Exclusive Q&A with Ben Rector
Nashville-based indie pop singer on his latest album, Brand New, and his hometown favorites.
Written By: Valerie Hammond
Since releasing his sixth full-length album, Brand New, Nashville singer/songwriter, Ben Rector has been busy touring and garnering sell-out crowds across the country. We got to chat with him about how he sold out the Ryman Auditorium (twice!) and what Brand New is all about.
Nashville Lifestyles: Give us your best Shark Tank pitch for Brand New.
Ben Rector: Ooh, I love Shark Tank so I will give you my pitch. I feel like that’s a lot of pressure, because I really like that show, but here it goes. “Sharks. Are you tired of music either having to be accessible or inaccessible? Accessible being really poppy and memorable but not much substance, or inaccessible being so much substance that it’s hard to have it be aesthetically pleasing. Well… if you are tired of those things, then I would love to offer you a 20% equity stake in my record, Brand New. It’s my sincere hope that it is aesthetically pleasing, but also substantive and I think you will like it.”
NL: What’s a song you may have written ‘just for you,’ but has had a lot of response from listeners?
BR: On this record that song would be, “The Men That Drive Me Places.” It’s a slower song, but is one that I was really happy to get to write. With any song that’s not upbeat, there’s some question of how much people are going to gravitate towards it. People generally like happy, upbeat songs—or at least respond very quickly to those. I felt like there was a quick and pretty powerful response to “The Men That Drive Me Places,” which for me as a writer was hugely gratifying. It’s kinda slow and a little bit heady, but it seems like people have enjoyed it and I’m really glad they have, because I’m proud of that song.
NL: How do other friends/family/management affect your songs from what you originally write to a final cut?
BR: I usually don’t include too many people in the process of shaping the songs. I have a really small number of people that I might bounce stuff off of because I usually feel like my gut instinct is not too, too far off. Honestly, if I have any questions I play them for my wife because she is a great barometer—she has great taste in music but is not a musician—she comes at it from a normal listener perspective. And she’s pretty honest.
I've learned that if I have a bunch of questions about a song, then maybe that’s my answer right there.
NL: Without big radio play — what is it about your music or your live shows that enables you to sell out the Ryman not once but twice?
BR: That is a great question. The best guess that I have, and I could be wrong on this because I am just one person, is that it’s been just a steady growth of people that are interested in [my music]. When I started out, say there were 100 people and if they each told a friend, that’s 200 people. That 1:1 growth is what it seems like to me—there hasn’t been one thing in my career so far that people have been like, “Oh man, we all found out about you on the 'whatever thing'.” I’ve been touring and releasing music steadily and it seems like people have enjoyed it enough to take ownership of it and want to share it with other people, which for me is so awesome. I could be way off on that, maybe my mom is sending out a whole bunch of CDs to strangers or something. (laughs)
NL: What would eight-year old Ben say to you now about your life and career?
BR: He would probably just be terribly confused. Nobody in my family is musical. I was maybe taking piano lessons when I was eight but I quit pretty quickly and I was not as enthralled with music at eight as I was at 15 or 20. I’m sure he’d be like “Wow, this is really cool,” but he’d also be like, “Is this you? What is this?” just because at that age I wasn’t really doing anything musically. But I’m sure he would think it was very interesting and odd, as I still think it is.
NL: So how did you get into music?
BR: I went to a summer camp where a lot of the counselors played guitar and I thought that was awesome. I had kind of fiddled around with guitar a little bit in middle school but was never that serious about it. I came home from camp and I think we had an acoustic guitar maybe from my uncle or something and I started playing it a ton. That was the summer before my freshman year of high school.
Basically, ever since then I really latched on to it and got serious about enjoying it and practicing. I played guitar for awhile and when I was maybe 16, I started writing songs. Since then it’s been something I really have enjoyed and something that working on has come naturally to me. I didn’t have to make myself go and try to work on songs, it’s just what I wanted to do ever since I started.
NL: In the Taylor Swift/Ryan Adams vibe, who would you want to cover your album “1989” style?
BR: (deep sigh) Well, he would never do it, but if I could hear Randy Newman cover a couple of the songs… I would probably pick him just because I think he’s awesome. And if he wouldn’t do it, maybe I would pick… there’s a band called Vulfpeck and they’re kind of like quirky, funk music but they also have really creative videos. I think they’re creative and I would love to see what they did with it.
NL: Talk about your life in Nashville.
BR: I have been in Nashville for six years, I got married after college and we moved to Nashville like a week later. Which, someone should have probably stopped us from doing because that is hilarious. So much life change at one time! It has been great, but we laugh thinking, “who let us do that?” We really really love it. The people here feel familiar to me, and we’ve found great friends. There’s a ton of talented people and I feel like that has made me improve as a writer and performer—raising the level of what I’m doing. I’m super thankful to be a part of a community like that.
I love Rolf and Daughters; probably my favorite restaurant in Nashville. What I love about Rolf and Daughters is that it’s creative and well done, but it’s also really approachable. It’s just plain good. You can appreciate it on the craft level or you can appreciate that it’s just delicious. I can take someone who does not care about food and say, “Eat this Garganelli,” and they’d be like, “What’s Garganelli?” and then they’d be like, “That’s the best thing I’ve ever had.”
I like 8th and Roast a lot. I love their coffee, I think it’s really good. Gosh, there’s so many places!