“It’ll be a little bit of a TED Talk, but mostly a concert,” says Ellia Bisker of her band’s upcoming performance in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection. Bisker is one-half of Brooklyn-based goth-folk duo Charming Disaster, who PHILTHY has been following since the release of their 2015 debut LP, Love, Crime & Other Trouble. Ellia Bisker and Jeff Morris have been making music together as Charming Disaster (amongst other projects) for about 10 years, churning out four albums, touring alongside cello rock icons Rasputina, and regularly playing on the most charmingly subversive kinds of variety bills, including sideshows, puppet shows, and burlesque shows.
This March Charming Disaster released their fourth full-length, Our Lady of Radium, a 9-song concept album chronicling the trials and tribulations (both scientific and existential) of scientist and Nobel Prize-winner Marie Curie, which Bisker and Morris wrote in 2017, after they were awarded an artist residency by Crosshatch Center for Art & Ecology in Bellaire, MI, and undertook extensive research of Curie’s life and work. Having recorded the album in early 2020 all on their own (outside of a studio and without additional musicians) at Ellia’s parents’ house, the songs are now being brought to life in a live setting, and they have an exceptionally special performance that they’ll be bringing to Philadelphia next week.
Friday, July 29th, the Science History Institute in Old City will be hosting “Our Lady of Radium: Music Inspired by Marie Curie,” a free event (registration is required: see below) which will feature Charming Disaster performing their latest release amidst a number of artifacts relating to the physicist herself. During a recent phone chat with the band Ellia tells me, “We are going to be presenting all nine songs from our new album in order, and all the songs are gonna have a bit of an introduction… We’re gonna have some special effects… We’ve enhanced our stage production a little.” Additionally, she tells me the evening will give fans of both Charming Disaster and Marie Curie a chance to get to discuss music and science with the band and museum staff: “There will be a reception following the performance, which will be an opportunity to connect with communities of people beyond concert-goers.”
The band tell me that the early reactions to the album have been profoundly exciting. “The response has been so positive… Which is great, because you don’t know if people will relate to songs about Marie Curie,” says Jeff, while Ellia goes on to say that some of their favorite interactions have come from people who weren’t necessarily previously fans of their music: “Connecting with people who resonate with the content has been one of the most special things for me… We’ve had a lot of people come to our music because of their interest in Marie Curie and important women in STEM.”
Discussing the origins of Our Lady of Radium, Charming Disaster tell me that they were explicitly looking to do something different from their other releases (The writing of these songs was sandwiched between 2017’s Cautionary Tales and 2019’s SPELLS + RITUALS.) Ellia explains, “We had two albums out – or, one was just about to come out – and each song kind of created its own universe, but we thought it would be interesting to write all songs that were part of a connected narrative. Or, what if we tried to write songs about an existing narrative?” She goes on to tell me that one of the major influences behind the particular narrative they settled on was a book, Radioactive, by Lauren Redniss: “There was a really great graphic novel I’d come across that was a really beautiful story about Marie Curie and Pierre Curie… And she approached the story in a non-linear format and it was really dramatic, with duels, and scandals, and tragedy, and mythologies!”
During the time of our chat Ellia and Jeff were holed up in Jeff’s house, rehearsing their Marie Curie songs for their upcoming performance at the Science History Institute. I ask if they have a favorite of the album’s 9 songs, and they do tell me that there’s one that tends to stand out, “A Glow About Her.” “It’s about a scandal that developed between Marie Curie and a man who was married, Paul Langevin, who was a physicist and a colleague of hers,” says Jeff of the track, with Ellia adding, “It was a huge international scandal, the perfect storm of misogyny and xenophobia.” And while they suggest that this song may have the most potent message of the 9, and has come to be their favorite to play live, Ellia tells me that that wasn’t something they had always anticipated.
“The song is very complicated and has a lot of parts that overlap, so when we decided we were gonna have to play it at our album release show, it was like, ‘Oh, no, we’re gonna have to figure out how to do this live, figure out how to retrofit it to our two-person live performance.’ But it’s really fun to play live. It’s like being on a galloping horse [laughs]. Marie and Paul each get a soliloquy and in Marie’s she says, ‘I have done nothing that should cause my work to be diminished,’ and that’s a direct quote, which seems more relevant now than ever.”
*Register for the free event here.
PLEASE NOTE: Proof of vaccination and masks are required to attend this event.