Rhian Benson: The Interview!
Rhian Benson first burst onto the music scene in 2003 with the release of her critically acclaimed debut album, ‘Gold Coast’, which featured production efforts from the likes of Grammy-winning producers James Poyser (Lauryn Hill/D’Angelo) and Bob Power (Chaka Khan/A Tribe Called Quest)...
The album boasted a US R&B Top 10 and UK Top 30 hit single with ‘Say How I Feel’, but due to circumstances beyond her control and the untimely loss of her mother, Rhian was forced to withdraw from the music scene for eight long years.
Thankfully, the MOBO winner is now back to carry on from where she left off, with a brand new sound and a brand new album to “redefine modern soul”, while still maintaining and even improving upon the same incredible vocals, lyrics and soul that we fell in love with in the first place.
The Wrap Up’s Ayodele Adepoju recently had the pleasure of speaking with the Ghanaian-born star about her new album, ‘Hands Clean’, the new musical direction and much more.
The Wrap Up: For our readers who might not have heard of you before, please tell them a bit about yourself…
Rhian Benson: My name is Rhian Benson and I’m a singer-songwriter. I was born and raised in Ghana, to a Ghanaian dad and a Welsh mum, and I put out my first album, ‘Gold Coast’, in 2003. It was released in the States, South Africa and Japan and the UK. It was a really cool album, very classic soul and jazz. I worked with Bob Power and James Poyser – producers who have worked with the likes of D’Angelo and Lauryn Hill. I took a bit of a gap out of the industry, but now I’m back promoting my second album, ‘Hands Clean’, which is out in stores now.
TWU: On the new album, ‘Hands Clean’, what can people expect from it?
Rhian Benson: Right, well, the new album is a really strong evolution of the sound that I created on ‘Gold Coast’. It’s a lot more direct, lyrically, and it’s a lot more fun and up-tempo. Production-wise, I decided to try out more of an electronic sound, because it’s something that I had really been getting into over the years. I think it’s just a much more personal album to me and it shows a lot of growth, so I’m really excited to have it out there.
TWU: How has it been received so far seeing as you’ve been away for quite a while?
Rhian Benson: Well, you know, I have to say that I was quite anxious about it because it has been a while, but the reception so far has been very good. I think I genuinely have the best fans in the world, but of course everyone says this. It’s interesting, because the feedback I’ve had from the fans shows that they’ve really listened very carefully and they get where the influences come from. There’s a song on there called ‘L’Amour Fou’, which is sort of reference to Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson and Madonna and all the sort of 80s pop that I used to love when I was a kid. Then, there’s really up-tempo electronica stuff like ‘Be’, which is the second single, all referencing types of music that’s quite different from ‘Gold Coast’, but at the same time it’s still very much me because, vocally, I sound very much the same as ‘Gold Coast’ and of course I’m always writing about myself from a very personal place.
TWU: You just spoke a bit about the influences on this new album, but where did you draw those influences from?
Rhian Benson: Well, certainly on the writing front – because I did the writing for the album quite some time before I actually produced the album – I was just drawing from personal experiences. I did a lot more collaborative songwriting on this album than ‘Gold Coast’, simply because I wanted to create an album that would sound different as I felt different and things were a lot of changed since the first album. We listened to a lot of DJ Shadow and Bjork and Shagiotis, the artists who are a little bit out of the box with the way they do production, but they’re always referencing something that perhaps is a bit more traditional like a soul or a hip-hop sound. So we basically listened to all of that and decided that we wanted to create a sound that sounds quite futuristic and clean, because it felt like writing for the album was a very cleansing process.
TWU: When you put this new album out, did you think or fear that your fans wouldn’t get this new direction?
Rhian Benson: Initially, when we sat down to think about trying out this new sound, I was getting so carried away and excited that it was that giddiness that made me stop and think, ‘Am I getting too carried away here?’ Then I thought, ‘You know what? If I’m enjoying this and it comes through on the record, then people will hear that and it will give them joy as well.’ So yeah, I had faith that if the album was everything I hoped it would be and the way that I wanted it to sound, then eventually it would come across to the right people.
TWU: Let’s go back to the new album, ‘Hands Clean’. You only have one guest artist on there, but is there a reason as to why you kept collaborations to a minimal?
Rhian Benson: I never set out to exclude other artists from my project. I think ‘Gold Coast’ was very much a solo effort and I kinda just planned ‘Hands Clean’. Jonas, however, was one of the co-writers and co-producers on the album and the song that we duet on (‘Be’) just happened to be so because as we were writing, we were recording the song and he didn’t actually want to be on the song. He said, ‘It can work as a duet, so look, I’ll just lay down the parts and then you can find some artist who will maybe fit the demographic’, or something like that. He was thinking very much as the label head and I said, ‘No, we wrote it together, you sound great on it, and I think you should be on it.’ I really, really enjoyed that process of writing and recording with him, he’s really a great talent.
TWU: If you could work with any artist dead or alive, who would be at the top of your list and why?
Rhian Benson: I think it would have to be Fela Kuti. He’s also from West Africa and I was really very fortunate to have seen him perform live when I was a kid on a school trip to Cameroun, he was just amazing. His music, I think, is still just as fresh and challenging and complex as when he first created it and he’s raised the bar for music, especially African music, so someone like that would be absolutely amazing to work with or even just to watch work. Then there are some of my other idols, where do I begin? I don’t know. I love Lionel Richie, he’s an amazing songwriter and artist; I love Sade, oh, there’s just too many!
TWU: What about artists from the UK? Is there anyone out there that you’re feeling at the moment?
Rhian Benson: I love Adele’s new album, I think she has such an incredible voice for someone so young, and I also really like what’s happening with Tinie Tempah. I think that his ‘Pass Out’ track was phenomenal. I think that his success is slowly opening the doors for other young black artists in the UK, and perhaps not just hip-hop or grime, you know? Singer-songwriters also. I think there’s a positive wave happening here. Exciting times!
TWU: You’ve been doing music for a long time now, so what advice would you give to young, up-and-coming artists who are trying to be where you are right now?
Rhian Benson: I would say that you just literally have to believe in yourself at all times and it’s something that you kinda hear continually from artists, but it’s for a good reason because you literally are the one who drives your career forward and you are in control of your destiny. I think being an artist is a really special job to have, it’s a privilege, and I think that if you’re going down that road, you’re gonna have to learn how to enjoy and embrace all of the moments: the challenges, the ups and downs, everything. This is just a very special way to make a living.
Rhian Benson’s album, ‘Hands Clean’, is out now and her new single, ‘Be’, is out on June 6.
Stay up to date with Rhian Benson on Twitter - www.twitter.com/RhianBenson
Words: Ayodele Adepoju (@WePlugGoodMusic)
Online editing: Joseph 'JP' Patterson (@Jpizzledizzle)