Ellia Bisker and Jeff Morris of Charming Disaster |  Photo Credit: Shannon Bowman

Ellia Bisker and Jeff Morris of Charming Disaster | Photo Credit: Shannon Bowman

Playing Favorites with Charming Disaster

by James Duval

Charming Disaster is a self-described “tragi-comic noir ghost folk” duo from Brooklyn, New York. Though members Ellia (“Elly-uh”) Bisker and Jeff Morris each have their own larger bands – Sweet Soubrette and Kotorino, respectively – they longed for a simpler way to tell their stories of love, murder, and the paranormal. Their song “Ghost Story” was recently featured in the podcast Welcome to Night Vale, a sort of alternate Prairie Home Companion that takes place in the fictional town of Night Vale where shadowy figures lurk the street and nothing is as it seems. In support of their new album, Love, Crime & Other Trouble, Charming Disaster launched a small, six-date tour which brought them to The Parlor on Granby where we sat down with them to discuss how they attempt to stick out in a crowded scene, the advantages and disadvantages of touring as a duo, and how the idea of archetypes help form their songs.

Favorite album

Ellia Bisker: PJ Harvey – To Bring You My Love. It was really formative for me, with her combination of theatricality and showmanship. The songs tell stories, but leave you with questions. “The Dancer” was one of the first songs I ever sang in public

Jeff Morris: Tom Waits – Frank’s Wild Years. It tells a whole story, but it’s loose. It’s a narrative, but it doesn’t hold you by the hand and the music has a tone that sounds like nothing else of its time to me.

 

Favorite guilty pleasure

EB: I watch “Once Upon A Time” on Netflix. [Long laugh.]

JM: I watch a lot of kung-fu movies.

This *may* not apply as much to kung-fu movies, but how do these influence your work as Charming Disaster?

EB: That’s a good question. It ties into a rich pool of fairytales and storytelling that really appeals to me. And one of the things it does that I like, and far be it from me to defend the show, is that it remixes familiar elements into surprising new combinations and I think we do a bit of that as well.

JM: I can bring the kung-fu movies in.

EB: Is it our fighting technique?

JM: It *is* our fighting technique! No, I like kung-fu movies because it’s such a specific genre that certain things have to happen. And there’s a handful of plots that are pretty much the same, but it’s the subtle differences that make them interesting. It’s more like archetypes or abstract shapes that are like a placeholder for what you put onto it. And the way it relates to us is we have lots of stories about types of trouble you can get into. And these are archetypes.

EB: Right. Like the man and the woman. And “is this the same man and woman” and what sort of derring-do are they getting into this time?

 

Favorite thing to do when not working on music

EB: I like to ride my bike around Brooklyn when it’s a beautiful day and I have somewhere to go. Maybe thrifting for very, very, very cheap clothes so I feel like I’ve won something. [Long full laugh.]

JM: I like, although I do complain about it a bit, graphic design. I don’t know if I’d do it if I didn’t have a purpose to it, but I do enjoy it very much. Doing layout for my band or our band or any band or any other reason really; I do enjoy that.

EB: Well now you just make mine sound trivial! Yours sounds so creative!

JM: I like riding my bike, too…

EB: Well, now it makes me think about working for the community, and being part of the scene.  I do enjoy working for the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus (http://www.bindlestiff.org/) behind the scenes. Not necessarily performing, but working on the board, selling merch, rounding up volunteers to help with the show as it happens. That’s definitely something I get a lot out of.

 

Favorite local bands

EB: Not Waving But Drowning I love Susan Hwang’s project, The Debutante Hour

JM: Gato Loco

EB: There’s lots of great local bands. The other thing is we’re both in other bands with people who are also in other bands, so we’re always one degree away from really excellent projects.

JM: I like Sweet Soubrette.

EB: Well, that’s my band. I can’t say I like them!

JM: But I can.

 

So with all these bands you named, how do you stick out in a scene like Brooklyn?

EB: That’s a good question, and it’s something we’ve been working on. I think one thing that sets us apart is that we bridge the gap between music and other kinds of performance. Our show is theatrical. We have a look we’ve developed; the characters and the visual qualities of the show is very important to us. It’s really about creating an experience.

JM: And for us to play in non-traditional music venues is one way to stand out. We play a variety show where there’s a bunch of circus acts, magic acts…

EB: And there’s a contortionist, and a trapeze act. And then there’s us.

 

Favorite piece of advice you’ve ever received

EB: I just ignore all the advice I receive.

JM: I just got some yesterday. “Take time in between songs. Reflect on what you’ve done.”

EB: That’s bad advice!

JM: That’s *terrible* advice.

EB: I remember just before I went to high school, a camp counselor told me, “Don’t lose your soul.” And, I don’t know, is it still in here?

 

Favorite musical duo

EB: I am very fond of the Serge Gainsbourg & Brigitte Bardot album. I’m also very fond of Nick Cave and PJ Harvey’s collaborations. I liked The Civil Wars, but didn’t have enough time to get into them before they broke up.

 

Since you tour as a duo, what do you see as the advantages to that versus touring in a full band?

EB: We were talking about this last night, actually! It’s great to be touring as a man and woman because it’s not as intimidating to strangers as a man touring alone and you’re less vulnerable than a woman touring alone. I’ve hitchhiked alone before and this way you see the best of both worlds. Everyone’s trust levels are a little higher, so finding places to stay or connecting with people is easier.

JM: And you have more options, like less overhead, fewer people to house, and you can usually split up the driving. It seems to be the optimal number to tour with. Definitely for financial reasons, if anything.

EB: Yeah, Jeff and I are both in bigger bands, and we usually have to book an AirBnB, which is fun, but it’s not very cost-efficient.

JM: And I guess a disadvantage would be when we’re travelling, we have less connections.

EB: Right. There’s not another person to help with booking or promotions or the business end that comes along with touring.

 

Okay, now we switch it around. You two get to ask a question to the next person, but I’m also going to turn it back around and ask it to you.

EB: Hmm, okay. Give me a second to gather my thoughts. [Long pause] I’m thinking about how much you pay attention to what’s happening now in music versus how much you ignore that. I guess the question is…I don’t want to answer this question…

 

Well, once you ask if you opened that door and you’ve got to walk through it.

EB: Okay. [To Jeff] Do you want to take this?

JM: No, I want to hear your take.

EB: Okay, I guess what I want to say is “How do you negotiate being timely and being timeless?” As in, how do not be so insular that you’re keeping up with what’s happening but not being swayed by it so much that you’re being generic?

JM: Right, with all the access [we have] to music of all qualities makes you wonder how much do you take from that? Is it important for you to be in the middle of what you consider timely? But that’s kind of a moving target. There really is no “timely”, is there?

EB: Right, should we pay more attention to pop music? Our producer just recommended the D’Angelo album [Black Messiah] and we just finally downloaded it so we could listen to it.

JM: So to narrow your scope, where do you choose to focus your attention and is that important to you? I think *that’s* the question. And was it a specific choice or did you just arrive there?

 

So you made this choice. Why?

EB: Well, I think it’s been pretty organic for us, partly because it’s very lyric-oriented. So we would start out with a musical style and then kind of work through it. We start with an idea and we work it out from there by drawing on what we know and have available to us.

JM: We did sit down and come up with a list of things we liked: films, artists, et cetera. So for us, it was deliberate that we wanted to limit our scope.

 

Author’s note: At this point, I cut off the recorder and Jeff reminded me I hadn’t asked the previous interviewee’s question, which was “What was your parent’s favorite music?” Both had fond memories of growing up to the Beatles, but as they were driving around in Ellia’s parent’s car for the tour, her father had made them several mixes of songs from musical theater to listen to on their long drives. Jeff mentioned he’d never really listened to musical theater before this trip and ended the conversation with, “I really should listen to more musical theater. That song from “The Pajama Game” is so good. I feel like I’ve missed out by *not* listening to this kind of music.”