Music’s blood ties exert their tug on Rhian Benson
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., September 18, 2002) – Rhian Benson grew up in Ghana surrounded by musicians. Her Welsh-born mother is a singer, and her father, a native of Ghana, is a guitarist. Her grandfather led an acclaimed big band in the 1950s and ‘60s. Her eldest uncle was a popular high-life singer, and her youngest uncle is a record producer.
If anything, all that exposure to the music business only served to steer Benson away from a career in music rather than towards it.
“The downside of having grown up in a family of musicians is there’s a very real understanding of how difficult it is to make a living as a musician,” said jazz-pop singer Benson, in a recent phone interview from a hotel in Philadelphia.
Benson said she wasn’t encouraged to pursue a career in music, and actually wound up going to college and then, like Mick Jagger before her, attending the London School of Economics, where she majored in econometrics in preparation for a career in investment banking.
During college Benson stayed in touch with her musical side by playing in college bands. But after a short stint at Harvard, she returned to London and began performing at open-mike nights around London.
“It was very scary initially,” said Benson, who was born Rhiannon Afua Benson, and who now calls Los Angeles home. “It’s one thing with a college band, playing for fun knowing it’s just fun. It’s entirely another thing doing it as your chosen profession.
“I was initially very nervous about it, but got an adrenaline rush and it felt good and worth it. At the end of the day I love everything else that comes with it -- the writing, sitting at the keyboard, working out my problems in song.”
Benson’s jazzy, pop-soul sound has been compared to a diverse range of artists, from Jill Scott to Seal, Enya, Dido and Dinah Washington. A few early demo tracks for her upcoming album suggest a jazzy blend of Sting and Sade.
Benson grew up with an even more diverse range of musical influences. Around the house her parents listened to Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Earth, Wind and Fire. Benson herself was drawn to Fela Kuti, the king of Afrobeat, who fused jazz and funk with traditional sounds. “I love the fact that he charted his own course completely,” she said. “He was classically trained and decided to do his own thing. He had this animal magnetism that was amazing. I was completely inspired by him.”
Benson also credits the traditional rhythms of West Africa for her music’s insistent rhythmic pulse. “African rhythms are so strong,” she said. “Once you grow up with them, they’re in you forever. All my songs have very strong bass lines, rhythm sections, and basic kick patterns.”
As a child, Benson also spent three formative, influential years in India. “They have very pretty melodies in their songs, and I think that my melodies tend to be quite elaborate in that Bollywood sort of way.”
Benson also credits her mother’s influence. “There’s a big tradition of singing in Wales, where my mother’s from,” she said. Her Welsh influence also extends to Shirley Bassey. “She was the first Black Welsh singer I’d ever seen,” said Benson. “She is a bit of a role model for me -- a strong woman with a very long career. She’s certainly a diva, but she’s maintained her Welsh roots. She still lives there. She’s very down to earth that way. I have great admiration for people with long, successful careers who are still very much themselves.”
Being herself in her music is her stated goal, especially while – still early in her career – she is an unknown quantity to most audiences. “It’s that first-time connection, and it’s really all about creating that bond with them immediately,” she said. “The easiest way to do that is to express my personality, to be with them and enjoy sharing my music with them.
“I find just being myself tends to help me connect with audiences. The songs are just written about moments in my life, and strong feelings I’ve had. In order to make it convincing, I have to go to that moment and relive it for them.”
In her concerts, Benson sprinkles some jazz standards and pop songs among her original compositions, as well as contemporary songs by Bob Marley and Dido.
With her own material, she said she hopes there is a consistent message that comes across through all of them. Each song, she said, is “an intimate, personal journey.”
Music as jazzy as Benson’s doesn’t ordinarily attract a large, mass following, but these are not ordinary times. Benson is encouraged by the remarkable success of Norah Jones, whose debut album of original, jazz-based compositions recently cracked the Top 10 on Billboard’s Pop Album chart.
Jones’s unheralded, unprecedented success “certainly changes the landscape,” said Benson, who as a biracial jazz singer is already garnering comparisons to the biracial Jones, who also performed at Club Helsinki – with the band Wax Poetic – before the release of her debut CD made her a pop star and theater headliner.
“I have great admiration for her,” she said. “I loved the album straight away, mainly because it was a voice speaking to me about universal themes that I’ve been through and everyone has been through.
“The fact that it’s been as successful as it has gives me hope. Mine is a voice speaking about basic, everyday things we all go through. The idea is just to relate to people, and hopefully give them a healing experience by showing them that someone else has been through it.”
[This feature originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on September 13, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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