Writer’s Room: Ben Rector on The Joy of Songwriting

Written by Ben Rector

I was lying on my roof listening to the Beatles catalog on a barely warm enough afternoon outside in March 2020 when I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I had approached music as if it were a hobby. For most of my adult life, I had treated it like a professional sport. I grew up in Oklahoma in a non-musical family, so I had no role model for what “making music” looked like. As I met people I admired on the road in college and later living in Nashville, I discovered that everyone worth their salt, behind the veneer they had on the outside, looked like much to a professional athlete. They didn’t just write when they felt like it, they wrote all the time. They were constantly at the range, perfecting their swing. Their skills were extremely sharp, and even when they didn’t hit the ever-elusive and mystical hole-in-one, they were awfully, awfully close to the hole. The more heroes I met, the more this pattern asserted itself, so I decided it was safe to take this approach in my own lineup and the rest of my professional life.

This approach has served me well for a long time. It gave me an unlikely musical career and introduced me to the weird world of being a real live singer/songwriter, which of course is kind of a hole-in-one in itself. I have an agent who took me to eat at a place where they made duck fat potatoes. And then new managers who drove nice cars and had expensive haircuts and used words like “supernova” (I laugh now realizing that a supernova is indeed a tremendous explosion, but one caused by a tired star and dying). But as my career grew, my love for music and songs became more and more entwined with the complicated task of being an artist.

Finish a song was once the finish line, but it began to look more like the beginning of a heptathlon odd (maybe a decathlon?). Before the ink was dry on the page, I was the next step in my head that would help me to save this? Who should play the drums? What workshop? Who should mix? Who should control it before the DSP can refuse? The end of the writing was really the beginning of the recording, which was really the beginning of the marketing, starting with choosing the person who chooses the clothes I wear on the photos that let you know how I am a cool guy! Then there is the sport quite different from the tour, which at first is much like writing songs (man with guitar and feelings), but can become a real circus budgets and trailers packs and members of rotating crew and lighting platforms and daily allowances and very little actual music. Make no mistake, I am incredibly grateful that my career gave me the need to learn it all, but so little in the field of music have anything to do with what makes you sit and start a song. I spent so many years to repeat this routine and again with new disks cycles that I did not realize that the original magic to find a song much struck me more than the first step of this project Rube-Goldberg. Until (like us all) I wake up early spring 2020 with the landscape of my work, my projects and my life completely reorganized. Four shows in a tour, I suddenly was home indefinite break.

That’s when I found myself mentally writing in my daily calendar from the start of the pandemic: “listening to a record while my daughter is having a nap”, which landed me on the roof enjoying sunshine and browsing through everything The Beatles had ever recorded. It occurred to me that I used to engage exclusively with music like this – as a fan who was excited about it – and with the luxury of a newly opened up time and space , I decided to try to carry this “hobby” enthusiasm beyond listening and into my writing.

So I was writing songs every day like all the years before, but this time there was no decathlon. A few months later, I realized that I was happier than I had been since I was a teenager putting together my first songs. I finished one song and felt no angst about the gauntlet that followed. And then I wrote another, and another, and slowly reminded myself that I liked the process. I knew, as I hadn’t known in a long time, that I would write songs for free if one day I was a teacher or a real estate agent or whatever.

It’s really important, if songwriting is your job, to understand that you can’t just treat it like a magical, inspiring hobby. But like anything, the hustle and bustle needed to turn a hobby into a job can also get out of hand. Writing this record taught me that you have to leave room for joy, or, to complete the sports analogy, for the love of the game. I’m grateful to be able to write songs that people listen to sometimes, but I’m even more grateful to realize that I would write them even if no one was listening at all.

Photo by Ethan Gulley