Rhian Benson's sound is smooth and very sultry

Artist says key to new CD is her spiritual growth.

Music: in concert, CDs

October 02, 2003|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

It sounds like something straight out of a Zadie Smith novel.

A young woman -- smart, stunning, ambitious -- is thousands of miles away from home, studying at Harvard, when her mother suddenly falls ill. The girl stops her world and returns to London to be by her mother's side. As the older woman heals, she and her daughter grow closer. Broken bridges are rebuilt, a new relationship gels. It is also during this time that the young woman rekindles her passion for music, eventually abandoning her original plans to become an investment banker.

Sounds like interesting fiction. But the story is true. Rhian (that's "Ree-Ann") Benson is the young woman whose just-released debut, Gold Coast, has received international acclaim. There has been a strong buzz about the soul singer for months. Her refined, runway-model looks have undoubtedly helped attract attention. But her cool, detached vocals (think Sade but with less intensity and huskiness) are just as arresting. Her first single, "Say How I Feel," is a sonic caffe latte with half-sung, half-spoken lyrics that detail a woman's pursuit of a man in a bar. The record has received frequent spins on urban stations for the past six months.

"I feel so fulfilled, and I feel like I'm not working," says Benson, 26. It's mid-afternoon, and she's calling from her hotel room in Manhattan. The night before, she was on stage at Madison Square Garden as the opening act for Brian McKnight. "All of this is such a joy. I realized that you don't get extraordinary results without putting in extraordinary effort."

Music runs deep in Benson's family. Her father is an Ashanti dignitary from Ghana, and "his family had a great love for music," Benson says in her businesslike British accent. "My father played guitar, a great guitarist. 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." Benson's mother, who hails from Wales, is a singer.

As a girl growing up in Ghana, the sultry young stylist absorbed Ella Fitzgerald, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, Dinah Washington, Earth, Wind & Fire. Benson took piano lessons, played a little guitar and wrote songs here and there. But "my focus was to get a safe job," she says. "It took a while to find that I wasn't fulfilled."

At 16, Benson, her parents, younger sister and older brother left Ghana and moved to London. She later graduated from the London School of Economics. The performer had already completed a one-year program working in capital markets before her mother's illness -- the specifics of which Benson doesn't discuss.

"It was during the year as my mother was healing that I started writing feverishly," she says. "It was my only outlet, really. I would find a dark corner of the house after my mother went to bed, and I would write with my keyboard."

Singing her compositions in open-mike clubs around London, Benson found solace. Her artistry sprouted and bloomed. Three years ago at a joint called the Spot, the singer was discovered by executives from DKG Music, a label committed to developing artists. After signing a contract, Benson relocated to Los Angeles and started working on her debut.

"We re-recorded tracks after I had produced the album myself," Benson says. "I wanted the passion to come through, and there were some people I wanted to work with who could help bring more of the passion out."

She called on two of the best producers in contemporary soul: James Poyser, revered for his work with Erykah Badu, and Bob Power, who has worked with Syleena Johnson, Meshell Ndegeocello, Common and Chaka Khan.

Gold Coast is an even, smooth ride. At the center of the jazz-sprinkled tracks is Benson's voice, a mellow instrument with mahogany-dark tones. Live instrumentation -- subtle percussion, economical keys and gentle guitars -- complements warm programmed beats. Benson's sound may be a little too subdued for mainstream radio. But it is inviting, appealing to folks who dig chilled-out Quiet Storm grooves -- nothing too fast or too slow.

"The key to the album is my spiritual growth," Benson says, "from a girl chasing her dreams on the Gold Coast to recording her album in the Golden State. My journey has been very organic. It's a process, and you learn along the way. You make mistakes, but you learn. On stage, you project you, your spirit. You have to be comfortable with that."

And the young woman's story unfolds beautifully.

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