The Garden Dream
(Secretly Canadian)
Add date: 4.2.2024
Release date: 3.29.2024

Apple Music
Official Website
Secretly Canadian

As she’s gotten older, Ella Smoker has found that her subconscious has been trying to tell her “some pretty wacky stuff”. Thoughts will come to the 21-year-old singer-songwriter in dreams, or as she writes lyrics in studio sessions, words floating onto the page before she’s really had a moment to realise what they are. “As soon as we start making the music, my brain sort of turns off,” she explains. “I’ll be sitting there, writing all this stuff that feels like a load of nonsense, and a month later, I'll look back and be like ‘oh’. It all comes from a place I didn’t even realise was there.”

This kind of intuitive release feels fitting for an artist who got here seemingly by fate. Raised in London by parents whose musical interests ranged from rockabilly to gospel, Smoker’s interests in performance began fairly innocuously, auditioning for the church choir as a convenient way to swerve a looming school test. In a feat of divine intervention, she ended up being a chorister for three years, performing at weekly services and learning how to sight read. “A lot of that theory has kind of gone out of the window for me now, but the harmony stuff stuck. There's something really fun about belting in a really huge space, being allowed to be that noisy.”

As her affection for harmonic layers mingled with 00s emo and big-budget Lady Gaga music videos (“a great way to fit in at school”), Smoker eventually found herself settling into a love of intricately-textured indie — Elliott Smith, Alex G and Big Thief. On quiet days, she’d challenge herself to make soundscapes or imaginary film scores, swerving lyrics in favour of “vocal harmonies just moving around”. When a school friend introduced her to 90s cult band The Microphones, it was a lightbulb moment of realisation, unfurling a connective bridge between popular music and more experimental forms. 

“It just sparked this thing in my head like ‘Oh, you don't have to write in a straightforward way’. There's so much space in music for you to do whatever you want to do. The first song I wrote that I actually liked was the first one I put out, ‘Why Don't I Care’, in 2020. After that, everything just flowed.”

Resonating deeply with the melancholy of a pandemic-era audience, “Why Don’t I Care: took on a new life, racking up thousands of views on TikTok and landing her a place on Spotify’s Fresh Finds playlist. Written as a 17-year-old, the success of her first single came as a surprise, but showed her that great music often comes from naked truth. “I was going out all the time, bunking school, always on the lash, feeling really rubbish about myself. I was being honest for the first time, just pouring my misery into a song. That’s why I called myself gglum: I was just being all angsty teenager.”

Unlocking her own unapologetic ennui helped Smoker to realise just how much more she had to say. Moving in something of a whirlwind ever since, her 2021 and 2022 EPs once the edge has worn off and Weak Teeth allowed her to figure out her sound in real-time. But having given herself just a few months off before embarking on the process of writing her debut album, The Garden Dream feels like a significantly deeper moment of realisation, opening up space for Smoker to reach out to her past self and confront the ill ease that still lingers there. Though she wouldn’t call it a concept album per se, she describes the narrative as a kind of fever dream, toeing the line between potent memory and repressed imagination. 

“At the time of writing it, I was having so many nightmares, just straight-up graphic and disturbing stuff. I think it was my subconscious telling me I had shit I needed to deal with, a lot of the mistrust I’ve had since I was a teenager. It was weirdly good timing, because I'm at a point in my life now where I'm actually pretty happy, and am in a good place to look back.”

In learning how to open up to herself, gglum ended up finding a kindred spirit in producer Karma Kid (Maisie Peters, Shygirl, Connie Constance), pushing past her natural bedroom-pop introversion to find joy in the process of collaboration. Whether it’s the ragged radio-rock of “SPLAT!” (“basically about realising that somebody you held up very highly is actually just a massive shambles of a person”) or the riotous, industrial energy of “Easy Fun’’, Smoker is able to reshape her vocal around the mood, creating a record which expertly balances light and shade. “I've never really done anything in like that vocal style before,” she says of “Easy Fun”’s near-spoken delivery. “I love that song because it’s not something I would have come up with on my own, but Karma Kid was great at pushing me out of my comfort zone. I just thought like, look: I can be a little silly with this.”

The song that started the whole process, “Eating Rust”, also remains a favourite, pushing her blustery, intimate sound into an understated break-up anthem, viscerally capturing the romantic scabs you can’t help but continue to scratch. “At first we didn't really know what we wanted to make with this album, but I was very adamant about a specific sound: lots of blown-out percussion and nylon strings,” she says. “The first song we did was alright, but it felt like stuff I'd already done before. And then the second day we went into the studio, we made ‘Eating Rust’. After that, the whole thing went so quickly, because I was like, yes, exactly what I've been trying to do.”

The release of The Garden Dream will offer gglum plenty more opportunity to get both silly and serious, to be bold in her exploration of new ideas and sounds. But it will also offer the opportunity to further accept herself as the dreamlike artist she always wanted to be; confidently embellishing acoustic worlds that her listeners can burrow safely within. 

“I feel like I naturally gravitate towards wanting to make musical spaces that you can feel like you’re living in, rather than trying to make songs”, she says. “That's something I really wanted to solidify with this album: I basically want to make music that feels like when you're looking out the window and it's the end of the film and you're imagining what comes next. That's the sound of what I want to be doing.”