Charming Disaster fall into that very charming category of old-friends-in-new-circumstances for us at PHILTHY. The duo is comprised of Sweet Soubrette leader Ellia Bisker and Kotorino leader Jeff Morris. The two have each become known for, all on their lonesome, balancing and orchestrating their “expandable and collapsible” Vaudeville-inspired, jazzy indie pop outfits, whose members often number in the double digits. And while they’re still very much in-love with their “own” bands of ever revolving casts (and of each of whom include one another), they longed for something slightly simpler to partake in at times… and thus, Charming Disaster was born. The band has each Ellia and Jeff taking up half of the workload and worrying less about the supporting cast (although their musical friends do regularly make their way onto recordings and onstage). Last month saw the release of Charming Disaster’s debut, Love, Crime & Other Trouble. The album sees Ellia, armed with her ukulele, and Jeff, slinging his guitar, exploring their love of Americana balladry, parlor music, and the sonic aesthetic of gypsies in a relatively stripped manner that often resembles the lo-fi artistry of singer/songwriters of ‘90s alt rock. Charming Disaster has an upcoming appearance at Rough Trade NYC in Brooklyn on March 18th, in addition to a May 2nd date at Dream Away Lodge in Becket, MA. Ellia and Jeff, whom I haven’t talked to sans Twitter in more than a year, recently took some time to catch me up with pretty much everything you could and should possibly want to know about Charming Disaster.
Izzy Cihak: The last time I talked to each of you (individually) Charming Disaster was sort of in its earliest stages. In addition to the release of your debut album, what have been the highlights of the project so far?
Charming Disaster: There are so many! Just getting to work together is a big one, because we do all the things we do for Sweet Soubrette or Kotorino, but having someone else to bounce ideas off of, be a sanity check, and get constant encouragement from is a real game changer. Some other highlights: Getting featured on the podcast Welcome to Night Vale, which is dark and quirky and has a huge following of fans. Literally overnight, there were listeners all over the world eagerly awaiting our album release. That was really exciting.
Also assembling all the musicians who played on the album to perform with us at our CD release show. The songs had never been played that way before — we perform as a duo, when we recorded we tracked the different parts separately, and even when practicing for the show we couldn’t get everyone in the same rehearsal — so it was pretty magical bringing them to life at the show for the first time in the full album arrangements.
Some special shows, for instance we were recently invited to play a Viking-themed event in Boston, and we went all out getting ready for it — we wrote a new song about Ragnarok (the end of the world in Norse mythology), and we covered Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” and we made these giant paper wolf head masks to perform in. It was really over the top. (Here’s a video of that.)
Meeting people at our shows who have become our collaborators, advocates, hosts, friends — from the autopsy technician who put us up for the night to the filmmaker who bought us breakfast and wants to involve us in his next project. We’ve experienced so much kindness and made some amazing connections when we’ve played for strangers.
Izzy: How would you characterize the process of writing and recording Love, Crime & Other Trouble, if there even was one particular process?
Charming Disaster: We’ve explored different approaches to writing storytelling songs with two narrative voices. That’s the unifying theme that gives shape to our material, but the actual writing process varies from song to song. We wrote our first few songs together pen pal style — we sent each other verses and choruses until we’d constructed a whole song. Getting that Email with the next installment was really exciting. Some songs are like storyboarding a movie, where we talk a lot about the narrative arc, what happens next in the story we’re trying to tell, try to figure out how to move the plot along. Sometimes one of us writes most of a song and the other one refines and adds to it in the second pass. And sometimes one of us writes what is basically a complete song and then it becomes both of ours as we work out the duo arrangement. Our process has evolved over time — we’ve noticed that the longer we work together the more we’re able to get into the creative flow headspace together, not just when we’re working separately and passing a song back and forth. It’s hard to get into that zone even when working alone, so being able to do it together is a special thing.
Our recording process has been fairly consistent. Producing the album was a 3-way collaboration with Don Godwin, who is a super-talented musician on top of being an amazing engineer and producer (and human). We came up with a matrix of what instruments and musicians we wanted to include on which songs, which determined the order for tracking all the parts, and then we built around that. We each pulled in musicians from our other bands, both of us bringing our own assets to the table. We mixed it all together with Don, and a lot of the arranging happened in mixing — it was similar to editing a film in that we had to pare down and shape a lot of great material.
Izzy: Have you had any favorite reactions to the music, whether from critics or just fans or friends?
Charming Disaster: The positive critical response has been validating. New York Music Daily called the album “one of the most twistedly delicious noir albums of recent years” and gave it a really thoughtful review, going through it song by song. (The full review is here.)
But the fan responses are the most exciting. We made a chord chart for “Ghost Story” and posted that it was available by request, and dozens of people have Emailed us to ask for it. We love imagining all these random people learning our song and singing it in their dorm rooms or at coffee shops or for their friends. There’s also been some hilarious and surreal fan art posted on Tumblr (We’re particularly fond of this depiction of us as a couple of con artist goblins.) And the author of a series of detective novels about lesbian werewolves asked to license some of the lyrics from “Wolf Song” to use in their next book (Of course we said, “yes.”)
The most touching fan response we’ve gotten was an Email from a girl at an eating disorder treatment center. Her boyfriend had bought our CD for her at a show she was too sick to go to. She said it was a big hit at the treatment center — she’d put it on repeat on the dining room stereo and when one girl tried to take it out everyone else yelled at her. She thanked us for giving them all an amazing distraction through their grueling mealtimes. It made us tear up a little.
Izzy: Revolver (because it seems thematically relevant) to your head: What’s your favorite album track?
Jeff: “Deep in the High” — I can’t believe how well the orchestration worked out (with tuba, drums, piano, and accordion). And “Knife Thrower” will always be very special, its description of what it can be like onstage, and the spell that it casts.
Ellia: “Osiris,” partly because it’s a song that never would have gotten written without this project — I had this seed of an idea, basically just a riff in my head, and I might have dismissed it but Jeff was like, “oh sure, we can do that,” so I bought a book of Egyptian mythology and started researching. And partly it’s because I feel like PJ Harvey whenever we play it.
Izzy: So I understand that you’re both very into New Wave cinema, which is like my favorite thing in the world (aside from Morrissey), so I’m curious, what are, personally, your favorite New Wave films? William Klein’s Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? is my #1 favorite film of all-time, but Godard’s Masculin feminin and Breathless are very close behind.
Charming Disaster: We love the fashion and style of Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?, but our favorite would have to be Breathless — especially because of its obsession with Bonnie and Clyde, which connects to one of our favorite duos: Serge Gainsbourg and Bridgette Bardot (their song “Bonnie and Clyde” was one of Charming Disaster’s early inspirations). And then Bardot leads us back to Godard, this time with Contempt, another favorite.
Izzy: Ellia, has anyone told you that you have kind of a Liz Phair thing going on on this album, especially on “Ghost Story” and “Wolf Song” (Hopefully that’s not insulting. She’s my all-time favorite singer/songwriter.)
Ellia: Thanks! I take that as a huge compliment. I’m a big fan of Liz Phair too — both Exile in Guyville and Whip-Smart are in my permanent rotation. Listening to her music was formative for me. She expressed such a strong point of view and was so fearless about telling her story, and that affectless vocal style can be really effective. One thing I especially admire in her songwriting is the way the cadence of her lyrics feels like natural language. It’s like Robert Frost in that way, he also relied on spoken rhythms (Yes, I was an English major).
Izzy: You have a handful of upcoming live shows and I understand you’d like to play even more (including possibly a Philly stop). What can be expected of Charming Disaster live?
Charming Disaster: With this band especially, we’re interested in telling stories. Besides the lyrical content, we like to incorporate additional narrative devices in a live show: it might be our interactions with each other onstage, or our costumes, or our body language. We have a taste for melodrama. We’ve also recently begun to incorporate foot percussion (bass drum and tambourine) into our performance to add another musical layer. Since we’re just guitar and ukulele, adding anything else makes a big impact. It’s an ongoing process, and we’re always looking for ways to add theatrical and musical drama to our shows.
Izzy: And, finally, what’s next for the band? Do you plan to record more new music, even if it’s not exactly in the near future?
Charming Disaster: We’re always working on new songs. Working with Don Godwin was such a positive experience that we’re already itching to record with him again once we have another album’s worth. More immediately, we have a show coming up on Wednesday, March 18, at Rough Trade NYC in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where we’re opening for experimental folk rockers Frogbelly and Symphony at their CD release. It’s going to be a great night. In the near future, we plan to do a bunch of East Coast mini-tours (Philly!) which is doable for this band without a lot of logistical planning. And our goal for next year is to tour internationally — our fans are spread out all over the world, and we’d really like to meet them.