gglum: The Best of What’s Next

Music Features gglum
gglum: The Best of What’s Next

Four years feels like forever, but also no time at all. For 21-year-old Ella Smoker, she spent that time sketching out the beginnings of her adopted moniker, gglum—collaborating with talented musicians in London, releasing two EPs and finding a home at Secretly Canadian, a label with an uncanny knack for scoping out unique and provocative voices. Smoker’s candid perspectives on growing up have drawn in droves of young people—myself included—all hell-bent on figuring life out, and her poetic lyricism is a necessary aid in those questions. With years of self-released projects under her belt, her newly-released debut album, The Garden Dream, proves her talents demand to be heard—both in the fantastical journey through her psyche and beyond.

Smoker and I are chatting over Zoom, and she is cozied up to her radiator during a particularly chilly evening in her native London. She is gushing over being inspired by anything and everything, including the incredible music her friends have been putting out. “It feels more personal because you know. them,” she says about playing something in the lake’s EP Listener. As a lover of movies with a self-proclaimed “vivid imagination,” Smoker thought she could potentially end up working as a filmmaker based on her passions as a kid. Even in music, she is continually inspired by what she has been screening. “I recently watched Antichrist, that Lars von Trier film. It’s quite controversial, but I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s really messed up,” she explains.

Smoker’s imagination has always run rampant. During her childhood back in Croydon in South London, she emptied her kitchen cabinets and created a quasi-drum kit from Tupperware and chopsticks to write songs for her parents. She recalls the first thing she remembers writing: “I’d written some excellent narrative about me going to the jungle and making friends with the animals and bringing them back into London. But they all got on with my friends better than I did and became humans. I performed it for my parents, who were trying to hold in their laughter the entire time. And then I got really upset because they weren’t taking me seriously with my Tupperware drums.” Even from a young age, Smoker created her lyrical narratives in a world of glum.

Her desire to make noise wasn’t driven by an internal desire to be a musician so much as it was catalyzed by the influence of her rockabilly-loving parents. “My dad is a record collector as a hobby,” she says. “In our house, we have a wall that’s just shelves full of records. I always remember him just playing music around the house all the time. It’d be really old vinyl. My parents dancing around to the records my dad was playing is probably one of my earliest memories.” Growing up with music in the house wasn’t the only thing driving Smoker’s passion for creating, but she often assumed she’d end up working for a label and existing in the corporate side of it all. She picked up instruments throughout her childhood by happenstance, fueled mainly by a desire to do anything but her class work. In primary school, she began learning classical music through an organization that her school put on, where she got to learn an instrument throughout the year.

After all those years Smoker spent indulging in her father’s records, she finally got her hands on something tangible to flesh out the ideas that had been swimming in her imagination for so long. “It was surprising that I started being able to do the creative side,” she says. “I started on violin, which was very bad—I couldn’t play it. But it was a nice introduction.” Though not all of that practice and education was about exploring her creativity, some of her excitement was driven by finding clever ways of getting out of school. “I joined the church choir around the corner from my house to get out of doing a test, because the audition was at the same time,” she confesses. “It was just a bunch of weird, random things that all came together where I got a good understanding of music at some point.”

Those kitchen jam sessions, forays into classical music and schemes to skip class grew into an outlet for navigating through teenagerdom—a therapeutic tactic that has followed her into young adulthood and colors much of The Garden Dream. “I had this song called ‘Heal,’ which I wrote after I had just gone through one of my first breakups—the first time you go through a breakup, you’re literally like, ‘This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to anybody, and no one will ever understand,’” Smoker explains. “I just holed up in my bedroom, where I slept in a bunk bed crouched over in my bottom bunk. I sat for eight hours making this song. I was using it as a way to express the pain I was feeling. As soon as it was done, I put it out immediately. I used to really enjoy just making something and immediately releasing it. I was always quite impatient about it.”

Influenced by her friends, such as the effervescent Jadu Heart and dynamic Mura Masa, she began putting more of these musical diary entries on SoundCloud. It became a tradition for her and her friends to make a big fuss about each other’s releases to celebrate their craft and companionship. Smoker began releasing music under her legal name before landing on the moniker gglum, inspired by a lyric from the first single she released on Spotify during her final year at the BRIT School, “Why Don’t I Care.” “I was like, ‘Oh actually like this. I’m not embarrassed about this.’ So, I decided to put it on Spotify because it was lockdown, and there was nothing else to do,” she recalls about the dream pop ballad. “I don’t think I thought this would be the same as the projects I would do. I don’t think I was thinking about it all very much at all. All I knew was I just wanted to release this song, and I just didn’t think anything would happen with it.” With this whim and little-to-no self-promotion, Smoker still managed to amass a small but mighty audience from the single.

Though this audience was passionate and adored Smoker’s talent—showcased by the 3 million streams on her cover of girl in red’s “i wanna be your girlfriend”—she still had to work to sustain her ambitions. Before she could fully throw herself into her music, she fought for time in the studio between shifts working as a barista at a nearby coffee spot. Through all-nighters and late-evening studio sessions, she was able to craft a handful of singles early in her career while she wasted away in the name of just staying afloat. “It was six months of being on minimal sleep, and as soon as I realized that I was going to be able to make enough money from music, even if I was only going to be able to pay my rent and maybe do a food shop, I sent in my notice. I was burning out.” Finally leaving behind the 5 AM. wake-up calls at the coffee shop, Smoker was jumping into music full-time—officially taking the leap, and a much-needed celebration came with it. “This was a bit dramatic,” she admits, “but after my last day at the coffee shop, I went straight to Kings Cross and had a weekend spa.”

Now entirely in the deep end of making music full-time, Smoker chose to turn her music into a collaborative space instead of just an emotional outlet. “It’s quite a weird process, going from doing something as a hobby to being like, ‘Okay, now people are involved and relying on me and watching what I’m doing.’ I wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing at all. It takes a minute to wrap your head around,” she explains. For years, her songs have been a safety net for her to explore emotions privately, but Smoker had to let other people in on her precious process to evolve. “At first, I didn’t like the idea of working with completely new people because I’m quite an introvert. It’s like my worst nightmare, being in a room with a person I’ve never met for hours,” she continues, with a chuckle. “But these days, I really love it. I love having somebody else’s opinion on things. It’s quite an inspiring process to bounce ideas off someone else, and they are doing things you never thought of. I tend not to spend more than a day on a song. I’ll start messing around with my guitar, and then it’s like a kind of blackout, and five hours later, we’ll have a finished song. It’s like my subconscious takes over.”

With this newfound appreciation for collaboration, Smoker leaned on her friend Sam Knowles, a.k.a. Karma Kid, to help with production for The Garden Dream. The pair met in 2021, when Smoker was encouraged to branch out and start working on sessions with other musicians. The product of their first time working together was “ELEVENS,” off once the edge has worn off. Smoker’s comfortability with the multi-instrumentalist producer made the looming album process flow much easier—and she first asked Knowles to work with her on her debut when she was at a pub with him and Jadu Heart, throwing back pints just to build up the courage to ask him outright. Once the two settled on making the album together, things clicked instantly. “We started by making a reference playlist of the sound [direction] we both saw the album going in. I realized we were definitely on the same page, because he knows my inspirations,” she explains. “Then we just went straight in. We made all the singles first, which was really lucky because the pressure was off and we could do whatever we wanted—the more fun stuff.”

The Garden Dream is packed full of that seamless, collaborative energy. With electronica tracks, melancholic musings and intense, ambient soundscapes, it feels like the culmination of Smoker’s young life exploding into a quintessential debut. Throughout the 13 tracks, she weaves inspirations from the vast soundscapes of Alex G, the devastating lyricism of Elliot Smith and the dynamic energy of Glow Pt.2 by the Microphones. A far cry from the classical music and rockabilly she grew up with, Smoker tends to find inspiration in unlikely places—one being from actor Michael Cera’s music. “I was having a little browse on Spotify, and I found his cover of ‘Clay Pigeons,’—originally by Blaze Foley—and I was like, ‘This is the saddest thing I’ve ever heard, and it’s Michael Cera,’” she laughs. “I showed it to Karma Kid, and he delved a bit deeper into the album and brought the whimsical sound from ‘2048’ into the outro of ‘SPLAT!’ without me knowing.”

Smoker continued to live in the world of bizarro with inspiration from Finnish painter and graphic artist Hugo Simberg, which led to his “Fairytale II” piece being slightly altered to become the artwork for The Garden Dream. “When I started making the album, that painting was the art on my SoundCloud playlist where I arranged the songs. I think I started writing into the painting a bit. The painting was influencing my dreams and the dreams would get a bit fucked up,” Smoker recalls. “I always thought it would be a placeholder thing— I didn’t think we could use the artwork as the cover. Then it came around to decide on the cover art, and I tried out so many other things, but none of them worked like my original idea. It made the whole album feel wrong. So, after researching and figuring out it was in the public domain, I sent an email like, ‘Can we just use this?’ Then we just made a few little tweaks to it, and we got to use it.” The art is as uncanny as the vivid sonics on the album, strange enough to fit into the world Smoker crafts in her ever-dramatic dreamscape.

And Smoker’s vivid dreams were the perfect inspiration for an album so rooted in the fantastical. She has always had a strange relationship with sleep—growing up as a sleepwalker, there were many odd occurrences where she would have entire conversations, or her mother would find her sitting in front of the TV in the middle of the night, Poltergeist-style. Throughout all of those nighttime adventures, Smoker would have these evocative dreams in her own version of the uncanny valley. “I’ve got a weird thing with my subconscious where we can’t quite connect with each other to sort anything out. The thing about the dreams that inspired the album was the world that my dreams live in, which is really eerie. Have you ever watched Salad Fingers?” she asks. “The dreams are like Salad Fingers. You are always watched in this weird, liminal, never-ending vast space. When I was writing the album, I had so many weird dreams that I’d get confused about what was real life. Much of what I was writing was surrounding the violent imagery I saw in my dreams.”

Smoker really explores these liminal spaces and visceral imagery in “Eating Rust”—which itself sounds like the title of a Salad Fingers video—“The Garden Dream” and “Glue.” She gets especially graphic in the former, where she sings, “And you’re the scab I keep on scratching / Oh, make me bleed into the soil / Grow a garden, plant me in it,” before reminding us she is chewing on oxidized metal. It’s beautifully uncomfortable, just like the emotions she explores in the upbeat counterpart “Glue,” which opens with the line “I’m nothing, so disgusting.” The digitized pop track explores a failing relationship where Smoker just wants her partner to stay and listen; “The Garden Dream” closes the album with a culmination of her trip through these nightmarish landscapes to try and make sense of herself as she breathily realizes, “There’s no peace here.”

After pouring her soul into this album, Smoker has vowed to start stepping away from writing in a gloomy headspace, which is evident in “Easy Fun”—which tosses around much more easy-going subjects, mostly that of a rowdy night out. The youthful influence of pouring her misery into her music still dominated most of the album, especially on “Late” and “Do You See Me Different.” On the former, she sings about wanting to know someone more intimately. Over an airy melody that feels like drifting off to sleep, she sings, “Peel that face off and show me what’s underneath”—still leaning into that unsettling imagery but tormented by her more forlorn emotions. In “Do You See Me Different,” Smoker reflects on the chaos of a tumultuous relationship. “Did I make it out alive? / Cause sometimes it feels like I didn’t,” Smoker confesses in a sigh of honesty threaded through an acoustic cascade that anyone who has been in a difficult relationship can relate to.

So much of The Garden Dream exists between adulthood and adolescence; trying to figure out where you fit in in the world when you are too old to be childish but not grown enough to be taken seriously—yet you’re still expected to grow into very adult emotions and experiences. At only 21, Smoker is heading into every space with her eyes wide open—and doing so in a short but already thriving career. She’s come a long way from the kid who did music in primary school as an excuse to get out of an exam. “I think I’ve just stopped trying to appeal to people so much,” Smoker says. “I was always worried that I would lose my chance if I didn’t do what people asked me to. Now, I feel comfortable enough to do what I want and try things out. I think I’m a lot less ashamed while I’m writing music. I feel like it’s part of growing up, realizing that maybe you’ve got more of a handle on things than you thought you did.”

That subdued bedroom pop of Ella Smoker’s early SoundCloud releases has metamorphosed into a beast of shape-shifting fuzzy electro-pop on The Garden Dream. Smoker now has a living, breathing diary of her life to tend to—and pages continue to fill with melancholic tales of youth and angst. “I love looking back on things and seeing how I felt or if I’m feeling the same way now as I did some time ago. I’ll just listen to a song I’ve made because it’s already perfectly crafted for my feelings,” she says. “I don’t really keep a diary or anything, but these are little reminders about how I maybe felt about things in the past that I’ve changed my opinion on now.” That past feeling of “gglum” is less a state of being these days and more of a world Smoker can visit when she needs to. But things are looking a lot brighter for her.

Olivia Abercrombie is Paste‘s Associate Music Editor, reporting from Austin, Texas. To hear her chat more about her favorite music, gush about old horror films, or rant about Survivor, you can follow her on Twitter @o_abercrombie.

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