Exclusive Interview with Singer/Songwriter Mark Erelli

Boston-based master songcrafter Mark Erelli just released his new LP, Blindsided. Written from the perspective of one who has reached “the middle” of life, Blindsided is an unflinching examination of the distance between innocence and experience. In it, Mark takes stock of things, wrestles with life’s big questions, explores the realization that some beliefs and ideas just don’t work anymore, calls us to empathy, and tells us that love is a choice consciously made every day. 

CredIt: Joe Navas

I got the chance to talk to Mark about how he first got into making and performing music, his musical influences, why he picked “Blindsided” as the title track and so much more. Keep reading to see what he had to say!

Tell me a little bit about how you first got into making and performing music.

It started in middle school with acting and singing in musicals, and continued into high school with more musicals as well as cover and original rock bands with my friends. I became a fan of singer/songwriters in high school, and luckily for me we had a very vibrant coffeehouse scene in the Boston area, so I could catch folks like John Gorka, Patty Larkin, and Chris Smither when they played locally. I didn’t really get into guitar until I went to college. I was deeply moved by a classmate who played a Joni Mitchell song at a campus coffeehouse, saw others in the room having a similar response, and thought to myself ‘I want to make people feel that way too.’ From there, it was just a lot of practicing and saying ‘yes’ to literally every opportunity to play music for people. I played on my college campus. I played on other college campuses. Bars, coffeehouses, and open mics. I opened for Loverboy in a former stripclub on the outskirts of Portland, Maine. I. Did. Everything. After I graduated, I wanted to play music but was also going to need a job. I had majored in biology, and my advisor told me they pay you to go to graduate school as a scientist. So I went to UMASS Amherst for a master’s in evolutionary biology and that was my ‘day job,’ while I continued to play every gig I could. 

Was there a specific moment or person that made you realize that music is what you wanted to pursue professionally?

When it came to the end of my master’s program, I had lined up a starter deal with an independent record label in western Massachusetts. I was already blowing off anything in school that I could if it conflicted with music. My advisor sat me down and said ‘you know I have to try and convince you to continue on and get your Ph.D.’ He told me about all the funding he had, ideas for further areas of study, and more. As far as academia goes, it was a pretty solid plan and if I had followed it and did well, I’d probably be a tenured biology professor somewhere right now. But something inside me didn’t want to risk looking back on my life regretting not having given music a real shot. So I told my advisor I was leaving after I defended my thesis, which happened just a few weeks after my debut record was released on Signature Sounds. After that, I was a professional musician, and have been for 21 years since. 

I’m always genuinely curious about what artists want to convey with their music, so if you had to describe the music you make without using genre names, how would you describe it?

I’m looking to convey something truthful and honest and real. That doesn’t necessarily mean the songs are all true stories or that they’re all autobiographical, but I want to play songs that people can lose themselves in without being distracted by lazy writing and shoddy craftsmanship. I want to make music that makes people feel like they are not alone, that there is someone else out there who has felt the same, and in that way has ’seen’ them.

Going off of that, who are some of your musical influences?

I mean, how long do we have? Chris Smither, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, Joni Mitchell, Daniel Lanois, Bob Dylan, Patty Griffin, The Band, John Hiatt, David Lindley, Duane Allman, Emmylou Harris, Nick Lowe, Neil Young, Patsy Cline …the list goes forever.

You just released your new LP, Blindsided. What was the recording process like for it? How long did it take for this to come together from start to finish?

It’s sometimes a bit tough to nail down the start of the process because there’s a whole lot of thought and brainstorming different approaches before you ever get in the studio and hit ‘record.’ It’s not like days of yore where you might have a large enough budget to set up camp in the studio for several months and really experiment. As an independent artist, I need to have my shit together and get what I need to get done with the limited time and money I have. We started tracking this record in November 2018 just outside of Nashville in Franklin, TN. We finished mastering in the summer of 2019. It took us the better part of a year to find a way to release the music with the resources and support that would do it justice. If you call the start the first day of tracking, it took us about a year and a half to get Blindsided out.

Let’s talk about the title track, which I absolutely love by the way. What’s the song about?

This is one of those songs where the chorus just came to me all at once. I think I’d been listening to a lot of The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, and loving those harmony-rich, gospel-inflected chorus in “Torn & Frayed” and “Sweet Virginia,” and the word ‘blindsided’ and the background harmony idea just came to me one day out of the blue. From there it was just reverse engineering, in terms of figuring out what the song was about and why the protagonist would be blindsided. I thought it might be interesting to flip the usual connotation of the word so that the singer is surprised by something positive, not tragic. I drew a little bit on how I met my wife to fill in the details.

Something I’ve always been curious with songwriting is how topics come to mind. Did you know what you wanted to write about going into the song session that birthed ”Blindsided” or did it just come about organically once you were in the session?

If I knew how to get songwriting topics to mind, if there was some technique or a physical or emotional place I could go to reliably make it happen, I think I would just camp out and live there. Writing songs, creating form and melody out of chaos and entropy is intoxicating, but I’m not really in control of how or when it happens. I think it’s like fishing…a keeper isn’t usually going to just jump up out of the water and into the boat. You have to get out on the water and put your line in. All I can do is stay observant and be on the lookout for details from everyday life that seem particularly metaphorical or poetic. I like to say that my job isn’t really to write songs, my job is to pay attention. 

Was there any major changes made to ”Blindsided” once you got into the recording studio, whether it be in the lyrics or something sonically?

The biggest change to “Blindsided” was the addition of the string quartet, which happened after the initial basic band track and vocal were done. You don’t hear a lot of rock n’ roll with strings these days, but we were going for a bit of a Wildflowers-era Tom Petty vibe, where strings are used judiciously in a particular section or passage of the song. The strings in “Blindsided” enter in the second verse but really take the melodic lead in the solo section, and that changed the whole feel of the song for me.

Did you know as soon as you recorded this song that it was going to be the title track? Why did you pick this song to represent your whole album? 

I didn’t initially know that “Blindsided” would be the title track, but once I considered it, nothing else really seemed to come along and knock it out of contention. I like it because as an album title I’m using it in a more conventional way, like, “bet you didn’t know I had this kind of record in me!” But, as I mentioned before, the song explores the tension between the way we typically think of the term and how it can also apply to a positive situation as well. The song also has a lot of the sonic hallmarks and thematic elements explored elsewhere on the record, so it serves to kick things off with a sort of shot across the bow and prepares the listener to expect the unexpected. 

What are some music industry-related goals or benchmarks that you’re aiming to reach in the next couple of years?

I would’ve answered this question much differently a month ago. Honestly, I think myself and a lot of other middle-class artists are going to be engaged in a spiritual, emotional, and economical struggle to just continue being artists for the next couple of years. I can’t tour right now because of concerns about a contagious virus and crowds. I love to make albums the old-school way, with everyone in the same room feeding off of each others’ contributions…that can’t happen. I can’t even really make music at home right now, because I have two active boys that aren’t in school and it’s on me to provide some sort of educational schedule and structure to their days. If it’s possible to think about the music industry and career goals even less than I normally do, then that’s where I am at. Right now, the most I can hope for is that my family and loved ones stay healthy and that somehow I will still be doing this in a couple years. Not the most uplifting answer, I know, but that’s as specific as I can get.

Last question — we’re called Talk Nerdy With Us because we all have an inner nerd so what is something that you’re currently nerding out about?

I’m trying to pull together a couple of book-related projects right now, so I’m teaching myself how to design and lay them out using software that’s novel to me. I’m immersing myself in a whole new vocabulary and suite of design issues, and I’ll spend more time than I should admit debating the relative merits of 11 versus 12 point type, which fonts are most graceful and legible at those sizes, and the different methods of bookbinding. And there’s no one here, so I’m basically having these debates with myself, entirely in my own head. I loved graphic design when I took it back in high school, so I guess right now I feel like I’m back in that ink-stained art room in my high school’s basement, trying to turn in an assignment to my teacher!

For more information, make sure you visit Mark’s website and follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

Featured Photo Credit: Joe Navas

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