By his own admission, Ben Rector is a pessimist.
You wouldn't sense that by listening to his songs — reflective, subtle ruminations full of folk-fortified detail and pop-laced accessibility. You wouldn't know that by his fan base, a devout following that sent his Brand New album to No. 9 on the Billboard 200 charts in August during its first week of release. Similarly, you wouldn't view a sold-out performance at the House of Blues in Chicago last month or two more sellouts this weekend at Ryman Auditorium in Rector's current home base of Nashville as products of a downcast attitude.
It's also hard to detect any clouds of doubt in conversation with the 28-year-old songsmith. Much like his music, a chat with Rector reveals an artist of polite, exacting but quiet confidence. But he is also the first one to tell you he never fathomed his still-young career would trigger much appeal to ... well ... anyone.
"Any time we're taking a step forward, I'm always a little bit antsy," says Rector, who will perform Wednesday at the Singletary Center for the Arts. "I've always been like, 'I don't know. Will however many thousand people in all of these cities come to see me?' I mean, it's crazy that they would, but it has gone well so far."
A strong indie artist for the past five years, Rector has amassed impressive indie sales (more than 250,000 albums and 2 million downloads) and chart visibility (his 2013 album, The Walking in Between, was a Top 20 hit). But there is a reason his sixth and newest studio release is titled Brand New. The rigors of nonstop touring coupled with self-imposed demands on songwriting and recording left the Tulsa native depleted after his Live in Denver set hit stores last year.
"In total honesty, I was tired. Things in my career so far have gone better than I ever thought they would. But it has also been pretty taxing because I've played a ton of shows and have made a few records in quick succession. That was just what I was used to. When I finished the last record cycle, I realized I was burned out. I knew I needed to rediscover why I loved music and get back to that.
"When I was in college, everything was new and everything felt vibrant. I was doing it because I loved it. More recently, I felt I had been squeezing some of the joy out of the writing and recording process. This is going to sound weird, but if my creative mind-set was a garden, it didn't feel like it was very fertile."
Rector's remedy involved making a recording he felt possessed the freshness and purpose of a debut work. In doing so, though, Brand New worked as a travelogue of his personal and professional life. Songs like The Men That Drive Me Places, a reserved, piano-led work, contemplated exactly that: the people from other walks of life who chauffeured his touring adventures. Other tunes, including Paris, are more overtly romantic with a hushed pop bounce that brings such master songwriters as Paul Simon to mind.
"I really wanted to get back to a place where the music I was making felt like it was just jumping out of the speakers, like it was something infectious. But trying to re-create that kind of mind-set was remarkably difficult. At some point, when you sit down at a piano or with a guitar, you've played everything you know how to play. It's hard to find something that hits your ears and your mind as a new and inspiring thing.
"But instead of worrying about stuff so much — like maybe that the show isn't good enough or the record isn't good enough — I feel like I'm trying to soak up the good parts of everything that is happening because things are definitely at a stage that I never thought they would be. It would be a big loss not to look around and enjoy that."