Cary Brothers – Breaking Off the Bough

It would seem like a struggling artist’s dream. You’re playing your songs to people in small rooms in Los Angeles, sometimes rooms with no A/C, with temperatures often reaching 100 degrees. And then one day, you decide to record a song on your 10-year-old Tascam 4-track for your friend’s little indie film.

The song turns out to be “Blue Eyes.” The little film that could, Garden State.

Soon, just like that, you’re a rising star. You’re on tour with Imogen Heap, The Fray, KT Tunstall, Brandi Carlile, and Matt Nathanson. Every room is just as cool as you want it to be, and everyone is singing your songs. Fans have stories of what they were doing the first time they listened to your music; essentially, your stories have stories. Your tunes even end up on shows like Grey’s Anatomy.

This all happened to Cary Brothers.

He even ended up signing a record deal, toured for four years straight, and worked as hard as he could to become someone who he did not want to be.

Brothers has since bought his way out of said record deal so he could live his life the way he wanted to live it. No more writing a certain kind of song, or being who “they” wanted him to be. It was time to be Cary Brothers again, no matter how long it took, or what the consequences were.

These days, he has his own independent label and a wonderful new album, Under Control. As you might have guessed, it’s a personal batch of songs dealing with loss and breaking free. It’s Cary Brothers as himself, the real artist—the one who set out to “very intentionally make a record that you could put on and listen to beginning to end.”

Glide‘s Jason Gonulsen recently spent some time talking with Brothers about his new album and new life.

Describe your feeling when releasing a new album.

I think the thing with putting out a record now, with Twitter and everything, I can see stuff happening. I can see it building. And it’s cool—to see that people actually give a shit. It’s nice.

It has made things easier to get an idea of who is saying what. Not all that means anything, but I’m sure it’s a good base for what people are thinking.

Yeah, you can’t live or die off of that stuff. I’m not putting this record out so that a bunch of people can tweet about it. But still, it feels pretty good.

And with iTunes and everything, do you still get excited to see your album in a store, too?

Yeah, that’s still the most exciting thing! That’s still the coolest thing in the world — when you walk by a display and see your CD next to bands that you love. When the last record came out, and seeing it next to a Wilco record and a Death Cab album or something, I thought, “This is pretty cool!”

My whole thing about making music in general is that the second you put it out in the world, it’s not even yours anymore. To me, I get as excited as anyone else when I see it in the store. It’s like, “Oh, that guy made another record.”

That’s why I don’t get too pissed about…and I would love to have a little more rent money…but honestly, 60 to 70 percent of people who will have this new record will have it illegally. And that’s just the way it is now. You can either be pissed about it and go all Metallica, or you can go in another direction where you hope that some people will be nice enough to pay for it.

I have so many thoughts about that. And one of the things you just said was that there isn’t a whole lot we can do about that. Is there anything that can be done that could be good about people illegally downloading music?

There’s this great company called Topspin that I’m working with on this record. I put one of the songs up for free on my website in exchange for like, an e-mail, so at least I’m getting something. A way to contact people, so if they like it, they can come to a show. Or, the next time they get an e-mail me, they will go, “you know, I really liked that, I’m going to go buy that record.” So, at least you’re connected to the people that are getting music for free, as opposed to somebody just hopping onto a bittorrent site, or something like that.

It’s funny, because, I put up a blog, and I got an e-mail from some kid who written me on MySpace last year. And he said that, “You know, I’m your biggest fan, I love this song and this song. And I made out with my girlfriend for the first time to this song.” It was one of those e-mails that was awesome, it was great! This is why I love having that connection with people. But at the end of it, he was like, “I have to admit, I’ve stolen every single piece of music that I’ve ever gotten.”

Oh boy.

(laughs) And I remember clicking on his MySpace page, and on top of that, he was a musician, and he listed me as one of his influences. So, I wrote him back saying, “Are you fucking crazy? You want to do this for a living, and you’re cutting somebody else’s feet off?”

And I posted this blog, and I got back like 1,500 responses that I literally one day want to print up and sell to record labels, and especially indie artists trying to do this. I realized that to the younger generation, to them, free music is the way music is supposed to be. They don’t need…I mean, I need to hold a record in my hands. I need to read the liner notes. I need the art. That is as much a part of the music to me as the music itself. And I think there is a generation that has missed out on that. But, there’s a degree to which it’s too late, and so now you have to figure out other ways to get them involved.

I heard an argument the other day—“Well, I go to their show, so I don’t need to buy the album.”

Right. (laughs) You know, hopefully they’ll buy a t-shirt. Or, there’s this whole thing with subscription services now, where they pay 30 bucks a year, and they get whatever music you put out, and a t-shirt. Maybe that’s the way to go, I don’t know. I can never see these things coming. When a friend told me about Twitter a few years ago, I thought it was the stupidest thing I had ever heard of. Now, that’s where so many of my fans are coming from.

And you got your start with the Garden State soundtrack…I was reading your bio that you wrote, and you said that you weren’t really ready for all that. Can you talk a little more about that?

Well, I think at that point, I started playing open mics in Los Angeles, and then I found Hotel Café. And originally, I was just writing music by myself in a room. Doing all the parts, and the studio way — I knew what I was doing, But as a live performer, I was really just beginning to understand the differences between the two. And also, with Hotel Café, it was a place where…it changed the way I wrote, because it was a singer-songwriter room, and I wasn’t necessarily a person who grew up listening to singer-songwriters. So, I was a little disconnected to that world. But the one thing that it did give me was that if it doesn’t work with a voice and guitar, then it doesn’t work. And right when I had broken it down to that, that’s when all this stuff happened.

And “Blue Eyes,” I’m really proud of that song, but it’s not necessarily representative of my music as a whole. And so, I kind of got labeled as a singer-songwriter, and people are like, “ok, that’s what you are.” And it wasn’t even necessarily what I was.

And how do you battle that?

Well, it’s just going down the road…and it was great to see fans. But they were there to see one very specific side of me, rather than the whole scope of music. And it was about slowly transitioning from that to what I think this record is. In that sense, I don’t know if anyone is really ready for success, but for me, I was just someone who was writing songs alone in my room, and then suddenly I was out on the road playing them for people every night. Instead of me having many takes, there were 500 people there sitting, and quiet, and they’re waiting for me to do this thing. But with this record, I feel like I’m finally ready. I’m prepared to go do this, and I hope I didn’t lose people while trying to figure it out! (laughs)

Well, a lot of these songs on this record seem personal to me. Am I hearing these the right way?

Absolutely. You know, the way I write, I kind of lie to myself a little bit, and pretend that I’m writing about somebody else, to make it easier, to make it feel like I’m revealing a little less. But at the end of the day, when I finish every song, something about it was more personal than I intended it to be. That was kind of this whole record—I thought I was writing about other things, but I was really writing about myself.

You’ve really gone through so many stages of being a musician.

And quickly! I’ve been playing since I was a kid, but there’s a big difference between having a spotlight on you and writing songs for the song’s sake. It was really about growing up. And “Break Off the Bough” (from Under Control) is really about that.  It’s kind of like, you’re hitting that point where, from my perspective of writing it, it’s like when you hit a point in your life where you have to make hard choices like, “Who the fuck are you?” And with all the time I spent on the road, I had a good time, maybe too good of a time! (laughs) But I needed to make sure there was a little responsibility involved with this job, and not taking it for granted anymore, because the fact is that I am blessed to make music for a living.

Let’s say I’m just someone who simply liked “Blue Eyes,” and I listen to this album, and I don’t “get” it. And I don’t want to listen to it, and I don’t want to give it a second chance. Because I don’t think this is an album that will hit you right away. I think you need to spend time with it. What do you say to that person?

Well, every single great record, every record that I love right now, I didn’t like it the first time. I remember buying Radiohead’s The Bends, I remember it so clearly—buying it in a record store and going home to listen to it, and I was just like, “I don’t get it, I don’t love it.” And then I went on road trip a couple weeks later, and put it on, and just listened to it like 20 times in my car. I think so much about music now is to try to get to people’s short attention spans. And so, people are writing songs to get to the chorus faster, and they’re pressured to do that. And part of the reason why I didn’t want to be on a label anymore, part of why I wanted to buy my way out of that thing was because I didn’t want to be pressured into doing that. And I found enough people who will give the music enough of their attention, to really pay attention, and that’s all I’m looking for. Maybe there are singles on the record, maybe there are not. That was never really part of my thought process.

I think people expect people’s music to sound a certain way if they liked something previously…

Right. I mean, I guess I don’t….I can only write the songs that mean something to me. And if I’m not doing that, then I’m not doing my job. If I’m not being honest…I could go write a record full of songs that sound just like “Blue Eyes” tomorrow. That’s an easy thing for me to do at this point. I understand that song, and I understand why people like that song, and I will always play that song live, and it will always be a part of this thing. But just repeating that is boring to me, and it’s inauthentic. And I think people could hear that. That’s essentially what happened, when the Garden State stuff happened—I got approached by major labels, and they would go, “Ok, you’re going to be a John Mayer kind of acoustic guy!” No! I respect that guy’s talents, but that’s not what I do. And I didn’t want to do that. And going back doing it independently and building my way back up, now I feel like I have found an audience of people. It’s more than being about one song.

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