Despite debuting in 2013 and participating in several high-profile projects, including drama OSTs and guest performances on Mnet’s Show Me The Money, things are only just starting to click into place for Cha Jung-won a.k.a. Car, the Garden. After winning SBS’ The Fan (a fan-voted show illuminating lesser-known artists), he has earned a much-needed boost in popularity and public recognition, pushing him to the forefront of indie music in Korea.
After releasing an EP and several singles under his previous moniker, Mayson the Soul, the singer-songwriter changed his name to Car, the Garden (“cha” means “car” while “jung-won” means “garden”) in 2016 on the advice of friend and collaborator Oh Hyuk. Despite the change in name, however, Car, the Garden’s music has retained the same kind of emotional sensitivity and genre fluidity that made Mayson the Soul’s music so interesting. Songs like “6 to 9” (featuring Loco) and “Bushwick” (featuring Oh Hyuk) from the album Photographer display his versatility, bridging guitar rock, melodic R&B and moody retro-pop with his smooth, androgynous voice spread like butter on top.
As he expertly references multiple genres in his work, it’s hard to pigeonhole Car, the Garden’s music into any genre except a broad category like indie. While he mainly uses band instruments, his music rarely edges completely into rock. His voice adds an air of soulful R&B to his songs, and his melody-writing is so strong that it often creates a sense of pop iconicity to his choruses and instrumental riffs. His single “Little by Little” is one of my favourites, instantly retro and funky whilst also feeling inexplicably melancholic. The B-side on the single, “Lean On You”, is just as beautiful, blending dreamy, echoing riffs with soft, reggae-inspired guitars.
His debut EP, Jackasoul, explored a darker, grittier sound than you’d hear now, with slightly harsher and less graceful instrumentation but nevertheless beautiful melodies, especially on the opening track, “Lost”. The title track, “Holiday” featuring Beenzino is also a dark but strangely upbeat song, juxtaposing a bouncing beat with gloomy chords.
It’s fair to say that his sound softened out over the years after his debut effort, and his latest full-length album, Apartment (2017), opted for a more light-footed approach on songs like “Island” (featuring Oh Hyuk) and “Home Sweet Home”. He has also embraced ballads more fully, lending his voice to several OSTs and writing heartfelt ballads like “Together”, “Tree” and his latest single, “Memorize Our Night”, perhaps in response to his newfound audience after successful ballad performances on The Fan.
Personally, though, the mysterious, dream-like quality on songs like “Little by Little” and “Lean On You” are what have always attracted me to Car, the Garden’s music. Beautiful though ballads like “Memorize Our Night” are, they lose a little of the uniqueness his music had before. Whether they are a genuine part of his musical growth, or a calculated effort to retain his new mainstream audience, it’s my personal hope that Car, the Garden will be able to reconcile the two styles moving forward, bringing back the genre-mixing magic his music had before.