When Cary Brothers' "Blue Eyes" helped earn a Grammy for the Garden State soundtrack in 2004, it was precisely the kind of thing most young musicians jump on. His presence on the hit soundtrack, a zeitgeist moment of dreampop and singer-songwriter cool, opened plenty of doors. But Brothers chose to bide his time. "I could've probably sold a lot more records on the tail of Garden State, but it was much more important to me, creatively, to do it right," he says. "Labels wanted me to make a record of 'Blue Eyes,' and that was never what I wanted to do. I love that song, but it's not representative of everything I do. I would've had to do 'Blue Eyes' all the time. Maybe even a 'Blue Eyes' remix," he jokes of his atypical ballad.
Brothers' debut full-length album, Who You Are, just dropped, and it's been a long time coming for the Nashville-born artist who honed his craft at the infamous singer-songwriter enclave Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles. "I wasn't ready, to be really honest," he says of the delay. "Mentally and in a lot of other ways. I just knew I didn't want to put a record out just to put a record out."
Brothers, who explains that he's "not good with authority," created another path for his pop-flavored folk, which bears the stamp of '70s influences. The Garden State success came almost too easily his buddy Zach Braff directed and starred in the movie. Rather than sign with a label right away, he wanted to "earn the luck with hard work. I wanted to build a fan base, a real fan base that wasn't just about one song."
For that, he devised a four-pronged plan: Tour with zeal, become a darling to Hollywood music supervisors he'd come to know around Los Angeles, release EPs to satisfy his growing audience in the interim, and use the Internet to build himself into a brand. "Garden State's soundtrack certainly put me financially in a situation where I could take my time, but touring costs money," he says. "It takes a lot to bring your band out on the road."
Whenever he could, Brothers called up TV soundtrack producers and invite them to his gigs. The strategy paid off: His songs, melodic wonders that haunt while provoking tender smiles, have started popping up on shows including Scrubs, Bones, Smallville, and Grey's Anatomy. Later, Braff starred in The Last Kiss and got Brothers' song "Ride" from Who You Are on that soundtrack as well. But Brothers insists payoff has been less tangible than dollar signs: "I was young and I was cheap."
He also made two EPs, All the Rage and Waiting for Your Letter, each of which he sold largely via the Internet, a medium in which Brothers turned out to have considerable marketing talent. MySpace is one of his favorite tools, and his downloadable tracks quickly became mainstays on the iTunes' charts. His Web site was just as daring: He offered free "songs of the week" and often used the forum to test and improve new material. "It looks like there's a real label or machine behind it," Brothers says of the site's aesthetic and its success, "but no one knows I'm actually doing it in my room with boxes of CDs while I'm sitting around in my underwear."
If you haven't figured it out yet, Brothers is a bit of a control freak. "I've been working in the industry a while, and I've seen enough dumb people do stupid things in my name," he says. "Finally, I had to step up and do it all myself. You don't get multiple chances to do something like this."
With Who You Are, though, Brothers has finally relinquished some of that control to a label, Blue Hammock Music. He still micromanages everything, so he finds himself trapped by e-mail and the need to be the one to approve how he's being marketed to the world. "I'm slowly letting go," he says. "If I didn't have other people doing some of this stuff these days, my brain would have exploded by now."
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