Ben Rector

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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Ben Rector isn’t a household name yet, but at the rate he’s going, he soon will be. The 26-year-old Nashville-based  John Lennon Songwriting Contest winner has a large enough fan base to sell out venues like The Ryman Auditorium, and his independently released albums have reached lofty heights on the digital sales charts. His relationship-exploring music has been featured on One Tree Hill, Castle, The Neighbors and Pretty Little Liars. We asked Ben about his new album, The Walking In Between, his approach to songwriting and more.

Who are your songwriting heroes?

I like a lot of older music, but really love current pop/rock/folk as well. For older influences, past being a phenomenal guitar player and a great songwriter in general, James Taylor’s rhythmic, melodic phrasing has always stuck out to me. His melodies almost feel acrobatic, like old bluegrass or something. I must have listened to the live version of “Copperline” a hundred times to soak in his phrasing. I love Paul McCartney’s writing, I feel like he’s the epitome of a musical writer. I love that Billy Joel could write a pop song like “Still Rock and Roll” or “Movin’ Out,” but also “She’s Always a Woman”. I love a lot of old soul stuff, specifically Sam Cooke and Motown. Randy Newman’s writing is also a huge influence. For newer stuff, I’ve got a soft spot for really poppy stuff like Dr. Luke, I feel like his ability to compose efficient pop songs is pretty unique.

How long have you lived in Nashville?

I’ve been in Nashville for 4 years. I think the creative community is great; there are definitely a lot of really creative and talented people. I don’t know how hyped it is, so I can’t really speak into whether or not it is over-hyped. I will say that I think too much emphasis gets put on places in general. It doesn’t make sense to me that a city would make music any more or less credible or worthwhile. I certainly think being a part of a creative community can sharpen or dull you as an artist, but I don’t think it should play all that much into people’s opinion of your work.

You’ve always had strong digital sales. You’re last album Something Like This topped the iTunes singer-songwriter chart. What do you attribute that success to?

You know, as far as we can tell it’s just person to person growth; fans sharing music. I’ve been fortunate to have songs used on television, and I definitely think that’s been a good thing, but there haven’t been any placements that I’ve seen cause a big spike in sales, and there hasn’t been one that I hear a lot of people saying/social media-ing “I discovered your music on (TV show or commercial)”. Most of the time, it seems like people are just sharing it with their friends because they enjoy it, which is really affirming and encouraging to me, because that’s not something you can affect all that much. Either people think something is worthwhile or they don’t.

Tell us about The Walking In Between.

I understand that I’m not the only guy making singer/songwriter-y pop music, so on this album, I wanted to push myself and tap into what’s unique about my perspective and voice as a writer and artist. I wanted it to be a good marriage of accessibility and craft, a record that’s pleasant to listen to and can be enjoyed at face value, but that also has depth and solid foundation if you dig any deeper musically or lyrically. I don’t know if I achieved that or not, but I hope it was a step in the right direction.

How would you compare it to your last album?

I think it’s a little more focused sonically and lyrically, and I’d like to think the songs are a step forward overall.

When did you start writing songs? (Were they good right away, or did that come later?)

I started writing songs when I was 16. I think at the time I probably thought they were better than they really were. I don’t think they were bad, there were probably parts that were promising, but I just hadn’t spent enough time writing for them to be really refined.

What was the first song you ever wrote? 

I wrote a song called “Tonight” when I was 16, I think that was the first one. At that point I listened to a lot of acoustic music and played acoustic guitar all the time, and it was about kissing a girl, so you’ve probably got a pretty good idea what it sounded like.

What’s the last song you wrote or started?

I started a song about how I think food is the new music, which is completely out of nowhere for me, but it felt good to get outside of my comfort zone. It’s got some fun wordplay and basically explores how what used to be celebrated in music was mastering a craft, and I think that’s what people appreciated about it, and I feel like as music has moved in a new direction where playing and singing and artists writing is a little less prominent, food is starting to become a really popular consumable art form. Celebrity chefs are kind like rockstars, cooking shows are ubiquitous, and the best part about it is, most of them are fantastically gifted and have worked for years perfecting their craft. I think people are drawn to that.

How do you go about writing songs?

I typically will be playing an instrument until something kind of grabs me, kind of pulls a lyric or a melody out of me. I’ll record myself improvising until I can’t really chase it anymore, and then I’ll start to try to craft it. See what makes sense and what the song is trying to say, what about it is true or hits home with me. A lot of times that’ll be fleshed out while I’m playing around, but sometimes it changes. Sometimes I’ll push through and finish it in a sitting, and sometimes I’ll keep running into a wall and I’ll walk away for a little while, and come back and sew all the lyrics together.

What is your approach to writing lyrics?

I like how efficient country songwriting is. Whatever they are saying or whatever style it is, there’s never a wasted lyric. I heard the quote “all great art is efficient” and since I heard it, I haven’t been able to prove it wrong. That’s a hard thing for me to do though, it really takes discipline for me to push through and keep searching for the perfect way to say something, and I don’t always do a great job of it, but I’d like to.

What sort of things inspire you to write?

I try to pay attention to anything that grabs my heart, anywhere it seems like there’s something true or meaningful or fun. Or happy or sad. Or funny. Really just anything that causes an emotion in me or someone else.

What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?

I’d say “Making Money”. From the artist side of things, I’m really proud that it’s an actual unedited performance, no vocal tuning, no tightening up the piano, I just sat down and played the song. Part of my job is being a singer and a player, and I want to be competent at those things, and having the song be really listenable with no studio tricks really felt great to me. As a writer, I feel like I got to say just what I wanted to in a unique way.

What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?

If I were to pick a lyric from the album, it’d be from the song Wildfire. “I have learned that you’re not perfect, and that sometimes the one you love can burn you. But it’s just the fool that’s looking backwards: a bitter heart turns the love we made to ashes.”

Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?

I don’t know. Just about the time I feel like I’ve got a handle on writing, it changes, and I feel like a student all over again.

The most annoying thing about songwriting is…That you can’t force something really special. In my limited experience, art seems to reward discipline, not obsession. You can work hard to develop your skill set as a writer and churn songs out, but the really good stuff, the really special stuff, it feels like it just hits you, and you can’t really make that happen on command, or at least I don’t know anybody who can control it.

What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?

Of songs I’ve been a part of, it seems like people consistently respond to a song called “When a Heart Breaks”.

Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?

I don’t. I’ll journal occasionally, and I’d like to write more, but songwriting is my main creative outlet.

If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?

I’ll give two answers to this. Because he’s such an inspiration, I’d love to write with Randy Newman. I love his unique perspective and chord choices. On the other end of the spectrum, I’d love to write with Dr. Luke, just to see what his process is like, to try to glean a little wisdom about how to structure an incredibly efficient song.

Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?

There’s a guy in Nashville named Thad Cockrell whose record To Be Loved feels like an instant classic to me. The songs are so good, you feel like you’ve heard them all before, not in a ‘these aren’t unique’ way, but just a ‘these have been around forever, right?’ way.

What do you consider to be the perfect song, and why?
“Yesterday” by Paul McCartney. I feel like great songs don’t sound like anyone wrote them, they just sound like someone found them, and that song feels like it has always been in people’s ears.

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