First, let’s state the obvious: Charming Disaster isn’t from the South – in fact they’re from New York City – but Southern Gothic is not simply a magazine of Southern culture; rather we are a publication of culture from the South reporting on things of interest to Southerners. With that said, a small group of Oklahomans were on expedition into the far reaches of the Yankee hinterland when it was decided a drink was in order. Someone said that we should go see some live music and directed us to an intriguing little venue in Burlington, Vermont, The Radio Bean, which hosts live music seven nights a week. We ordered some of the local’s recommended brews and took our seats not quite sure what to expect as Jeff and Ellia of Charming Disaster took the stage. The duo had an engrossing chemistry even before they struck the first chord. Then, with haunting elegance and a Vaudevillian sense of humor, they performed a set of original songs sprinkling in an irresistible dash of darkness that we at Southern Gothic couldn’t resist.
Southern Gothic: I want to say I loved your performance and am excited about your upcoming release of Love, Crime & Other Trouble but before we discuss the album, tell me a little more about your project. Are you both originally from New York?
Yes, we each grew up in the NYC suburbs, in neighboring towns (though we didn’t know it).
Southern Gothic: How did you meet?
Ellia caught Jeff’s other band Kotorino one dark night in a bar in Brooklyn, and started up a conversation thinking that Kotorino would be a good match for her band, Sweet Soubrette, to share a bill. Somehow, this turned into a plan to try to write some songs together, which worked so well that we decided to make it an official side project — one that was more nimble than our other bands, as a duo who could rehearse and perform without having to schedule lots of people.
Southern Gothic: Charming disaster has a dark but whimsical aesthetic. Can you tell me a little bit more about the inspiration for the project?
When we met we came up with a list of reference points, including Edward Gorey, Bonnie and Clyde, French New Wave cinema, Tim Burton, Circus and Vaudeville, among others. As an organizing principle, we wanted to focus on story song duets, with two narrative voices.
Southern Gothic: When did the project take shape as Charming Disaster?
Within the first few weeks of meeting each other we began writing material. Ellia had seen Jeff’s band twice and he had seen her band once, we got together for a meeting, made a list of song ideas and we were off and running – “Ghost Story” started getting written that night. That was two years ago.
Southern Gothic: How do you approach writing your material?
Sometimes one of us will bring an idea to the other, either a song fragment or a concept, and we pass it back and forth, relay style. Sometimes we come up with a concept together and flesh it out together. It depends on the song, but we’ve developed a handful of ways to write together that work for us. Having a second person to pass ideas off to helps when you feel stuck, and also frees you up to not edit yourself as much because you know if you’re writing crap the other person will catch it and fix it. (We’re actually doing this right now!)
Southern Gothic: When did you first decide to take Charming Disaster on the road?
We haven’t officially started touring yet because our album isn’t out yet, but since the band is so agile, we’ve been able to say yes to some fun out of town gigs that have come our way.
Southern Gothic: What has been the audience reception so far?
We were lucky to have “Ghost Story” featured recently on the podcast Welcome To Night Vale which has introduced our music to a broad range of listeners, many of whom have responded with an enthusiasm that has touched and surprised us. It’s incredibly encouraging to know that there is an audience looking forward to our first album release. We made a chord chart available in response to requests from some of those fans, and it’s been downloaded by a lot of people. It’s really exciting that people want to learn how to play our music.
Southern Gothic: You’re scheduled to release your album Love, Crime & Other Trouble later this year, can you tell us about the inspiration for some of the tracks on the album?
Romantic relationships between living people and ghosts; grand theft auto; diabolical office administrators; Egyptian mythology; doomed circus love triangles; sideshow attractions; consumptive showgirls; con artists; other things.
Southern Gothic: As you know, Southern Gothic was formed in Oklahoma, which is also home to writer Jim Thompson, author of The Grifters. Was there any connection to Thompson’s work and your song “Grifters”?
We both saw the latest film version of Thompson’s Grifters, and that was definitely in the back of our mind when writing, but the characters in the song kind of took over. We share Thompson’s fascination with con artists and other marginalized figures, whether fictional or historical.
Southern Gothic: “Ghost Story” is lyrical genius. How did the song take shape?
This was the first song that we wrote together. It started with a concept we came up with in our first meeting, and Ellia wrote the first verse while riding the subway home. She recorded that verse and sent it to Jeff, and he wrote the next section and sent a recording back to her. It continued to develop that way, by passing it back and forth, fine tuning it until it was finished.
Southern Gothic: “Knife Thrower” is another example of Charming Disaster’s vivid and nimble lyrical prowess. Ellia, the way you deliver the line “As it starts to spin, I feel my heart ignite” – you really capture something there but I hate to put words in your mouth so can you tell me more about what you felt with that track?
The song is partly about the transformative space that performing onstage puts you in, and the connection you feel with your stage partner. The knife act, with the danger and risk it involves, describes a heightened state where the only way to survive is to surrender and trust.
Fun fact: A real sideshow knife thrower commented on our soundcloud page that this song “hit home” and thanked us for our thoughts “on a complicated scenario.”
Southern Gothic: Is that a cello featured on Knife Thrower? It is excellent. Who is the cellist?
That’s no cello! That’s Mike Brown of Kotorino on the upright bass and Heather Cole of Sweet Soubrette on the violin.
Southern Gothic: Unlike many of your other songs, “Wolf Song” is not a story song. It’s a bit more abstract lyrically but still conjures vivid imagery. Can you talk a bit about the inspiration and what “Wolf Song” means for you both?
It’s a riff on Little Red Riding Hood, Prokofiev’s Peter & the Wolf (which inspired the horn section), those old Warner Bros. cartoons with the wolf in a tuxedo, the nature channel, old stories and cautionary tales about desire and its dire consequences.
Southern Gothic: Have you scheduled an official release date for the album yet?
The official release date for Love, Crime & Other Trouble will be in early 2015, TBD. But we will have an unofficial release around Halloween, meaning people can get CDs or downloads exclusively from us until the official release date.
Southern Gothic: Is Charming Disaster currently signed by any labels or are you going the Indie route?
So far, Charming Disaster is an indie project, but we’d be open to a label relationship. Since we put a lot of energy into promoting our other two bands, we wanted to allow Charming Disaster to evolve more organically, which is one of the things that makes it a lot of fun.
Southern Gothic: Will there be a Charming Disaster tour announced to support the album?
We are planning to tour in a more focused way in early 2015.
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