Cary Brothers – Being independent together
Cary Brothers doesn’t mind his reputation as a savvy businessman. “You have to take advantage of all the opportunities around you and make the most of it. No one has any excuse not to get their music out there,” he says. Blessed with natural musical talent and a knack for finding the right people, he has definitely made the most of his opportunities.
Brothers had a track on the Grammy-winning Garden State soundtrack (“Blue Eyes”) and a handful of network TV song placements, has performed on late-night talk shows, and has opened shows for the likes of Liz Phair and KT Tunstall. It’s somewhat surprising, given those credentials, that Who You Are (released May 29 on Procrastination/Bluhammock) is Brothers’ first full-length disc.
On Who You Are, he consciously strives for something much more than just a singer-songwriter album fleshed out with typical studio players. The Nashville-bred Brothers was raised on moody Brit-rock acts such as the Smiths and the Cure; his established presence as a folkie strumming a guitar came about for budgetary reasons, not musical aspirations.
“My songwriting is not me and an acoustic guitar,” he explains. “The lead guitar part is just as important as the rhythm guitar part. It’s just as important as the chord progression.” Brothers had the ideas for his songs so refined that he even programmed drum beats on his computer for his music collaborator/producer/drummer Chad Fisher to mimic in the studio.
The results show it well. Awash in reverb, dreamy synths and shimmering guitars, Who You Are harkens back to the bands that inspired him. “I’ve been waiting for U2 to break up so I can use my delay pedal. I’ve had one since 1986…unfortunately U2’s still around,” he explains with a chuckle. Yet when it came time to record his first proper album at last, he figured he’d waited long enough.
Brothers moved to Los Angeles after attending Northwestern University in Chicago and established a film production company with connections he’d made working summers at MTV. Eventually he grew tired of crunching numbers and helping others achieve their artistic vision without yet fully realizing his own.
“It was a Jekyll and Hyde I’d be doing Excel spreadsheets during the day, then hang out with my friends, maybe get a drink, then come home and write all night,” he says. “I’d sleep for a couple hours, then do it all over again.”
A chance encounter with Los Angeles songsmith Gary Jules propelled the transformation, in ways more important than Brothers could have predicted. While watching Jules perform at Hollywood’s intimate Hotel Cafe, something clicked. Captivated by the music and the familial atmosphere of the club, Brothers figured he had found his calling. “I just went up to him afterward and told him how much I loved it and that I wanted to be a part of it,” he recalls.
Jules recommended Brothers come to an upcoming open-mike night at the club. Brothers took the advice, and the musical connection proved to be mutual. Two weeks later, Brothers was opening for Jules in the very same place.
Shortly thereafter, he made another fortuitous connection when he linked up with his former college buddy Zach Braff, who was waiting tables (pre-“Scrubs” days) while trying to get a film career of his own going. Braff asked if he could use a song by Brothers in a movie he was working on. Brothers agreed, and “Blue Eyes” went on to help the Garden State soundtrack sell a million copies and win a Grammy.
Soon the major labels came knocking on Brothers’ door — but they were seeking the acoustic singer-songwriter Brothers never wanted to be. “I didn’t trust many of the people that approached me from the big labels,” he says. “They wanted me to be the next John Mayer. They wanted me to be the ‘Blue Eyes’ guy.”
Brothers was content to keep playing at the Hotel Cafe, tour as much as possible, and release recordings made on his home computer. Then an idea struck. “I had become great friends with all these people at the Hotel Cafe and it’s great music, but we couldn’t tour in front of big crowds,” he noted. “But if everyone went together, we could combine crowds and hopefully draw a decent audience.”
Brothers once again exercised his business acumen, pitching the idea to his manager, his agent, and the bar’s owner. Everyone shared his enthusiasm, and once the group enlisted the sponsorship of MySpace, the Hotel Cafe Tour was launched.
The trek featured a rotating cast of musicians, including Joe Purdy and Joshua Radin, among many others who consider the Hotel Cafe their home base. The venture, which is now an annual ritual, went through some early struggles, which could be expected of a tour lacking a standout star. “In the northeast I was getting shooshed by Red Sox fans who were trying to watch the Red Sox on television while I was playing,” he recounts.
Ultimately the tour, and his subsequent deal with indie label Bluhammock, helped give Brothers the sense of freedom he desired in his budding career. “I love the guerilla aspect of it,” he says. “I really love making fans one by one.”