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Beyond the Garden 

Folk-pop crooner Cary Brothers strikes out on his own.

Brothers and actor Zach Braff both attended Northwestern University, where they stared at walls a lot.
  • Brothers and actor Zach Braff both attended Northwestern University, where they stared at walls a lot.
When Garden State hit the big screen in 2004, many didn't believe television actor Zach Braff's directorial debut stood a commercial chance. But he proved them wrong.

More folks, however, agreed that the movie's soundtrack was something remarkable -- maybe better than the movie itself. A perfect mix of dream pop and acoustic ballads, featuring Coldplay, the Shins, and an unsigned singer-songwriter by the name of Cary Brothers, it won the 2005 Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack.

The disc, which has sold more than a million copies to date, helped transform the Shins from indie darlings to pop stars. It also made Brothers' folk-pop ballad "Blue Eyes" an unexpected hit.

"That soundtrack changed my life," admitted Brothers last year in Los Angeles, where he lives. "When [it] came out, I had just finished my first EP, and I wasn't really prepared as an independent artist. I didn't have a big distribution deal. I didn't have the record on shelves. My immediate thing was getting it onto iTunes. 'Blue Eyes' ended up being one of the top-10 folk songs of the year on iTunes. That's simply from the impact of Garden State."

Buddies with Braff since college, Brothers, in his early 30s, went from an unknown, strumming and singing in L.A.'s Hotel Café, a small venue popular with modern folkies, to opening for national acts like Aqualung and the Fray. But the singer-songwriter did something strange along the way. He waited three years after the release of Garden State to drop his first full-length, Who You Are -- not exactly a shrewd business move.

"I wasn't ready mentally and in a lot of other ways," he says during a series of recent interviews. "I didn't want to put a record out just to put a record out -- just because I could sell some records because of Garden State. Another thing that was important to me was getting on the road and touring. I've been touring nonstop for three years now. That was really important to me, to make sure the live show would be up to the record and vice versa."

That move most definitely cost Brothers money and fame, but he wanted to do what was right for the music. At the time, he says, prospective labels "saw me as a cheap way to get into the Garden State thing." They would've wanted him to manufacture "Blue Eyes" over and over. "Maybe even remixes," he chuckles.

Brothers loves that song, but it doesn't represent his sound. So he held off signing a contract and releasing a full-length, which wasn't an issue financially. The success of Garden State allowed Brothers, an artist with a problem with authority, to finance his career.

"The luck I got out of Garden State -- I wanted to earn that luck with hard work," he explains. "I've been working in the industry a while, and I've seen enough dumb people do stupid things in my name. I had to step up and do it all myself."

Already a mainstay on MySpace -- part of his philosophy of cultivating an audience "one fan at a time" -- he began to experiment with his website. Featuring "songs of the week," the site started moving product, from CDs to T-shirts, like a merch table at one of his gigs.

But the business eventually overtook Brothers' one-man micro-management. His head was about to explode. He had become a slave to his e-mails. As a result, Brothers relinquished just a little control, recently signing with Bluhammock Music, the indie label that dropped Who You Are in May of this year.

"You should do as much on your own as you can beforehand," he explains. "If you go to a label, and you don't have a fan base and you haven't sold a bunch of CDs, they have you by the balls, and they'll basically tell you to do what they want you to do. If you don't, you'll get dropped."

Brothers' indie success proved to the label that his music was commercially viable without their, uh, suggestions. Who You Are only reaffirms this. Including "Ride," which appeared in The Last Kiss, a flick starring Braff, the disc spotlights Brothers' wide range of non-folk influences.

"The Glass Parade" is just a beautiful track Brothers nearly named the record after. "Then those emo kids [My Chemical Romance] called their album The Black Parade. That really bummed me out," he says with a laugh.

Most songs are about people Brothers knows and focus on the state of their lives. "A lot of it's about the fragility of relationships."

But eventually Brothers realized his songs, which he rarely analyzes, were as much about himself as the people he had based them on. "Who You Are is asking, 'Who am I?'" he says.

But Brothers must know who he is by now. And if he doesn't, he simply needs to look at the way he's conducted his career. Every decision he's made has been to maintain his artistic integrity and independence.

There are few in his business who can say that.

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