Inside the Dark, Whimsical World of Charming Disaster
The pair behind this Brooklyn band grew up in Westchester and draw inspiration from film noir and gothic literature.
Photographs by Florence Montmare
As far as bands go, Charming Disaster is a bit unusual. Ok, perhaps ‘unusual’ is putting it lightly. Ellia Bisker and Jeff Morris, the duo behind the music, revel in the offbeat and uncanny. Since 2012, they have made a name for themselves with literature-inspired songs that meld folklore and mythology with croon-worthy melodies. They dropped Love, Crime & Other Trouble in 2015 and released their sophomore effort, Cautionary Tales, in 2017.
This month, the pair makes a pit stop at Rough Draft Bar & Books in Kingston on April 14 as part of the April Showers tour. We spoke with the music makers beforehand to learn where they find their unlikely inspiration – and how they turn the tragic tales into tunes that keep fans coming back for more.
To get things started, how did you two get together? How did you come up with your name?
Jeff: My band was playing at a bar in Brooklyn. My other band, Kotorino, which is a large affair with drums and bass and strings and vocalists, we were playing. Ellia was there and we started a conversation afterwards.
Ellia: I also had a large band at the time called Sweet Soubrette. I liked Jeff’s songwriting. I felt like I got it. It was similar to what I was doing. We started talking about doing a show together…but our conversation went in a different direction.
J: Ellia said, “What I think we should do is write songs together.” No one had ever said that to me. Almost to call her bluff, I was like “Ok, let’s do it.” I saw her band play at a bar not long after and I could see how similar our styles were. The next day we had our first band meeting.
E: Our first thing we did was we sketched out the parameters of our process. We wanted to use two voices to tell stories. Usually when you have two people in a story there has to be some kind of conflict or trouble. [Our brainstorming] immediately went dark…two people have murdered somebody and don’t know what to do about it or a living woman is in love with a ghost…
J: Two people steal a car…
E: We wrote a lot of those songs.
J: We created a list of topics and aesthetics. We went through movies we liked and books we liked. There’s a little bit of film noir and French new age cinema and Americana and the murder ballad tradition, but also Edward Gorey and goth and humorous goth as expressed by Tim Burton.
And the name?
E: The band’s name came out of all of that. We needed something that was playful. Our original theme was “Funeral Parlor,” but it seemed too niche.
J: One of the early names was “Hole in the Head” because we really didn’t need another project to be working on.
Both of you were in bands before Charming Disaster. How did you get into the world of music?
E: It was so circuitous for me. As an English major, I took one music class at Vassar [ed. note – Bisker is a Vassar 2001 alum]. Electronic music was my fun class. That class has been more useful to me than anything else I’ve done scholastically. I learned how to route signal, I learned how microphones work, and I recorded my first two songs there. Then I graduated and worked in book publishing for a while. Somebody gave me a ukulele at the end of 2005 and that was the watershed moment. I had never played an instrument before where I performed with it. Once I had a ukulele, everything changed.
J: I always played guitar since I was a kid. I went to music school at Berklee for a year and quickly found out it was not the place for me. I followed music and studied music and I played in bands, but I was never involved in writing. I transferred and went to The New School. I lived in New York and played in a bunch of bands. Kotorino was the first band I had that was my own.
E: That was one way we connected. We were each the bandleader of a big band.
J: It’s like being the CEO of a company.
E: I think of it being more of a captain of a pirate ship. It’s a little disreputable and you might go overboard at any moment.
J: It might all fall apart.
Do you actively search out dark inspiration or is it something you stumble upon as you go? How does your songwriting process work?
E: Our radar is open to that kind of thing. It’s like how when you’re collecting mushrooms you suddenly see mushrooms everywhere.
J: We could do a song about mushrooms.
E: Sometimes it’s an image or a turn of phrase. Another recent song that is not yet released but that we just started recording for our third album is based on a book called The Poisoner’s Handbook. Each chapter describes a different kind of poison. It’s a really fun song. It’s called “Blue Bottle Blues.”
How did you decide to collaborate with Rough Draft in Kingston?
E: We reached out. I have a friend who moved from Brooklyn to the Hudson Valley last year and she suggested Rough Draft. We like to look for nontraditional venues to perform because our concerts are intimate and we’re telling stories. A bookstore is a great space for us.
Will you perform new music on tour or stick to the first two albums?
E: We have some new things. In our recent touring we’ve come to use an interesting technique for determining our set list. We draw cards from the tarot deck. Each card we have associated with one of our songs. We ask audience members to draw a card and it determines which song we will play.
J: Not only does it determine our set list, but it divines the future.
Have you been to the Hudson Valley before?
E: We played at The Anchor in Kingston last year. Growing up, I’d take the train down from Westchester [to New York City] to perform slam poetry. I grew up in Westchester, in New Rochelle.
J: I grew up in Pelham.
E: We did not know each other.
Does your Westchester connection have anything to do with your song feature on the Welcome to Night Vale podcast? [Ed. note – Podcast creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor live in Westchester and Saugerties, respectively.]
E: They found us actually. Joseph Fink found our music video for “Ghost Story” on YouTube and he loved it. What went on Night Vale was one of the tracks for our first album. It was huge for us.