Like many siblings, Barbara and Ethan Gruska had their ups and downs over their years growing up together in Los Angeles. “Oh, we hated each other as kids,” Barbara says with a laugh. “And by hate, I mean ‘love dearly,’ but we could never get along. We started to become friends for the first time when Ethan was 15 and I was 21. Then we became best friends and four years later we started writing songs together and formed The Belle Brigade.”
Listening to The Belle Brigade’s self-titled debut album, you could never tell that these two were ever not in perfect sync. The Gruskas’ familial chemistry, not to mention their obvious songwriting gifts, have resulted in one of the most thrilling debut albums you’re going to hear all year. Inspired by the duo’s love for Fleetwood Mac, Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles, and Stevie Wonder, their artfully arranged, freewheeling songs brim with breezy, California melodies and bracing pop harmonies, fueled by the driving rhythms Barbara plays on drums. As performed by Ethan and Barbara and their talented group of backing musicians, Bram Inscore (bass), Blake Mills, (electric guitar), Aaron Arntz (piano), and Jimi Hendrix/Joe Cocker keyboardist Mike Finnigan (Hammond B-3 organ), songs like “Sweet Louise,” “Where Not To Look For Freedom,” “Lucky Guy,” and “Lonely Lonely,” are tailor-made for road-tripping up the coast with the car top down, sunshine on your face, and the music blasting into the roar of the wind.
“We didn’t want to make something small and precious,” Barbara says. “We wanted to make something big and exhilarating. Recording this album was an incredible lesson at walking the line between holding on and letting go. Every note is intentional, but we gave up the reins to let the music go freely where it wanted to go. We wanted to make a record that was personal and aching, but still uplifting, relatable, and fun to listen to.”
Barbara and Ethan credit their co-producer Matthew Wilder (No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom) — a family friend who offered his services after hearing a few of their songs — with helping them to keep open minds. “He created an environment where it was safe to try anything,” Ethan says. Adds Barbara: “If you had told us that we’d be using our screaming voices, have a 30-piece orchestra on a song, or use reverse guitar-looping effects, we wouldn’t have believed you. With Matthew and our engineer Csaba Petocz’s help, we let go of our inhibitions and fear of being uncool or too exposed.”
The liberated mood of the music dovetails beautifully with the duo’s thoughtful, emotionally resonant lyrics. “A lot of this album has to do with the struggle to let go of our fear of being judged and our judgments of others in order to find powerful connections,” Barbara says. The thematic centerpiece is “Losers,” on which Ethan and Barbara sing in perfect unison: “Don’t care about being a winner / Or being smooth with women / Or goin’ out on Friday / Being the life of parties… Or if I am a loser” and declaring “So I wanna make it known / That I don’t care about any of that shit no more.”
“The song is about being insecure and jealous and letting go of all the terrible things you can feel about yourself and realizing that life is not a game,” Ethan says. “It’s not a competition. It’s kind of a pep talk to ourselves to remember that.” Other songs reflect on disillusionment (“Belt of Orion,” “Punch Line”), yearning (“Rusted Wheel”), and awkward romance (“Sweet Louise”). Then there’s “Lucky Guy,” a song about how fortunate we are to be alive. After the duo sing “But now everything’s all right / Even though I think about dying,” they complete the phrase in harmony with a Beatle-esque “Ooh!” — which distills, in the simplest way, the happy-sad paradox within their music.
“That balance between happy and sad was intentional,” Barbara says. “When I was Ethan’s age, I wrote a really sad song and played it for my dad. He said, ‘I dare you to write a happy song. It’s so much harder to write a happy song,’ and he was right. That really stuck with me. I love the combination of sad lyrics with happy music and vice versa. Too much of one thing feels like going overboard.”
It was just one lesson that Barbara would get from her father. Jay Gruska is a songwriter and composer who released two albums of his own on Warner Bros. Records in the early ’80s and wrote a number of hit songs for other artists (including Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, and Dusty Springfield), as well as hours of music for films and television. His studio, in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, was in the family’s backyard so musicians were constantly coming and going. “My dad was like my songwriting coach, but he was never overbearing,” says Ethan. “He’s always the person we test our new songs out on,” Barbara says. “If he cracks a smile it’s a keeper. If he doesn’t, it’s usually back to the drawing board.” Barbara and Ethan’s maternal grandfather is Oscar- and Grammy-winning film composer John Williams (Star Wars, Jaws, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark), someone they both cite as a huge musical influence.
Not surprisingly, both Barbara and Ethan began playing music at a young age. Ethan has been singing since he can remember. He took a few piano lessons as a kid, but really began playing piano and writing songs in earnest at the age of 14. He studied classical composition for a year at Cal Arts in Valencia, CA, but “I never really felt that fire with it like I did when I write a little, stripped-down pop song,” he says. As for Barbara, when she was nine, she fashioned a drum set out of random objects in her room (“I hung a pan lid on my pull-up bar to use as a cymbal,” she says) and played that until her uncle gave her her first drum kit. Barbara studied jazz drumming at both Oberlin College and Cal Arts before dropping out to hit the road with The Bird and The Bee’s Inara George, followed by tours with Benji Hughes and Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis. The musicians mentioned above who play on The Belle Brigade album are friends of Barbara’s from the Los Angeles music scene.
“There’s a really high level of musicianship and creativity coming from all the guys on this album,” Barbara says. “They are all our close friends and it was an incredibly rewarding experience to be surrounded by these amazing musicians. I like to hear other people in the music. That’s what the album is about; it was such a group effort. It’s just more fun to make things with other people. Hopefully what comes across is that we work hard and love what we do and are grateful for the opportunity to actually be artists.”