Over his 20-plus-year career, Mark Erelli has proven himself equally at home in a multitude of roles: producing albums for artists including Grammy winner Lori McKenna; serving as a sideman guitarist for Paula Cole, Marc Cohn and Josh Ritter, among others; and writing and producing his own material, like his 2018 song “By Degrees,” which was nominated for Song of the Year at the Americana Honors and Awards.
Known for the richness of his folk-, country- and roots-influenced sound, the singer-songwriter-sideman-producer-writer has recorded 13 solo albums and performed across the US. Among his hundreds of New England appearances have been shows at the Orpheum Theatre, Wang Theatre at Boch Center, Club Passim, The Bull Run, the Iron Horse Music Hall, the Green River Festival and the Newport Folk Festival.
MUSICAL BEGINNINGS, INFLUENCES
Born on June 20, 1974, in Reading, Massachusetts, Erelli began playing guitar as a teenager and quickly found himself drawn to folk, country and roots music. While in high school, he performed in numerous musicals and founded the band Freudian Slip, followed in later years by the groups Organic Ice Cube and Dead Flowers. He wrote his first song, “Hell In the Sky,” as a member of the latter.
He says his upbringing in the Boston area played a significant role in shaping his musical journey, since the city’s diverse and bustling arts scene provided him with fertile ground to explore his musical interests and be exposed to various genres and styles. Erelli was introduced to the music of Patty Larkin, Chris Smither and other singer-songwriters by listening to WBOS, he says, and his earliest musical influences are deeply rooted in folk, country, and Americana traditions. Artists like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Townes Van Zandt, and Gram Parsons played a pivotal role in shaping his musical direction, he says, and those influences can be heard in his storytelling songwriting style, evocative lyrics, and ability to blend a wide range of different elements into his work.
In 1992 to 1996, Erelli attended Bates College in Lewiston, Maine; after graduating he enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, earning a master’s degree in evolutionary biology in 1999. During those years, he continued to develop his musical skills and began writing his own songs. After completing his studies, he moved back to the Boston area and became a fixture on the local music scene, performing at coffeehouses, clubs and open-mic nights while gradually building a reputation as a skilled and engaging live performer.
LONG WAY FROM HEAVEN, SIGNATURE SIGNING, DEBUT SOLO ALBUM
In 1997, he formed The Mark Erelli Band and self-released the album Long Way from Heaven. After attending the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance conference that year, he signed with Signature Sounds Recordings and was awarded the Iguana Music Fund Fellowship award from Club Passim, the proceeds from which he used to build a home studio.
As his career progressed, Erelli released a series of albums that displayed his growth as a songwriter and performer. Signature issued his self-titled debut LP in 1999 and it was well received critically and commercially for its mix of introspective songwriting and melodic sensibilities. Erelli was backed on the disc by local artists Duke Levine and Kevin Barry, among others. Following the album’s release, he won the Kerrville (Texas) Folk Festival’s New Folk Award and subsequent albums have further established his reputation as a deeply respected artist on the national Americana and folk scenes.
VISION, THEMES, STYLES
Erelli’ s vision within the musical landscape revolves around creating honest and heartfelt music that connects with listeners on a personal level. His songwriting often delves into themes of love, loss, social issues, and human experience, and he’s known for his ability to capture the essence of a moment through his lyrics and melodies. Though firmly grounded in Americana and folk, he’s never been afraid to experiment with a variety of musical styles, infusing elements of rock, blues and even pop into his songs, highlighting his remarkable versatility and willingness to push boundaries while maintaining his signature sound.
COLLABORATIONS, OTHER SOLO ALBUMS
While he’s gained broad recognition for his solo work, Erelli has also collaborated with other musicians such as the bluegrass band Barnstar! and Lori McKenna’s group and participated in several other side projects. His impressive flexibility has allowed him to explore a broad range of musical dynamics and perspectives and experiment with his sound while staying true to his folk and Americana roots. Erelli has performed at festivals and venues across the US, appeared in Europe and has maintained a strong connection with his audience.
Since recording his debut LP in 1999, Erelli has cut 12 more solo discs: Compass & Companion (2001), The Memorial Hall Recordings (2002), Hillbilly Pilgrim (2002), Hope & Other Casualties (2006), Innocent When you Dream (2007), Delivered (2008), Little Vigils (2010), Milltowns (2014), For a Song (2016), Mixtape (2018), Blindsided (2020) and Lay Your Darkness Down (2023).
AN UNEXPECTED DISRUPTION
In the summer of 2020, things changed radically for Erelli. During a performance, he looked down at his guitar neck and couldn’t believe what he saw, or rather, what he couldn’t see: his fingers on the frets. A diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a degenerative eye disease, brought some answers but it also yielded new questions. For example, does diminished eyesight correlate with lesser insight? Does songwriting change when your perception of the world around you changes? These questions – and Erelli’ s hunt for creative agency – became the heart of his Lay Your Darkness Down album, released in 2023 on the Soundly Music label.
CONNECTION, CATHARSIS, NEW INSPIRATION
Initially, Erelli’ s new physical limitations created a feeling of immense isolation, he says. In need of connection and catharsis, he turned to songwriting, as he often did. “The only way I could console myself was to know that I was still going to be able to have some creative agency,” he says. “I could then bring whatever I was feeling or wanting to express into reality.”
Erelli began to craft songs with an intricate, labored approach like never before, he says, initially inspired by Jeff Lynne, co-founder of ELO and famed producer for George Harrison and Tom Petty. “It’s much more like an oil painting, where you’re layering different tones and colors one at a time,” he explains. “I’ve never gotten this finely attuned to the level of musical and technical detail that I did this time around. That was a way of compensating for the lack of control that I had in other parts of my life.” Since being diagnosed with RP, Erelli has become an advocate for low-vision artists and worked with numerous venues to make their spaces more accessible.
UNCERTAINTY, MENTAL CLARITY, LAY YOUR DARKNESS DOWN
“I’m still very early in it, but there is also no way to know how quickly or how incrementally this will progress,” he says. “There’s a definite diagnosis and embedded within that is this uncertainty. Will my condition remain steady, or will I lose more sight?” That uncertainty has brought Erelli new mental clarity and a creative hunger, he says, stressing that Lay Your Darkness Down isn’t about blindness and that the songs assert a reinvigorated lust for life. “I could not have accessed the emotions and the observations that inspired these songs without realizing that I was losing my sight,” he says. “In some way, I am grateful for that.”
Following his diagnosis, older songs even took on new meaning and metaphors became literal. “I got my diagnosis and the song became literal,” Erelli says. “Like ’Up against the night / It’s coming on strong,’” which he sings with resolve on “Up Against the Night.” “The sun would start to go down, especially in the winter, and before I was aware of what was happening, I would be freaking out,” he says, noting that the song is a nod to fear and doubt.
After singing and playing nearly every note and instrumental part on Lay Your Darkness Down, Erelli was ready to call in his regular rhythm section to replace his bass and drum parts and enlisted co-writers including Lori McKenna to help with songcraft. The album morphed into a literal reconciliation of life’s trials and human frailties, he says, the sound of adversity transformed into finely embroidered rock ‘n’ roll, burning with urgency. These songs are not only affirmations to keep moving forward with love and inner light, but a siren song for anyone lost amongst the shadows. Lay Your Darkness Down doesn’t offer any grandiose answers for how to specifically maneuver the unknown.
JAMES TAYLOR, BOSTON MUSIC AWARD NOMINATION
It’s many a lesser-known songwriter’s dream that a major artist will be inspired enough by one of their songs to record it themselves. Singer-songwriter-guitarist John Sheldon of The Bead Game and Van Morrison fame was one such example when James Taylor recorded his song “September Grass.”
Erelli remains eternally hopeful that similar magic could eventually happen to him as he recounts the time he opened for Sally Taylor at a venue in Peterborough, NH. Having no idea in advance that Sally was the daughter of James Taylor and Carly Simon – and that her dad was in the audience that night – Erelli was astonished to discover that James, inspired by Erelli’ s music, had waited after the show in a lengthy line at the merch table to buy his most recent CD, creating a renewed cause for optimism. An additional injection of recent optimism is that Lay Your Darkness Down has been nominated for the Boston Music Awards 2023 Album of the Year.
Mark Erelli’ s history in the Boston area, his early exposure to music, his influences, and his commitment to creating genuine and relatable music in the face of physical limitations have all contributed to shaping and propelling his career as a successful singer-songwriter. His journey continues and highlights the sustaining power of combining individual experiences with musical influences to create a unique and resonant artistic voice within the musical landscape. To quote the title of a song on Lay Your Darkness Down, “You’re Gonna Wanna Remember This.”
(by Karl Sharicz)