Good Morning Bedlam’s Isaak Elker and Tori Elker Talk Embracing New Ideas and Breaking Up With Bad Ones On ‘Lulu’ (INTERVIEW)

High-energy Folk-inspired trio Good Morning Bedlam are releasing new album Lulu on February 4th, and it represents a wide swatch of experience and development for them. The songs it contains span a period of intense touring before the pandemic, some early recording just before shutdowns, then some soul-searching songwriting that eventually led to some meticulous recording sessions for Isaak Elker, Tori Elker, and Sophie Mae.  

Along the way, their model for the new album’s release embraced crowdfunding for the first time, releasing more singles pushed them to learn more video skills, and their biggest statement about “breaking up with bad ideas” took them into totally new sonic territory with the song “Lulu” and the idea that spans the album. I spoke with music and life partners Isaak Elker and Tori Elker about this tumultuous but exciting journey and the “dawn” they faced with Lulu. 

Hannah Means-Shannon: We have the exciting release of Lulu coming up on February 4th, but I feel like fans have plenty to dig into through the really consistent release of singles and videos. Have you always released singles and videos in a very specific way, or are you more focused on that this time around?

Tori Elker: This was a strategy for us. In the past, we’d release one or two singles for an album, but this time, we thought, “We’d love to try something different and see if that changes things for the listener.” It’s actually been really fun for us, every five weeks, to have something to look forward to. 

Isaak Elker: We’ve never done anything like this before and we wanted to try it, but also, as artists, all three of us in the band really love albums. So we were a little wary of releasing so many singles at first, but it’s been so fun. Then it’s going to be really fun to put them on a vinyl at the end for those who love to listen to albums front-to-back.

Tori: Especially with this new record, every song really is its own thing, so I think they really can stand alone as singles, but I am also excited for people to see what the whole picture was for us as we wrote. Our song “Haint Blue” got to be released in October, which is our spooky ghost song, so it’s been really interesting and exciting to give each song its season, though.

HMS: You’ve done a lot of really cool videos, too. I know there’s a theater component in the background for bandmembers, so it doesn’t surprise me that you’re very involved in making videos, but did this singles release pattern mean you went even further into visual content?

Isaak: With a lot of the visual content, it was actually easier to think about because it was so spread out. Sometimes it’s hard to think about when you’re releasing an album in February and it’s already May. In this case, we could focus on each song and divvy up the content a little more easily. We had more creative freedom and focus. That made it more fun.

Tori: For the songs that we made videos for, it gave us a chance to really think about what would be right. As far as the design, we were able to delve into each song’s meaning and create icons and graphics for each song. I love the visual meeting the sonic world. It gives you a well-rounded experience. I think I’m going to get all of the icons tattooed! I have four of them right now. 

Isaak: When we went into the studio, we worked for a couple of weeks meticulously on arrangements, then on the last day, at 8pm on a Friday, a tattoo artist who has a set up in the basement of the studio building came over and we all got album-related tattoos. That was a really special experience for wrapping the record.

HMS: That must have given a nice sense of completion in the absence of touring. It marks the milestone. Were all of the album’s songs recorded in the same sessions? I know that “Enough” came out further ahead of the others.

Isaak: Eight of the songs got recorded together, and “Enough” was earlier in 2020. But actually we released another song early, in 2019, called “The Haunting”. We were on the last leg of a tour when the pandemic hit, and we realized about five days before everything shut down what was about to happen. So we called our Producer and asked if we could get in the studio that week. We drove home and got that done, so we were really lucky to get in there and record. Then we spent the rest of the year writing. 

HMS: That’s amazing foresight to record when you could! The song “Enough” and this amazing fan-created video that you made seems like it had so much relevance to the early pandemic period. It sounds like it was written earlier, so was that just a big, helpful coincidence?

Isaak: I did write that one on the road. I’ve talked about this on stage before, but when audiences come up and talk to you after a show, most listeners feel like they’ve already created a connection with you and seem more vulnerable. One thing we’ve seen as a through-line through the years is that people really seem to struggle with basic concepts of feeling unloved or like they are not enough. I’m not sure why that is, but I’ve definitely noticed it, but I think one of our jobs as artists is to speak to what we see. And if you can, you should let other people know that you are feeling that way, too. 

People were feeling like that before, but I think that when things did shut down, all of the sudden, the entire world had that feeling. It happened very fast. Talking to people and their openness allowed us to see that beforehand. The video seemed to come at the right time because we knew that everyone was probably sitting at home and feeling these things because they weren’t able to be with their communities. We told them to send us stuff and that we would create a community.

Tori: It was so much fun doing that because at the time, my mother and sister lived in Oregon and there was no way I was going to be able to see them, but then I received all these videos of people experiencing joy. They were just having fun, playing games, being outside with each other. That was a really cool experience.

HMS: For me, watching the video, I felt it was a really cool human project and art project. There was the whole pandemic experience going on, but also there was the question of just asking people, “What does this look like in your life?” We see people making things, being creative, and some expressing physical joy. Everyone’s experience is so varied. 

Isaak: I think that’s one of the most beautiful things about the human experience, the differences we have between us. One of the cool things for us was seeing so many faces we recognized from our tours and travels.

Tori: We got to see those peoples’ lives and what they enjoyed on the video. I’m a people person and it was really hard, when Covid hit, not to play in person. That’s one of my favorite aspects of being a musician, getting to communicate and get to know the people who are there. 

HMS: When led up to deciding to use Kickstarter to help release the album and how was that experience for you?

Isaak: Part of it was necessity. One of the things we were able to do when the world shut down was write music and prep this album. But one of the things we couldn’t do was raise funds for the record by touring. When we were thinking about doing Kickstarter, one of the fears was that we had gone through a year and a half of artists, and other people, asking for help and in need. I thought at a certain point, people might say, “Enough is enough.” But one thing I forgot and I was reminded of is that if you make a call out to your fans, you’ll find that they are behind you 100%. It was a great growing experience to see that our fans were even more behind us and could see beauty and value in what we do. It was really humbling for us.

Tori: Something that I took from that experience that was really helpful was just really believing in what we made and not be ashamed to tell people, “I’m really proud of this art that I made and I can’t wait to share it with you.” I feel like a lot of artists, myself included, approach it more like, “I’m so sorry I need money to make my art.” But if you’ve made something unique, it has value. The people who are onboard with that are excited, too! It was great to come to crowdfunding with a positive mindset, to tell fans, “We can’t wait for you to be involved in this!” 

HMS: I have to also ask you about the song and making the video for “Haint Blue” because it is a really interesting song and far more than just a lyric video. At first the video seemed like a simple idea to shoot during Covid, but the more I watched it, the more complicated I realized that it was. 

Isaak: That is the story of Good Morning Bedlam! I feel like we’re always thinking, “We could try it!” Then, a little bit of perfectionism and workaholism, especially for me, creep in. It becomes way more work than the original idea!

Tori: It was a lot of fun. It wasn’t too terribly complicated to shoot, since Isaak and I just did it on our iPhones. I wanted a spooky video for this song since it’s such a jam. I thought, “What if we just had a candle, lighting our faces and singing, and playing with different candle takes?” We live in a house where we have a three-season porch with a window into the living room, so during our verses, one of us would start filming, and the other would run around to the porch and put our face in the window. So, if you look really close, you can see the ghost of another face in the background. 

Isaak: Tori and I know nothing about video, but it was so fun to do. I edited the video together and Tori did all the lyrics. I do simple editing on a lot of our videos. 

Tori: It gave me so much respect for people who do a lot of lyric videos. That’s a skill I had to learn. I think I completely deleted all my work at one point. I had to start over. We thought we’d give it a whirl, and I’m really proud of that video. We both come from theater backgrounds, so it was easy for us to lean into the spookiness of it. I think it will inspire more lyric videos. 

HMS: It’s such a real video that it almost was not a lyric video. The outcome is so professional. I think you’ve graduated to the next level of video-making, but there’s also a strong feeling of fun in the video. I hope you get to play it live, too.

Isaak: We get to play that every set! People do not like it if we cut it out.

HMS: Regarding the title track, “Lulu”, I am familiar with the work of Louise Brooks and her silent films. We see her on the album cover. There’s the idea of her, then there’s the story the song tells, then there’s the really ambitious and interesting orchestration in the song. I’d like to know more about your approach to all of those things.

Isaak: Those things all run together, but I think that the song “Lulu” is probably the most vulnerable piece of art I’ve been able to put out. Sometimes songs feel fully formed and you’re digging them out of the ground, then there are some songs that just come out of you, and that’s what I feel about this song, “Lulu”. The ideas in the song encapsulate the record as a whole, and I always feel that our records are time capsules of periods in our lives. 

The song is about exchanging old dreams for new dreams. One thing that was really hard about the pandemic for me personally, and this is probably true for so many musicians, is that I had a really unhealthy obsession with ideas of success. I had an unhealthy idea about it while growing up and as I was coming of age, I really thought I was going to be extremely successful. That can be a good thing, but I held too tightly to those ideas. When we came off the road, I realized that one thing I had lost in the relentless touring, through that ambition, was a lot of the love of what I was doing. I was more focused on where we were going. 

So that’s what this song “Lulu” is about, letting those ideas go of what you thought your life would look like, because when you have those, you don’t allow for all the unknowns that are beautiful. You miss those beautiful moments that you weren’t expecting in the present. That’s been a tough lesson for me. I was interested by taking an idea and personifying it, so the metaphor I used was, “If the goal of your life is to be a silent film actor and then talkies come along, your career goal can no longer be the same. You have to expand your idea.” But then I messed up the metaphor by extending it to the idea of black and white going to color, too. It was too much fun not to. So I wrote a breakup song about those bad ideas and named it after a silent film actress.

Tori: But the more that we learned about Louise Brooks, with her life so full of big ups and downs, her story and who she was as a person fell in line with this idea of breaking up with bad ideas. She came from nothing, worked her way into movies, was at the height of her career in Europe in Pandora’s Box, then when talkies came in, she fell off the face of the earth a bit. Her autobiography says that she fell into alcoholism and was never fully able to fully recover from that shift. She wasn’t able adapt to this new format, though she came back later, able to reflect on things. 

She had a huge impact on culture. We were talking about ideas of success, and she was hugely successful, but her inability to adapt must have been a huge weight. A lot of the themes were in line with what we were thinking. We knew we had to have her image as part of the album cover, and the image includes a sunrise and a sunset at the same time, welcoming the new and saying goodbye to the old. That’s how we wove her story into the record. 

The instrumental part of the song also has this immense quality, like the high highs and low lows of film music of the period. We were nervous to track all those instruments. That’s not something, as a trio, that we can do live, but that is the song and what it calls for. The first time that we heard all of those instruments in there together, we were all just grinning from ear to ear. We knew, “This is what we envisioned. This is what it is.” 

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