The Brooklyn-based Dark Folk duo Charming Disaster will be following up their 2022 album, Our Lady of Radium, with the release of Super Natural History arriving on colored vinyl LP and digitally on March 3rd. The album was created alongside an extra-special tarot deck drawing on their 60 songs released so far and they will also be celebrating with a release show on March 4th.
The new collection takes two subjects that are near and dear to the hearts of both Ellia Bisker and Jeff Morris and combines them artfully into an exploration of wonder. Along the way, we meet wild and wonderful things like monsters, poisonous plants, giant manta rays, and poisonous pigments. Charming Disaster have always operated at the intersection of the occult, the folkloric, and the love of amateur science, but this time around they make sure audiences can trace the open-minded approach that brings a magical feeling to following our human curiosity. I spoke with Charming Disaster about their experience of making Super Natural History drawing on their own fascinations.
Hannah Means-Shannon: I know that in some ways the songs on Super Natural History bring together both elements of science and elements of occultism, but I also feel like this is very natural territory for you, particularly in using storyteeling. What brought you to the decision to make that combination a little more explicit for this album?
Ellia Bisker: I feel like that’s our home base, really, focusing on stories and how we tell them. And yes, the iconography of arcane and occult mysticism has always been part of our shared vocabulary. [Ellia shows me the newly pressed vinyl edition of the album by video] We have the vinyl in hand and we made these really pretty printed liner notes. [Ellia shows me some late medieval style illustrations that look alchemical.]
HMS: So cool! I recognize that two-headed being as an alchemical symbol.
Jeff Morris: I think that’s our band photo! That’s how I feel.
HMS: Are you the two-headed person with wings?
Ellia: Yes, we’re a two-headed octopus. If we had a family crest, it would be four arms and four legs and two heads working as an organism. That’s kind of how we play the show. That’s how we pack up the gear.
HMS: That explains how you manage so many instruments! I feel like modern Folk and even popular culture have started embracing more of the darker imagery and ideas from the medieval period. Or at least showing curiosity about it. Do you think that’s true?
Ellia: Definitely. One of the things that this band has allowed us to do is to have a medium to explore those intrests. It’s created a container to put those interests in. This is our fifth album and we’ve definitely become broader. We started out with a more focused collection of themes, though it’s always gone into murders and mythology. Going into the science stuff, it also allows us to say, “That’s so neat!”
We’re looking at things and reacting like the amateur scientists of the 19th century. We’re asking, “Did you know about the manta ray? Or about the vampire squid?! What about rocks?” For me, personally, it goes back to my core interest as a child. I collected rocks back then, but I would do magic spells as a child, too, because the borders were very porous. They are very porous for us, now.
Jeff: It’s all, I think, an expression of wonder. There’s this thing that’s so cool and you want to share it with someone. That sharing of wonder if what a “cabinet of curiosities” started out to be. Those were cabinets where amateur naturalists with mutton chops whiskers put their cool things. But whether it’s science or the occult, it all kind of fits with that expression of wonder and sharing that wonder. It’s also about stories and expressing storytelling, as Ellia was saying.
HMS: I was actually going to bring up the idea of wonder because I feel like the same attitude is applied to all of the different pieces of subject matter on this album, and that attitude is wonder. When you’re a child, there’s the same openness to things, and thoughts in one area could impact thoughts from another area. That can be a good thing. Intuitive scientific discoveries happened a lot in the past.
Ellia: It’s also a kind of beginner’s mind attitude to come to a subject with an openness and curiosity, without having a preconceived notion of where it will lead.
Jeff: It’s the root of the word “amateur”, being a lover of a thing, and being excited about it in an open way.
HMS: I know that you recorded your Marie Curie, Our Lady of Radium, album at home and using what access you could develop for recording. Where does working on this album fit in to the timeline?
Ellia: We started recording this album in 2021 when we could go back into the studio again. Some of these songs were a long time coming and there was a lot of joy in getting to make them that way.
HMS: Do you think that the experience of making the previous album at home impacted how you recorded Super Natural History?
Ellia: It worked very well to record in a home studio, so we did bring the experience to the new album. For about half of the songs, we started recording them that way. We had done the vocals, guitar, and ukulele ourselves, taking the time that we needed. That meant that we weren’t feeling as much on the clock in the studio. So we let that process breathe a little bit and then went to the studio with these half-built tracks to work with our long-term Producer Don Godwin. He layered his parts on that. That meant that we got to play Producer and engineer more on this album. It was somewhat of a hybrid album in that way.
Jeff: I think that worked with the theme of the album, too. It’s a cross between two different practices and experiences. Like Super Natural and Natural History.
HMS: The whole title can be perceived in different ways, which is great. It’s a willful combination of elements. Did you write any differently because of this new approach?
Ellia: As we were working on these tracks doing this kind of preproduction, one of the songs was written. We were doing a kind of retreat and we each started writing a song. Was it deliberate, Jeff?
Jeff: Yes, we said, “Let’s pick a subject and both come up with a song and see what we get.” It was an idea-generation kind of thing. We were out for an hour or two, then when we came together, we asked…
Ellia: “What’s your song about?” “Monsters.” “What’s your song about?” “Monsters!”
Jeff: We literally frankensteined them together.
Ellia: And then we recorded it immediately that week. We took each other’s chords and put them together. We had all the recording gear up because we had been tracking the other stuff, so we just did it. We redid some stuff, but we redid it the next day. We had never worked that way before. We usually have songs for years.
Jeff: I think when we’re tasked with a project, like the Curie album, that’s very focused, in the midst of the project, you sometimes write a different song to just blow off some steam.
Ellia: But we’d never gone straight to recording something like this.
HMS: It was like the engine was still running.
Jeff: It’s so important to step away from the river of responsibilities that you have in daily life just to get some air. For me, specifically, I need space and mental quiet to access that stuff.
Ellia: Although “Hellebore” was written during the pandemic, but we couldn’t quite finish it until we came together, since we had a separation of about four months. That song had started beforehand, but we were thinking, “We really have to have a song on the album about poisonous plants!”
HMS: You’re coincidentally bringing up two of my favorite songs on the album, so please keep talking! I really like “Monsters.” “Hellebore” kind of reminded me of the attitude that we were just talking about of finding wonder in similar things. I think the music contributes to that, since the mood of that song actually feels quite exploratory. Even though it’s about poisonous plants, it doesn’t feel like a super-dark song. Let’s say it’s magical.
Ellia: It’s magical. Is it a recipe? Maybe it is. Are we making flying ointment? Perhaps. [Laughs]
Jeff: It was fun to through the book of magical plants and poisons, just going through a list and finding the resonant words.
Ellia: We were trying to find plant-names that had the right syllables. Jeff had given me a gift of a book about magical plants previously, a 1970s book called Deadly Harvest.
HMS: I’ve seen that book! It’s a classic.
Ellia: The introduction is so great. It’s all about how plants are, basically, trying to kill us. But it has a great index so we could use that to look for cool plant names.
HMS: In that list we hear in the song, I noticed that some of the plants have had magical associations for a long time and maybe still do. But there are also several that are totally known to science now to have exactly the properties that they were believed to possess in magical terms way back when. They have chemical makeups that have medicinal or poisonous effects. It blurs the lines between the occult and science very well.
Ellia: “Paris Green” is similar in that way, a song about poisonous pigments. We are very interested in poisonous ingredients and what they do, whether it’s benign or malign.
HMS: Can you tell me more about that song? It really goes into the language of colors and painting and the music even reminds me a little of the streets of Paris at the turn of the century. I was watching a documentary recently that talked about how horribly poisonous most pigments used in famous paintings of the past were. Painters used dangerous elements to paint with to get bright colors.
Ellia: Even more recently, that kind of thing has happened.
Jeff: An artist died from inhaled aerosols from sculpture material. Art is toxic!
Ellia: “Paris Green” was inspired by a book called Wisconsin Death Trip that combines early 20th century photography with news clippings from an archive, like from a police blotter, of the same period in this town. You get this impression of a desolate, desperate time in rural America. A couple of our fans sent this to us, and we liked it. It was full of suicides, murders, and arsons, but a lot of times the name “Paris Green” was mentioned concerning murder and suicide.
Jeff: It was very popular.
Ellia: We looked it up, and it turns out that “Paris Green” was an agricultural poison that was arsenic-based. It was bright green. People used it as an insecticide or herbicide. It was readily available. But it was also used as pigment in wallpapers and textiles. There’s a theory that the story “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a medical story about arsenic gas. So we got obsessed with the idea of these poisonous pigments that are beautiful and dangerous.
We are big nerds and go down these rabbit holes. The book called The Poisoner’s Handbook talks about “Prussian Blue”, which is a pigment used to detect cyanide in someone’s blood, forensically. Even the word “cyanide” has “cyan”, meaning blue, in it. Prussian Blue is also a paint pigment that poisons painters. We were thinking of the old Folk song, “Lavender’s Blue”, so we wanted to keep going with the colors and the pigments.
Jeff: We didn’t get to include “Mummia”, which is that pigment actually used in Europe, especially France in the late 19th century made from mummies, actually.
Ellia: It’s actual mummies.
HMS: I heard this on an Egyptian show in passing and it was so weird! They were saying, “We don’t have a lot of our mummies now because they were all turned into other stuff my Europeans.” It was crazy! I can’t believe they used them for paint.
Ellia: Yes, that’s why all those paintings are now cursed!
HMS: We finally know why.