Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

Welcome To B&S



Rhian Benson: Happy returns

Rhian Benson
Rhian Benson Rhian Benson

“It was a period of big adjustment because my label went out of business and so I was trying to find out where my musical home would be. I suffered a huge break-up and I also lost my mother at the time and that really changed everything it was like the ground had been taking out from beneath me really.”

It is generally interesting to see someone make a “comeback” if they have been out of their chosen profession for a while. I think comebacks are looked at with a moderate degree of sadistic pleasure because in the main they never seem to amount to much and like the plebeians at a Roman coliseum we wait for the almost inevitable demise.

When they do work however they are brilliant, think George Foreman at a hundred and one achieving the coveted heavy weight world championship when he probably should have been looking after his numerous grandchildren. What has this got to do with Rhian Benson? While she is way too pretty to be a boxer (and her nose delicately straight) her comeback has one of the main ingredients for an amazing return: a long period away from her chosen field.

Her first and up to this point last album 'Gold Coast' (2003) propelled this half Welsh (she is from Peter Lewis’ neck of the woods) and half Ghanaian lady into the world of music. "'Gold Coast' was never meant to be the type of album that was going to be number one in the charts it was music that I loved and that it would organically find the people that would like it. That is how the 'Gold Coast' campaign went really with people finding out about the album through word of mouth.”

Despite her modest ambitions 'Goldcoast' went on to become one of the most successful exports from an UK artist. The album spawned the excellent single 'Say How I feel' which reached a top thirty position in the UK and a top ten in the US. Work with Slum Village and the vocally distinctive Dwele followed and a MOBO award in 2005 seemed to suggest that the UK just may have a star that at the time was going to get the US success that so many of our UK artists (at the time) craved for: then she disappeared.

For eight years the name Rhian Benson would not be heard, but thankfully she is back re-energised, re-invigorated and absolutely salivating at the prospect of her second release 'Hands Clean'. Before the interview (as I set about the questions) I thought that maybe this eight year gap was a period of trying to find normality after such a explosive start but it was way more than that “it was a period of big adjustment because my label went out of business and so I was trying to find out where my musical home would be. I suffered a huge break-up and I also lost my mother at the time and that really changed everything it was like the ground had been taking out from beneath me really.” Unsurprisingly she adds, “it was a period where I realised I did not need to be in the limelight and doing this stuff. I needed to find out how we heal as a family and as the eldest daughter in an African family you play an important role.”

It is the old story however of music being a catharsis and while I am sure that period was a great way to evaluate and see what is really important, Rhian is clear in stating that this period helped to heal her and create her next album, “I ended up spending a lot of time in Ghana over those years while writing for the album. When I was writing the album I was not really looking at what the end sound might be I was just trying to capture my feelings in songs that made sense because at the time a lot of what was going on in my head just did not make sense.”

She evidently has made sense of a lot of what has happened in this eight year period and 'Hands Clean' is a powerful and evocative title, ““Hands Clean is just a journey of personal discovery self discovery. I think when you are going through stuff and you are not a hundred percent confident in yourself and your thought you tend to hide things away. I know that that has been an issue for me before I tend to bottle things up and I do not talk but obviously it causes things to fester but when you get things out there you can deal with the issues.”

But if this interview looks like it was all rather sombre please do not be mistaken. Rhian Benson was in great form and her distinctive laughter permeates our conversation on a regular basis. Sipping her green tea and we get onto the subject of the UK music scene generally, “soul is classic timeless music and so it always has a place particularly in live music. It just cuts through and talks to peoples’ souls and hearts so there is always a place for it. I think Rn'B music has certainly changed over the years and I am actually excited that it did change because it was due a radical change. Now it is a lot more interlinked with a lot of US artists linked to UK artists and vice versa.”

It is of course a good thing but soul one can argue has always had to vehemently fight its corner. Ironically it is usually the US that appreciates talent from the UK before we do: Omar, Soul II Soul, Beverley Knight, Rhian Benson. “I am really happy with what is happening in the black music scene and I just hope this is only the beginning. What we are seeing is a lot of pop and hip-hop artists but hopefully this will open the door for other artists we have a lot of great jazz artists here: the Brits are coming.”

And Rhian is now once again part of that movement of black British music. Her current single 'Better Without You' is an up-tempo reggae kind of ska influenced track that is an optimistic look at a break-up. But my favourite track off the EP which will feature on the album is, 'This Feels Like Home'. It is a sexy, tingling piece of Rn'B niceness which she lets me know, she already put out (very sneaky Rhian) “I kind of already did release it quietly because I was getting so many people asking to hear something off the album so I went you know what let me just put something out there and gauge the feedback and it was just really positive. I have to say big up to my fans who have been really open minded”

While 'Goldcoast' she ascertains was, “awash with beautiful instruments and it was really layered” Hands Clean is the complete and direct opposite, “in a lot of ways this album is a complete opposite of 'Goldcoast'', it is a more simplified sound and production. This time it was about letting the music take a back seat to my vocals.”

Perhaps bravely she has gone with the relatively unknown Danish production duo, “Jonas and Daniel are two writer producers who I was put in touch with by a friend in the industry. We just bonded. They are real soul heads and so when I said I wanted to take the music away from what people would expect and create a futuristic sound, they took it as a challenge. We started to listen to people like DJ Shadow, Bjork and really got into this stuff.”

The two producers have brought something "fresh" to the Rhian sound, “We decided to go for a really sparse production style. The mixing which was done by a Canadian in the UK called Tyrell was excellent because he was able to take this simple production and make it something. It was actually tricky for him to do it in truth and so each instrument had to be made to sound just right 'Be' featuring Jonas perfectly exemplifies that. Its dance origins are not something that you would associate with Rhian but it works and it may well follow with many remixes from the underground circuit. The album which is due out on Valentine’s Day has a cover of Terence Trent D’arby’s 'Sign Your Name' (1988) she excitedly tells me and I cannot wait to hear. “he was one of those artists that really inspired me and I loved everything he did”.

With Rhian in full mode for her “return” her focus is obviously on the US as well as the UK “Later on in the year we are going to focus the campaign on the States because I still have a big solid faithful following there. In the meantime I am still based here and I will be doing some shows so keep checking out my website for updates. The second single Be which will be released on May 23rd which has a very exciting video which was directed by an old school friend of mine who is an award winning director and that is epic. It is like Rhian’s version of 'Thriller'."

And how long will we have to wait before she drops another album? With her distinctive and hearty laugh she states, “as long as it needs to take”.

Rhian Benson's album 'Hands Clean' is out now.
Words Semper Azeez-Harris

From Jazz Funk & Fusion To Acid Jazz

Join the B&S Mailing List

Blues and Soul on Twitter