The Brooklyn Night Bazaar (165 Banker St) is still going strong. Tonight’s show features a great band with Greenpoint roots, Blue and Gold. They share a bill with Team Spirit, The Liza Colby Sound, Hard Nips, Lowell, and DJ Pegasus Warning. If you haven’t listened to the band’s debut EP, you can do so here. You can also check out their brand new music video for “Ghost Man” below. The video was directed by Martine Charnow, with cinematography by Toby Miller. It was filmed in Downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn, including at the now closed but possibly soon to reopen Living Room on the LES. The video (as inspired by the song) depicts near misses and bad romances that might feel so good, which we should acknowledge as part of love’s full spectrum on Valentine’s Day. Be sure to watch for the cameos by band members GG, Alex, and Chloe.
PLUS as an added bonus, take a listen to Lowell, who is coming to the show from Toronto and will be releasing her debut solo album on one of my favorite record labels Arts & Crafts. Sample track “88” here.
The Valentines Love Fest at Pete’s Candy Store (709 Lorimer St.) features a night of poetry, bands, and drinks, plus a chocolate giveaway from Fine and Raw. The show is free and begins at 7:00. It is fitting that Sweet Soubrette , the musical project of Ellia Bisker, is part of this evening because she sits firmly at the intersection of rock and literature. Her most recent album Burning City is filled with songs that come across as short stories set to music, even some that have been directly inspired by classic works of fiction (like the title track and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five). She is also a member of the Bushwick Book Club, a songwriting group with a literary bent.
The album is quite good. Besides its strong storytelling element, it is a fun musical journey. Some songs smolder with a darker energy like “Live Wire”, and others bounce along in utter catchiness like “Just Your Heart.” It is by turns thought-provoking, emotional, and fun – often all at once. I had the chance to ask Ellia a few questions about music, literature, the Bushwick Book Club and more.
GP: It looks like you write all your songs, sing, and play the ukulele, and also that you work with a pretty big team of musicians for your recordings and live shows. How does the music develop?
Ellia: When I’m writing I like to start out with just me and the ukulele, so the first phase of a typical new song is basically a singer/songwriter number. I may have ideas for the band arrangement, and I usually have specific ideas about the vocal harmonies, but I definitely don’t have everything planned out — I rely on my band members to contribute their ideas. So the next phase is bringing what I consider a complete song (lyrics, melody, chord progression, structure) to the band to flesh out the arrangement collaboratively.
For instance, “Live Wire” started out as this really rhythmic, choppy ukulele number, and Mike (our original drummer, who recently moved to Las Vegas) suggested taking out everything, even the uke, and then layering the instrumentation back in super minimally, almost like we were mixing electronic music using acoustic instruments. Everyone has opinions, and I really value what the musicians I’m lucky enough to work with contribute – ultimately the artistic decisions are mine, but my collaborators bring much more to the table, more ideas and influences, than I ever could on my own.
GP: I’m curious to learn more about the Bushwick Book Club, a literary songwriting group. What is that like?
Ellia: The Bushwick Book Club was founded by my friend Susan Hwang (of The Debutante Hour, among other musical projects) in January 2009. She wanted to create an event around new music written in response to a narrative, and she came up with the idea of writing songs about books. I joined in April of that year and have been a regular participant ever since. Our meetings are actually shows. Every month there’s a performance in front of an audience (the venues vary), where up to a dozen songwriters perform the songs they’ve written in response to that month’s book.
This turns out to be a completely brilliant formula for songwriting: you get assignments that hit the sweet spot between general and specific; strict deadlines (you have to finish your song, because you’re in the show); a community of other songwriters who are interested in what you’ve made; peer pressure (everybody else is writing their song, so you can’t bag out); low stakes (it doesn’t have to be good, just finished), and as a bonus you get a narrative to engage with other than your own emotional life. I’ve posted my recent favorites as a free download on Bandcamp. The point is really to generate new work and take creative risks. The next show is at Barbes on February 25. This month’s book is the memoir of a civil rights lawyer called Fire on the Bayou. I’m still working on my song.
GP: It appears that a few songs grew out of work with the club, like Burning City, which was inspired by an assignment involving Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five according to Bandcamp. Which other authors have influenced your songwriting? Also, have any songwriters known for being literary inspired you?
Ellia: Authors that have influenced specific songs of mine include Anaïs Nin, whose book Henry and June inspired the song “What’s My Desire,” and the disquieting short story writer Manuel Gonzales, whose story “Written” inspired the song “Charlatan.” I was privileged to play an opening set before a reading by Cheryl Strayed in Williamsburg last year, and her book Tiny Beautiful Things has been on my mind ever since; I suspect a song may come out of that one. And when it comes to other literary songwriters, I’m a huge disciple of PJ Harvey, who had two songs inspired by Flannery O’Connor stories on her album “Is This Desire.” I also really admire the Decemberists, who have a number of book-inspired songs.
GP: “Rock Paper Scissors” really fascinated me as a song about decisions and consequences. It’s a universal topic which can be very challenging. I don’t want to equate the song to something autobiographical asking this, but I wondered what about this topic fascinates you?
Ellia: “Rock Paper Scissors” is the second song I’ve written that explores the idea of impossible choices or decisions that immobilize you because every alternative seems equally painful. “Avalanche,” from our second album, Days and Nights, has a similar point of view, except instead of rock/paper/scissors it’s a rock and a hard place. So I guess it’s been a preoccupation of mine for a while. I’m interested in that extended moment when it’s possible to sort of hover in suspension before bringing about a drastic change. How long can you sustain an unsustainable situation? Longer than you think. I realize this probably isn’t healthy.
GP: Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the song “Sweet Time” is lovely look at a relationship (hopefully) about to blossom. The message of patience and confidence is great, but also something that seems kind of hard to find. And that’s true in non-romantic contexts as well – everyone wants it all now. Do you think it’s difficult to keep things in perspective and take the long view, for love and otherwise? Does this outlook have any resonance to your creative life in any way?
Ellia: Like many people who make things and feel a need for validation, I have a lot of trouble with this. I’m definitely one of those people who wants it all right now, and I oscillate between elation and despair when it comes to my creative life. I suspect the trick is to strike a balance between being present in the moment and taking a more philosophical perspective, but it’s hard — we’re humans, we experience most acutely what’s happening right now, that’s our nature. It is really challenging to take the long view about your life when you’re in the thick of it, whatever the context.
“Sweet Time” captures that elusive feeling of calm certainty that you’re going to end up where you need to be. My favorite response to the song came from a friend of mine was pregnant with her first child when I wrote it. She told me it spoke to her as she was waiting to meet her daughter. But the secret about “Sweet Time” is that it was written just a few weeks into the relationship whose beginning it documents. So all that big talk about taking my time? I rushed right in.
GP: Since this is for Greenpointers, what do you like about Greenpoint? And have you ever been to WORD, our fine bookstore?
Ellia: I lived in Greenpoint for 4 years, and I loved the sense that the neighborhood was still a bit of frontier, people were starting new projects and businesses everywhere you looked, there was room for innovation, but the longtime residents weren’t getting gentrified out so much because they owned property. I loved the weird industrial ruins and the architectural oddities and the waterfront, riding my bike on Franklin Street, doing my grocery shopping the old fashioned way: the produce market, the bakery, the butcher. I miss the small town vibe — I was friendly with the local business owners of places where I was a regular in a way that hasn’t happened in the neighborhoods where I’ve lived since. And I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Greenpoint because in 2008 I was crowned “Mizz Greenpoint” at a pageant that only ever happened once, which means I hold the title in perpetuity. I wrote a song about the neighborhood for the occasion.
As for Word bookstore, not only have I been there, I’ve performed there! When Manuel Gonzales’s book The Miniature Wife came out last year, I played some songs at his reading, and Emily Raw and I just shot some footage for the “Charlatan” music video in their basement. That place is the best.