Bootleg Theater & 89.9 KCRW Present
Ethan Gruska residency
2220 Beverly Blvd
Los Angeles, CA, 90057
This event is 21 and over
At once minimalist and expansive, Ethan Gruska’s solo debut, the luminous Slowmotionary, embraces a range of sounds and styles, with influences from jazz and folk to ambient and alternative, Slowmotionary integrates everything into a whole that is original, idiosyncratic, and embraces its own imperfections. “I really tried to let that humanity in and to not only leave these quirky blemishes in, but to highlight them,” says Gruska. “I didn’t want perfect. I wanted true. I wanted honest.” He made room for a little serendipity in his creative process, sensing that too calculated an approach would diminish the impact of the music. That spontaneity provided a wonderful counterpoint to his thoughtful and revealing lyrics.
“What I hope is that people can sense the vulnerability in the writing,” says Gruska. “I hope that they can sense it’s someone telling the truth.” The deeply personal songs on Slowmotionary chronicle a period of transition in his life: The Belle Brigade, which he had started in 2008 with his sister Barbara Gruska, went on hiatus. He got engaged and moved in with his fiancé, leaving the neighborhood where he had lived for years. One chapter was closing, another opening, and the in-between-ness of the experience motivated him to write songs with no real expectations in mind—writing for writing’s sake—with no sense that he was working on an album or anything beyond the song itself.
Before he even knew he was making a solo album, Gruska had a handful of songs in his notebook—what he calls “vignettes”—vivid, wistful sets of melodies and lyrics, visually evocative and emotionally acute, inspired by short stories and short film. And poetry. Gruska avidly devours verse, which informs his songwriting. Each of these songs could live on the page without losing life or meaning. “The poet who has always had my heart is Pablo Neruda. I love Wordsworth and a lot of the Romantic poets, but Neruda was the first one who really killed me and I’ve never been able to move on from him.” Using these writers as guides and muses freed him up from the lyrical constraints he felt previously. “You have this freedom to be surreal and opaque and playful. The narrative doesn’t have to be clear all the time, so you are free to attach your own meanings to the words.”
Only gradually did the songs cohere in his mind into a statement, and with it came certain ideas of what he could express about himself, what he should leave unstated, and what the listener might interpret in the music. “I wasn’t worrying about whether every song had a chorus or a bridge or a hook. I threw all of that out the window for this, and it felt really liberating.” He let the songs themselves dictate their shapes and sounds, their repetitions and arrangements. Some needed to be short, needing less than two minutes to conjure their worlds in vivid details. Others depended on the echoing repetition of lines to conjure the inner workings of his mind. “Where is it you want to be?” he asks, over and over, on the hypnotic “Rather Be,” with its swirl of icy synths and delicate guitar picking. The song culminates in an epiphany about his own emotional dislocation: “We’re never where we want to be, we’re never where we want to be.”
Showcasing Gruska’s hushed vocals and subtle arrangements, these songs resonate with the intimacy of an internal monologue, as though we’re sharing in his darkest worries. On “Reoccurring Dream,” he reaches into his upper register to express romantic hesitations. “Reading your mind is never going to yield and answer,” he sings, as the song gently erupts into a flourish of strings and bass harmonica, like a fleeting memory of Pet Sounds. “Most of the time it’s just uneducated guessing that just leads to depression.” Similarly, opener “The Valley” turns mundane experiences into harrowing emotional ordeals: driving through Los Angeles, letting his mind wander at each stoplight, daydreaming about an ex-girlfriend, pondering his parents’ divorce and his own upcoming nuptials. “It’s family that defines me,” he sings wistfully, over a quiet cascade of piano chords. “I can’t help if they remind me of the fear that can be blinding: that history repeats itself in me.” It’s a quietly devastating moment, all the more powerful for being as uncertain as life itself.
These songs took their time from written verse to skeletal demos to finished album. With several friends and family members—including his sister Barbara, with whom he had played in the Belle Brigade—encouraging him to tackle them in the studio, Gruska called up Tony Berg and asked if he might advise. “Tony is a godfather to so many musicians, because he’s been very open to giving advice and helping people out without there being a caveat,” says Gruska. “I was pretty confused about what I was going to do and he really helped sort things out. I played him eight songs, many of which were very short iterations at that stage, and he said to me, ‘I’ll do this with you. Let’s not worry about the cost or the time.’”
Both Gruska and Berg emphasized unorthodoxy in these recordings. The basic tracking of Gruska’s performances was done live in the studio, as if he were performing for the listener. They worked in bursts and starts, a few days at a time with long breaks in between, a scattered schedule that allowed them to get some distance on the songs and hear them with fresh ears. “It gave us a lot of time to live with it.” Gruska played most of the instruments while never losing focus on the lyrics and what he wanted to communicate. A few friends and family added subtle flourishes. Gabe Noel played cello and bass; Blake Mills guitar; Rob Moose added gentle string arrangements; Barbara Gruska played drums on a few tracks.
“The goal was to have it be like a sound collage that I had made. It was really exploratory, with a lot of sampling and reversing—techniques I had tried in the past but had never gotten to fully explore.” The results are beautifully minimalist: songs as whispered confidences, with what Gruska calls an “arctic” sound, windswept and cold, befitting lyrics that depict moments frozen in time. “I didn’t want to hide behind anything. That’s why it’s produced and arranged the way it is. It’s very barren at certain moments. These songs slow down time for me, which is why I called it Slowmotionary. I needed to put myself out there musically and lyrically.”
And that meant not making it perfect. It meant making these songs sound like the results from something other than a studio. It meant conveying the sense of music that is being written at the same moment you hear it. “A lot of the record is mysterious, even to me. It’s not something you always tap your foot to. You’re listening to my thought process.”
The quirky and soulful hallmarks that define Priscilla Ahn's folk-pop music and her pristine, ethereal vocals are uniquely her own. Since her 2008 debut LP, A Good Day, for EMI's Blue Note Records, and its heart-resonant breakout hit, "Dream," Ahn's lyrical, original worlds of innocence and melancholy have had a delicate, but profound impact. In 2014, after weeks of liberating, self-imposed isolation at a desert retreat, this gifted artist deepened her creative voice further with the electro-pop-infused album, This is Where We Are, a mature, nuanced statement of power and sensuality.
Ahn's latest project, La La La, an album for young children, isn't the departure it may seem. Ahn's friends had often told her that their children loved "Dream" — a song that begins with a "little girl, alone in her little world" and ends with a life fully lived, ready to take flight into the unknown."It surprised me they were responding to this song that really wasn't intended for them," Ahn says. "I remember having these complicated lonely emotions as a kid and that's what verses in that song are about."
Long in the planning, the spark that brought La La La to fruition came when Ahn and her husband, actor Michael Weston, welcomed the birth of their son in November 2015.
By turns whimsical, playful, and lovely, the album's dozen tracks include "Body Sounds" ("Hey, you got a nice belly bongo/ it likes to go wherever you go"), Ahn's "Dust Bunny" (reassurance for scary times) and her caressing "Desert Lullaby." A stirring, unexpected interpretation of parental tenderness and childhood reverie, La La La is Ahn's return, in a way, to "Dream" and "A Good Day": "Kind of hopeful sounding and innocent and simple in its instrumentation," she says, "with songs that I feel kids can relate to, emotionally and sonically." Whatever the age of her target audience, Ahn says, "Being genuine in my lyrics and in my connection to my songs—for that to come through—is really important to me."
Growing up in Pennsylvania, Ahn listened to Neil Young, the Beatles, Pink Floyd and other music her dad enjoyed listening to. Ahn later found personal resonance in female artists Ani DiFranco, Jewel, Sarah McLachlan, and Feist, and after high school, and a road trip that took her to Los Angeles, Ahn discovered jazz, and in particular, jazz legend Chet Baker. It was a creative turning point. "The way Chet Baker sang and the way he played trumpet affected the way my vocal technique evolved."
In L.A., Ahn played in coffee houses, "and at every open mike there was," networking with other musicians and finding gigs in small clubs, before coming to the attention of producer Joey Waronker and signing with Blue Note Records. Ahn's professional career has taken her through the United States, and to Europe, Japan, China, and South Korea. She has toured with such noted artists as Willie Nelson, Amos Lee, and Ray LaMontagne. Her eclectic list of collaborators includes Tiesto, Sia, Inara George, and Dave Sitek.
In addition to Ahn's appearances on late night national TV shows and her live performance of "Dream" on ABC's "Dancing with the Stars," her songs have enhanced numerous TV shows and films, from "Grey's Anatomy" and "The Ghost Whisperer," to "Bride Wars," Guillermo del Toro's "Pacific Rim," and the upcoming 2016 Ewan McGregor film, "American Pastoral." Ahn's poignant theme song for the Oscar-nominated 2014 Studio Ghibli film, "When Marnie Was There," led to her album, Just Know That I Love You, written and recorded at the Ghibli producers' request and based on the film and its children's book inspiration. ("That was a joy to work on," says Ahn. "I was almost writing songs about myself again.")
While Ahn describes her music as "folksinger-songwriter-based," she pulls ideas from books that move her and finds inspiration in painting. "I'm not good at it, but it feeds that part of my brain that kind of needs to breathe and get exercise. And all of that funnels back into my songwriting somehow, sort of subconsciously."
"I feel like where I am now is a lot more relaxed, a lot more just kind of who I am," Ahn adds. "From the beginning, I never had wild dreams about a big career. I've just wanted to be able to make music, and if I can make a living from it, l feel super lucky." As far as what the future may hold, "I have no idea," she says. "But I have a feeling that it will be pretty simple. That's what I'm craving these days."
La La La will be available on October 28, 2016, wherever music is sold.