B&L: What animal do you associate yourself with (given our ties to oxen)?
Erelli: How have I been doing this 20 years and never been asked that question? I’ll go with a salamander. They don’t hurt anybody, and whenever you flip a log over and find one it’s always exciting. That seems like a pretty great life, bringing people a little bit of joy just be being oneself.
B&L: Why music? Why do you seek it? Why do you create it? How’d it come calling to you?
Erelli: Music has always been a refuge for me, a way of expanding my introverted world. It’s always great to share the experience of listening to music with others at a concert, but I have also had at least as many moments of deep connection to music just listening alone. I seek it out because while I may be alone as I listen, it never leaves me feeling lonely. That communion and connection through the words and sounds that I have felt when listening to my favorite music, that’s the way I want my songs to make others feel. The singer/songwriter stuff that I’m most closely associated with now came to me via the radio when I was growing up in the Boston area. People like Patty Larkin, Bill Morrissey and Chris Smither were briefly played on commercial radio, and that was my first exposure to contemporary folk music.
B&L: What’s the making of a great show?
Erelli: It’s interesting to ponder this, because there are actually so many factors these days that seem to conspire to prevent a great show from ever happening. You have the weather and competition with sports events, but also people having to find babysitters, or simply fight the understandable urge to crash on the couch after a long week at work. But I think a great show happens when the artist and audience meet in the middle. It takes both sides to make it work, right? I am deeply grateful whenever folks come out to see me, and I believe in playing every show like it’s my last, like music might somehow be taken away from me after I leave the stage.
B&L: Let’s talk about your latest record, “Mixtape.” You’ve had previous experience with recording covers. What do you appreciate about taking a crack at other folks’ tunes and putting your mark on them? What sort of goals goes into such a thing?
Erelli: I love tackling others’ songs because it makes me feel a bit like how I imagine a dog feels when it finally gets to run off leash. My own songs are born from my particular talents and limitations—my imagination and life experiences, my melodic choices and lyrical constraints. Both other artists have different talents and limitations, and covering a song is a vehicle for transcending my own boundaries and finding new artistic ground. It’s a bit like traveling in a foreign country, you take a little of your newfound wisdom back to your own home and it changes you, how you look at and do things. My goals for covering a song depend in part on the song I’m interpreting. Maybe it’s a great song but the original production sounds dated and I can find a new way to present it. It might be as simple as translating a female vocal into a male key, and that makes the song sound totally unique. I personally never want to cover a song exactly the same way it was originally done, I either find my own take on it or just listen to the original artist’s version.
B&L: Riffing on that last one for a moment more, what was the process like in choosing the tunes to flesh out this record? Was it difficult? What kind of personal connection did/do you have with this collection?
Erelli: I could have made this record 10 times over, choosing different artists and songs to cover each time. Some songs, like Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” I’ve done as an encore for years but never properly recorded. Others, like the Solomon Burke song, haven’t been a regular part of my show but are more like a trick that I pull out at parties where the guitar is being passed around late at night. The Grateful Dead are a really important band for me, having almost singlehandedly introduced me to traditional songs, early rock n’ roll, and bluegrass. Some songs, like Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds” were suggested to me by Zachariah Hickman, who produced the record. He practically dared me to find a way to sing that one, and I am not losing that bet.
B&L: Did you release it on an actual cassette tape? I’ve been getting tapes in the mail lately, and while I’m from the era of actual mixtapes and the love that went into creating them, I’m not the biggest proponent of the format…
Erelli: I do have a handful of copies of “Mixtape” on cassette! I dubbed them myself; old school, and drew the labels by hand. I offered them as a Kickstarter reward and literally no one chose them,.. I’m not nostalgic for the medium itself – cassettes were pretty shitty – but it was our shitty medium, so I still feel a vestigial connection to them.
B&L: Let’s trace some roots: What led you to pick up a guitar and start singing in the first place? When did you think, ‘yup, this is something I ought to try for a bit…’?
Erelli: Chris Smither was the first person that really showed me what was possible with just one voice and one guitar. Until I found him, I thought you were either a folksinger or a rock n’ roller in a loud band, I didn’t realize that there was a third way that combined the wisdom and poetry of singer/songwriter lyrics with the rollicking groove of rock n’ roll. But I didn’t know any professional musicians growing up, and had no idea of how to go about doing it for a living. I studied biology in college, and though I played more and more music on any stage that would have me, I continued on to get my masters degree in evolutionary biology. Once I finished that, I decided that I had to try giving music all I had, at least for awhile, or else I’d be a bitter old man filled with regrets. For years, I thought I might actually go back to biology someday. I’d be the bearded, flannel-shirted biology professor who comes to the open mics at the student union and plays obscure Neil Young songs. That is still my backup plan if this professional musician thing doesn’t work out.
B&L: What can folks expect when they come out to see you perform at the Word Barn on March 23rd?
Erelli: I am doing a handful of tour dates with the exact band from the Mixtape recording sessions, something I’ve not done in many years. I usually perform solo or duo, so this will be a nice change of pace for both myself and the audience. I’ll be doing mostly stuff from the new record, but we’ll sprinkle in some of my originals as well.
B&L: Rumor is you’re bringing a fairly large ensemble with you, which includes a string section! This sounds like the makings of a stellar show… Have you incorporated strings into your live set in the past? How does it compliment the acoustic singer/songwriter’s show/songs?
Erelli: I have only performed a couple of times with strings, and never been fortunate enough to have them with me for several nights in a row. They add a whole other sonic and emotional dimension to the songs. Any instrument without discrete frets, that has continuous dynamic possibilities, is reminiscent of the human voice. I think it’s that lyrical quality that listeners really find stirring when you add strings to something. That said, adding strings to everything is one of the more expensive habits a folksinger can develop.
B&L: A little (red) bird told us that you, in a past life, were a semi-pro tennis player. Is that true? Do you still play? Or are you more a ping-pong guy these days? The same bird passively suggested that we ask you what the “goat dance” is…
Erelli: Goddamnit, Mulvey. He will always be two steps ahead of me. But he’s older than me, so he’ll probably die first too. Just kidding. Peter Mulvey will never stop playing gigs long enough to expire. But yes, I was a tennis player at the national level through high school and college. I quit after that because I was tired of hanging out around tennis players. Barring a few exceptions, most tennis players are insufferable.
B&L: The same bird passively suggested that we ask you what the “goat dance” is…
Erelli: Goddamnit, Mulvey… (Refer to Greg Brown’s “So Hard” if you’re so inclined.)
B&L: Question number 12. If you could have a dozen of anything, what would that dozen of something be?
Erelli: Easy: a dozen more guitars. (drops the mic)
Mark Erelli will make his debut performance at the Word Barn in Exeter on Friday, March 23rd at 8pm. For tickets and information click here.