POSTED ON DECEMBER 5, 2007:
An Independent Spirit
Cary Brothers forgoes big record labels--and big money--to maintain control of his solo act
About once a year, a really good pop record comes out of left field and takes me by surprise. Normally, it's by someone I've never heard of or, occasionally, it's a complete left turn from an artist I expected something different from. This year it was the new disc by Cary Brothers, called Who You Are, a mix of lilting ballads, chiming guitars, Brit pop and startlingly personal and emotional lyrics.
More independent-minded readers probably already knew about this gentleman due to his musical appearances on Scrubs, as well as the soundtracks for Garden State and The Last Kiss.
The inclusion of Brothers' "Blue Eyes" on the Garden State soundtrack helped catapult him to the top of the iTunes folk chart and broke him into the Top 100 songs list as well. There's more to his writing than that acoustic ballad, however, so when the major labels started lining up for more, Brothers followed his heart (and conscience) and took a pass in order to more fully express himself.
While that's a summary of Brother's career leading up to the new CD, there's more to the man behind the music than many people have recognized to date. Born and raised in Nashville, Brothers was eager to get out of a city he called "a little closed minded for me" by the time he was 18. He now admits that times have changed and recognizes a new generation of artists and musicians that reflect the cities shifting climate. After attending college at Northwestern in the early '90s and studying film (where he met Zach Braff, incidentally), he moved to Los Angeles and started a small production company with a friend to pursue a career in movies.
Meanwhile, Brothers had been writing songs since he was 13.
"It was therapeutic," he recently told me. "I'd record them, then put them on the shelf."
Once Brothers started making films, he admittedly hated the process.
"With a song, when I record it, I can get the exact result I wanted from the start. With movies, there are too many people involved," he said, describing his frustration.
As a result, he switched his focus to a career in music, where he could stay true to his original vision.
"That's why I stayed independent, even after the Garden State soundtrack," Brothers explained. "I got used to and wanted to keep that control."
"The labels wanted a record full of 'Blue Eyes,' but that's not all I do," he continued.
As a result, Brothers stayed true to the independent course and went out on the road to refine his live shows and make sure they were up to the standards he set for himself and his songs.
After nearly a year and a half in writing and production mode, Brothers released his first full-length recording, Who You Are, digitally on May 29 and he's been on the road ever since.
In truth, Brothers has been on the road for nearly eight months now, starting with a run with Ben Carlisle before the album's release, followed by a summer record release tour, a string of shows with Matt Nathanson and now a jaunt with Ben Lee.
This tour will see Brothers hit Tulsa with a stripped down, three-piece band instead of the full band that he toured with in the summer.
"I was going to take time off to write," he explained, "but I got a call from Ben (Lee) asking if I wanted to go out with him and it was an offer I couldn't pass up."
Considering the fact that Brothers has seen a good level of national success as an independent artist, I asked for his take on the major labels and whether a record deal with them is even necessary with the music industry's current climate.
"It depends on what you want to do," he answered. "There's a certain level--the upper level pop artists like Beyonce, for example--that it helps with production and marketing. For the younger acts, though, I tell them 'Don't sign anything. You can get your music on iTunes in a week for free.'
"The major label system is crumbling," he continued. "To me, this is the best time to be an independent artist. It kind of feels like the old west, and I love being the gunslinger."
Brothers did start meeting with the major labels again over the summer to investigate a distribution deal, but ended up signing with a smaller label, Blue Hammock, that had the resources to get him expanded distribution in record stores and will still allow him creative control. In fact, Brothers will even be able to expand his own label as an imprint with Blue Hammock and has plans to start signing other artists next summer.
"That's my end game," he told me. "In LA, there's a real community of artists that are making good music. I've learned what to do and what not to do and I want to take it to some of the new artists and help them along. I've learned my lessons and know how to do this independently and on a budget."
Brothers will be at Bob's (the Cain's second stage) this Sunday night, December 9. Ben Lee will be headlining the evening with Cary Brothers in tow and Kate Voegele opening the show at 8pm. Tickets are $20 in advance or $22 at the door.
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