Cary Brothers is a man – just one man by the way, it’s not the brothers Cary – of extraordinary talent and uncompromising artistic ethics. Brothers has decided to take the indie musician path to avoid the virtual artistic indentured servitude that so many big labels demand; keeping control of his art, his craft, and his name and maintaining his artistic integrity. Something I find tremendously admirable.
Brothers music has been featured on several hit TV shows including Scrubs, Bones and Grey’s Anatomy as well as in films like Noel, Last Kiss and most notably Garden State. His music is not what some people may expect if the first song they hear is Brothers first and biggest hit, “Blue Eyes” from the Garden State Soundtrack. Where “Blue Eyes” is a stripped back almost folk-pop track, the sound on Brother’s new album, Who You Are is more Brit rock, with leanings to the modern sounds of Coldplay and Snow Patrol, coloured with the influences of Brothers' teenagehood from the late '80s like, U2, The Psychedelic Furs and Scritti Politi. Brothers has even remade the Thompson Twins hit “If You Were Here”, stripping it back, finding the hidden depth in this now timeless song.
Growing up in Nashville, Tennessee Brothers was surrounded by music, particularly that of Elvis Presley. During his childhood he idolised Presley, possibly even emulates him now in adulthood, but Brothers certainly hasn’t imitated Presley – although the idea of Brothers being a weekend, closet Elvis impersonator is rather charming. After graduating from Northwestern University with a BA in English, he began his career getting a job as a Production Assistant on MTV – the man has more hilarious anecdotes than anyone I have ever spoken to – but ultimately Brothers found the experience lacking. Feeling empty and unfulfilled he began playing guitar and singing on the weekends, in cafes and pubs around L.A.. Eventually finding his way to the Hotel Café, one of L.A.’s more avant-garde venues, where a unique community of regular players formed to the benefit of all; helping each other to further their careers, and eventually take it on the road in the Hotel Café Tour.
Brothers and I recently chatted on the phone while he rode in his tour bus across America. I found him to be a very verbose, witty, self-effacing man who enjoyed a good laugh and likes telling his fabulous stories about his time at MTV. His cell phone reception was bad and I had to call him back repeatedly so that by the end I felt like a stalker. Brothers is the kind of guy you would love to meet at the pub for a few drinks and a good laugh and that is just what this interview felt like.
Tell us about your biggest hit, so far, “Blue Eyes”. You said you wrote it in just 15 minutes, is that correct?
Yeah. It was a quick song. The music I had kind of been playing around with for years, for the better part of a decade. And I had never found the right emotion to convey what the music was doing. I seem to remember writing it as a valentine for an ex-girlfriend.
And how did it end up on the Garden State Soundtrack?
I had recorded a demo version at home and Zach Braff, who did Garden State — he was a buddy of mine in college, we were friends but we weren’t too close in college but when he moved out to L.A. it was right when I was playing open mics and had just started my life over playing music and Zach was waiting tables and wanted to be a writer, actor, and we became closer friends through being very, very broke together. And, creatively we were always on the same page. I would help him out when he was writing scripts and whenever I was writing songs I would always play them for him or play little demos I was doing.
Garden State was his (Zach Braff’s) passion project and always had been. When he put the movie together and it was this little indie movie and it wasn’t a really big deal, and no one seemed to care about it all that much. So he had a lot of creative freedom with the soundtrack, he could just do whatever he wanted. He had always been a fan of “Blue Eyes” when I was playing it at live shows and asked me to put it in this one scene.
The version in the film is actually a demo I recorded on a four-track at like two o’clock in the morning. And then movie blew-up and the soundtrack blew-up and it became, over the course of six months, I went from having a good local fan-base in L.A. to being on the soundtrack that kind of like was… that some people saw as the definitive soundtrack of the new century. There were so many people who talked a lot about… they give the soundtrack WAY too much credit. It’s a good collection of songs, but Zach had good taste and he was also smart enough to know to listen to other people. So we would go over there with stacks of CDs and just throw ideas out. It’s like a mixed-tape had been made that ended becoming the soundtrack.
And “Blue Eyes” was on it and suddenly I had some real national exposure in a way that I had never really even imagined. My life suddenly changed.
But as you said “Blues Eyes” isn’t representative of your music. It’s certainly not like your new album Who You Are.
No. I think playing in a singer/songwriter room in L.A. had focused me back on… it pulled me away from the rock influences that I had loved growing up, mostly brit-pop stuff. I turned into more of a singer-songwriter and “Blue Eyes” reflected that one stage of my songwriting.
Then… I turned back to my influences again and started to fully realise a lot of these songs in ways I hadn’t before. And start to make rock music. There are lot of different types of music I guess on Who You Are, but more than just singer-songwriter, boy and his guitar vibe. It was really important to me, with this record, to make that statement. To make sure people understand that there’s not just “Blue Eyes”.
That was the last three years of my life and I am ready to move on. And make sure that the record is everything but “Blue Eyes”. I put it on as a bonus track as, like a gift to the people who had really supported me from the start. But I put it on as the bonus track specifically to show that creatively it wasn’t supposed to be part of tracks one to eleven.
So how is Who You Are more you than “Blue Eyes”?
I think it’s the dynamics of the record. “Blue Eyes” is more, structurally a pop song. I was an English major, and I tend to write in three act structure, like a play, more so than a song. I call them… well for lack of a better term I call them orgasm songs. (laughing) You know it’s like a slow build, where the longer you listen to the song the more you get. It’s starts off more mellow the more it goes the more melodic lines come in the more parts come in, the more keyboard here, the guitar the more complex base line. It builds and builds to like a peak moment.
That’s what I love! I love peaking out in a song, that moment when you’re playing it live, or when you’re a fan and you’re listening to a song, you are just elated. You feel the sense of joy or relief. That’s what I was trying to do with a lot of these songs on the record. To the point where it almost becomes a formula on the record but it’s a formula that I absolutely adore so.
People have compared it to Snow Patrol and Coldplay, I get a lot of people comparing it to a lot of UK and European sounds. And to me, yeah it does but those weren’t my influences. My influences were the same influences that they have, Echo And The Bunnymen, U2 mid- to late-'80s even early '90s British bands. Yes it does reflect that sound but it didn’t come from those bands, it came from the same place that those bands got their inspiration from. I’m just getting into the game a little later than those guys.
What are your lyrical influences?
I don’t really have lyrical influences. I am a melody person, to the point that there are some songs that I love, and I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what they are singing about. Like certain words will stick out, but I enjoy the song as a whole; where the vocals are just another instrument. I was never really a singer-songwriter person so I am not the kind of person who walks around with a notebook, writing poetry, or writing lyrics all the time. I write music first then however I can get lyrics to fit into that. Lyrics are the last part of the equation. I’ll hum melodies over, and over, and over until I find words that start to make sense, within the frame work of that melody. I like the music to exist as a whole where the guitar line melody is just as important as the vocal melody.
So when you were talking about building a song, you weren’t talking about the lyrics alone, you were talking about the entire song.
Yeah! It’s the whole thing. The emotional… where you can take someone with the emotionally with the music… I was always taken somewhere emotionally with the music, more so than with lyrics. I generally just write all the music then, at the very last second whatever’s happening in my life, I’ll just spit out all these words. So it is honest.
So what do you want, ultimately, for your music and career?
I just want to continue to pay my bills. I’m going to be writing songs whether or not anyone buys the music. If it all fell apart tomorrow and I was a cobbler, I would make shoes during the day go home at night and write songs.
Below is the video for “Ride”, from Brothers new album Who You Are and also on the soundtrack from the film The Last Kiss.