Those that read this blog certainly know of my profound appreciation and respect for Mark Erelli. Few, if any, singer-songwriters currently making music, inspire me more than him. There’s a transcendence and a timelessness about his craft. Whether its his unmistakable voice, his ruminative lyrics or his deft musicianship, not many are higher on the proverbial music totem pole. Having released more than a half-dozen critically acclaimed albums in just over a decade’s time, Erelli is once again readying the release of another disc. He took time out of a busy schedule to sit down and answer a few questions. Head to the jump to read his replies.
RMP: What can you tell me about the new album?
Mark: Which one, Delivered or the two upcoming ones.
RMP: There are two upcoming ones? I just thought there was one.
Mark: No, I’ve got two. A solo record, which is called Little Vigils and another project, a duo CD with Jeffrey Foucalt. It’s an acoustic collection of murder ballads. [laughter] Yeah. Not fun.
RMP: Explain how this duo CD came about?
Mark: We have always enjoyed singing and playing together. Our voices have the same kind of blend to them. We just wanted to do something, we weren’t sure what. We always said we should record an album together. So we just started thinking, how could we limit it? We knew it wouldn’t have to have a draw from all music. So we decided let’s pick songs from one area. Both he and I are into the Western theme. Ya know those traditional songs, songs from that vein. They work well in that kind of environment. Ya know, an Everly Brothers duet kind of things. We recorded it for awhile. Its just taken forever to finish. Its due out in the next few months.
RMP: Are these songs written individually or co-writes, or what?
Mark: I wrote a song on there and the rest are traditionals or covers. There’s only one original. We focused more on the collaboration process and the final product and not on original songs.
RMP: How has living in New England help shaped your music career? For example, you recorded an album in a western Massachusetts performance hall and often allude to the geography of New England in your songs? Is is just a location, same as any other, or has it helped widen your palette. That it to say, could most of your songs been written in Anytown, USA, or does much of your material owe a great debt to New England?
Mark: I would write songs regardless of where I am living. I mean similar scenes would kind of be addressed, but there would just be slight geographical or seasonal references. In New England, we are lucky, or unlucky to have four distinct seasons. So there’s not only the geographical aspect, but there is also the seasonal aspect. And with my background in biology, I see all the kind of natural phenomena of the seasons. And somehow it all finds its way into the songs. Especially in this new batch on Little Vigils, more so than ever before. I think there are some things that don’t reference New England in my music though. I don’t think I’m tied to New England. If I was somewhere else, I’d still write these songs. It tends to pop up, yes, but it doesn’t define me.
RMP: Explain the Darwin Project and your involvement with it?
Mark: That was something organized by a dude in the UK, to tie in with the 150th anniversary of the publishing of Origin of Species. It also tied in with the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birthday. Being that Darwin was English, the British are big into celebrating his legacy and his life. So this guy who runs an online record retail site, has been a big fan of mine and a lot of other folks for years. He got grant money and came up with this idea of putting eight artists in a house in the English countryside and seeing what collaborations resulted. The end result would be a concert where we performed the songs, which would eventually be put on a live CD. This guy, he chose all the artists. I didnt know any of the artists, and I had only heard of one of the eight. Which is strange. Kinda a small world in the end and yet I knew none of them. I went over there pretty open minded and unaware, and nervous all at the same time. I had, or should I say I have, the only benefit and burden of having a background in evolutionary biology. So there were sort of unrealistic expectations put upon me, ya know. He knows how to write this, why isn’t he writing more? In the end, we wrote 18 songs in five days. It’s really amazing and they are of really high quality. 14 or 15 of the 18 made the record. It’s a very moving, very novel kind of thing. And it’s quite honestly a high point of the last 10-plus years I’ve been making music.
RMP: What’s your greatest memory, be it on the road or in the studio of 2009, and then on a broader scale, the last decade?
Mark: This is from a music only standpoint I presume?
Mark: Well. in 2009, I was asked to do the whole side man thing, and that’s kinda half of what I do these days. Much of my tour schedule is half my own gigs, and half of other people’s gigs. As of late, I was invited to go the UK with Josh Ritter. He was doing a stripped down trio thing. We were mainly opening up for Ray LaMontagne. Josh played all these big halls. They were really full to capacity. It ended with two nights at the Royal Albert Hall, which is one of if not the most beautiful, acoustically inspired building I’ve ever been in. There was this whole weight of the history of all the people that have played in it that was just incredible. To think of all the people that had been in that building before me. It was a special triumph.
As for the highlight of the decade, I don’t know.I guess it would be shortly after I decided to do this, ya know. That I would make a conscious decision to make music full-time. I made my debut in 1999 and those first couple of years where I was learning and asking myself how do I do it, can I do this, is this possible? By this I mean making music for a living. Somewhere in the course of this past decade, I released a bunch of records and have played hundreds of concerts. And its like the next thing you know you’re doing it. The dream you had your whole life is basically your life. The high point professionally was getting to feel like I can do this as a profession. I am very grateful that I can do this for a living.
RMP: Discuss your relationship with Josh Ritter. Aside from being one-time labelmates, you mentioned he recently invited you to be a part of his band. Was this a long time coming or the undercurrents of fate and happenstance pulling something together?
Mark: I don’t know if it had been brewing. I’ve known Josh since open mic gigs. I remember him asking me for advice on signing with Signature Sounds. I had a record out on that label already and he wanted to sign with them. We hadn’t traveled much in the same circles though. We reconnected through his band, most notably bass player, Zach Hickman. And it was through Zach that I found myself in those same circles, be it professionally or just kind of hanging out. So, Josh was looking for a different format for his upcoming tour and he couldn’t bring the whole band. He wanted something different. My name came up cause I had been hanging out with him lately. He tried it out. It’s funny, they were the first dates he had done without his band in quite some time. I was quite honored to be asked. That’s a real delicate situation when a performer takes themselves out of a comfort zone, and does something different. They have to be with with someone they trust. I really am so honored he had that faith in me. It was way too much fun and it went really well. I hope I get to do it again.
RMP: God, I hope so.
Mark: Yeah, he has a new record coming out. It won’t be for awhile. He said to me that he’d love to do it again at least a few times since. So let’s keep our fingers crossed.
RMP: Discuss how the rise of social networking sites, Myspace, Facebook, and to some extent the Yahoo Mark Erelli Fan Group, has helped shape your career?
Mark: I dont know if they’ve shaped anything. None of those things are in my mind when I am making music or recording. They are potentially interesting tools. I know some of those people from the Yahoo group and have met them at concerts. A lot of them were big in the barn-raising campaign for my last CD Delivered. They are certainly among the most ardent, and long term fans I have. I am very grateful for that. I at least know where they stand in the long run. As for Myspace, I think it’s kind of dead. [pauses] And Facebook. Well, I’m getting interested in that a little bit. All these things kinda seem like ginormous wastes of time, to be honest.. For someone that has a limited amount of time for himself, I don’t know if they are where I should spend my time. I just want to spend it making music. I don’t want to spend my free time emailing and entering the same tour dates onto my site and those other sites as well. But, at the same time, its kind of the coin of the realm. I have sort of forced myself to decide to try and find ways to interact with it, that dont take too long but are still meaningful and people still appreciate it. And do it on that level. A lot of the Facebook stuff is taking shape. I have a couple videos that I am preparing for YouTube. I am hoping to market them on Facebook. Hopefully the interested parties forward it onto their friends and it does that kind of thing. But, it just seems, to be perfectly honest, like such a crowded field. Its really hard to kind of standout. Its very easy to post on Facebook and within a few seconds there are ten or eleven people saying they they like it. But as far as it what that means in the real world, I don’t know.. In the end, I am most concerned with paying my mortgage [laughter] But Facebook is not a savior, its just another thing to wrestle with, a work in progress, if you will.
RMP: You’ve made eight albums in just under 11 years. Is this a cognizant decision? Some artists take years off before making a disc. Do you see yourself as becoming one of them or are you always antsy to write new stuff. A band like Alaska’s Portugal the Man, has made six albums in three years, whereas Wico takes two or three years. Discuss if you will the break in between records. Conscience decision or not?
Mark: Well. I don’t know. I think earlier on in those 11 years, it was very easy to come up with the material and get excited about making those statements. By statements, I mean making each record. I mean, basically 100 percent of my life was devoted to doing to that. Now, I’ve got a son, and another one on the way. There’s not as much free time as I used to have to sit around, staring out the window with a guitar and a notebook. [laughter] I am more at the mercy of of my own inspiration, which is a capricious thing. You never know when it comes. I mean, I’d like to always be making music of this sort for as long as I can. If that translates into another record, I’d be very grateful. That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if the pace slowed down quite a bit in the not-so-distant future. Not because of that stuff necessarily, but also because its harder and harder to make money off of records. I mean its harder to recoup them and make your investment better. Let alone make money off of them. In the end, you have to have all your ducks in a row, before jumping in to something, otherwise you’ll be hemorrhaging money. I certainly never thought I’d be 11 years in, looking at two records coming out in the same year. I feel like that bodes well for things continuing to move along.
RMP: Up until Hope and Other Casualties, all of your records were produced by Lorne Entress. Describe his impact and role in helping shape your career. Things he taught you, things he did for your music that are still being felt today.
Mark: Well gosh there’s so much. One of the things that comes to mind is the beauty and the respect that a simple kind of working musician can command when they are so great at what they do. Not only Lorne, but the other musicians I met through him. None of them are famous people per se, I mean, they are in their own right, and while they may have played with some bigger names, they may not be as well known as others. They are all journeyman, that put time into their instruments, and are fluent in musical language, in a way that I dont feel I am, but want to aspire to. I am seeing the dignity in that, that this really was a big thing that I learned from Lorne. I mean it in some way led to me wanting to do that for myself and wanting to be a sideman. [pauses] The other thing that Lorne helped out with was that he was the one that believed in every project I ever did. By that I mean, he was first to get behind me. Someone has to be first behind your creative projects. For example, even if the record label didn’t understand what the Memorial Hall Recordings were or what they were about, Lorne always got it. Almost immediately. [pauses] And lastly he has a personality that sets about to make things happen and that’s the part of the equation I don’t have. He was always a true believer very early on in every kind of different project. That was a big part of keeping the momentum on all those records, and in keeping those projects happening. It was always nice that someone had that faith in me. If I went to a label and they shot it down and I didn’t have him behind me, I might have taken a while to recover from that. Lorne was the first guy who showed me that I could do all these things and in some ways he was the first number one fan in terms of helping me accomplish that. I cannot repay that. It is a big gift and a big debt. I am so very fortunate to have found him so early on.
RMP: It has been written that your next album will not be on Signature Sounds. Was this their doing or your own? Can you discuss this at all?
Mark: [long pause] Um. [pause] Let me see how I can phrase this. [pause] Yeah, I mean. I am really grateful for the time that we worked together, and my whole kind of music community has and continues to revolve around that label or was at one time associated with that label. What’s happening right now is that they are feeling the new reality of the modern music scene. Their margin of error is so much smaller than other labels. It’s really quite hard for them to put out anything They need to focus on the records that really sell. I’ll be honest, I don’t sell a lot of records. I never have. In the end, everyone wishes they sell more, whether its a lot or a little. But, it was really unfortunate. It was not my decision. I definitely would have worked with them again. The way we have done this for the last few years, well since Compass and Companion, is that I have not been on Signature Sounds. I just made the music I wanted to make. They just always backed it and supported it. I was very fortunate for that. As long as I found the resources, I could do what I wanted. [pause] So yeah, the next record will join the ranks of the independents. I mean I looked into other labels, but kinda half-heartedly to be honest. Its hard to really know what the small labels can do. They are feeling the same kind of crunch as a self-released artist. And I figured rather than go through that process of courting a label, I’d just go at it on my own. I mean, I have stuff I want to say and music I want to make. I cant wait around for labels to say,’ We’ll put it out in the fall of 2010.’ I mean by that token, I will have recorded it a year ago at that point. I’m not waiting for them to catch up. I just want to keep making music, and move ahead. That’s what interests me.
RMP: You’ve made a point of not shying away from political subject matters on your last few albums. As someone that’s a centrist but often sides with conservative causes, I’ve still found a lot of hope and inspiration from most of your albums. In your own opinion, am I rare case? Do you worry about not bringing in as many fans as you can by writing some of the material you sing about? Or is that not even a consideration? Is this a loaded question?
Mark: No, its fair. [pauses] To be honest Greg, I don’t worry about alienating people, mainly because its so hard to get exposed to people that have widely differing opinions these days. Everything is tailored to these ever, narrowing niches. And its not possible to be an artist, in the vein of Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen and get a message out. They came up in a different time with more generalized methods of cultural transmission. I mean there is no big radio station that Republics or Democrats will be listening to that play my kind of music or me as an artist. To be more specific, I am not really going to ever be coming into contact with people like that, or an audience that grabs something so pointed, like Neil Young. I mean he’s more caustic than I am. But they just have wider audiences then I will ever have. At the same time, none of these things are written with the intent to preach to the converted. They are protest songs in the sense that they are protesting to myself. To figure out how I feel about this or that. I am trying to express how I feel, and to do it honestly and fully. Its not about what I don’t like, but how it impacts me emotionally. I don’t want to gloss over it or put it aside. But I don’t want to not sing about it, because I am afraid to piss someone off. I mean people are protesting, but its with a general glazing over the eyes. That’s what I feel like we get in society these days. I mean it’s hard to let it in and process it, because the subject matter is so heavy. No one wants to live there all the time. [pauses] I mean, it’s not the only thing I write songs about. I never want to write a song for the sole purpose of pissing someone or off, nor do I want to not say how I really feel, for fear of running afoul of someone. Those extremes are not helpful, and neither deserve art. As far as I see it. I just try and call it like I see it. There is no veil that I am hiding behind. I am very upfront with my convictions and my beliefs. If people have a problem, and don’t want to listen, its totally fine. They don’t need a note from the doctor. [laughter] They can just tune out. I am sorry to see them go. But I don’t get a sense that it is a ton of people. It’s so hard to be heard in the first place. I mean these are not naked ploys to get attention. They are not songs that are trying to be antagonistic or rouse rabbles. These are songs I feel deeply or strongly about. To not have those points ore views in the songs would require a lot of effort, energy and self censorship. In the end you observe, you feel and you process and you write songs. And its the same for a song about traveling, my family, or something political. Regardless. Its not something I lose sleep over. Every once in awhile I get a sense that there are people who really don’t agree with what I say. As an example, I have a video for “Volunteers” that was posted on some Web sites, and I have some cousins in England. Their father was trying to explain to them that I was a musician. And he told them ‘Look, he’s on YouTube.’ And they watched the video, and they scrolled down, which is something I hadn’t thought of, and there are all these comments. Some of them are steaming and defensive, some are nasty. And my cousins were so impressed. [Laughter] They were so impressed that I caused some people to be that pissed off. I was trying to explain to them that was not my intent. People just react. That’s the way it goes. Its fine. Strong reactions are far better than complete indifference any day of the week. [laughter]
RMP: List five CDs you’re currently listening to, five books you’ve read in the last year, and five films you’ve seen in the last year that have made a profound impact on you?
Mark: Well. [laughter] I havent seen five movies. Its kinda hard to do that with a young kid. We did see Avatar. That was amazing. I dont know if any of these things have impacted my music though. As for books,. I am pretty big into historical fiction. So stuff like Cloudsplitter by Russel Banks. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s not necessarily historical fiction, but its a really big, deeply moving book. Gosh those are two.
RMP: Okay, how about the music list, that’s probably easiest?
Mark: Well music is the easiest medium, yeah. The stuff that I listen to is stuff I have to learn, ya know. Most of the stuff by my friends is the stuff I listen to lately. Aside from that, um, I picked up Dave Rawlings’ Friend of a Friend. That’s fantastic. There’s the new Tom Petty live box set thing. Its a live anthology of four discs. That’s amazing. Tom Waits has a new live record that I dont have but I have heard. It was a two hour podcast on NPR that’s from the Glitter and Doom Tour. The podcast is quite honestly two of the best hours of music I have heard in years. Its so expansive and widely ranging as far as the different styles. Its al kind of so singularly Tom Waits.
[pauses] And well, as for my friend’s stuff. There’s stuff like Josh Ritter’s newest record that I had to listen to for that tour. I mean I had to learn all of them, but Historical Conquests in particular was deeply affecting. I had a similar immersion in Lori McKenna’s repertoire and a lot of her records.
RMP: I guess it’s kinda hard to think of five.
Mark Yeah, you know, it really is hard to get into music. I try to here and there, but its harder to listen to music, and find the time. I mean its easier to find the music, you can just download it or what not. But I mean a big part of how I grew up listening was going to the record store and spending time kind of free-associating through the rack and stumbling across things. Nowadays, you can do it online, but its not the same. Its hard to find a record store. The process of finding and connecting with music is a lot different than it used to be. There is so much great stuff out there, more than ever, really. I mean I think its harder to find the good music cause there is so much more of the other kind of stuff out there too. [laughter] The crap, if you will.
RMP: The last one is not music-related at all, but rather a grab bag. Your thoughts and opinions on Obama’s presidency to date?
Mark: Wow. [Deep breath] Well. That’s a big question.[Another deep breath] Hmmmm. Let’s see. I voted for him. I was pretty excited. I still do think he’s capable of great things. I think he’s run into a bit of a problem, underestimating how vibrant the opposition was going to be. I myself made that same kind of underestimation. I thought that it was going to be a little easier to work together and get stuff done, positive stuff, at least more so than the last eight years. He’s certainly at an interesting crosswords. I feel a little of Cant We All Just Get Along, bipartisanship fading quickly. I agree with the philosophy of Obama. Ya know that same kind of presidential hubris and kind of top down approach was something that I found very dispiriting during the Bush years. Its kinda ironic, ya know? Its interesting to see where it goes. I am certainly still hopeful that we can make some improvements. Ultimately, there are several real, concrete big problems that are not entirely unrelated, that are affecting not just America, but the world as a whole. I mean they are bigger than any one person, they aren’t necessarily caused by one person, and I’m not sure they can be fixed by any one person. I feel like regardless of how his presidency goes, wars, and issues like economics, all that stuff is going to have to be addressed. I am hoping he can address it. Not only cause I agree with him, and his policies, but because they need to be addressed sooner rather than later. And well, he’s in office and has to take the lead. I guess in the end, I will be tuning in just like everyone else to see how this happens.[laughter]