Interview by Mark Benjamin. Photography by Raul Romo.
Singer-songwriter and producer, Ethan Gruska released his new album, En Garde in February with Warner Records. Ethan comes from a large family of musicians including renowned composers such as his Oscar-winning grandfather, John Williams, and his father, Emmy nominated Jay Gruska. The new album from Ethan takes authenticity as a departure into a body of work full of introspection and intricate songwriting. RAIN sat down with the musician and producer to learn more about his music career, process, and producing aspirations.
RAIN: You come from a family of very successful musicians and performers. How was it like growing up in that environment?
Ethan Gruska: It’s weird for me to have a perspective on it because it’s just the way that I grew up, but the older I get and the more I do in music I see how much my dad and my grandpa and my uncles and my sister…there are so many people in my family that do it professionally and are so incredible. It increases my respect for their grind, really. It’s not a steady or relaxed job, no matter what level you’re at. Watching people in my family work really hard and make music a profession gave me a lot of hope and probably false confidence at the beginning of my career that I could do it.
I realize it’s just like any other job. You work really hard and don’t take time off until you’ve earned it, you know? You’re also battling not just external things but internal things and your own artistry and your own work. When I’m working with other people, like producing for other people or writing for other people, I find it much easier to not have that inner critic be as nuclear. When I’m working on my own stuff, I do feel like I’m getting better at it, but each record as you come face to face with it is always a surprise for me how much I have to overcome that inner doubt to finish one of my own records.
Is music something that just came to you naturally?
I never was forced to go to lessons or anything. I’m basically self-taught. I took a year of lessons when I was seven and learned the notes on the piano and then stopped. When I was fourteen, I started naturally writing little songs. My dad is a piano player and he taught me a lot of different types of voicings and helped me learn chords that I didn’t know. I was self taught with some luck and help from family.
Prior to your solo release, you had a band, The Belle Brigade. Is that still active?
No, we did that for five and a half years and did a ton of touring; two records and playing with other bands. Barb and I decided that, for no bad reason other than the fact that we just wanted to try something new, put that on hold. I would love to make another record with Barbara one day, but I don’t think either of us have time right now, but one day I think we definitely will.
I was wondering, how did your sound or vision change as you struck out on your solo career?
Well, I think that with The Belle Brigade we were so young when we started. We put out our first track when I was nineteen and so, in retrospect, I just had no idea. It was on pure instinct and just like earnestness. I had no concept of what my artistic voice was. It was just whatever came out. I think that those two records helped me learn that is what you’re supposed to do, but then the editing process of piecing together a real thing. I think with growing up and having done those projects, I think my soul is just a little bit more carefully curated and at this point it’s just kind of production research and development.
It’s interesting that you mentioned how you were nineteen and just formed this band. Did that come out as free and fearless?
There was no second guessing it because I didn’t realize at that point like that you can have a song that can go any which way. A song can be drafted a million times it’s just kind of like, ‘okay, I’m done.’ That was great.
It seems some of my favorite artists and pop music in general is moving into more obscure and darker territory.
I mean I will say that it has happened to the stuff that I’ve been making. It’s gotten a bit more heady and more brooding. There’s a part of me now, even with this record. My first solo was very sparse and classically inspired and now this album is a bit more leaning towards some of the earlier music that I used to like doing. More pop arrangements and more kitchen sink production. I think every record is going to be like a rebellion against the last for me. I’m really hoping to make a solo piano instrumental record, too.
I listened to your new album, En Garde, start to finish and it really stands on its own as a holistic and cohesive body of work. Do you take a lot of inspiration from your personal life?
Definitely. I always feel when I’m the person singing it, I’m not a very good actor or liar. It’s hard for me to deliver something authentically that I can’t relate to. Maybe I’m getting better at that because writing with and for other people has sort of trained me to not be so dead set on having to be real to me. My songs come from a place of weird social interactions and trying to see the intent behind things. Just kind of like shitty mind reading is how I usually put it and projecting my own shit on people and then sort of meditating on why something maybe true or why it’s super dumb.
Does one have to live a little before they can write a good song?
Well, I don’t think so. I see people write these gems and these timeless songs because of their purity. You don’t have to live a little to write something timeless, but maybe you have to live a little to write something really deep and layered. I think purity and the young person’s song kind of just comes and is what it is. But then something from someone who has mastered an art finds something new every time. Of course there’s going to be exceptions to this.
Yeah, for example I’m reminded of Taylor Swift’s first big hit, “Teardrops on my Guitar.” She was seventeen when she wrote that one.
it’s insane. If you look at the median age of people at the top of commercial music, it’s so young. There’s a reason, besides production and swagger, those songs reach so many people. Whether it’s because of how layered they are or not, there’s something that’s universal about it. I have a lot of respect for that even though it’s not usually what I’m going for in my own music. I do think it’s a whole other art form in itself.
For the album art of En Garde is this photo of you as a kid holding a trophy? What’s the backstory of that picture?
I was in a little soccer league and I was terrible at it, somebody on the team must’ve carried me for that trophy. I would have never deserved it. I liked the picture because I think that there was just a weird swagger to my expression. That the picture has always surprised me. I look like a bully or something in the picture. I have a fighting face and that’s really not my personality.
When I saw that picture I was at a time in my life where I was feeling sensitive and my identity was kind of mysterious to me. There was an assuredness of being a young kid and just having a game face. I thought that was an initial thing for the record. I wanted to show the record of having a little bit more power behind it, or maybe just being more aggressive.
They say good songwriting can morph into whatever genre the musician, the artist, wants it to be. Why do you feel most comfortable in the indie folk genre?
This record feels a little bit schizophrenic in terms of genre. There’s like three or four songs that do feel indie folk, and then there’s two or three songs that lean…Now I’m never going to be a hip hop artist but those influences are in there as a reference, I think. Genre follows you around a bit. My early music sounds very singer-songwriter which is cool because that’s what I grew up loving. My idols are people like Paul Simon and Randy Newman. Genre confuses me. I would love to be genreless. I think every artist would, but my producing side would love to have lots of different kinds of music and not be pigeonholed or painted into a corner.
I love this quote of yours. “I prefer people who wear it on their sleeves. I wish the world was more like that. Making my contribution vulnerable is all I can do.” How do you get to the point in your songwriting where you can share more vulnerable moments?
I think that for me it’s always like if you write a line or something you’re like, ‘wow, that boiled down to what I felt and I didn’t even realize it.’ I think that there’s a surprise element where you didn’t even realize that you felt that way or that you knew how to express it. I think when that happens to you, like if you write a line like that and you feel that, I think there’s a small percentage of other people who will be able to relate and know that it was real. I think that my songs are coming from a first person and it makes it easier to come across honestly because you’re not talking about characters or something like that.
You have quite a few collaborative features on this album, right?
Phoebe Bridgers is on the record. Phoebe I’ve worked with quite a bit. I co-produced her first record and we’ve been working a lot recently on some stuff. Moses Sumney has vocals on the record. I’m a huge fan of his. Lianne La Havas is on the record and I’m also a huge fan of hers. It was really lucky that these people who I admire so much let me use their talent. I feel that’s kind of the most exciting thing for me about this record is that it’s the community of people. It just opened up so much more for me.
It was organic. It wasn’t like a blind thing, you know. It came from having worked with these people, or creating a relationship however big or small. It was super collaborative. With Moses Sumney, the song was originally supposed to be for him, but for whatever reason it just sat around and I was like, ‘well, if you guys are cool, I’d love to put it out.’
Everybody always talks about the music that’s out but as we know, there’s so much music that never sees the light of day.
I know, it’s insane, but it’s cool because it’s still all discoverable and unfortunately I’m not a great diver in that way. My wife is though. It’s like benders of going into a weird Nebula of finding new music. I’m discovering a lot through her.
Have you heard about how Aphex Twin’s Syro came about? His fan base came together online after some songs leaked and crowd funded an album of his unreleased music. The album turned out to be a huge hit.
That’s so crazy. That’s bizarre and sort of freaks me out, but also it’s exciting. It’s weird to imagine what the next iteration of producing is going to be. That idea of your fans like choosing their own adventure record is super cool. I hope someone figures that out.
Do you have live shows coming for the new album?
There’s a show or two that’s happening in LA coming up. I’m finishing up a bunch of records right now. I would definitely love to play this stuff live, but I’m still sort of figuring that out.
Interview by Mark Benjamin.
Listen to En Guarde out now on all streaming platforms.