When Rhian Benson's debut, Gold Coast, rolled onto American shores late in 2003, it was a notable achievement in more ways than one, particularly when considering her rather complex background. Originally from West Africa, she's lived in India, Boston and London, attending Harvard before writing an album and nursing her ill mother back to health. While devoting time to her mother's bedside in London, Benson rediscovered songwriting and ventured out into the virtually unrewarding open-mike nights of the cafe circuit.
Someone at Los Angeles-based DKG Records filed through the crowd at one of those outings, recognized Benson's talent and added her to their roster. Working alongside a couple of well-known producers, Gold Coast combines Benson's interests in R&B, jazz and soul while lyrically exposing her innermost revelations about loves lost and gained. And lately she's been busy, but fortunately not too busy for Prefix.
Prefix Magazine: I have to ask about your compelling background. Can you to talk about the Ashanti tribe in Ghana, West Africa, where you were born?
Rhian Benson: Ghana is home. My parents still live in my birthplace, Accra (the capital). My father is from a city called Kumasi, which is the capital of the Ashanti region, and we used to visit regularly. I have a large extended family there. The tribe is the oldest and probably the proudest in the country, and it still practices traditions dating back centuries. The chief is held in great esteem and must still be consulted by the government on all matters pertaining to the region, which sometimes leads to interesting conflicts. I had a very happy childhood in Ghana, and I try and get back as often as possible. It's just so damned far away from Cali. PM: After your family moved to India when you were young, you began playing piano and were even churning out songs. But you decided in time to pursue an entirely different field, ultimately relegating yourself to the left side of your brain rather than the creative right. Why the deep interest in math? Did you have an aptitude for math when you were young as you did for songwriting?
Rhian Benson: I always had an interest in patterns and drawing, and much of mathematical as well as musical theory is based on patterns. I would see license plate numbers in the car and start figuring out weird conundrums -- yes, there's a nerd in there, too. A career in music wasn't really a career option, because my folks were very traditional. I followed my strengths in math and economics up to graduate level. PM: While you were at the London School of Economics and then at Harvard, were you still playing or writing songs?
Rhian Benson: Yes, I was still writing for myself. The love of writing was always there, and it was something I did to just disconnect when I needed to. PM: Did you explore any other genres of music in London or Boston that may have contributed to the eclectic mix of sounds on your debut?
Rhian Benson: I definitely took advantage of the opportunities to enjoy the live music scene in London and Boston. I remember discovering music that influenced me greatly through live shows, British-based acts like the Brand New Heavies, D'Influence, the Young Disciples. They represented a movement that predated neo-soul and fused funk, soul, jazz and pretty much anything they were feeling. PM: As you helped nurse your mother back to health, you rediscovered your passion for writing songs. She was obviously an inspiration for your overall return to this passion, but are there any songs on Gold Coast that specifically deal with this event?
Rhian Benson: "Young Girl" is specifically about my mother. It was very hard seeing the person I always saw as a pillar of strength so weakened by illness. Her vulnerability gave me strength, and I wanted her to hear all the fortifying words of encouragement she had given me over the years. I think all throughout that period, I found inspiration in the strength of the spirit, which led to songs like "Invincible," "Gold Sky," "Sing to the Child." PM: Can you tell us a little about your first steps back toward music? How were your experiences at the smaller venues and open-mike nights in England a few years back? How did you stay so focused on breaking into the music industry?
Rhian Benson: It was during this time with my mother that I felt more connected to my own sprit than ever. It was a strange thing, but I knew I had to start performing. I had performed in choir at high school and taken part in musicals, but never took center stage as a solo artist. And yet somehow it seemed like the most natural thing in the world for me to do. I knew a couple of spots that held open-mike evenings, and I started going regularly. It did take me a few visits to pluck up the nerve to sing, but once I got going I knew it was something I had to do. The music industry in the U.K. is obviously much smaller than it is here, and everyone knows everyone. I knew of a couple of singers who got deals by being seen at these small clubs, and so I felt that I was in the right place. PM: Were you discovered by DKG at one of these open-mike outings? How did that go down?
Rhian Benson: I met someone at one of the clubs who claimed he had a friend who was setting up a label that might be interested in me. Of course I thought, "Yeah right ...," but the next week he brought China Danforth with him, the head of my label, DKG Music. And you know how it ended. PM: How did your recording sessions go for Gold Coast? Were you working long days and nights? How would you describe your experiences with weathered producers James Poyser and Bob Power?
Rhian Benson: It was amazing, I had recorded an album demo before they came on board, and I was very anxious to see how they would reinterpret my material. James Poyser -- who's worked with D'Angelo, Jill Scott, the Roots -- he came down to Los Anegles from Philly, and we cut tracks live with some incredible musicians (Pino Palladino, C. Edward Alford, Roy Hargrove and Brian Frasier-Moore). I was amazed at the level of musicianship I was witnessing; the non-verbal communication between gifted players is a special thing. We worked from midday though midnight most days, and the sessions were a blast. They would jam the grooves until the arrangement was perfect and then record. I didn't want the sessions to end; I was always the first in and the last one out. I recorded with Bob Power in New York; his list of credits is equally impressive: India.Arie, Erykah Badu, A Tribe Called Quest. His approach was very different in that he preferred to start working out the "bones" of the tracks in his office studio before stepping into a recording studio. I learnt so much more about production and the art of music from these guys, and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. PM: On the record, you waver in and out of confidence about the opposite sex. In "Say How I Feel," you elaborate on the nervousness of the singles scene, citing "panic attacks" and asking a fella to dance. My game is non-existent, but are you fairly confident in the face of a smoky singles bar? Does this song still characterize your experiences?
Rhian Benson: The "Say How I Feel" scenario was very real, and I too had a serious lack of game at the time. It's very comforting though, hearing from fans after a show about how they relate to the experience. One guy told me last week that it was every man's dream come true to hear a girl expressing "her" insecurities about the situation. I'm glad it worked for him. All I have to say is I learned my lesson the hard way, but at least I did learn. PM: How did the remix of "Say How I Feel," with Slum Village and Dwele, come about? Are you a fan of hip-hop in general? Any specific records on your turntable these days? Mase's "Welcome Back," maybe?
Rhian Benson: I grew up in the '80s as hip-hop was becoming a force in its own right, so the sound of a classic hip-hop beat never fails to get my attention. It was fun to take one of my songs in a completely different direction with those guys. They each have such a distinctive sound, and they took turns dropping in their verses very spontaneously. I'm about to go get the new Slum Village album, which by all accounts will be off the chain. I'm still jamming Kanye West and I always have Dr. Dre's The Chronic near by. PM: What other types of music are you into? Any bands you wish to dis? We like gossip around here.
Rhian Benson: Everything and anything that makes a connection. I enjoy going back to the U.K., where radio is not formatted and hearing what new music is out across the board. Ladies don't dis, dahling!