An Interview With Ellia Bisker & Jeff Morris of Charming Disaster

Image courtesy of Howlin’ Wuelf Media

What do you get when you combine everything cryptic, horror, weird, macabre, showmanship, and pure dedication? You get the duo Charming Disaster made up of Ellia Bisker and Jeff Morris.

Formed in 2012, and based out of Brooklyn, New York, Charming Disaster weaves tales of the cautionary type; crime, love, cryptids, murders, horrors, and most recently, the tale of Madame Curie in their latest efforts, Our Lady of Radium.

When you’re done here, be sure to check out their website and Instagram for all their latest news and tour dates.

Anthony:
Hello Ellia and Jeff! How have you two been doing these past couple of years?

E&J:
Thank you for taking an interest in our music! We’ve been very fortunate to be able to keep working together through the pandemic — writing new songs, recording, and connecting with our listeners through live streams (and some live shows too, although obviously far fewer than we had planned). It’s kept us out of trouble. Or possibly in trouble.

Anthony:
Looks like you’ve been busy with your upcoming release, Our Lady of Radium, that’s set to come out very soon, how excited are you about this?

E&J:
We are very excited about finally releasing this album. We wrote these songs in 2017, and they marinated for a long time before we recorded them during the pandemic. So, they’ve been in the works for a long time and this release is the culmination of a long process.

Image courtesy of Charmingdisaster.com

Anthony:
It also looks like you’re getting ready for a tour for the new album’s release. What can you tell us about the upcoming shows?

E&J:
We’re touring the West Coast in late March/early April, making seven stops between Seattle and LA at venues ranging from a supper club cabaret, to a rock ‘n’ roll bar, to someone’s backyard. We’re working on other tour dates around the country in late spring and early summer that we’ll be announcing soon. We were lucky enough to play some great live shows last summer and fall, both indoors and out, but in-person concerts still feel rare and precious. We can’t wait to get back on the road and be face to face with people again.

Anthony:
Speaking of touring, what have been some of your favorite venues to play at? 

E&J:
In NYC, we especially love to play Pete’s Candy Store and Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater. Out in the wider world, a few favorites include the Spirit Room in Rochester, NY (an occult-themed cocktail bar), the Wizbang Circus Theater in Cleveland, OH (an actual circus theater), and Coast Fork Brewing in Cottage Grove, OR (also the local agricultural supply store).

Anthony:
Can you take me through the writing and recording process for this album, and how it differs from your previous works? One of the main differences I see is that this one is a concept album as opposed to one-off subject songs from your previous albums, correct?

E&J:
On our past albums, each track is its own little universe. And typically we write the songs for an album over a long period, accumulating them until there is a big enough collection. This album was different because we wanted to create a suite of songs that were connected, and we had gotten interested in the multifaceted story of Marie Curie and her discoveries through the graphic novel Radioactive by Lauren Redniss. When we were awarded an artist residency by Crosshatch Center for Art & Ecology in Bellaire, MI in early 2017, it was the perfect opportunity to dive deep into this subject. We did a ton of reading and research, which is not unusual for us when we’re writing songs, but in this case, all of the books were about Curie and radium. We wrote most of the songs that appear on the album over the course of about a week. And then they marinated for about three years as we took our time to figure out what to do with them. 

As for the recording process, we had planned to record a completely different collection of songs in 2020 in a studio with an engineer we were excited to work with and musician collaborators from our other projects, and then of course, the pandemic made that impossible. So, instead, we bought a couple of nice microphones — funded by our live stream concerts — and we used those two mics to record Our Lady of Radium, working out of Ellia’s parents’ empty home as they were in lockdown elsewhere. It was a really interesting challenge to be limited to just what the two of us could do, and it made a nice symmetry not only with how we initially wrote the songs — the two of us in isolation together — but also with the content of the songs, mirroring Marie and Pierre Curie working in their laboratory.

Image courtesy of Howlin’ Wuelf Media

Anthony:
You two ended up having to do all the instruments yourselves for Our Lady of Radium, right? How many different instruments did you end up using for the album?

E&J:
We played everything you hear on the album which includes, let’s see: a couple of different ukuleles, a couple of different guitars, electric bass, a drum kit, piano, glockenspiel, a miscellany of percussion instruments, and some items that might or might not be considered instruments at all: a collection of pots and pans from the kitchen, a ticking clock, field recordings of insect and frog sounds, whistling in a tiled shower stall. We had the freedom to experiment and take our time and use the spaces we were in.   

Anthony:
What were the first instruments you played and was it easy for you two to learn new ones as time went on?

E&J:
Jeff started out on guitar and that’s still his home instrument. He would also mess around on the piano when he was growing up, and he also writes songs on the piano from time to time. Ellia took piano lessons when she was growing up, and took up ukulele in the early 2000s. Ukulele is her home instrument for songwriting but she still thinks in piano. 

Anthony:
You two are a sort of “jack of all trades” being that you’re musicians, composers, storytellers, writers, and singers. Where does your penchant for storytelling in music come from? 

E&J:
Storytelling is a fundamental human activity, it’s how we make sense of the chaotic universe, and there is a long tradition of songs that tell stories. When we started Charming Disaster we specifically wanted to explore musical storytelling through two voices – literally in terms of the vocals and figuratively by being able to present a double point of view. Partly this was because, at the time, we each had a large band of our own (Jeff’s Kotorino and Ellia’s Sweet Soubrette) of which we were the sole songwriter, so we both already had a musical outlet for self-expression. This freed us up to play with narrative and characters outside of ourselves. 

Anthony:
Your music mixes Americana, cryptids, horrors, cautionary tales, folklore, myths, and everything weird and macabre. That said, what can you tell me about your interests in these subjects?

E&J:
We’ve both always been big readers, and literature influences our songwriting as much as other music does. By literature, we mean everything from classics, to comic books, to genre stuff, to ancient mythology. We both love dark stuff, especially dark humor, which is one of the wavelengths we personally connect on, and we both love folklore and fairy tales, as well as work that reimagines old stories in new ways.

Image courtesy of Howlin’ Wuelf Media

Anthony:
Let’s take it back to the beginning. What were you two involved in before forming Charming Disaster, where did you get your beginnings in the music scene? What kind of education or training did you go through for your theatrical performances?

Ellia:
I did a lot of performing before I did music — spoken word poetry was my main thing in my late teens and early twenties. Then a couple of years after college, I accidentally started a country band with a bunch of former art student friends – it started off as a joke but then snowballed into an actual thing, where I was actually writing songs with a band and rehearsing every week and playing shows in a blond wig. When that project ended I was bereft — I didn’t play an instrument I could accompany myself on, so I had no outlet. Then someone gave me a ukulele, and it changed (some might say ruined!) my life — suddenly I had the power to make and deliver songs without needing to rely on anybody else, and there was a vibrant ukulele scene at the time that gave me a lot of performance opportunities I wouldn’t have had with a less niche instrument. At the same time, I had started working with the neo-vaudeville troupe Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, mostly learning about arts management and selling merch but occasionally being onstage. Being part of the circus/variety arts scene and getting to watch and learn from seasoned circus and street performers was absolutely formative. 

Jeff:
Let’s see…I spent a year at a certain music school in Boston but left before I learned too much and moved back to New York City. There, I played in an improvisatory, theatrical rock band for many years — we would go on stage and come up with in-the-moment epic rock songs. I wasn’t singing much at the time but I learned a lot about performance and high drama. I decided to start my own band, Kotorino, an 8-piece ensemble exploring more lush arrangements and instrumentation. I’ve always enjoyed over-the-top musical performances (though not necessarily musical theater) though I have no dramatic training. Some of our first gigs were in variety shows (through Ellia’s circus connections) and as Ellia mentioned above, there was so much to learn from the remarkable performers we got to share the stage with.

Image courtesy of Howlin’ Wuelf Media

Anthony:
How did the two of you meet? 

E&J:
We met in a bar. Jeff’s band, Kotorino, was playing at Ellia’s neighborhood bar in Brooklyn and she happened to catch their set. After the show Ellia struck up a conversation — Kotorino was a big ensemble with strings and horns and bass and drums, and Ellia had a similar lineup with her band, Sweet Soubrette, and when you’re a bandleader you’re always looking for simpatico bands you might want to share a bill with. Ellia also really dug Jeff’s songs, and somehow she found herself suggesting that they try writing songs together, a thing she had never proposed to anyone else before (maybe it was a premonition?). A few weeks later Jeff went to see her play a show with Sweet Soubrette and it suddenly became obvious to him too. We had our first band meeting the next day. 

Anthony:
I was about to mention that I’ve heard a lot of your musical topics throughout various podcasts and just found out you were featured in one of my favorites, Welcome to Night Vale. What are your favorite podcasts or TV shows?

Ellia:
I don’t enjoy most podcasts, but I really like Sawbones, which is about medical quackery and is really smart and funny.

Jeff:
I also don’t enjoy most podcasts although I do like the poetic creepiness of WTNV. As for TV shows, we were both obsessed with The Magicians, and are still kind of upset that it’s over. 

Anthony:
Who are some of your favorite artists whether or not they influence your work?

E&J:
Musical artists: PJ Harvey, Led Zeppelin. Visual artists: Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington. Writers: too many to mention, but we’ve been reading a lot of books by Angela Carter lately, and can’t recommend them enough. 

Anthony:
Thank you so much for taking the time to do this today, I really love what you do and I hope to see you live at some point in the near future. What does the future look like for you two?

E&J:
Thank you so much! Besides getting back out on the road, we’ve been working on our next album, and just finished tracking and mixing ten songs. We could always use new recruits to fill the ranks of our cult, The Society of the Mysterious Hand, and carry out our world domination plans. So we would say our future looks pretty busy.

Image courtesy of Howlin’ Wuelf Media

Interested in learning more about Charming Disaster? Hit the link below:

Be sure to check out the full archives of A.M. Radio, by Anthony Montalbano, here: https://vwmusicrocks.com/a-m-radio-archives/

About Post Author

Anthony Montalbano

Anthony Montalbano grew up in New York and North Carolina. Anthony is a baker by day and a contributor to the Vinyl Writer cause by night. With a passion for podcasts, Pop Punk, video games, and more, Anthony brings a unique and fresh perspective to the team. Anthony's column is a catch-all for the things he loves most, and he wouldn't have it any other way.
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