Ben Rector’s sixth and most recent album, Brand New, debuted at No. 9 on the Billboard 200 — meaning that the 29-year-old singer-songwriter is a long way from the days when he was self-releasing his records and playing weekend gigs as a student at the University of Arkansas. Rector also has a radio hit on his hands with the album’s title track, a buoyant, gang-vocal assisted slice of folky pop rock, which is currently at No. 82 on the Hot 100 and spending a fourth week at No. 6 on Adult Top 40.
On a recent morning at home in Nashville he took some time to chat with Billboard about his newfound success, hearing his song on the radio for the first time, and blowing his entire music video budget on a fun day at the amusement park — the results of which are premiering exclusively on Billboard below.
What’s it been like seeing the success of “Brand New”?
It’s been such a cool journey. I was independent for a really long time — long enough where I just kind of thought, “Oh, I’m not going to be a part of the radio world.” And I was okay with that. At the same time, when stuff started to really grow I was like, “Man, maybe this is a good time to try it.” I’m super pessimistic, so when we decided to go to radio, I believed in the song and I thought people would like it — but I just knew there were a lot of things that had to go right for it to do well. When it started to do okay, I was like, “This is crazy!”, and I kept waiting for the next week for it to just be off the charts. And I mean off the charts in the bad way! [laughs] I’m trying to soak it all in. I want to enjoy all the parts of it, because I don’t want to look up on day and say, “Oh, remember that time I had a song that did well at radio?”
Do you remember hearing “Brand New” on the radio for the first time?
The first time I heard it when I didn’t expect to hear it, I was in Nashville in my car. I was actually driving to the airport and I was like, “Oh, I’ll turn on the radio.” And my song came on. And it really was like, you know that movie That Thing You Do? It was like that, where they’re running down the street after hearing their song. I felt like that. I wanted to roll down my window and yell to the person next to me, “That’s me on the radio!” It was really cool.
In the song’s lyrics you say that you “feel like a young John Cusack.” Are you a fan?
[laughs] You know, when you’re in the room and you’re writing, you’re just trying to fish through your brain for anything that feels like a unique sentiment. And I remembered that iconic scene of him holding the boombox over his head. But I’ll be totally honest — I couldn’t remember what movie it was from. Two things happen when I sing that line live: fans who are younger than me, we get to it and they don’t know who John Cusack is. People who are older than me, I’m like, “I bet they don’t think I know who John Cusack is!” And the movie, that was Say Anything…, wasn’t it?
In the chorus you sing, “when I close my eyes and don’t even care if anyone sees me dancing.” Are you a good dancer?
No! I’m not. And I wrote that because I have so much respect for people who are like, “Yeah, I don’t care what people think of me…” I felt that was a good image because, for whatever reason, even at 29 years old if somebody was like, “All right Ben, let’s dance in front of these people,” I would be mortified. And I think people can relate to that. And the people that don’t relate to it I just respect immensely.
What music did you listen to growing up?
I grew up listening to a radio station in Tulsa called Star 103. And it was kinda classic rock, kinda oldies. I loved that station, and it wasn’t until later on when I started getting into music that I could say, “Oh, that was an Eagles song! That was Randy Newman!” But if I had to pick desert-island records it would be things like Billy Joel, James Taylor, Randy Newman, Paul McCartney/The Beatles, stuff like that. I was definitely drawn toward singer-songwriters. I loved pop radio. I feel like when people get this question they try to dig super-deep and come up with abstract, cool answers. But I like oldies music and I like pop music.
As far as singer-songwriters and classic rock artists go, you often cover Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” onstage.
That was definitely a Star 103 song! There was a tour where we did that and, honestly, it was so much fun to play. When we started rehearsing it we felt like we could make it unique. It’s like when you go and see some clothes and you think, Oh man, that feels like me when I wear it! It was kinda like that. It felt like us. And I was a little nervous doing it because I didn’t know if people coming to the shows would be like, “What is this?” But we had a great time it.
You first started recording and performing when you were a still a student at the University of Arkansas.
Yeah. I was living a kind of weird double life from my sophomore year to my senior year, where I would get into my Accord on Thursday or Friday afternoon and drive to some other city and play two or three shows in a weekend and then drive back on Sunday night and go to class Monday. Which, if I look back on it, I’m shocked that I actually stayed in school and kept playing music, because it was totally a crazy schedule. But I think at the time it was just so exciting because things were slowly starting to get rolling. Every show was a little better, and people were getting interested in what I was doing.
Did you feel at that time like maybe this could be a career?
Well, I didn’t grow up in a musical family and I didn’t even know that being a musician could be a job until that started happening. So it was like a carrot on a stick. Like, “Oh, man, if I work hard enough and get good enough I could do this for real!” Honestly, it felt like a blessing for me to be able to kind of do it full time, but at the same time not have to be out there with nothing else to do. I could take, like, a baby step toward it. So it was great. I grew a lot as a performer and a writer at that time and I think if at 18 I just moved to Nashville or L.A., I don’t know if I would have been ready. So that was a great period to just kind of grow into the music.
Did being a musician while in college make you the Big Man on Campus?
[laughs] I don’t know. There were definitely people that were excited about it and thought it was cool. But the University of Arkansas is a really big school. There were a lot of people who were oblivious to it. I think it was weirder to me than to them, because I would go to another college campus and play and the people there would think I was a real musician. And I didn’t feel like a real musician. Because I was like, “I just left my calculus class, and now I’m somewhere where people are super-excited and singing the words to my songs!” So that was weird.
You started off releasing albums independently, and then formed your own label, Aptly Named. Why go that route?
Well it sounds more official than it is. Really, I just needed a legal entity to release my music under. So it was like, “Okay, let’s make a label.” But there’s no office. There’s no guy somewhere, sitting in a cubicle going, “I work for Aptly Named!” It’s just the way that we structured it. It sounds very official, but in reality it’s very unofficial.
You just released the music video for “Brand New,” for which you flew a group of fans out to Six Flags to spend the day with you. How did that come about?
I don’t love doing videos. It makes me a little uncomfortable, like, “Hey, Ben—look cool over on those train tracks!” So I thought it’d be a really fun thing to do for a few reasons. One was to treat a few fans to the experience. And two was because, selfishly, I love rollercoasters. And I wanted to do something unique and that would maybe grab people’s attention. So the general gist of the video is that I spent the budget on flying people to Six Flags. And, honestly, it was such a fun couple of days. Six Flags was great — they let us in early before opening the park, so we got to ride a bunch of things back-to-back a couple of times. The kid in me was like, “Six Flags with no lines! This is incredible!”