On Our Lady of Radium, Charming Disaster brings light to life’s darker corners
On Charming Disaster’s new album, Our Lady of Radium, the duo takes a realistic approach to their explorations of life’s foreboding aspects.
Rather than basing the songs on their own imaginary scenarios, the duo – singer/ukulele player and producer Ellia Bisker and singer/guitarist and producer Jeff Morris – decided to explore the life of Nobel laurate Marie Curie. The music retains its understated, mostly acoustic approach, with subtle asides that add depth to the arrangements, making this outing one of their most impressive.
“Forces of Nature,” is a quiet waltz that describes the Parisian love affair between Polish émigré Marie Sklodoeska and her soon-to-be husband, Pierre Curie. Morris and Bisker alternate verses to describe the emotional and intellectual attraction the couple felt, with dreamy keyboard textures and intertwining vocal harmonies. The Eastern European bounce of “Darkened Room” takes us into a séance, with the couple listening for the sounds made by things that go bump in the night. Ambient voices and a snare drum mimicking the sounds of a tap-dancing ghost lend a playfully spooky feel to the tune. The album closes with the title rack, a quiet meditation on Curie’s legacy of radioactivity, including the research that led to the discovery of atomic energy. Morris and Bisker trade vocals and distressing harmonies over a slow, somber melody that conveys their ambivalent feelings about Curie’s work.
As it examines the life and work of Curie, the album has the feeling of a novel set to music. Fittingly, the CD is accompanied by a booklet that describes the research that went into the songs. Bisker and Morris spoke to The Globe about the process behind the music.
Why did you call the album Our Lady of Radium?
Charming Disaster: The album title is a quote from one of Curie’s biographies. Curie became famous after her discovery of radium and was referred to in the French press as ‘our lady of radium.’ She gained a sort of religious icon status overnight. That song also asks the question: “Is this new knowledge a gift to humanity, or a curse unleashed upon the world?”
We got interested in the multifaceted story of Madame Curie and her discoveries through the graphic novel Radioactive, by Lauren Redniss. When we were awarded a two-week artist residency by Crosshatch Center for Art & Ecology in 2017, it was the perfect opportunity to dive deep into this project. We did a ton of reading and research during the first week of the residency. We wrote most of the songs that appear on the album in the second week. They marinated for about three years, as we took our time to figure out what to do with them.
We originally thought of this album as a departure, but much of our work explores myth and mortality. This album is no exception. Working from nonfictional source material is something we have continued to explore since writing this album. You may see more science inspired songs from us in the future.
Did you plan out the booklet as you were making the album?
No, but as we were recording the songs, we knew we wanted to include some material to give context. We were excited by what we’d learned and how it worked its way into the songs. We wanted to share this information, without being overly didactic. The booklet offers a deeper dive into the context and backstory of the songs, to listeners who are interested in that. We wanted to make it possible for readers to make connections between the notes we took and the lyrics that emerged from them.
You recorded the album at the home of Ms. Bisker’s parents during the pandemic. What was that process like?
We had to work around the persistent leaf blowers and lawnmowers, which run rampant in suburbia. We were recording in a space not designed for recording, with only two microphones and playing instruments a little outside of our comfort zone. There are tracks where we’re both playing the drums, which we had to record in layers. During one of our sessions, there was a tornado warning. We had to go hide in the basement. No tornado though.
The house is a mid-century ranch with a lot of light, art on the walls and many family photos covering the piano – the same piano Ellia took lessons on as a child. The vocals and drums were recorded in the den, a typical suburban TV room, with low slung couches and beige curtains. We hung blankets on the wall to try to minimize reflections. We recorded the whistling parts in a tiled shower. The clock you hear ticking on “Radium Girls” is a real clock. We had to remove it from the den because it was so loud. We borrowed some pots and pans from the kitchen for faux percussion.
In the beginning of the lockdown, we worked from separate locations, since we aren’t a couple. Eventually, we made the decision to pod up and work side by side again. Like many performers, we’d shifted from live shows to doing livestream performances. That sustained our project financially, as well as keeping us connected to our fans. We have freelance work, but not regular employment, so we were already working from home.
How did you choose the events of Curie’s life you highlighted in the songs?
We didn’t know in advance what the songs would be about – we let that emerge organically. As we did our research and reading, any quote, fact or image that interested us would get written down on an index card. We ended up with about 100 index cards, which we then grouped into categories by subject or theme. Those categories became the songs.
What were the challenges of producing yourself?
You have to be able to flip back and forth between “technical operator mind,” “producer mind,” and “artist mind.” From setting up equipment, finding the best mic placement, and making sure the levels are right, to making arrangement decisions and determining, “Is this take even any good?” Those considerations use parts of the brain that are completely different from, and not conducive to, executing a good performance as a singer or instrumentalist. Getting to work with a co-producer means having someone you trust to run the session and challenge you to do more than you think you’re capable of. Luckily, there are two of us to switch among all of those roles.
We’re excited to present this album in its entirety, doing as much as we can do with just us two. We’ll be playing the songs during our tour of the West Coast in late March and early April.
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