Brooklyn duo faces the darker side of life with a song in their hearts
When Ellia Bisker and Jeff Morris met, they realized they shared a fascination with the occult, sci-fi movies, traditional murder ballads and performance art.
They began writing together almost immediately and put out their first album as Charming Disaster, SPELLS + RITUALS, shortly thereafter. The album could be called Gothic Rock, or moody chamber pop, but they always brought a sense of irony and wit to the subjects they explored. Their next albums had a more homemade approach, due to the Covid lockdown. Our Lady of Radium, a collection of songs that explored the life and times of Marie Curie, was done primarily as a duo, and had a warm, intimate sound.
For their latest effort, Super Natural History, they were able to return to the studio and bring along a small rock combo. The songs are still intense, but the band brings a bit of light to the shadowy territory that fascinates them.
“Thematically, we feel like this album is a sequel of sorts to SPELLS + RITUALS, with its focus on magic and the occult,” they said, speaking as one. “It also includes a lot of the science we explored on Our Lady of Radium. Musically too, it feels like an accumulation, or a hybrid, of our last two albums (Our Lady of Radium, Cautionary Tales). We got to record with a drummer – two drummers actually – which we hadn’t been able to do since SPELLS + RITUALS because of the pandemic. We also did some of the tracking ourselves at home, as we did on Our Lady of Radium. The end result is more rock and roll, but hopefully holds onto some of that intimacy.
VIDEO: Charming Disaster “Monsters”
“The songs were written over a long time. We wrote ‘Manta Rays’ back in 2017, but it actually started out even earlier, as a list of manta ray facts. ‘Monsters’ is the most recent song, written in 2021. We’re always working on something. We tend to accumulate songs until we’ve collected enough for an album. It’s only once we reach a critical mass that we get to understand what the album is going to be about. Super Natural History is an exercise in duality: not just ‘supernatural’ or ‘natural history,’ but both at once. It reflects our interests in both occult subjects and scientific discovery, and the places where they overlap. It all comes down to curiosity and wonder in the phenomena we observe around us.
“They come out of whatever we get slightly obsessed with. We often get inspired by what we’re reading. The song ‘Paris Green’ was inspired by a book called Wisconsin Death Trip, and ‘Grimoire’ by Pam Grossman’s Waking the Witch. ‘Disembodied Head’ came out of our meditation practice. We often go back to mythology and folklore, like the myth of Hades and Persephone for ‘Six Seeds.’ Sometimes it just seems obvious that a song is missing from our oeuvre. Like we realize we really ought to have a song about bats, say, or poisonous plants, and then we write that song.”
The music on Super Natural History always compliments the subject matter. On “Manta Rays” the duo lists off intriguing facts about the animal over an easy-going pulse that leads up to their close harmonies on the chorus as they sing: “We don’t know why they do the things they do, But one day, I would like to ride one.” A catchy melody that brings to mind a radio hit from the ‘60s opens “Disembodied Head.” Its lyric combine images from horror movies and spirituality, delivered with their unique staccato phrasing. “Hellbore” is a song that could have been sung by the witches in ‘Macbeth.’ The rhythm section provides a tense groove that makes the duo’s singing sound ominous, as they articulate a long inventory of poisonous plants.
“We write all the songs together,” they said, ”although often one or the other of us gets it started separately. Then we flesh it out together. We use a range of techniques and approaches that vary from song to song, but sometimes a song starts with an idea, sometimes with a turn of phrase, sometimes with a musical line. Sometimes we just get haunted by a song until we’ve brought it to life.
“In our live shows, we like to see how much we can do as just two people. We are each singing, playing a uke or guitar and playing foot percussion, so there’s a lot going on visually and musically. The arrangements are stripped down to the essentials. On occasion, we invite a friend to sit in on a song or two, but it’s really about what kind of trouble two people can get up to onstage. Our performances are highly theatrical, almost vaudevillian, and we try to make every show feel like a heightened experience.”
Bisker and Morris have often used Tarot Cards for inspiration. In addition to the new album, they recently completed work on a deck of oracle cards. “Our oracle cards are in a 60-card divination deck, similar to a Tarot deck, but more open-ended,” they said. “Each card is based on one of our songs and features original artwork commissioned for this project from two dozen artists. It represents our ten-year body of work, the relationships we’ve formed with other artists and our trust in their vision. It’s a thing of great beauty and we are extremely proud of it. It includes a divination guide to provide instructions and insight. We printed 500 decks, half of which are already gone.”
Super Natural History is available on all major music platforms as well as the duo’s BandCamp page, where vinyl LPs, CDs and the Charming Disaster Oracle Deck may also be obtained.