CARY BROTHERS: Garden State’s Soundtrack Breakthrough

When Cary Brothers was coming of age around Music Row in 1986, a pioneering generation of new country artists was torching its streets with kerosene eyes and blistering working class anthems. Steve Earle led the charge with his debut Guitar Town,  a searing blue-collar anthology that hastily snatched the scepter of country music from Hank Williams Jr. and placed it lovingly on his father’s grave. The revolt scrambled radio formats and stymied record executives, bringing a rebellious rock and roll attitude into Tennessee.

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Brothers couldn’t have cared less-didn’t even notice the revolution, really. “I’m a kid from Nashville, but I grew up worshipping Brit-pop,” he says. “I associated country music at the time with a certain conservative slant that I rebelled against. It was too obvious to me. I found the Cure and the Smiths more interesting at the time.” Then a funny thing happened. Brothers moved to Los Angeles seven years ago, and he immediately developed a fondness for country music. Certainly can’t say the guy travels with the conventional crowd.

But, of course, idiosyncratic minds often drum up the most innovative ideas. Brothers sure did. Last year, the struggling 31-year-old songwriter looked toward the Internet to allow fans more intimate access to his moody, reverb-heavy music. There he styled a unique approach-offering a new “song of the week” on his website as a free download. That seemingly simple tactic, which he still practices weekly, proved tremendously effective.

“I wanted to invite people into the process of songwriting,” Brothers says. “I post some songs that aren’t necessarily finished. Some are demos or half finished. Others are covers that I decided to do one night. The idea is just to get as much music as possible out there since I only have four songs properly recorded in the studio.”

It’s been a hit with fans. Also, it helped Brothers sift through his output for the keepers. “Knowing there’ll be a new song up there every week builds up a lot more consistent hits to the website, so I want to keep that going as long as I possibly can,” he continues. “And I get to see which songs rise to the top from feedback on songs-in-process.”

About a dozen made the final cut last year, and Brothers took them to producer Chad Fischer at Lookout Sounds to record his debut album. Unfortunately, his thin bankroll ran out after just four songs were recorded. Brothers packaged those as an EP titled All the Rage, but it clearly didn’t satisfy his hopes. Frustrated, Brothers-who recently had quit a relatively lucrative day job at an independent movie studio to focus entirely on his songwriting career-dreamed that a stroke of luck would come his way. It did.

Garden State, the underdog cinematic sensation of 2004, put Brothers on the map. His ethereal love song “Blue Eyes” is the sixth track on the movie’s tremendously popular soundtrack, which had sold nearly 750,000 copies by March. Safe to say, a majority of listeners were new to Brothers’ music. The exposure changed everything. “It’s unbelievable,” Brothers says simply, still astonished at the soundtrack’s success. But it wasn’t just dumb luck that landed his song on the album. An old friend helped to make it happen.

Zach Braff, star of the Tuesday night NBC comedy Scrubs, and writer, director and star of Garden State, first met Brothers when they attended Northwestern University in the early ‘90s. The two became pals and kept in touch after moving separately to L.A., where they often go to concerts together. When the time came to put music to the Garden State script, Braff called Brothers to help with the selection. They picked a dozen eclectic songs that suited the mood and hoped for the best.

Good things happened quickly. Miramax Films picked up the screenplay, and Garden State surprised everyone, grossing nearly $27 million in its first 20 weeks in theaters. The soundtrack’s intimate feel hit home with viewers. “At the time, it was just a buddy working on a little independent movie, but the film really moved people, and they really related to it,” Brothers says enthusiastically. “That’s the thing about this soundtrack-it wasn’t some corporate mandated list of songs, or somebody’s big single coming out. There wasn’t some label imposing their will on it. It was a mix tape among friends. That’s the key to the success of it. It’s a mix tape that’s now gone gold.” Not to mention that it won this year’s Grammy Award for “Best Compilation Soundtrack for a Motion Picture.”

Needless to say, Garden State opened doors for Brothers. But he’d already done plenty of legwork toward that end while finishing All the Rage. “Like lots of other independent artists, I didn’t have any money,” he says. “I would literally send out 300 emails a night for weeks to like-minded Internet communities to establish interest in my music.” One such email made its way to Heidi Anne-Noel, a publicist at Girlie Action PR, the New York-based firm that, among others, represents Courtney Love, My Morning Jacket and Good Charlotte. When she first read Brothers’ note, her reaction was to blow it off. Same old sob story. Give me a break.

“A broke, unsigned singer/songwriter, working on an EP and inquiring about hiring me,” Anne-Noel says. “No thanks!” But the title “Blue Eyes” rang a bell. She gave All the Rage a listen, and immediately recognized the song from Garden State. Impressed as well by the other three tracks, she was sold. “Usually it takes an artist a full album for me to be inspired and want to work with them,” Ann-Noel continues. “With Cary, it only took four songs. After one listen, he was a client.”

Ironically in this day and age, the cut of “Blue Eyes” that captured everyone’s attention on the soundtrack was decidedly low-tech. “The version that’s in the film is actually an old analog 8-track recording,” Brothers admits. “It’s funny when musicians tell me, ‘I’ve gotta have the nicest quality version of this song.’ It’s like, you know what, the song is the song. And at the end of the day, if it works, it works.”

Brothers should know. He sharpened his songwriting chops at regular solo acoustic gigs at The Hotel Café, a venerable Los Angeles breeding ground for singer/songwriters. Most take the stage there with only an acoustic guitar and test out new tunes for peers. The writer’s workshop of sorts sounds intimidating, but Brothers says the feel is cooperative, not competitive: “It’s like Cheers with music-a real community of artists.”

The venue occasionally attracts more well-known tunesmiths like master craftswoman Lucinda Williams, who has been known to drop by unannounced to check out new music when she’s in town. Proving himself a connected part of this group, Brothers still often performs at the small club, though now he can fill much larger venues. He finds both settings appealing. “Things have obviously gotten a lot crazier since Garden State, but before that it was a nice, comfortable local following,” Brothers says. “I am pretty much playing sold-out shows in L.A. at this point.”

Brothers’ biggest one-shot audience, though, was on a Tuesday night last fall when a producer called on him to sing “Blue Eyes” on an episode of Scrubs. The producer called on a Tuesday and asked if Brothers was available on Wednesday. “I said, ‘Sure, I’m available next Wednesday,'” Brothers remembers. “The guy said, ‘No, I mean tomorrow.’ I had no idea what I was doing. I just showed up on set and they put me in front of a camera and five days later it was on TV.”

The whirlwind tour of the small screen yielded an additional bonus-meeting actress Heather Graham, best known as Rollergirl in the film Boogie Nights. The movie starlet made a cameo appearance on the same episode, and she was in Brothers’ scene (though her part was taped well before his). He didn’t see her on the show’s set, but did run into her the following week at a Scrubs party. “I got a hug, which was nice,” Brothers says bashfully.

Nice indeed. Even better than that, though, is that Brothers earned enough royalties from the Garden State soundtrack to return to the studio. In February, he began recording what has now become an eagerly anticipated full-length debut. Brothers will stick to his soaring signature sound, but he plans to push some boundaries. “‘Blue Eyes” is kind of a piece of the puzzle, and I love that people have responded to that song the way they have. That song’s been my meal ticket,” he says directly. “But I want to show what else I can do on this record. I think there’ll always be a certain degree of Americana in my music, and [the new record] will sonically encompass what’s been done in the past 20 years.”

Reflecting on the successes of the past year, Brothers is quick to acknowledge the impact Braff has had on his own career. “Zach’s amazing, just a ridiculously talented person,” he says. “The fact that he believed in my music enough to put it in a film that’s basically his baby is a real sign of him as a person. He’s a great actor, but I’m also really glad the world got to see what he can do behind the camera, too. The guy’s gonna do a lot of damage in the film world in the next couple of years.”

And if “Blue Eyes” is any indication, Brothers will make equally strong waves in the music world.


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