For A Song: An Interview with Mark Erelli

Mark Erelli, photo by Paul Janovitz

Mark Erelli’s new solo album For a Song releases out April 8, and it feels like the best of Paul Simon or Jackson Browne’s work. Erelli tells stories that are immediately relatable and reflective of the small moments in our lives. It is his first album of original material in six years, in part because he’s been cranking on other projects, including as a producer for Lori McKenna, a sideman for Paula Cole and Josh Ritter, and one-fifth of the insanely fun and talented Barnstar!

For a Song reflects Erelli's incredible craftsmanship. The arrangements are tight and spare, leaving plenty of room for his voice to convey the sincerity of each song. A favorite is the title track -- underscoring the physical distance a songwriter experiences from his family, which can often translate into emotional distance pretty quickly.

The road is not your friend, it’s just a means to an end.
How I wish I could take you along.
But I’ll take it all on faith, you’ll understand someday 
why I did all I did while I was gone --
for a song.

Echoes of this distance and dislocation are evident throughout the album, from the gorgeous opening track “Oklahoma” (“I’m so far away from home / and I’m feeling low and lonesome tonight”) to “Analog Hero,” about a man whose hands-on skills seem less and less relevant in the digital world (“If he can’t put it back together, then it was never worth a damn”). Still, it’s not a sad album – we won’t need a “Cheer Up Mark Erelli” instagram. No, For a Song, is reflective and you feel a bit clearer after listening, understanding what is really important and what is just noise.

Erelli generously took time with us to talk about the new album and his work.

Red Line Roots: It’s been a very busy six years since your last album of solo, original songs. How does it feel to be putting out a Mark Erelli album again, as opposed to a Barnstar! album or the other albums you’ve produced in that time?

Mark Erelli: While they haven’t had a solo record, these have been maybe the six busiest years of my life, and not just music, but also with my family. It feels really great to be releasing this album.

In those six years, I’ve kind of wondered about state of music industry and how I was supposed to release music. Sometimes it felt paralyzing. I would have what I thought was a good idea, but then would lose psychic or spiritual steam. And that made me go back to the drawing board, which in the end was a good thing, I think.  It feels strange to have this realization after so long, but if the material is good, it doesn’t matter how it you put it out.

Your Kickstarter campaign for the new album was a resounding success. I imagine that crowdfunding your work is a combination of liberation and terror – how have these kinds of campaigns impacted your work?

It’s a big factor. It’s hard to just leap and expect the net to appear because art doesn’t really come on a timeline and inspiration doesn’t obey those constraints. Gradually the record and the resources to make the record and pay musicians for their time converged. And I guess they didn’t converge before they were meant to.

I had been working on a lot of these songs for a while – before Milltowns came out – and sent them off to Darrell Scott, because I thought he’d be a good producer. His response was, “You got some great stuff, but it’s too much. Go back and work on the songs.” I was kind of shocked. I’d been working on some of the songs for over four years and here’s one of your heroes saying they have too much -- but he didn’t tell me which ones! So I started at the longest songs and took out whole verses. It was a helpful process because some of the songs needed to be five minutes to say what they needed to say and some didn’t. I thank Darrell in the liner notes for his sage advice.

Lyrically, there seems to be a thread on this album of separation or solitude, of memory, of sometimes being lost or out of place. How do you think about these songs in conversation with one another?

A lot of times that stuff reveals itself later in the process. You know, I’m 42. I have two kids. I could have a midlife crisis and buy a sports car, but I write songs instead. 

These were the things keeping me up in the middle of the night. The hope is they make it into songs in a way that everyone can relate [to], because everyone is staring up at the ceiling some nights.

The title track captures so much of the tension of being on the road and having a family. What do you think you’ve figured out about work/life balance, whatever that means, over the past few years?

It’s not easy for anyone. Sometimes I feel like my wife and I get extra pity. But is it harder for me to stand onstage and have people clap before I even do anything than it is for a man or woman to leave their family and go across the world in the military? Certainly not.

There is an archetype of the rugged male troubadour and sometimes guys are expected to fulfill that archetype. Of course you’re going to travel and sing – that’s what guys do – but that’s never really been me. And I’ve learned from Lori [McKenna] than you can prioritize your family and your relationship. Obviously women have to deal with more of a double standard than men with this balance, no question.

I’ve had the good fortune of being in Lori McKenna’s band. I’ve seen her turn down opportunities without even pausing. I’ve been there when she is offered an opportunity that many people will never get and say, “No, my kid has playoffs, and I don’t want to miss that.”

Like most people, you just figure it out this week. Then a flight gets delayed and the week goes crazy and you try and figure out the next week.

You got some wonderful and really subtle contributions to this album from some incredibly talented folks. Zack HickmanSam Kassirer and Charlie Rose are all fantastic. Paula Cole and Deni Hlavinka’s vocals are gorgeous. How does that process work for you, as you invite other musicians to contribute to a song? How much do you have those parts in your mind and how much do you ask your collaborators to listen to the song and find their part?

I mostly just hire amazing people who do things that I love. I say, "Do that thing I love that makes you 'you', on my record."

I had a harmony part in mind for Paula on “French King” and she had this multiple-part choir in mind. I’d seen her do that on her albums, so we tried it. Sometimes more is more.

Last year, you released “By Degrees” to raise awareness of gun violence and also wrote a version of Peter Mulvey’s inspiring “Take Down Your Flag.” Can you talk a little bit about the role you see for music in helping people find understanding and take action on these really challenging issues?

They’re as much love songs as anything.

“By Degrees” is me trying to figure out how to explain the world to my kids. As a parent, you don’t have the luxury of giving up and not having hope. But when I sing “By Degrees,” for three and half minutes, I really feel the emotions about gun violence. And afterward, I feel empowered because I can sing this song and turn my heart around. If that can happen for me, it can happen for others. They might write their own songs or feel empowered to do work in their community, to have an impact.

Fill in the blank: I used to think _____, now I think ______.

I used to think adults knew what they were doing, now I realize that everyone’s making it up as we go along.

Mark Erelli is on tour throughout the spring. Get out there, people. - Ken Templeton