Quick Q and A with Mark Erelli

Mark Erelli is a native Bay Stater who makes us all so proud of calling him one of our very own.  His thoughtful and provocative songwriting resonates with soul and dignity.  If they gave a folk poet laureate award, he would most certainly be a winner.  Hands down.   Mark’s musical history has captured a little bit of rockabilly, a dash of bluegrass, and a big ole heaping of folk.  I can’t help but think that Woody Guthrie, Roy Orbison, Jimmie Rodgers, and Sam Cooke would love his songs.

Learn more about Mark on his website.

Here’s a video of a song called “Volunteers” that packs some power.  Give it a watch.

And here’s another video because one just isn’t enough!

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You’re a man who wears many hats: songwriter, solo musician, sideman, producer.  Which of those roles comes the easiest and which one is the most challenging?

Of all the hats I wear, the two most important and rewarding are, of course, father and husband. My diverse musical career is simply what I can manage after my marriage and my family. Each of my musical hats comes with its own unique set of rewards and challenges, but the biggest challenge of all is just switching my brain between them all the time. Even the role I’ve inhabited the longest, singing and playing my own songs, can be difficult to just drop back into if I’ve been preoccupied with sideman work or producing. The easy part was finally realizing that I should just go with wherever the energy seems to be organically flowing, rather than trying to conform to some notion of what I ought to be doing.

You went to graduate school to study evolutionary biology.  What were your aspirations at that time?  Did you intend to teach or do research?  

My aspirations in graduate school were to finish my program and then try my hand at making music for a living. I loved my scientific work and I’m still daily amazed at the natural world, but I had this nagging sense that I would end up a bitter old man if I never had the courage to give music my best shot.  But both my parents are teachers, so in an alternate universe I’m probably the cool biology professor at a New England liberal arts college, wearing the same flannel shirt every day and showing up at campus open mics to jam on Neil Young songs with the students.

Was there a pivotal moment when you could no longer quell the desire to pursue music?

The thing about science is that it is infinite–every answer leads to more questions. You will certainly never hear anyone tell you your work is finished, so I realized that after I got my degree I was going to have to be the one to give myself permission to play music. I already had a record deal lined up by the time I finished my program, and the day after I defended my thesis I went down to the Kerrville Festival in TX and won the New Folk contest, so I took those developments as omens that I was making the right decision at the right time.

You were one of the first artists signed to Signature Sounds in the late 1990s.  In a way, your career matured much as that prestigious label did.  Do you recall getting the news that you’d been selected to join Signature Sounds?

Signature was holding a late night open jam in a hotel room a music conference, and I was so shy I had to literally be dragged into the room by a friend and made to share my songs. It went well enough that I was invited to go record some demos at Signature Sounds’ studio. After that, the label head Jim Olsen began checking out my live shows locally. I still remember the time he showed up with his wife at my gig, a couple days after she’d given birth to twins, and surprised me even more by offering me a deal after the show. We ended up making a lot of great records together, and though I’m not officially on the label anymore, I still count Jim as one of my best friends in the business.

Tell us about your work with Barnstar!.  How did that come about?  

My involvement with Barnstar! evolved out my friendship with Zack Hickman, who in addition to leading that band has also produced my two most recent solo records. He saw something in me that he thought would dovetail with Barnstar! and I’m glad he did. I can’t pick really fast, so bluegrass had always felt like it was beyond my realm of expertise. But it turns out I can sing really high, so I guess I’m halfway qualified to be in the band! I found the outfit so energizing that not long after we did our first gig I started writing songs with that particular group in mind. We’re just finishing up our second record now, which will hopefully be released this fall.

Your collaboration with Jeffrey Foucault has been a constant for many year and was capped by the release of Seven Curses.  Did you bond over murder ballads?  Any thoughts about doing a sequel?

Jeffrey and I bonded over a mutual love of Chris Smither, who we’d both grown up listening to in high schools a thousand miles apart (I’m from Massachusetts, he’s from Wisconsin). I was always the only young kid at a lot of Smither’s coffeehouse shows here in the Boston area, so when I met this other guy my own age who had as deep an attachment to the music it was a real revelation. I guess I’m glad I met him when I did, because if we’d met any earlier we probably would’ve just quit school and formed a band. Each of our voices is distinctive on its own, but together we have a deeply intuitive blend. We’re guys, so we’re not naturally inclined to spend a lot of time talking or mapping out who sings which notes when we play together…we just do it. We teamed up again recently on a track for a Chris Smither tribute record and all the magic was still there, so I hope we’ll get together for another project at some point.

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How did you and Lori McKenna first meet and what was it like producing her last CD?

Lori and I were first introduced to each other by Matt Smith at Club Passim, but we got to know each other a little better when we both lost the same songwriting contest, maybe 17 or 18 years ago. All these years later, she is like my musical big sister…I just can’t imagine my life in music without her. Producing her Massachusetts record was big for me; I had never helmed that sort of production before so her confidence in me was both gratifying and a bit terrifying. I’m really proud how that record showcases her talents. We just recently finished up another record together, just the two of us with acoustic guitars playing live in the studio for two days, which was completely different than our approach to Massachusetts. Even though we’ve known each other awhile I am grateful we still feel like we are breaking new musical ground together.

Give us the scoop about your forthcoming CD.  How would you describe it?  Anything different that we can look forward to?

I wish I was ready to start talking about the new record. I’m nearly done with the artistic part, the recording and mixing, all the stuff that really lights my creative fires. I am trying to enjoy that creative honeymoon as long as I can before the next phase of the project kicks in. I know I’ll have to do the promotional stuff soon, and figuring out how to talk about the record so folks are motivated to listen to it is important, but honestly that’s my least favorite thing to do. I will say I’ve been toiling on it almost entirely on my own for the last 6 months, though I brought in some friends to play and sing in the last couple months, and they helped carry me over the finish line. It will be released this fall and believe me, when it’s time to start talking about it, you won’t be able to shut me up.

Top photo: Nancy Giroux

Bottom photo: Rodney Bursiel

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