The Belle Brigade interview: Beatweek Rising Star 2011
May 10, 2011 by Bill Palmer
by Bill Palmer
The sibling duo of Barbara and Ethan Gruska have developed their own unique vocal harmony-based brand of sweet tinged folk-pop as The Belle Brigade, and caught attention for proclaiming that it’s okay to feel like losers even in an era in which everyone is talking about winning. The pair spoke with Beatweek about about their debut album, the real identity of Sweet Louise, their surprising family legacy, and the impact of the critical buzz surrounding their band.
Most musical duos meet in adulthood or maybe high school, but you two have known each other your whole lives. When you were growing up did you think you’d ever be working together professionally?
Ethan: We didn’t get along as young kids. Most of our childhood, being very different from each other and the age gap, made it hard to connect when we were young. In terms of working together, that didn’t pop into our heads until we actually did start working together which was about two years ago, two and a half years ago. So for most of our childhood, no, music wasn’t as much of a common ground and fun way to hang out as it is now.
What triggered you guys two years ago to give it a go?
Barbara: We hadn’t been thinking about it. I was an all the sudden epiphany type of thing. We started singing harmonies on each other’s songs and it was really fun., so we literally in a moment decided to do that. We immediately started writing and making demos, and sent our demos out to two different labels, showcased for labels, and got signed to Warner Bros and recorded the record. Now we’re on tour.
You’re both instrument players and not just singers. When you go to write music, do you write together? What instruments do you write on?
Barbara: Ethan plays both piano and guitar, and I play guitar and drums. We just switch around on all of those instruments.
The alliteration of the name “Belle Brigade” rolls off the tongue. Where did it come from?
Barbara: That was a lyric from an old song that I wrote before Ethan and I started working together. That song was about our other brother Eli, we have an eleven year old brother. That song was about him, and the name stuck.
We’ve got to talk about your song Losers. This is an era where “winning” is a catchphrase all over Twitter, and you guys are singing about how it’s okay to be losers. What was the inspiration behind that?
Ethan: It probably just came from a lifetime of often feeling like a loser, which I know everybody feels that. We definitely feel that all the time. I don’t mean “loser” as in a classic loser that you would see in a movie or something. It’s just about feeling low self esteem and feeling like you’re below other people or envious of other people. It’s just about all the crappy stuff that you can feel about yourself, and it just came from trying to write a mantra or a pep talk as a way to remember that those things don’t matter, that being a loser is inevitable and it doesn’t matter.
Is there a real Louise that Sweet Louise is based on?
Ethan: There is in fact a real Louise, but it wasn’t about us and Louise. It was actually a story about one of my friends who wrote a love letter to a girl named Louise. The song is the story of that. But yeah, there was a real Louise and she likes the song. She’s a friend of mine from college, and she left a message saying that usually the songs people have written about her have been not very nice, so she was glad.
You guys tell me you’re brother and sister, and I believe you. But there have been things like when Jack White told everyone that Meg was his sister and it was actually his ex-wife. There are people who don’t want to believe those things anymore. Do you find that people are skeptical?
Ethan: We look a lot like. We’ve never encountered that, but that’s pretty funny.
Barbara: But the truth is that Ethan is my son. You heard it first (laughs).
John Williams is your grandfather?
Barbara: It’s true.
I can’t help but think having that kind of influence and growing up around his soundtracking and scoring work must have influenced you as artists.
Barbara: The fact that we come from a really musical family on both sides has really influenced us. Our dad is also a composer and a songwriter, and we spent most of our time growing up with our mom and our dad, so I think that our dad is our biggest musical influence and created the musical environment that we grew up in. So we owe him everything for that. But having our grandfather as our grandfather has always been amazing too because we look up to his music so much and we’re so inspired by his music. We’ve heard so much about his work ethic and things like that. But really our whole family on both sides is very musical.
There’s been quite a bit of positive buzz out there about you guys lately. Does that throw you off?
Barbara: Whenever people have anything extremely strong to say about us I think it makes me feel uncomfortable, whether it’s extremely strong in a good way or extremely strong in a bad way. Both of them make me feel equally uncomfortable because I feel like it could be a setup to get put down either way. I just want to do what we’re doing and be as successful as we can in order to make a living and keep on making records.
Ethan: It’s a compliment when people speak highly of it. Even when it can be intimidating, we’re both grateful for that kind of stuff. And when people don’t like it, it’s hard but at the time same you just have to remember that there’s no way that everybody can be on the same page and there’s no way that everybody can have the same taste. It’s hard but it’s actually a good thing and it kind of helps to every day just learn how to be more yourself and not worry about what everyone thinks.