Philthy Mag recently chatted with Ellia Bisker, songwriter, ukulele-player (among other things), and main force behind Brooklyn’s Sweet Soubrette, a vaudeville-inspired outfit that expands and collapses anywhere from a solo-project to an eight-piece. However, Sweet Soubrette is only one of many of Ellia’s musical endeavors. She’s also a member of the also-Brooklyn-based Kotorino. Kotorino is yet another expandable and collapsible project, who present a jazz-inspired take on chamber pop that is often characterized as “carnivalesque,” and often includes up to 10 members. However, at the core of Kotorino is Jeff Morris, who handles songwriting duties, in addition to vocals, guitar, and piano. Kotorino recently released an LP, Better Than This, which boasts Jeff Morris’ songwriting chops in collaboration with nine other musicians (including Bisker). I recently got a chance to chat with him about Kotorino. He describes this idea of making his relatively large project relatively flexible as a practical necessity, but tells me that the opportunity to record an album has certainly brought the group closer.
“It’s one of these things that out of necessity you have to be flexible about it. Recording this album has been really fun. Whenever you have a band with any more than two people, just getting together can be a logistical problem. I mean, normally I give everyone music and they play it and we rehearse it a little and then we play gigs and we get to gel with it a little playing live, but in the studio we had a little more time to really gel with it. It was the first time we got to have a reasonable amount of time with it.”
Jeff also tells me that Kotorino and Sweet Soubrette have actually led him and Ellia to explore an additional project… something slightly simpler: “Ellia and I have our own project, just her and I, called Charming Disaster, which began when we were just kind of commiserating about our other projects and the pains of trying to get so many more people in the same place at the same time. So for this, it’s just two people and she does half the work and I do half the work.” However, he is quick to clarify that Kotorino will likely be his nearest and dearest project for the immediate future: “… I’m now realizing I sound like I’m complaining, but I don’t mean to [laughs]. It’s all a labor of love and, I mean, it’s so wonderful to get to play with these amazing people.”
Curious as to their actual process, I ask Jeff to explain Kotorino’s writing, recording, and performing process to me, which sounds to be a bit less complex than you would expect of a 10-person group: “I write all the music and the band’s instrumentation kind of depends on who’s been around and who’s compatible. It’s important who gets along. The relationships are important, but the core people have stayed and stuck around for the most part, which is important because the instrumentation very much influences our sound, and they all have different musical backgrounds, but I’m kind of really into free jazz, so they filter what I give them through their own background.”
Kotorino gets characterized with a lot of different, and sometimes disparate, musical tags, but when I ask Jeff Anderson what it is that most influenced his own writing and playing on Better Than This, he tells me, “When I was writing this record I was listening to a lot of this Panamanian music from the ’70s or ’80s called Soundway. There were three volumes and it’s just really incredible stuff. But I also play in a lot of brass bands, so there’s that.” He also goes on to explain that a lot of Kotorino’s sounds might not necessarily reflect his record collection, but what he hopes for the band which, on some level, is being at-least-slightly “popular,” something he’s happy to do, but certainly not at the forefront of his mind: “If you want folks to listen to it, sometimes you gotta have words to it. And while writing lyrics is very important to me, the music comes first.”
Kotorino are still building a solid fanbase (When I ask him what he’s hoping and excited for in 2014, Jeff tells me, “We’ll be playing around the area and hoping to grow and hopefully more people will start to come out and see us.”) , but they have had an impressive handful of review from places like New York Music Daily and they have a string of West Coast dates in Washington, Oregon, and California this April and he tells me that a Philly date is likely going to happen before the end of the year. When I ask him if he personally has any feedback that he’s most proud of, he tells me of a show when after playing Better Than This’ “Broken Carousel,” a painfully-stripped ten-ton-truck of a breakup ballad about misconstruing a seemingly happy love, his mother overheard a woman comfortingly muse to herself, “Oh, I hope he’s okay…”
*Although Jeff Morris and the Kotorino crew aren’t coming to Philly just yet, one of his many partners in crime, Ellia Bisker, and her Sweet Soubrette, will be playing here this Saturday, March 1st, for a relatively secret show at Sine Studios in Rittenhouse. If you’re interested, here’s the info.