Because Songs Matter

Mark Erelli Interview and New Album “For A Song”

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When Romeo Sid Vicious tapped me to write for Ninebullets I was admittedly very excited. There is so much great music that comes out of Boston and the Northeast that I am looking forward to hopefully turning the readers onto some people they may not have listened to in the past.

Boston has been a breeding ground for great folk songwriters since Joan Baez played her first concert at Club 47(Now Club Passim) in Cambridge back in the 60’s.   Of course we get to claim plenty of other notables along the ways such as James Taylor, Martin Sexton, Lori Mckenna, Chris Smither and it’s true Josh Ritter was discovered playing open mic nights in Cambridge before being whisked off to Ireland by Glen Hansard of The Frames.

It’s no surprise that what I’m sure will be heralded as one of the best folk albums of 2016 will come straight out of cobblestone streets of the Cambridge folk scene in the form of “For A Song” by Mark Erelli. For those not familiar with Mark’s prior work this will he his 10th album and the first album of original music in 6 years. I’ve been lucky enough to listen to it already and its tremendous. The songwriting is top notch and the arrangements are spot on. Erelli really lets these songs breathe and tell the story to the listener.

You know those albums that feel important? I’m happy to report this is definitely one of those albums.
A quick note about Mark before I get into some Q&A with him- in baseball he’d be called a 5 tool player.   Although he started out as a solo artist he has gone on to produce albums by Lori McKenna, write an album with Jeffrey Focault, perform with local Bluegrass super group Barnstar!, and play guitar for McKenna, Paula Cole and Josh Ritter.

I was lucky enough to have Mark talk with me about the album but the point is you can donate to his Kickstarter here and help fund a great project…the album is the real deal and drops officially on April 8th.

You’ve got a lot of close friends in the Boston music scene but you also tour nationally by yourself and with people like Lori McKenna, Josh Ritter and Paula Cole.  Having been around the country how do you think the Boston folk scene stacks up with the other places you’ve visited?

Our scene may be smaller than some of the more prominent ones like Nashville or New York, but easily holds its own as far as the caliber of the musicians and songwriters. We have some of the best pickers and singers in the world here—I run into Duke Levine at the post office! The thing we don’t have is a connection to the larger music business, so that really neutralizes the destabilizing influence of crazy entertainment money. That makes it harder to make a living in some ways, but it makes it easier to have a palpable sense of community. In Boston, there really isn’t any reason to be so ambitious that it jeopardizes relationships because there’s really nothing to be gained by it. I’ve never felt the need to leave to find better music. For me, it just feels genuinely supportive and it feels like home.

What was the process like for assembling the songs for this project and what was the recording process like? 

It’s been six years since my last collection of original material, so the songs had the luxury of coming together really gradually. I was really busy in those six years: a record of murder ballads with Jeffrey Foucault, two bluegrass records with Barnstar!, I produced two more for Lori McKenna and released a tribute to Bill Morrissey. I also had another son in that time, so my hands were full. But in between all that stuff, songs still came and I took my time with them. I actually thought I was ready to make FOR A SONG a few years ago, and I sent the songs to Nashville singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott to see if he’d be interested in producing. He loved the material but thought I had too much, that many of the songs could be pared down further. After working so hard on this collection of tunes I was surprised, but when your hero tells you you’re not done, you go back to work. So I kept writing and editing, deleting whole verses and tightening things up, and I am so glad I did. By the time it came to actually record the songs, I’d lived with them for so long, I just wanted to go in the studio and capture them as simply and directly as possible. The basic tracks (vocals, acoustic guitars, bass and drums) were all recorded live in the studio, 13 songs in two days. But it really took me about 6 years of work to knock all that out in a couple days.

Who was involved and where did you record the album?

I recorded at Dimension Sound Studios in Jamaica Plain, here in Boston. It’s started as a studio in the early 80’s—George Thorogood recorded many of his early hits there—and it’s been revived by a collective of engineer friends into a really happening, busy place these days. As far as the basic tracks I went with one trusted friend, Zachariah Hickman on upright bass, and one wildcard, Marco Giovino on drums. I did a day of keyboard overdubs with Sam Kassirer, and another day of pedal steel overdubs with Charlie Rose. A few backing vocal sessions with Paula Cole and the Western Den’s Deni Hlavinka, and I was basically done.

You’ve recorded two albums with your Bluegrass group Barnstar, produced albums for Lori McKenna and also wrote an album of murder ballads with Jeffrey Focault.  So..what was it like to go back to that solitary area of songwriting by yourself and which do you prefer?

Coming back to my own material felt like a bit of a risk, in a weird way. I love collaborating and being a sideman, it’s everything I love about music and you’re only responsible to one person, the artist who hired you. It’s just simpler, there’s no bullshit and I can focus solely on the music. But of course there are things I want to say that I can’t say with just a guitar, or within the context of someone else’s show. So I knew I was going to have to step back up to the plate at some point, and it feels like the right time. I’m still doing the bluegrass stuff and lots of sideman work, so I’m always switching gears…boredom and free time are not things I ever have to contend with.

What is the plan for after the album comes out as far as a tour goes?

The tour is still coming together at this point. I’m kind of always on tour, 3 weekends out of every month I’m doing anywhere from 2-4 nights at a time. I do hope to take this record and get back to some places that I haven’t been in a long time, like the west coast and southwest. But other than that, I basically just go where people want me, and on any given weekend you can find me in New England or down the east coast, the Midwest, the Great Plains, Texas or wherever I can get to and still get back to drop the kids off at school Monday morning.

Last question- Who have you been listening to most recently?

A whole range of stuff: Blake Mills, Elvis Costello, Joan Shelley, Lucius, John Moreland, Joey Alexander, Norman Blake, B. B. King, Dave Rawlings Machine…I’m all over the place.

You can keep up with Mark at his Facebook page here

And get his other awesome music here

2 Comments

  1. Phineas Phineas
    January 18, 2016    

    Really like this song & will have to look into his back catalog, and suggestions on where to start? Thanks for the writeup / suggestion, I’ll be looking forward to your next one – I think it’s cool how timely this song feels with so much crazy shit going on in the world right now, and kind of bizarre how little it’s been touched on in songs (at least that I’ve been hearing).

    • Mike McTigue Mike McTigue
      January 18, 2016    

      All his stuff is excellent. Little Vigils is probably my favorite album and Volunteers is my favorite song. The album Delivered is also great stuff from him.

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