The Los Angeles-based Ethan Gruska, 30, grew up in the Valley watching his father, Emmy-nominated composer Jay Gruska, work with session players in their backyard studio and nerding out over Star Wars and Indiana Jones — the scores to both were written by his grandfather, the legendary John Williams. “As a kid, I didn’t understand how heavy that all is,” says Gruska today. “But the studio environment never felt foreign or scary to me.”
That mentality helped Gruska when he got an unexpected call in 2019 from Fiona Apple that led to them recording together. Gruska also co-produced forthcoming albums from indie singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers and Atlanta alt-rockers Manchester Orchestra last year, all while making his own second album, the lush indie-folk En Garde, out Jan. 24 on Warner Records. “I’m hoping it leads to more collaborations as a producer and writer,” he says. “It’s a long process of putting together everything I’ve learned — and putting it to my own voice.”
Gruska first met Bridgers through Tony Berg, a studio/A&R veteran who produced Gruska’s first solo album, 2017’s Slowmotionary. “Phoebe, Tony and I — we call ourselves The Trilemma: a dilemma with three outcomes,” says Gruska with a laugh. “We lean on each other a lot.” He and Berg co-produced Bridgers’ acclaimed 2017 debut, Stranger in the Alps, and are now finishing up her second LP. “She brought in a batch of songs that are truly elevated, as a lyricist and composer,” says Gruska. “I’d just gotten some new toys before the project — granular synthesizer samplers — so there’s a lot of sound design on the record.”
Gruska’s older sister — who once drummed in Apple’s live band — introduced him to the singer’s classic albums when he was a teen. He immediately became a fan. So in mid-2019, when Berg asked him to play piano on an Apple song he was producing — a cover of The Waterboys’ “The Whole of the Moon” for Showtime’s The Affair — he was thrilled. “I had never seen somebody sing with that amount of energy in one take and [have it be] perfect,” recalls Gruska. Weeks later, he was co-producing Apple’s cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night,” featuring Bridgers and The National’s Matt Berninger, released to benefit Planned Parenthood.
In 2019, Gruska was brought in to put finishing touches on Bad Books’ June album, III. Frontman Andy Hull was so impressed that he enlisted Gruska to co-produce the upcoming sixth studio album for his main band, the heady, post-hardcore Manchester Orchestra, whose last album, 2017’s A Black Mile to the Surface, debuted at No. 2 on Vinyl Albums. “There are really interesting, character-driven narratives, but you always can tell they’re about something that’s real to [Hull],” says Gruska of Manchester Orchestra’s new album, which is in its early stages.
Plus, check out an exclusive look at Gruska making a track off his new album.
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 11 issue of Billboard.