NEW YORK — Every musician’s got a story. It’s just that 25-year-old neo-soul singer-songwriter Rhian Benson’s is better than most.
A beautiful Ghana-born banker trained at the London School of Economics returns home from a stint at Harvard to care for her ailing mother, decides to forego a lucrative career in finance and pursue her dream of becoming a singer. After three months of performing her R&B-style jazz at open-mike nights, she’s discovered in a tiny London club and given a record deal. She moves to Los Angeles, where she collaborates with producers James Poyser, known for his work with Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu, and Bob Power, who helped launch the careers of India.arie and D’Angelo. Of course, she’s hailed as the Next Big Thing.
“I was just trying to get over my stage fright at that point,” recalls Benson in her clipped British accent of that fateful night at the open-mike session. “I hadn’t quite gotten to the stage of searching for record deals yet.” But DKG Music, a fledgling record label distributed through Universal, was on the prowl for new talent. They offered her a “development deal,” a contract more common in the days of R&B musicians like Stevie Wonder than today.
“Basically, they take you under their wing and give you all the training you need,” says Benson, whose album “Gold Coast” will be released in April. “Then, they’ll record your material and promote you the way a record label would.” Her sultry, cool voice has been compared to everyone from Sade to Jill Scott. But it’s Benson’s roots that have had the most influence on her music. Her Welsh mother sang in a band. Her father, an officer in the Ghana navy, was a guitarist, and her grandfather, a big-band leader in Ghana, played the sax and piano. He was even a runner-up in a contest to compose Ghana’s national anthem years ago.
“My dad had a great collection of jazz vinyl, Ella Fitzgerald, Sara Vaughn. We listened to Aretha Franklin, early Diana Ross, you name it,” she says.
Benson is still true to her Ghanaian past. On stage, she always incorporates African elements into her look, though she’s also become an unofficial spokesmodel for Event Beverly Hills, a company that produces satchels made from Balinese fabrics that Benson strings across her chest. “This Australian woman came up to me at one of my shows and asked if I’d like to wear them. I’d never been offered anything like that before,” she says. “If I’m stuck without an idea for an outfit, I start with the bag.”
On Thursday, she will perform a set at Joe’s Pub, and on Jan. 29, she will take to the stage at L.A.’s House of Blues. But after raiding Bloomingdale’s last weekend, it’s not the wardrobe Benson’s worried about. It’s that pesky stage fright.
“I keep saying I’m over it,” she sighs. “And then there’s a little break between performances and I find my knees wobbling again.”