By David Templeton | From the March-April 2022 issue of Strings magazine
“It’s negative 18 here in Minnesota,” reports Victoria (“Tori”) Elker of the folk-pop band Good Morning Bedlam. Continuing with her genially truncated weather report, she adds, “It’s really cold, but the sun is out, and we’re used to it, so I really can’t complain.”
Hold the phone.
It’s really cold.
But the sun is out.
So I really can’t complain.
Seriously. That reads a bit like a lyric in a Good Morning Bedlam song: honest, to the point, and evoking a visceral listener response incorporating at least two primary senses, with an underlying foundation of complex, relatable emotion. Calling up mid-morning, just days after the release of the group’s latest single “Lulu,” the title track of GMB’s anticipated February album, Elker is in an upbeat mood. The band has been releasing a new single from Lulu every five weeks or so over the last several months, and she has exciting news to share about the band’s future.
GMB, with an audience built around its addictive but hard-to-categorize sound, was originally founded as a teenage duo featuring singer-songwriter-guitarist Isaak Elker and singer-songwriter-violinist Sophia Mae. They met as part of a youth theater company, where they wrote and performed original music. The band became a trio when they added a standup bass player. When he left the group, around the time Isaak married Tori, she taught herself to play the bass so she could tour with her husband and do more than sell merchandise after the show.
“I totally said, ‘I don’t want to sit at home paying the rent while you go off on an eight-week tour every few months,’” recalls Elker. “I said, ‘I love this music. I love this band. I’m around it all night and all day. I can learn the bass.”
And so she did, officially joining the band as a singer-songwriter-bassist in the summer of 2017.
“It’s been a lot of fun, and I couldn’t imagine doing any of this performing and writing with anyone else,” Elker adds. “All three of us are very close to the music, and close to each other, because we’ve known each other and trusted each other for so long.”
Part of Elker’s learning experience included a passion for bowing in addition to plucking. “We play high-energy folk music, so a lot of time I’m plucking, just to support the rhythm of the song,” she points out. “But the more we get to play around with percussion and different ways of supporting the rhythm of each song, the more I get to play around with getting to bow.”
Particularly enjoyable, she says, are those opportunities when she and Sophia get to bow together. “It’s fun to find those moments of synchronicity,” Elker says. “It’s really great and kind of interesting to come together and bow, and support the music in a more orchestral way than we usually do. I love the sound of an upright bass bowed. It’s one of my favorite sounds in the world. The bass is such a big, big instrument. When you bow, it’s warm and full. You feel it through your whole body. I love it when I get to bow when I play. It fills the room and fills the sound, and is a cool support to the song.”
Long before learning the bass and joining the band, Elker—a singer all her life—had discovered that she harmonized well with Isaak—and with Sophia. “What’s so fun about our voices is that we’re all very different,” she says. “Sophia and I have very different timbres, but because we’ve had the opportunity to play so much together, we’ve tightened that. There have been years where we’ve played more than 200 shows. The more you play together, the more you sing together, the better your harmonies get and the tighter your tone gets with each other.”
It’s the same with bowing, Elker has learned. “It’s just second nature now,” she says, while admitting that it takes some serious concentration to play the bass—whether bowing or plucking—while singing at the same time. “It’s definitely like rubbing your stomach while patting your head. But I find that if I can learn the song and the vocal, and especially if I write them at the same time, it usually comes pretty quickly.”
As someone who’s been singing much longer than she’s been playing, the whole vocalizing-while-playing thing is a skill she had to work hard to acquire. “It was pretty frustrating at first,” she acknowledges. “My physical ability to sing was so far ahead of my ability to play and keep the rhythm, especially when the vocal line contrasts with the bassline. But now, Sophia and I are both able to play and sing at the same time pretty easily, me on my bass and she on her violin.” Most of the time, however, Elker adds, the band deliberately orchestrates Mae’s violin parts so that she’s not playing and singing simultaneously. “Just because the timbre of the violin is so close to the timbre of the human voice, we try not to have melodic violin lines playing over our three-part harmonies.”
In a band like Good Morning Bedlam, with everyone playing and harmonizing—and often dancing around the stage, as they tend to do in their legendarily energetic live shows—the choreography of each song’s arrangement becomes key. “With Sophia, most of the time her violin operates like an electric guitar in a rock band,” Elker elaborates. “She takes the lead lines, or we’ll find little pockets where her melodies fit. We work together as a group collaboratively to build our songs. Every time we have a harmony or a specific lead voice—because we all trade off the lead in our songs—it’s very strategic.”
All of the members of the band write songs, and each one goes through a lot of collaborative work before being ready for performance. That said, many of Good Morning Bedlam’s songs begin with Isaak. “A lot of the time, he’ll come in with some lyrics, or maybe a melody he’s been thinking about, and then Sophia and I will put the meat on the bones,” Elker explains. “We’ll figure out our individual parts, what lines or harmonies work where and all that, but by the time we’re finished, most of our songs have been pretty thoroughly worked over by all of us together. Building music really is a group effort.”
That kind of group effort requires the whole team to be on the same page, especially when taking bold steps forward, as was the case with Lulu, an album Elker characterizes as a major evolution for Good Morning Bedlam. Recorded last February, the album features a number of tunes that introduce new musical ideas, building new approaches to musical storytelling on top of the band’s comfortably solid harmonic foundation. One clear example of that is the title track, which was just released a day or two before this conversation.
“We are really proud of that song,” says Elker. “We haven’t been able to dip our toes into big orchestral sounds, and the big concern for us, going into recording this album, was making sure that it would be different—it would reflect this big vision we all had—but that it also still had to sound like us.”
There is a major orchestral section in the song “Lulu,” a sweetly melancholy blend of playfully constructed musical ideas, carrying listeners along on an almost cinematic journey from its gently wistful opening—which includes a smile-inducing bit of harmonized whistling—to that big, heart-swelling orchestral conclusion.
“We had clarinet and brass and timpani,” says Elker. “It was so amazing to listen to it when it was done, getting to hear that song the way we all heard it in our heads. That moment is supposed to be spectacular, it’s supposed to be large, and I think it turned out exactly the way we wanted it.”
As carefully planned, “Lulu” was the penultimate single from the album to be released. Coinciding with the digital and physical release of the full album on February 4 was the final single, “Salt,” written by Elker and similarly experimental with the band’s sound and style. “Oh, it’s massive,” she says. “It’s this explosive ballad with a big, big feeling to it.”
The journey the band has been on is one that Elker hopes to share with their listeners and fans, part of the reason the album is constructed the way it is, in terms of the order of the songs. “If I showed you the track list on the physical CD,” Elker says, “the first song on the album is ‘I Am Sad,’ which is probably the most recognizable Good Morning Bedlam sound for listeners who know us. It’s very high energy and folky and fun. Then, as you move through the album, we experiment more and more with our sound, and the last two tracks, ‘Salt’ and ‘Lulu,’ are probably our most different.”
As if that’s not enough, Elker shares that Lulu, the album, released as it was one song at a time over the course of a year, really has served as a gradual introduction to a new version of Good Morning Bedlam, and that’s true in more ways than just how the music sounds. “While making this album, we decided to add a trumpet and keys player to the band permanently,” she says. “So now there will be four of us.”
The new member is Dawson Redenius, who contributed much of that “big sound” Elker has been describing. “We will always be under the folk umbrella,” Elker says, “but as our lyrics and our harmonies take more centerstage, it’s time for us to grow, and moving from a trio to a quartet is literally growing. It’s going to open up a lot of writing possibilities, and a lot of new colors for us to paint with.”