Ben Rector writes easy-going, folky, piano-pop with an unmistakable '90s air that's one-part Counting Crows, one-part Dave Matthews. And thanks in part to his amiable tunes, the humble, soft-spoken 26-year-old Tulsa native has become something of a word-of-mouth sensation. But Rector knows that luck has also played a role in getting him where he is today.
"I definitely worked really hard to try to be good at what I was doing, but really things came together in a unique way for me and I had a really good opportunity," says Rector. "The more I see other people doing it, I realize that I had a unique setup which I was really lucky to have."
Rector started writing songs and playing in a high school rock band before heading off to the University of Arkansas to study music. He had a friend with a studio key, and they recorded a self-titled EP there in the off-hours. One of the songs, a keening piano-rocker titled "Conversation," won the 2006 John Lennon Songwriting Contest, making the then-19-year-old the contest's youngest winner ever. Rector says that he was tremendously naïve about his chances, which is exactly why he entered. However, the victory didn't change his life, but it did give him confidence.
After winning the Lennon contest, he released LPs in each of the subsequent two years (2007's Twenty Tomorrow and 2008's Songs That Duke Wrote) and toured during summers and weekends, but he still wasn't sure he was going to become a musician. "I was pretty cautious. I knew I loved it, but I didn't know how you went about having a job doing it," the former business major says. "There was a great incubation period where I almost didn't have to do it full-time because I had to share my time with class, and I got to really start as a part-time musician and slowly graduate into that."
He adds, "It would've been a lot for me to take on at 18 and go national and try to do this. I don't think I was ready musically, mentally, or anything so I was thankful for that."
During his senior year he released Into the Morning, and after he graduated, Rector moved to Nashville and released Something Like This just over a year later. Both did almost incomprehensibly well given that Rector was not only covering the instruments and production, but also the publicity and booking himself. The last couple years he's taken on help.
"When I started out, I had my hands on everything, and now I can't really do that anymore just because there are too many moving parts," says Rector. "I had a really strong hand in the production of those records, and that's a great part of my creativity. But I realized that you don't get any bonus points for writing all the parts or playing all the instruments."
He also recognizes that releasing Something Like This so closely upon the heels of a prior release wasn't such a great idea. But at the time, he wasn't savvy enough to know better, and he's pretty much an obsessive writer, so he had songs, and part of him said, why not?
"By the time a record comes out, the songs had been around a while. So I was like, these new songs are great, people like the last record, let's get this new record out," he says. "I had just started really doing music, so I didn't really think it was that soon, but when I look back at it, it's ridiculous."
Suffice to say, Rector's taking his time with the follow-up. He's finished recording and expects to have the new album out by the end of the summer, and although he doesn't reveal an album title, he says that the new record is more "congealed."
"I wanted to figure out what my thing was as a songwriter and as an artist and really move towards that," Rector says. "On this next album I'm going to get a little bit clearer picture of that, a little more continuity between songs and, I hope, a clearer picture of what I do that is unique."
Rector's also looking to spice up the live show, particularly after touring with needtobreathe and experiencing their live show. "We've got some lights, and we're trying to figure out how to do it," he says. "People in a lot of markets, especially around here, have seen me play a number of times. I wanted to make sure we were moving forward and they were not paying money just to watch me sing the same songs again."
That in a nutshell is Rector's finest attribute: He's always concerned he's not doing enough to deserve the audience's adoration, and that vigilance has fueled a slow but steady climb to self-sustainability without anyone's help but his friends and fans.