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Trading on her talent

Ghana native Rhian Benson gave up a stockbroker's life and is now a pop diva in training. Buzz builds around her first album.

September 17, 2003|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

There are fairy-tale stories. Then there's singer-songwriter Rhian Benson's.

Just three years ago, the Ghanaian-born musician was well on a path: a degree in econometrics and mathematical economics from the London School of Economics; a skin-toughening stint on the stock trading floor; a few months of graduate studies at Harvard in the School for Arts and Sciences.

Now, somehow, this 26-year-old has become a pop diva in training.

She's living in the fragrant, scrubby rises above the Hollywood Freeway; she recently posted the most-added song on Radio & Records magazine's Urban Adult Contemporary chart; her debut album, "Gold Coast," is ready to drop; and there's talk of her as a possible heir to the Sade throne.

Already her first single, "Say How I Feel," a familiar, warm-as-bathwater slow jam, has found a niche on radio. And on the strength of enthusiastic word of mouth, her presence on the L.A. club circuit and a six-song promo EP, "Spirit," Benson has created ripples in the industry.

Thanks to a steady pre-release album buzz in full hum, she has rapidly attracted a constellation of high-profile attendants -- a William Morris agent, a business manager, a booking agent, an attorney, a road manager, a publicist, an in-demand stylist. Her tour, opening for R&B crooner Brian McKnight, kicked off Sept. 3 and reaches L.A. on Sept. 26.

Certainly it is too early to tell what sort of larger spell Benson might cast, but she comes to the table with a resume that includes business school and a lively musical pedigree courtesy of her Ghanaian grandfather, who was a hi-life musician, a Welsh mother who was a singer, and a father who noodled around on guitar.

But other than piano lessons, a few talent shows at school or karaoke, "Music was a secret dream," recalls Benson, settling into the banquette of a comfy French bistro close to her new home near Hollywood.

Real life was applying to investment banks and working on the trading floor in London. "I was essentially a broker; I was 22. I lasted just under a year. I was really quite traumatized."

She went back to school, but three months into her Harvard studies, her mother learned she had cancer. Benson flew back to London to care for her. To help herself cope, she fell back on the thing that used to bring her the most hope and joy as a child: writing and playing music.

As her mother's health rebounded, Benson gathered enough courage to take her private endeavor onstage. Wrapping her slithery vocals around jazz standards, she began frequenting open mike night at a club in Covent Garden.

Within a few weeks, she had attracted the interest of a pair of L.A. music executives.

Benson fit right into what China Danforth was looking for after launching DKG Music Inc., an L.A.-based independent label. DKG was created to cultivate singer-songwriters and give them support and space to grow.

On first sight of Benson, Danforth says, "I felt that I had been taken somewhere ... on some journey. I told her: 'We'd love to sign you. Move you to L.A.' I'm sure her parents thought we were some weird people who wanted to kidnap her."

It was long way from Covent Garden to the Kibitz Room at Canter's Deli. But Benson did her tour of duty at a string of local rooms -- La Ve Lee, the Temple Bar, the Mint, Lunaria -- singing songs of self-sufficiency.

"Sometimes she would be playing only for a couple of drunk people," recalls Danforth. "But even some drunk guy would stand up and stare at her. It was that vibe. A spell."

Benson's seen-and-heard-it-all manager, Kevin Morrow, felt it too. Morrow, who also is senior vice president of talent acquisition for House of Blues, had Benson's EP in his CD changer. "Every song I liked, which is rare. She's not R&B. She's not Mya." With Morrow on board, other wheels began turning. Agents and promoters started vying for the singer and her jazz-tinged, neo-soul bouquet of songs about resilience. Howard University's tastemaker radio station, WHUR, started spinning the record. It was a slow build, but steady. "It was her voice. Not mystic. But bluesy, smoky. It was just different enough," says WHUR's program director, Dave Dickenson.

She has collaborated with producers James Poysner, who had worked with Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu, and Bob Power, who had teamed up with Meshell Ndegeocello and D'Angelo: "I chased them down, really. They brought out different things in those artists, and I wanted to see what they would bring out of me."

On "Gold Coast," due Oct. 7, Benson unfolds like a fan. Within are glimmers of Sade, but swirl it around and there are hints of the sass of Jill Scott and Badu, the swank soulfulness of Anita Baker, even a self-help dash of Des'ree.

There was some worry, she says, in the beginning, that her approach to a lyric, a mood, was tipping a shade too close to jazz. "There were some concerns that this would lead to problems down the road," says Benson, "that the record wouldn't reach a young audience."

Benson was open to some experimentation, playing with tempo, mood, trying on a more pop spin, but it changed that all-essential vibe.

"What became clear early on was what was going to work was Rhian being Rhian," she says. The experimenting proved to Benson that on every level, she was being honest along the way to creating the album she wanted to make. "And I'm really proud of it."

*

RHIAN BENSON

Where: Greek Theatre, 2700 Vermont Canyon Road, L.A.

When: Sept. 26, 7:30 p.m., opening for Brian McKnight

Price: $30 to $60

Contact: (323) 665-1927

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