond with them.
"I can't live in guilt forever but there will always be scars," she explains.
Since "getting her life on track" it has been all about the children and music.
And the transformation from Mama Kaz to Kaz Hawkins is another step on the road to embracing positivity.
With an album's worth of material ready to record and the launch of her solo career taking place as part of the East Belfast Arts Festival later this month, Kaz is ready to embrace the new opportunities her change of persona will afford.
"My past is done, I need to move on and right now, writing and performing my new material is where I need to be," she said.
"I'm tired of fighting and I'm tired of writing about fighting.
"I want to write about the nicer side of life.
"Yes, it can still have a dark edge to it, but it can counterbalance.
"For so long I didn't believe in hope, I didn't believe that I was worth anything.
"I may not be 18 now, but I feel like I'm in the prime of my life because I'm happy with myself.
"For so long I was scared to perform my own songs in public.
"I didn't think people would like me because I had given up my kids; I thought people would only see the wrongs I had done and wouldn't identify with me.
"But I realised everyone has their struggles.
"Everybody closes their doors at night and nobody knows what goes on behind those doors."
Rather than shy away from her troubled past, Kaz hopes that by being honest about it, she can help others.
"I'm nervous about putting myself out there and making myself vulnerable," she said.
"But I'm proud of my journey and it's a privilege to have an opportunity to reach out to other people who may be facing difficulties.
"There are friends of mine who gave up along the way and I feel that there's obviously a reason why I'm strong enough to get up and keep on fighting.
"Hopefully other people can get something from that too," the talented singer added.
Kaz Hawkins launches her solo career as part of the 'Believe' event at the Strand Arts Centre on August 31.
For information and ticket sales see: www.eastbelfastartsfestival.org or visit Kaz's website at www.kazhawkins.com or follow her on twitter @kazhawkins.