Of all the things I like about Sweet Soubrette, I think it’s the things that inspire their songs that I find to be the most endearing and intriguing. “I write a lot of songs about books,” Ellia Bisker, mainwoman and writer and composer for the Brooklyn-based outfit. The singing, songwriting, usually-ukulele-wielding, vaudeville-inspired vixen explains that a lot of her songs are inspired (at least in their earliest forms) by her time participating in the Bushwick Book Club.
“It’s this book club, but we don’t discuss the books. We write songs about them, so I have a huge catalogue of songs about books. And it’s really cool because, since it’s not like a real release or anything, there’s no pressure to make something ‘good.’ You just have to come in with this finished product.”
Well, the title track of Sweet Soubrette’s latest LP, Burning City, which received a limited physical release on November 24th, was actually inspired by Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and album track “What’s My Desire” was inspired by Anais Nin’s Henry & June. Burning City is Sweet Soubrette’s third LP (although she may be best-known as the ukulele player in the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus) and, according to Bisker, represents a new chapter for Sweet Soubrette, with a new approach to writing, recording, and collaborating.
“Getting the album recorded has been a really big highlight of 2013. We did it in bits and pieces, which wasn’t how I had worked before. My ex-boyfriend produced my first two records in a relatively quick process. For this one we got Don Godwin, who’s primarily a brass producer, and we actually started recording back at the beginning of 2012.”
Bisker tells me that the “band,” or line-up itself, which has gone through numerous changes throughout the recording of Burning City, has been the biggest factor in the evolution of Sweet Soubrette: “Sweet Soubrette, as a project, has exponentially grown over the last couple of years. Although it’s also kind of expandable/collapsible, where I will occasionally play a solo show, or we’ll play a show as a three-piece, but it’s primarily an eight-piece, whereas it started as a solo project.” And as the size of the band has gotten bigger, so too has the size of their sound: “It started out as more of a singer/songwriter thing that was pretty simplistic, but these songs [of Burning City] were really realized in performance. This really captures what we sound like live.” Bisker explains that a lot of the individual songs have evolved significantly between the time she first presented them to the band and as they exist on the album. I tell her that my favorite track is “Just Your Heart,” because it sounds like if Belle & Sebastian were a girl-group. She laughs and says, “That’s really interesting. That one really evolved with the band. When I first started it, it was just me and it was a really slow, ‘All-I-Want-Is-You’-by-U2-kind of song.”
Right now Sweet Soubrette’s only scheduled show is on January 20th at Pianos in NYC, to commemorate the digital release of Burning City on January 21st, but Bisker tells me that she does plan to take the project on the road in the relatively near future (Although scheduling dates can be a bit tricky, as she also apparently works full-time at a hedge fund in the legal department during the day.) and definitely plans to stop in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection, if at all possible: “I definitely wanna come back to Philly. There’s a very good chance we’ll be coming through around June.” And in terms of what to expect, she tells me, “We try to make everything a little different each night, both to keep it exciting for us and to keep those who’ve seen us multiple times entertained. I don’t know if we’ll bring the horns, but that would be great, if we could. I always feel like I’m James Brown when I’m up there with the horns.”
I finally have to ask Ellia Bisker about her look and her fashion, which is part Louise Brooks and part new wave gypsy (Basically, she could be the femme fatale lead in pretty much any of the worth-seeing entries of film history.) When I ask her from where it draws inspiration and she tells me, “Pippi Longstocking and my long involvement with the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus.” She goes on to explain, “My background is very indebted in the burlesque and circus world. I’m very into a lot of really strong women who like sparkly things.”