This charming band provides an illuminating look at the dark side of pop
Charming Disaster has an affinity for monsters, mortality, paranormal activity and unearthly shenanigans. On Spells + Rituals, their most recent album, and in concert, the duo – Ellia Bisker, vocals, ukulele and piano and Jeff Morris, vocals, guitar, and piano – has also been exploring divination, more explicitly the secret knowledge that hides behind the images on a deck of Tarot cards.
“Ellia and I have been thinking a lot about our live shows,” Morris says. “We’ve been incorporating rituals into our performances. Doing Tarot readings on stage draws the audience in. We associate certain songs with certain cards. We shuffle the Tarot deck and let the cards determine the order of the songs in the set.”
“With with the help of the audience, we create a meta-narrative that spans all the songs, using the Tarot as a roadmap,” Bisker adds. “We think of each song as a spell and a ritual. The merging of musical and magical practice has become a very real thing for us. When we were determining the order of the 11 songs on the album, we realized the first ten songs correspond to the traditional Celtic Cross Tarot Spread, an arrangement that is well known to practitioners. If you know Tarot, you’ll know what we were aiming at when you listen. Our intention is to have each song become a immersive, sensory experience.”
The songs on Spells + Rituals create a dark, compelling mood, sparked by flashes of wry humor. “Baba Yaga” celebrates a goddess from Slavic folklore who can bring misfortune, good luck, or an unpredictable combination of both. The music suggests a surf band galloping over the steppes in the heart of winter. “Belladonna Melodrama” is an ominous waltz that details the tribulations of a couple trying to save themselves from the sinister forces that are conspiring against them, while “Be My Bride of Frankenstein” is a rocker that distills the classic horror film into three succinct verses.
The band’s literary lyrics, and melodies that reference music from all over the world, are designed to give listeners an emotionally and musically expansive evening. The duo presumes that their audience is educated, intelligent, literary and aware of mythology. “We don’t actually assume that our listeners are well versed in the supernatural,” Bisker clarifies, “but we give them the benefit of the doubt. We’re providing a gateway to anyone who is interested. Jeff and I grew up reading a lot of genre fiction that drew on mythology and other sources. Once we heard those stories, we went on to do more research. Comic books like the Hellboy series, made me want to investigate the paranormal. I like the idea of our music being a doorway for some of our listeners.”
The arrangements on Spells + Rituals intensify the otherworldly aura of the music, with subtle, unexpected sounds floating through the mix. “We got really creative with some of the tracks,” Bisker says. “On ‘Heart of Brass’ we incorporated some non-traditional percussion instruments – canned air, glass bottles, a music box and a brass ratchet set we got out of the hardware closet of the studio. I think a water pan may have made an appearance. We play the songs live for a while, before we get into the studio, then we elaborate on them when we’re recording.”
“The album is a progression, not a departure,” Morris says. “We’ve elaborated on what we’ve touched on making past albums, in terms of instrumentation and subject matter. On this record, we explored dissonance and odd rhythms. We gave ourselves more leeway to play with instruments we found in the studio – thus the canned air and ratchet sets.”
The music of Charming Disaster occupies a unique niche. Was there a moment when they decided to focus on paranormal subjects? “When we started writing together, we decided we wanted to be dark and explore the most naked and embarrassing sides of our psyches,” Morris said. “To do that, you need to have a collaborator that you trust. I wouldn’t be able to share some of these ideas with anyone, but Ellia.”
Charming Disaster will celebrate the release of Spells + Rituals with a performance at New York City’s legendary Slipper Room on June 20.