"Remember when music sounded good?" Ethan Gruska ponders on the first track off his sophomore album, En Garde. It's an innocent question with a complex queue of follow-up questions. But in order to truly understand it, you must first understand his context. As a child, Gruska grew up in a music-dominated household. As in, his father is an Emmy-nominated composer, his grandfather is award-winning composer John Williams (Star Wars, Indiana Jones), and his sister is a successful drummer who has played live for acts such as Fiona Apple and The Foo Fighters, amongst others. With all of this pure talent seemingly brimming over in one household, it can be hard to distinguish yourself as as individual far removed from your lineage's successes. Which is exactly what he does on this new album, in no less than twelve self-assured tracks.
There is a delicate vulnerability that courses through En Garde, clinging on to each song like a shy friend. It's in the nuanced production of acoustics and subtle electronica, in the at times hushed vocals, and most distinctly in the exposed songwriting. "Usually when I'm writing it's coming from something that I'm obsessively thinking about," he shares with me over a phone conversation on a grey December afternoon. Of course, for him it's much more sunny over in his L.A home. "I tried to be slightly more mysterious [than my first album] and I think that in some of my earlier writing I would always get frustrated with how narrative-driven or how much of a through line there is. [These songs] are all true to what I go through."
"On The Outside", a track adorned with self-doubt and careful observations, Gruska adopts a warbling guitar and a humming bass line that tears right through you long before the lyrics do. "I always feel like I'm on the outside with you | Maybe because you are an outsider too". It's a distinctive song that expresses emotion through a myriad of subtleties and instrumental snippets (strings, xylophone). An observation that extends into other tracks on the album. "The first record was all about making it work in the most minimal way. Making the songs function being short and having very little production. This new album is different in that it's more of a production statement than anything really." For an artist with only two full length releases, he maintains a highly sophisticated perspective on the methods of creation. "Knowing how to make something work in a minimal way is going to influence your ability to have restraint when trying to build something up. The biggest thing I learned [from the first album] is an exercise in having restraint."
Of course, it would be unfair of me to credit Gruska with his production techniques without talking about his previous work. After all, Rome wasn't built in a day. His first creative trials were in fact with The Belle Brigade, a project he started alongside his sister, Barbara. "We did so much hard work. We did so much touring together. I learned everything through that project," he lovingly recounts, even attributing it to being the real beginning of everything else. "Right before Barb and I decided to put a freeze on the whole thing, I was writing more on the piano which I haven't done a ton of for Belle Brigade, so I think that was just a really natural turning point for coming back to my instrument, which led me to my first solo record." Alongside his debut album Slowmotionary, his evolving songwriting and producing experiences also opened up doors to quieter opportunities. He's credited on several other artists' projects, including one that returned the favour by appearing on his newest record: The inimitable Phoebe Bridgers.
Epitomizing the diverse spirit of Gruska's album, "Enough for Now" almost feels like an aberration with its liberated pop appeal and rhythmic chorus. And even though Bridger's ethereal backing vocals can chill you right to the bone, it's the jubilant percussions that make the lasting impression. A feat that could only be achieved through collaboration with co-producer Tony Berg and mixer Tchad Blake. "A few years ago I started doing more co-writing and writing with other artists that led me to being better at being a collaborator. On this record, everyone that I got to work with was somebody that I really admired. You learn something from everyone's process. It was my favourite part of making this album."
Personal, authentic, and blessed by many helping hands. That is what En Garde ultimately is. Not just a string of perfection-seeking songs, but a mirror through which Gruska could search for answers. "One of my favourite songs on the record is called 'Attacker'. That piece of music I just had around for a really long time; it just took so long but when it did click it actually happened really fast." He further explains that oftentimes, courage comes in the form of finding the right medium to express your fears. "I think a lot of my lyrics are usually about the amount of time I spend projecting my thoughts onto an interaction. Thinking that you can read someone's mind, what they're thinking about you. The disastrous social things that can happen. I try to write about that stuff to get that out because usually I'm wrong. When you think somebody else is thinking something about you, it's usually just something you think about yourself that you're adding this onto them to try to prove that it is real. And I think writing it and getting it out this way is a lot safer than believing it. "
There's no doubt here that the only thought running through my mind is that Ethan Gruska is a rare talent that may come from a rose-filled family, but he's out here growing his own garden. And in the sunlight of his undiminished passion, it is finally blooming.