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Rhian Benson: A Profile

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A Glimpse into the World of

Rhian Benson

Interview by jianda johnson

Introducing Rhian (pronounced Ree-Ann) Benson: singer, songwriter, musician. With the release of her debut album expected early next year, Rhian is putting the pieces together-completing the recording, performing in and around California, New York and New England, with an extensive tour to follow, and preparing to share what’sbeen, until now, a private voyage of expression. Let’s explore.

Q: Who writes most of your songs? Music? Lyrics?

Rhian: I write all of my songs. I have loved writing since I was a child and over time I began to use it as an outlet, a way of working out my feelings and solving my problems. Much of my lyrical work begins life as poetry, some I do keep as poems, and others I fashion into songs when I have a strong idea for a melody and musical arrangement.

I began studying piano when I was 9 years old and later I took up the guitar. I now use both instruments for songwriting, but I prefer the keyboard probably because I can play it better than the fret board! I compose most of my music on a very basic Technics keyboard at home. After that I either play it for my band and between all of us we work out an arrangement that works for the stage or I work out and sequence a demo arrangement in Logic (a MIDI program) with Dapo Torimiro (a very talented keyboardist and a label-mate). I consider Dapo a musical partner; we work closely together and bounce ideas off each other all the time.

Q: We heard you had an exclusive recording session recently with a top-notch producer. Can you tell us more about this?

Rhian: Actually I have been working very extensively over the last few weeks with two wonderful producers that I have long admired. I am co-producing the album along with James Poyser (who has worked with Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill) and The Roots among others). He came down to LA from Philly a month ago and we recorded 10 songs live with some amazing musicians including Pino Palladino, Spanky 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, and the vibe that we all had going between us comes across on the record

The other producer that I am collaborating with is Bob Power (India.Arie, Erykah Badu, A Tribe Called Quest) last week. I spent a week in New York with him, and he is coming out to Los Angeles next week. His approach is very different in that he prefers to start working out the “bones” of the tracks in the studio in a more gradual way. We work out all the details in his office studio before stepping into a recording studio. He is, like James a very talented musician, and I am learning so much more about production from these great talents.

Q: When did you begin your music career, and what inspired you to do so?

Rhian: I started making moves to go professional about 3 years ago. I have always loved music deeply, I was surrounded by a lot of music growing up, my grandfather was a big band leader in the big band jazz scene in Ghana back in the day. He played sax and piano and was a prolific composer, he passed the tradition down: one of my uncles is a record producer and another is a highlife singer. They inspired me as did my music heroes over the years, it has always been a dream to create music that can touch people- the way I have been moved by great artists.

Q: It’s beautiful that you share the recording process as you go on the website. Tell us a little bit about the recording process for you. Is there anything you do to help you prep for a session, and how do you just let go and “flow”?

Rhian: The label and I decided that it would be great to let visitors to the site hear the songs as a work-in-progress. It was an unusual step and a risky one because people do sometimes make judgments based on their first impressions. The songs on the website are incomplete and you can’t expect everyone to see their potential, however I still felt that it was important to let people to get a feel for what I do and to share this exciting, organic process with fans who hopefully will own the album next year.

The recordings on the website were produced by me last year. The recording process for me is a gradual one, I prefer to spend most of my time working out the arrangements in demo form prior to tracking sessions with musicians and vocal sessions. It can be very daunting doing vocals when you know it’s going down on record for posterity! I find that doing all the “thinking work” well before sessions frees my mind up so that all I have to do in the booth is feel and relive the emotions that made me create the songs in the first place. Oh and yes, vocal warm-up exercises and warm tea help too!

Q: Who are some of your favourite recording artists, or artists in general?

Rhian: I grew up listening to a lot of jazz greats like Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis. I also love Stevie Wonder (what singer-songwriter doesn’t??!!), Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, Fela Kuti and Anita Baker. Their music has touched me and their artistry has influenced me strongly. Some of the more contemporary artists I’m into at the moment include D’Angelo and Jill Scott,as well as Norah Jones and Jazzanova.

Q: We read this about you: “Complex and cerebral, Rhian’s music is simultaneously warm and soulful, empathetic and ethereal.” Reading this from your side of the screen, what is your take on this? Your music does come original, and it’s just quite lovely! How much of a hand have you had in the production and presentation of your materials (from website, to recording/finished product)?

Rhian: Thank you for the compliment on the music. It is a bit strange reading such lavish descriptions about myself and what I do, I used to feel it was immodest to accept it as truth. On the other hand, I have done shows where people have come up to thank me afterward with a startled look in their eyes; I moved them. You see I understood the power that music has over me, but I didn’t yet understand how deeply my music could affect others. It is very humbling to see people willingly receiving the message that I work hard to deliver, and when it happens it really is a “complex, cerebral…..ethereal” experience for all of us.

I am fortunate to be signed to a label that allows me to have full creative input into everything that goes on regarding my project. I remember when we were trying to choose a font for my name, we were faxing ideas back and forth for days until we came to a mutual agreement! I am fully involved in all decisions and couldn’t be happier about it!

Q: Any ideas for videos in the works?

Rhian: Because the songs are still ‘works-in-progress’ we have not decided which will be the first video! However, we have it narrowed down to two songs and we will be making the decision in the next two weeks. I have a wild imagination so I’ve already started doing treatments in my head, I’m really looking forward to this part of the project. We have already made contact with a few established music video directors and we are aiming to start shooting in January.

Q: You had mentioned (on the site) that music is a healing process for you, and for others. Can you expand on that a bit?

Rhian: Music is so powerful. I can’t tell you how many times I have put on a record, shut the door and just listened to keep sane! All those records helped to heal and empower me at times when I needed it most. My songwriting has become my muse, my outlet and my healer simultaneously. I hope that I will be able to give others the same experience by stimulating, provoking and soothing through my music.

Q: How did the book “The Alchemist” inspire you?

Rhian: I love that book; I keep re-reading it to keep it fresh. My sister gave me the book as a present and it was one of the best gifts I have ever been given. The message is so simple yet profound, the idea that our deepest instincts can guide us to our divine path and that once we are on that path “all the universe conspires to help you achieve..” is deeply inspiring. It means the answers lie within us at all times and it doesn’t get any more optimistic than that! It helped me to make strides when others didn’t believe and the odds were stacked against me. The odds are still looming large but I have faith. In the words of the King in the book “Never stop dreaming…follow the omens”!

Q: How did you get your performing/touring chops sharp? Is that a new process for you as well?

Rhian: I have been singing since I was quite young, so performing for others feels quite natural for me, and because I enjoy sharing my music with others, it is probably the thing I love to do most. However, I only started playing regularly with my band a little over a year ago. I still get a little nervous before shows but I have learned to try to channel that energy into the performance. At live shows there is an amazing give and take between the audience and the performer: the more I give, the more they give back.

It helps of course to have a great band backing me; the level of their musicianship is infectious. My 5-piece band includes Alphonso Johnson (Bass, Music Director), African keyboard player and musical partner Dapo Torimiro (Keys, Background Vocals), Brazilian drummer and vocalist Rogerio Jardim), Joel Whitley (Guitar) and David Leach (Percussion). They are great guys and we have good laughs on the road, which also helps I might add!

Q: Do you get to see shows much? What’s your take on the music landscape today?

Rhian: I do try and get out to see as much as possible. The last big shows I saw that really moved me were Jill Scott and Michael Franti (Spearhead), both here in LA. They are both such incredible performers that can make you laugh or cry in an instant.

Locally, I’m really excited by the independent scene. It’s more difficult to establish yourself as independent artist because obstacles are everywhere (I know!), but there is so much creativity brought to the table by these artists because they take risks. Out here on the West Coast I really enjoy seeing Martin Luther, Rocky Dawuni and Medusa.

Q: Since you studied economics, how do you keep your wits about you as far as the “business” side of the music business?

Rhian: I think the key to keeping “wits” intact is to surround yourself with a few generals that you can trust. Things get crazy at times and it becomes hard to stay on top of everything but I have a great team at the label, they are very open and transparent. The music certainly takes precedence over everything else, but at the same time, I try to make sure that I have a long term career plan, and I encourage all other artists to do the same.

Q: Being from Ghana and being so well-traveled, you’ve seen many cross-sections of cultures. What are your favourite kinds of genres, music and scenes if any?

Rhian: I think that growing up in different countries has just made me more aware of the simple fact that we are all the same. Regardless of colour, religion and politics, we all have the same basic needs in life. The Arts unite us, every culture looks to its artists to express the feelings and attitudes of the time; to uplift and tantalize. The traditional African rhythms that I grew up with have undeniably helped to shape my music in the same way that I was influenced by Hip Hop in the 80’s. I remember when I lived in India I was captivated by Bollywood movies, I still sit and watch whenever I get the chance, they represent escapism at its best!

Q: Tell us about being signed. How did that come to be for you?

Rhian: When I graduated from University with a degree in Econometrics, I decided to go into investment banking, it seemed like the sensible thing to do! It took a year of banking for me to realise that my passions lay elsewhere, so I came to the US to Grad school. Three months into the program my mother fell very ill in London and so I went back to look after her, it was during this time of crisis that I started to write more frequently than ever before. I realized that my true calling was in music, and so decided to start performing at a small weekly open mic event in London. It was terrifying, I could hardly breathe let alone sing the first few times I got up there, but I loved the adrenaline and the excitement of living the dream.

As fate would have it, a couple of the partners from my current label who I already knew had been coming to these events, and over time, we began talking and they asked me about my writing and performance experience.

At the time, they were just getting the label started, and they felt that I would be just the right artist for what they were trying to do. I also felt that it was very important for me to work with people who would let me have total creative freedom and that took precedence for me over potentially going with a larger corporation. They signed me onto a development deal and ‘the rest is history’ as the saying goes.

Q: Also, what’s up next on the horizon concerning tour, promotion and further recording?

Rhian: I am in the studio at the moment finishing the album. We will be releasing an EP on a limited basis before the launch of the full album in March 2003. I am going to kick off next year in January with a show at The House of Blues in LA and another show at Joe’s Pub in New York. I’m particularly looking forward also to a BET (Black Entertainment TV) festival that is taking place in Ghana in February next year.

It will be amazing for me to play at home! BET.com is hosting a contest that is sponsored by my label on my behalf called the “Gold Coast Getaway” to win an all expense paid trip for two to the festival, so I encourage all your readers to go to BET.com/contests and sign up, because it will be a wonderful trip. The label always ensures that my website is up to date with a listing of all my upcoming appearances so check out rhianbenson.com for more info on shows and what I‘m up to!

Happy holidays everyone and a blessed new year. Peace . – MP3

Once Rhian’s EP is available for sale, we will update this page with purchase information. 🙂

(feature originally published @ b-gyrl.com.)

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