Cary Brothers discusses working on his sophomore full-length Under Control, not taking success for granted, utilizing music as a cheap form of therapy, and why he hates the word singer-songwriter.
You were just over in Holland not too long ago. How did that go?
Well, it got a little screwed up by the whole volcano ash cloud. The volcano ash cloud came in and messed up the day, but we rescheduled the tour for the end of May. I went early with Laura Jansen, who I was playing with, but the band ended up getting stuck in the States.
We had a little forced vacation in Holland, which wasn’t such a bad deal. It was right as the record came out, so I was anxious to get back home. The good news was in the time that I had over there I ended up signing a deal with Sony in Holland to put the record out over there.
Is there a pretty big music scene in Holland?
Yeah, man. They’re very aware of what’s happening over here. There’s great venues and there’s such great people in Holland to play for, too. It was so weird. We rescheduled that tour for the end of May, so I leave a week from Sunday and go back there for two weeks.
So you’re new album’s been out for a few weeks now. It seems the reaction has been very positive and most people have been digging it. Have you been paying attention to that, and how does it make you feel?
It’s been cool, man, with the Internet and Twitter and all that stuff. Especially putting this record out independently, the reactions I get are kind of person-by-person via the Internet. The last time I put out a record was three years ago, and even though there was social networking and all that kind of stuff, it’s like I can see it grow every day. It’s really cool to organically see that happen through technology. It’s a nice connection to people before I’m able to go out on the road touring.
Like you said, your last album was released three ago, so it feels like this one has been a long time coming. What was that long process like for you to go through?
It was tough because I was fighting my way out of my old record deal for the last, like, two and half years, so that’s why there was a delay. At first, I was bummed because that meant I couldn’t put music out, but then it really gave me some time to stay in Los Angeles and live a little bit after being on the road for about 4 to 5 years nonstop. It was nice to come home and not write a record about playing music [laughs]. Not write, like, Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home.” It was actually writing about life and living a normal, peaceful life in Los Angeles.
The time it took to get out of that deal really gave me time to make the record I always wanted to make. In the past, I was always recording in a few week spurts off the road. This was the first time I was able to do a record from first song to last song as one continuous idea. It feels more like a full record than anything I’ve done before.
I was at your record release show a few weeks ago at Hotel Café, which was really sweet, and you mentioned this album was in some ways about coming to terms with success and realizing not to take that for granted. Can you elaborate on that a little bit more?
I think when stuff happened with me, and a lot of it happened after I was playing Los Angeles for a while and building up something here, and then having a lot of success with the film and TV stuff and the Garden State soundtrack. Suddenly, there was an awareness, and I was able to do a ton of touring and touring with great bands that I loved.
It felt like in a way I was thrown out into a world that I wasn’t quite ready for. I was somebody who was writing songs by myself in my bedroom for a decade, and then suddenly overnight I’m out touring across the country doing it. It was an absolute dream, but at the same time I don’t think I realized how lucky I was at the time. There was no time to think about it. It was just go, go, go.
I think taking the time off and really taking my time with this record, and now reapproaching my career at this point, I realized that I don’t want to take any show for granted. I don’t want to take any moment that I get to do this for granted anymore. I feel like I might have done that from time to time, just because I wasn’t prepared. I was just as much into having fun as I was into making music, which was maybe a little too much sometimes [laughs].
Would you say this record is about anything else besides that?
This record’s really about growing up for me. It’s really about decision-making. There didn’t feel like there was a real purpose behind it when I was doing it. But at the end of the day when I listened to the record after it was all done, I thought I was writing songs about other people and things going on around me. I realized when it was over, I was just writing songs about myself in a way – dealing with change, getting older and taking responsibility for things in life.
This record to me is really about, if there’s a theme to the whole thing, it’s about when you have to make the tough choices in life. For me, I was writing before this calm before the storm, and getting ready to make some tough decisions. Ultimately, part of that was just making this record. It was facing a lot of personal things, and not being afraid to put it out there anymore.
So your songs are fairly autobiographical, then?
Yeah. Like I said, I always think I’m writing about something else, and then I end up realizing I’m writing about myself to some degree. Music is therapy for me. I can’t afford a therapist, so I write songs [laughs]. It’s a lot easier to just pick up a guitar than to go lie down on somebody’s couch.
Many of your songs touch on relationships and that kind of stuff, but they’re more complex than just a simple song about a boy liking a girl. How do you approach writing about that topic without it ever coming off as cliché?
I think with songs and writing about relationships, it has to be as brutally honest as possible because it can easily get sappy. That’s a fear any time I’m writing a song about a relationship. I feel like it’s got to include the details of my individual experience. As long as I’m being honest, then to me it can’t be sappy. It’s the truth.
For me, that’s the best way to approach those kinds of songs. It’s just to find a moment when I actually feel that way and write about everything that I’m feeling in the moment. Some people may like it, some people may not, but at the end of the day I was telling the truth. That’s the best I can do.
On Who You Are there’s a song called “The Last One,” which is a subtly political song. Is there anything like that on this record?
It’s funny how many people don’t recognize that “The Last One” is a political song. It’s fast, it has New Order sounding bass lines, and that’s all they really care about. On this record, I think “Break Off the Bough” to some extent is almost a reactionary song to “The Last One.”
“Break Off the Bough” I wrote right in the middle of everything that was going on politically in the country at the end of 2008. In some ways, it’s like an Obama song. It’s much more than that, but I was really inspired at the time by what was happening in the country politically. All these people were stepping up and trying to take control of their futures, led by this one guy at the time. That song, to some extent, is about that.
It’s weird because I remember writing the phrase “Break Off the Bough.” I knew what it meant, but I didn’t know if anybody else would understand it. After I had written the song, I looked up the poem “When the Bough Breaks, the Cradle Will Fall,” which was the first poem written on American soil. So then suddenly I realized it was accidentally political [laughs].
That’s a pretty cool coincidence.
Yeah, and as I read that I was like, “OK, I like when those little happy accidents happen.”
Now there’s definitely a few darker songs on the album too, like “Over & Out” and “Alien.” What went into writing those?
Well, “Over & Out,” there’s definitely politics to that song. I don’t like to talk too much about what the song’s about. There’s always a part of me where I want people to listen to the song, and whatever it means to them is so much more important than what I intended it to mean.
“Alien” and “Over & Out” are definitely the darkest moments of that year when I was writing, when I didn’t have quite as much hope that I was going to be able to finish this record. Some weird things were going on in my life and with my friends, and naturally it just shifted into that gear. You have to get a little sad sometimes [laughs].
The first single is “Ghost Town” and you’re in the finishing stages of the video, which involves miniatures. Can you talk about what is involved with that?
I actually just saw the first rough cut of the video today and it’s crazy. It has miniatures, puppets and a giant robot. It’s really out there. When you do the video, you send the song out to a bunch of different directors, and they all send their ideas, their treatments. All of them were, like, it’s you and a hot chick, or it’s you and a racecar. All this bullshit. I finally found this director who was amazing and had come up with a really cool idea, so we sat down and hatched this thing out.
To me, I wanted to make a video that I would want to watch. I also wanted to make a video that can exist without the song. Even if someone didn’t like my music, they could like this video. I really wanted to make a little film. So I found these guys who had just graduated from film school in Montana. They’re all fresh off the boat to L.A., and they’ve just been working their asses off on this thing. Hopefully, that’ll be done within the next week. It has giant robots, so it’ll be interesting.
As you were writing the album was there any song that sparked a particular burst of creativity after you had written it?
Yeah, the song “After the Fall,” which is the third or fourth song on the record. When I originally started making this record, I was trying to figure out who I was going to work with and what producer I was going to work with. There was this guy, Bill Leffler, who I kept seeing around, and he kept saying, “Come on. Come to my studio. Let’s work on something.” He actually annoyed me, and I told Leffler how annoying it was. He kept pestering and pestering until I was like, “Fine, man. I’ll come to your studio.” We sat down and wrote “After the Fall.” It just fell out. We co-wrote that together. It was so easy and I was so happy with how it turned out. That was how the record began.
Thank God Leffler was so persistent because now I can’t imagine making the record without him. It was such an easy process. I’d never really co-written much before. It’s always been a tough thing for me to put that much trust into somebody I’m working with. Now, I trust that guy a hundred percent. I think he did an amazing job producing the record.
You also have a cover on the album, the Level 42 song “Something About You,” and I saw they just emailed you this week. How did that make you feel?
It was crazy. Yeah, Mark King from Level 42 sent me an email saying he really liked the song. I’m not someone who does this as a living for validation, but getting that validation from the guy who wrote the song was just incredible. It felt like he blessed it.
I’ve done some covers before, and whenever I do a cover I always try to get it to the original band. I just want to know what they think about it. I covered the Spandau Ballet song “True,” and got it to them and they dug it. Also, it’s cool to have a relationship with these bands that I grew up listening to when I was a kid, in some way or another. But yeah, that felt pretty incredible to hear back from him.
So your music definitely doesn’t sound like the typical singer-songwriter of just strumming an acoustic.
Yeah. I hate the word singer-songwriter. I can’t stand that description [laughs].
Is that something you always wanted to do, to make full-band sounding music?
Yeah. There’s a little part of me that wishes I had just come up with a band name. Too many people are thinking I’m the Cary Brothers, which is the other problem. If they realize I’m one dude, they’re immediately like, “OK, he’s a singer-songwriter.” I feel like I’m a singer-songwriter as much as Peter Gabriel is a singer-songwriter. Just because it’s one person doesn’t mean it can’t be this full sound.
I grew up listening to U2, R.E.M., Echo & the Bunnymen and the Cure. Those are the bands that I loved. Those are my heroes. My heroes weren’t singer-songwriters. I respect Boy Dylan, but he’s not my end all, be all. It’s been strange to always have a presumption by people of what I do. That I’m just a guy strumming and singing sad songs with an acoustic guitar. A big part of this record was really making sure I end that perception.
I think any time now it’s just one guy, or under one guy’s name, people automatically assume it’s along the lines of a singer-songwriter.
Right, and the tough thing is doing it independently, it’s a lot more work to convince people. There’s a lot of people out there who I feel like would like my music who don’t like singer-songwriters. Part of the job of doing this independently is working that much harder to get those people to realize what the record sounds like.
I didn’t realize this until I saw the liner notes but you contributed some harmonies on Greg Laswell’s new record, and then you had a song on Tiësto’s new record as well. How often are you able to work with other artists, and how do you like doing that kind of thing?
I love it, man, getting to play in someone else’s sandbox. My thing is my thing, and I’m going to do that. Laswell is a great friend of mine. It looks like we’re actually going to tour together in July. It’s just so easy for me. We know each other’s music so well that he called me and said, “I need you in the studio.” I don’t even know how many songs I sang on the record. Half of them I was doing my Greg Laswell impersonation while I was singing. It’s weird because I think there were some songs I didn’t get credited on because he thinks it was him singing [laughs]. As long as the song’s good, I don’t need the credit.
Singing with Tiësto is a whole other world. Getting to play in that DJ dance world – where the hell did that come from? That was just a happy accident that turned out to be great. It also introduces my music to a whole group of people that I never would have found otherwise, who turned out to be great fans. The people that are going out dancing all night long at a Tiësto show, just because they’re listening to that at night doesn’t mean they’re listening to that on the way to work the next morning. I managed to find a whole new audience of people through that world, which was really cool.
I know you like to be very hands on in dealing with the business side of things. Are you still able to do that as much on this record, and what about that process appeals to you?
I ended up doing a label deal the last time I put a record out, and part of my thinking for doing that was, “OK, I’m going to stop doing all the work and all I’ll do is tour and write songs. I’ll have other people make all the decisions for me.” I had been doing it myself prior to that. I don’t think I gave myself enough credit to realize I actually knew what I was doing. I’ve done this long enough, and done it myself long enough, that I feel like I know as much as most people and labels right now, as far as putting music out there.
The tough thing about signing a label deal is you’re putting your future in the hands of people who are going for your success. They want success for you, but if it doesn’t work with you, they’re going to move on to the next thing. I don’t ever want to be in the position where anyone begins to think it’s time to move on to the next thing. This is my life, so I take it very seriously.
I’m going to be writing songs and recording songs. I have to do that. That’s why I play music, because I wouldn’t know what else to do for a living. At the same time, I’ll work my ass off to make sure the music has a chance to get out there. If that means I’m running all these websites, and I’m on a first name basis with everybody involved in the making of the record and putting the record out there, so be it. It’s a lot of extra work doing it independently, but at the same time you make all the money. It’s a good tradeoff, I’d say.
You went to school at Northwestern. Did you study businesses there and is that where the interest comes from?
No, I was an English major. That’s why every time I write a song the very last thing I do is write the lyrics. I have to convince myself that it’s OK. It’s like when you have nightmares that you forgot a test or something. I would always feel like I’m writing an English paper again. I have to remind myself, “No, no, no. It’s just a song. Things will be fine [laughs].”
You also went to school with Zach Braff, who’s had a hand in getting your music heard by a lot of people. What’s that relationship been like to experience over the years?
It was cool because Zach and I started off when we were both broke and were always really creatively in synch. I helped him with ideas for the Garden State script, and I was always sending him music before anybody else heard it. We were always pushing each other creatively.
When the Garden State stuff happened, it felt like a very natural thing for us to do. When he asked me to put “Blue Eyes” on the soundtrack, at the time I was just excited to have a song in my friend’s movie. I didn’t really expect any success from that thing. Again, nobody did. A lot of people didn’t pay attention to that movie until it came out, and then that soundtrack blew up very organically. Of course, he won the Grammy for it, and since he is not a musician he will never let me forget that [laughs]. He has a Grammy on his mantle.
It’s amazing to have someone really be true to their word and work with their friends. Luckily, he likes my music, so that helps. But I know a lot of people that find success and retreat into their selves and kind of lose touch with people along the way. Zach has been very much the opposite. It seems like he gets more and more supportive the more successful he gets. It’s been a very cool thing to watch that happen.
I thought it was really cool when you got to present that film festival award to him last month.
Oh, yeah. I think one great thing about that, and it’s happened with Zach, is in a pay it forward way any success that I’ve had has made me realize how much I want to help everyone around it, like putting the Hotel Café tour together and giving some young artists the chance to go on tour when they wouldn’t have before. Any time I can bring out somebody on an opening slot on my tour or support young artists in any way, there’s a great feeling of joy that comes out of helping other people succeed, too. It’s not just about me, me, me. I don’t ever want to be that guy.
Since the time when you first started out with the self-released EPs up through now, how would you say you’ve grown, both as a musician and as a person?
One thing is vocally when I made this record, I finally realized I could sing. I’ve always thought I sang well, or well enough. But there was something about going out on the road all these years and doing it every night. It wasn’t really about singing well. It was about finding my own voice, what works for me and what I sound like, as opposed to what everybody else in the world sounds like. That was probably the most important thing for me on this record. Stepping up in front of the mic in the studio every day, I felt more comfortable than I ever have before. I think that will now change the way I play live.
As a songwriter, I can’t really pat myself on the back at all because I feel like I’m constantly trying to work harder and make it better. I want every song I write to be better than the last song I wrote. A feel like you’re always trying to write the perfect song that will never be there, but that’s still the goal every time I sit down.
Also, I started playing a lot more instruments and just trying to learn. Even though I’ve had a certain degree of success, I feel like with this record I’m really just starting all over. I want to learn. I’m a sponge of musical information right now. I’m going to keep going and going. It’s been three years since I put a record out, and now I think I’ll put another record out within the next year. I really just want to start making more and more music. I want to have as much music out there when this is all said and done.
So real quick, what do you have lined up for the rest of the year?
Right now, it looks like at the end of the month I’m leaving for Holland to finish that tour with Laura Jansen. Then I’ll come back and probably try to get up to Canada, I think in June. Then I think Greg Laswell and I are going to do a co-headlining tour in July, and then at the end of August/September I’ll go out and do another headlining tour and hit all the cities I didn’t hit on that first one.
Originally appeared on Decoy Music