Ethan Gruska: Following in His Family’s Footsteps

by The Cowl Editor on October 26, 2017

Arts & Entertainment

Musician Ethan Gruska poses for a promo shot
Photo courtesy of Eliot Lee Hazel

by Kerry Torpey ’20

A&E Co-Editor

As the son of three-time Emmy nominated composer Jay Gruska and the grandson of five time Oscar winning composer John Williams, you could say that music is in singer-songwriter Ethan Gruska’s blood. Gruska, and his sister Barbra found success with their band, The Belle Brigade, when they released their critically acclaimed self-titled album in 2011.

In 2014, the duo toured with Ray LaMontagne, and now Gruska is back on tour with LaMontagne following the release of his solo debut, Slowmotionary (2017). Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Gruska about his new album, solo career, and what it is like to be back on tour.

KT: To start off, can you tell me a little bit about when you realized you wanted to be a musician?

EG: I don’t remember exactly when it was, it wasn’t like an “aha-moment” for me…but a lot of people in my family are professionals. My dad has a studio in our house and I always felt comfortable around it… [I’d say] when I was 14 or 15 I started writing songs and loved that so much…that’s when I thought that maybe I would like to do it, and as I got closer to 18 or 19 I actually started working.

KT: With the success of your father and grandfather in the industry, do you sense any sort of pressure coming from such a musically influential family?

EG: There’s definitely people who would love to add that pressure. Unfortunately, in this day and age, everything is about comparison and people have a hard time seeing something in its own inherent value…For me, I don’t feel that way, for my life and craft is different from what they do, and although I’d love to do what they do, I just don’t really think my art functions that way.

KT: It looks like this is your second time touring with Ray LaMontagne. How did you feel when you found out you would be touring with him again? 

EG: I was happy! I’m a fan of Ray and he’s a friend of mine and I hadn’t seen him for a few years. I used to be in his band, and once that tour cycle ended and he went off and did his thing and I did my thing…I wasn’t sure when I was going to see him again, [and] it was like seeing an old pal. I was stoked to come and play for him.

KT: Is it anything different this time around now that you’re a solo artist apart from your former band, The Belle Brigade?

EG: Yeah, it’s totally different. Getting on stage this opening show is just me alone. That’s a totally different experience—to get up on stage by yourself. You know, before, I had Barb and she was playing drums and we could make a lot of noise…we could win people over with energy and [now] I still have to have energy, by myself…[There] has to be a sort of intimacy that has to get people intrigued, and it’s not easy, but…Ray’s crowd is a listening crowd [so I] feel comfortable.

KT: What is the best piece of advice someone has given you as you go down this path of a solo career?

EG: I guess some advice that I like in many different ways is to just keep making stuff and doing your thing. You know, the solo thing for me is just one aspect…I spent a long time with my sister and band and when that ended, I decided I wouldn’t do just one thing…I still play on a lot of sessions in LA and produce records and do scoring, so I don’t have a lot of pressure on this one aspect. So [my advice would be] to just keep yourself busy.

KT: And who are some of your biggest musical influences?

EG: It’s sort of always changing. I guess the few that never stopped are Elliot Smith [and] Joni Mitchell. I’ve become a huge fan of Mark Kozelek, who’s sort of an interesting presence in songwriting because he has lot of different projects that somehow become solo…I got introduced to his music by an artist whose album I produced, Phoebe Bridgers. We covered one of his songs on her record…I also listen to a lot of classical.

KT: Your album Slowmotionary came out in March earlier this year. What were the writing and producing processes like for you?

EG: It was, you know, just like a left turn for me. It’s very different than anything I’ve ever done. It’s really sparse and there’s nothing to hide behind. There’s just the songs [and] not many bells and whistles. The process was interesting…to be compelling as possible with as little as possible. I got to work with Tony Berg who produced the record and before that was an idol of mine…That was life changing for me to be able to work with Tony and change from him. To be able to work on a record that I’m proud of [with him] was life changing.

KT: Is there one track in particular you love to perform on stage?

EG: “Rather Be” because it has a little bit more rhythm than some of the other songs on the record, and live that helps to give people something to sort of sway with, [and] for me it’s in a good register.

KT: A song that really stands out to me off the album is “Crowded City Street.” Is there any story behind this track?

EG: That’s a song that I had, man, must’ve started that maybe six years ago. That was sort of an old spark and I was sort of always messing around with that song. What stuck was how short it was, I think it is just under a minute…During the process of writing the other songs, I realized a lot were short little vignettes and the thing was to keep them short and the music complex…the story is it took me a long time to realize it was done…it took me forever.

KT: Are you working on any new music currently?

EG: Yeah, before this tour I’ve been doing a lot of production with Tony in L.A. and that’s sort of been keeping me busy on off days…I have about 20 to 25 new songs and I haven’t started to record yet…I have a lot of new material and am sort of discovering [it all for] myself…half the battle is writing them.

KT: And finally, do you have any advice for young aspiring musicians who are hoping to have a professional career in the industry?

EG: Just continue to make stuff. And, you know, it’s not about validation from other people. It’s about feeling from within yourself that you’re improving and if you want to make it your job, you need that validation, [so] you’re gonna need a career and pay the bills. If you can make the priority to become a more refined writer and creator, then you can be happy with the hills and valleys within the career…if you have that drive to be a better artist, all the rollercoaster elements of the music industry, they can jab you but they can’t knock you out. Stay true to the art and try to keep your head down and ignore the false advertising of the world.