"In my favorite book, 'The Alchemist,'" reveals Ghanaian-born Rhian Benson, "there is a quote that basically says that the universe conspires with you when you are on the path to your dreams to help you achieve your goals." For Benson, that fable of the shepherd boy Santiago and his serendipitous journey encouraged her determined spirit and shaped the powerful message that pervades her full-length debut, "Gold Coast." "It's simple," she replies with an air of wisdom, "the answers lie within us all."
Aptly titled, "Gold Coast" chronicles Benson's journey from a young girl in Ghana -- the West African country previously known as, well, The Gold Coast -- to the young woman pursuing her dreams in the former gold-rush haven of Los Angeles. So far, Benson's quest has been a dance between destiny and ambition. Growing up as the daughter of a Ghanaian dignitary and a British singer, she always had a fascination with music, playing the piano and writing songs since she was 9 years old. When the time came to choose a career, however, pragmatism kicked in; she graduated from the London School of Economics and moved on to Harvard to pursue a career in banking.
When tragedy hit and she had to abruptly leave Harvard to become a full-time caregiver for her sick mother in London, she began searching for her own answers. "Seeing someone close to you go through such a terrible thing and realizing that you might lose them makes you re-examine your life," she admits. "I was going though a process of re-evaluating exactly what I wanted to do ... and just thinking hard about the pros and cons of pursuing my music. I realized that I should just give it a go."
Rejecting what Paul Coelho, author of "The Alchemist," pegged as the world's greatest lie -- at a certain point in our lives we lose control of what's happening to us -- Benson took control of her own fate. It only took a few months of performing at open-mike venues around London before she was introduced to label execs at the fledgling DKG Music.
She picked up and moved to Los Angeles and has been riding the wave of her successful debut; after being released on DKG earlier this year, the CD prompted comparisons to everyone from Jill Scott to Enya. Some critics have even extolled her arrival as the second coming of Sade, which is partly conceivable with her alluring appearance, multicultural upbringing and distinguishing voice.
But even with such flattering comparisons, the singer maintains a fluid attitude toward her sound. "I came to professional singing quite late in life, so my sound just kind of came. I had never thought about what the style would be. Maybe in two years time I'll have a completely different sound."
This might be the most compelling reason why her debut is so exciting. By pop-princess industry standards, she is a latecomer at age 25, but thankfully, the hit-o-matic machine hasn't adulterated her. Her sound isn't studio concocted but embodies that raw expression of boundless art; she delves beyond superficial desires and poetically taps into diverse pool-of-life observations.
At any moment on the album, the aura switches from jazz and folk to world beat and R&B. It's a purposeful yet natural execution by Benson, whose musical influences include Fela Kuti, Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Wonder and Anita Baker. Even through progressive instrumentation with the divine help of James Poyser (Lauryn Hill, D'Angelo, Erykah Badu), Bob Power (Meshell N'degeocello, India.Arie) and Roy Hargrove, it's her graceful songwriting that possesses the emotive spirit of the recording.
"In my writing it works best for me to be completely open and to use my experience as a frame of reference for whatever I am trying to communicate," she admits. "The most important thing for me is that the messages are communicated and people feel what I am trying to say."
As a young girl, during the Harmattan season in Ghana when the sand blows down from the Sahara Desert, Benson thought the sky was made of gold. Now as a young woman defining her own horizon, she urges others to reach toward the gold sky and grab a nugget or two. "As simple as it sounds," she adds, "it is about reaching up, visualizing where you want to be, and it becomes easier to figure out how to get there."
Little Santiago would be proud.
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