As listeners, we typically assume that a debut album is an artist’s mission statement. Simply put, an artist’s first album is supposed to establish what that person or band sounds like. It’s supposed to lay the foundations for the rest of their career and give listeners some idea of what to expect later on down the road. But what happens when a debut album proves to be an anomaly? When the first record establishes a sonic identity that the artist doesn’t want to chase on future releases?
For more than a decade now, Cary Brothers has been asking precisely that question.
Brothers burst onto the scene in 2004, with a December release called All the Rage. It wasn’t until the next year, though, that he got his big break, thanks in large part to the Garden State soundtrack. Brothers’ beloved contribution, the song “Blue Eyes,” had already been a Hotel Café favorite when Zach Braff scooped it up for his quirky coming-of-age dramedy. Garden State took the song and immortalized it for listeners and movie fans who were of a certain age at the time. While the song gave Brothers the kind of boost that just about any songwriter would kill for, though, it also meant that he got the musical version of typecast. “Blue Eyes” was a singer-songwriter song, and Brothers’ full-length debut, 2007’s Who You Are, was a singer-songwriter album. You could hardly blame early Cary Brothers fans for making the assumption that he was an acoustic singer-songwriter, period.
As Brothers tells it now, though, the songs on Who You Are weren’t actually representative of the artist he wanted to be. “At the time I was a singer-songwriter because I was broke with an acoustic guitar,” he says. “I couldn’t afford band members.”
In the years since, Brothers has showed a desire to explore fuller textures. His true musical sweet spot is 80s pop and rock music, influences that started creeping in on his 2010 album Under Control and later took center stage on a pair of cover EPs released in 2012 and 2016, respectively. With Bruises, Brothers’ first new full-length in eight years, Brothers doubles down on that style for an album that he says is his truest musical expression yet. From the expansive Peter Gabriel-esque two-parter that opens the record—called “Nothing in the World/The Path”—to the kinetic synth-driven single “Crush,” Brothers spends most of the new record’s runtime looking back fondly at the sounds of the past. It’s a far cry from the more acoustic-driven tunes that made up Who You Are, but the gamble seems to be paying off: “Crush” is currently picking up steam at radio.
A few weeks ago, I had the chance to catch up with Cary Brothers on the phone. As a long-time fan with a spot near and dear to my heart reserved for Who You Are, I enjoyed catching up with Brothers and learning about what he’s been doing for the past eight years. In our far-reaching interview, we talked about the lengthy gestation period for Bruises, the way the music industry has shifted since Brothers last put out an album, and his recollections of not only contributing a song to the Garden State soundtrack, but also working closely with Zach Braff to put the now-legendary compilation album together.
It seems like you’ve been away for awhile. When your album was announced, the first thing I posted about it on the forums was “When Cary Brothers put out his last album, I was 19 and I was a freshman in college.” And now I am 27 and…well, no longer in college.
I’m here to capture every section of your life.
So, I was wondering: where have you been? I know you put out a few EPs and did some stuff with covers, but it seems like you took a step back for a little while.
The funny thing was that, in doing Under Control totally independently, the record activated over the course of a few years. Usually, you put a record out and everything happens pretty quickly, and you tour, and then two years later you put another record out. But Under Control was something that seemed to happen over the course of four years. It just kept going and growing, and songs started showing up on TV. The irony of what’s happening with “Crush” is that I’ve never really been a radio guy before. I didn’t get exposed in that way, so it was mostly in film and TV shows [that you would hear my songs]. Under Control grew that way, so it took a little more time. For me, that record just seemed to have a lot of legs. It just kept going until 2013 or 2014.
And then, around that time, a lot of rough stuff happened in my life. My father passed away, I broke up a long-term relationship. And a number of other things happened that made me step back from playing music. I was always writing, but I just wanted to live my life a little bit, get off the road. I wanted to experience life so that it could inform the music again, instead of just rushing a record out to have a record out. I didn’t want to put something out until it was a collection of music that all worked as one.
So there are a bunch of songs sitting in your closet right now.
Oh yeah. There’s a backlog. But [for this record], I just got motivated again. I don’t know where that inspiration comes from, but it just started exploding again around 2016. And I haven’t stopped since. I feel like I’ve been reborn musically in a really cool way. Now, I feel like I’m probably going to put a record out every year. I have so much stuff to put out and so much I want to say now. So, I promise it won’t be eight more years for another record.
It’s interesting, because in the time that it’s been since you released a full-length album, the whole streaming thing has come up. How different is it releasing an album in 2018 versus 2010?
Oh, it’s a completely different experience. When I finished this record, I was going around [shopping it to labels]. I ultimately decided to put it out independently again, but I met with some label types. And back in the day, you’d meet with labels and they talk about the music, and now I was meeting with people and they were just talking about algorithms. And they’d say, “Oh, your numbers are great!” And I was like, “Yeah, but have you actually listened to the songs?”
So it’s a very brave new world. I find that when young musicians come up to me and ask me for advice, I tell them not to do it. Because unless you have to do it with every ounce of your soul, and you’re going to make music even if you don’t get to do it professionally, it’s so hard now. Younger artists that I know, I see them getting started, and it’s so hard to get a foot in the door if you’re not doing super big pop stuff. It’s a lot harder now to pay your rent and do this job. And luckily for me, I have a track record and a catalog that keeps things going. But without that, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a musician in 2018.
Just putting out your first record right now…
And crossing your fingers, praying that it works.
Praying someone notices. Yep, I’ve been there, because I’ve recorded a few things, and it’s pretty much impossible to get people to listen. And it’s funny, because everything is more accessible now. But, at the same time, there’s a saturation issue that there wasn’t before.
When laptops come with recording software that is better than what the Beatles had, there ends up being just too much music out there. It’s hard to get through it all.
Early on for you, you definitely also got a boost from Garden State. And I wanted to ask about that, because I wrote a piece last year called ’Garden State: Where Are They Now,’ for Modern Vinyl. And it was super interesting going through that album, because obviously you have artists on there like Coldplay, who are still huge. But then you have these other artists like you and Colin Hay, where the song on that album will always be the signature song. For you, is that sort of a double-edged sword? It’s obviously a blessing, because you got a lot of exposure, and people still know who you are, and people still love that song. But it also probably makes it harder to move on from that.
To this day, I’m so proud of that soundtrack and being a part of that soundtrack. The way that album came together was that I had a film production company, and I was producing independent films. And I was going home and writing songs every night, trying to build up the nerve to get up on stage and do it. And during that time, Zach [Braff] had approached me about working on the movie. I’d helped him for a couple years, working with him to edit the script, and giving him notes. And then right when he wanted to make the movie, that’s when I shut my production company down and decided to make music for a living.
So he went off and made the movie, and then came back to me. and it was around that time that I was playing at the Hotel Cafe in L.A., and “Blue Eyes” was becoming sort of “the song” for me, there. And Zach asked me to put it in the soundtrack. At the time, I was just excited to have a song on a soundtrack, in a movie that my buddy made. That’s it. There was no expectation of anything else. I didn’t know that there would ever even be a CD with the songs on it. And then the movie sold and got a lot of attention.
The creation of that soundtrack was pretty much me and Zach, that summer, going to shows. I used to see Colin Hay play at Largo, and I told Zach, “Listen, you have to hear this song. This song is going to make you cry.” And I took him down to Largo, and he heard “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You,” and he said, “Okay, well, I’m putting that in the movie.” And then we went to see Remy Zero play their record release show at the Viper Room, and then there’s a Remy Zero song on the soundtrack. There was a lot of that. It was like a couple of friends making a mixtape. Which is why I think it worked, because it was very real and organic, and there was no corporate control person or label telling us what to do. I think it just has that feel, of an old-fashioned mixtape.
So then the movie came out, and it gave such a huge boost to my career. And having a song like “Blue Eyes” is wonderful, but there’s also an expectation that that is what I’m supposed to be. And my musical tastes are across the map, so being pigeonholed as a singer-songwriter was…well, at the time I was a singer-songwriter because I was broke with an acoustic guitar. I couldn’t afford band members. So I had to make music that would work with just me and acoustic guitar. But once things started to change, I was able to create the music that I wanted to make. And a lot of people didn’t want that. They wanted “Blue Eyes.” They wanted singer-songwriter. And even if it was a detriment to my career, I fought against that, because that’s just not authentically who I am. In that moment, in that song, it was. But I would say, with the new record and with that single “Crush,” that’s so much more the kind of music that I listen to. With this record, it’s finally an album where the breadth of it shows a little bit of everything I love. So that’s why I’m pretty excited about this release.
On the AbsolutePunk forums way back in the day, I remember reading a post about the Who You Are album. And you said something like, “I wish that ‘Blue Eyes’ was not on the end of that record, because it should end with ‘Precious Lie.'”
I signed a deal with the indie label, and they kind of forced me to do [put “Blue Eyes” on there]. A couple months before the album came out, I was all ready to go with “Precious Lie” being the last song. And they asked if they could put “Blue Eyes” on as a bonus track. And I said, “Okay, you can have it on there as a hidden track, where you put the CD on, and then there’s silence, and then it pops up at the end.” But of course, at the time, that’s right when iTunes and everything else happened. So there’s no such thing as a secret bonus track anymore.
Yeah, I think you said something like “Someday, that album will come out in some format, and ‘Blue Eyes’ won’t be there.” And I always wondered, are we getting a vinyl version? Because that’s a big record for me, personally, and just one I’d like to own. Would that ever be a possibility?
Vinyl is a tricky thing. It’s really expensive to make vinyl. But now, with this new record coming out, and touring, I think I’m finally starting to figure it out. And with Who You Are having been a record that was important to some people, maybe they’ve grown up and now have record players and want to make that a part of their collections. So hopefully, I can put out a Who You Are vinyl. I’ve always wanted to see that cover on a big old vinyl sleeve.
The new record is definitely more 80s-influenced than anything you’ve ever done before. You were moving in this direction on Under Control, on a few different songs, but here it’s definitely more full-blown. I wondered: what inspired you to go in that direction? Was it something where it was just a long time coming?
I think that when I look back to the first record, the most authentically me song was “Ride.” And I think making this record was almost like going back to that song and saying “Okay, that’s the one.” Because I was pegged in the singer-songwriter kind of vein, I kind of leaned into that a little bit. And with this record, it’s almost like “Ride” was the starting point. Going all the way back and saying, “This is what I wanted to do, and now I have an opportunity to make a record that goes back to that sound.”
I grew up listening to this kind of music. There’s a lot of Cure and Peter Gabriel that went into this record, I’d say more than any other artists. Those are songs that were first kisses, and heartbreaks, and crushes, and summers at the lake with my friends. I have such great memories of the emotions that music gave me. So I wanted to finally put it in a record.
I also saw something about how you thought “Crush” should be in a John Hughes movie.
I always wanted to write a song that Molly Ringwald might have danced to in The Breakfast Club. I feel like “Crush” is that song. When the single came out, I even wrote an open letter to Molly Ringwald that I published on my website. Still waiting to hear back from her, but we’ll see.
No response yet?
Well, John Cryer actually hit me up on Twitter and said he’d put in a good word, so that was cool.
A lot of your songs have been in soundtracks in the past. It seems like these songs could definitely be in a teen movie or something.
I’ll take it. I’ve always been such a movie nerd. I listen to film scores a lot, as much as I do pop music. And I think that has definitely always influenced the way I write songs, just that cinematic quality. I love songs that, the more you listen, the more you get out of it. I feel like so much music now is the “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus” mentality. And that’s fine if you’re writing good pop songs, but that’s not really the music I like. I like songs that are an experience. That start here, and it’s like a roller coaster where you’re just sort of clicking up and up and up and up and up, until there’s an eventual peak. That kind of euphoria, that’s what I look for in songs I listen to, and that’s naturally the way I write. And I think that works very well for having songs in movies and TV shows, because it just adds that extra emotion that a director might want in a scene. It fits naturally.
What is your songwriting process like? When you start writing a song, is it a melody thing? Do you get a lyrical idea that you can’t get out of your head? Where do you usually begin?
It almost always starts with melody, and the way a vocal melody sits over a chord progression. If I get a little tingle, or have a little “Oh shit” moment when I’m writing, i will immediately pick up my phone and open the little voice recorder app and start mumbling ideas over it. I start to really structure songs that way, until one little lyrical concept will pop out that works. I frequently will record demos that sound like a song coming from a window next door. You can’t quite hear what the lyrics are, but everything’s there. And then, I was an English major, so I’m a word nerd. So then it’s an entirely different process of figuring out what those mumbly sounds sound like and what I can do with the lyrics. It’s two very different parts of my brain that do both of those things. But there’s nothing in the world that I love more than that process. If everything fell apart, I’d still be writing songs every night when I come home. I can’t not do it.
If you’re always writing, what was it like to go back after so long and make another full-length record? As far as going into the studio, as far as picking the songs you were going to record. Was there a growing pain to go back to that?
Oh sure. I would say the initial ideas for this record I probably started writing four years ago. And because I just personally didn’t feel ready to make a record yet, these things were just simmering in a lot of different ways. So when I finally pulled the trigger in the fall of 2016 and said “Okay, I’m going to go do this,” I had spent a lot more time at home really fine-tuning every single part. Whereas in the past I would go into the studio with rough sketches and ideas and lyrics and really let the songs happen in the studio, where there’s pressure. I feel like I let Bruises simmer a lot more at home. I let myself find the songs, find exactly the right guitar part to sit over that melody, the exact right bassline that pushes you into the chorus, in a way that I don’t know if I ever have before. There’s a lot more exact detail on this record than there was before.
So getting into the studio, oddly, was easier than ever, because I went into it with a lot of confidence. I even knew what I wanted to do with the sequence of the songs, so endings and beginnings could flow into each other, and certain words of certain songs could match certain words in the next song. It was a more thoughtful process of making a record than I’ve ever done before.