MARK ERELLI PLAYS a 60-year-old guitar and cites Woody Guthrie as an inspiration, but Erelli sounds more like a comfortable Yankee with a thing for folk than a dusty troubadour looking for a picket line. In fact, Erelli’s pop-folk is so polished and ear-friendly that one wonders why he isn’t famous. Having sold, by his estimation, more than 20,000 copies of his five CDs, Erelli returns to Iota in Arlington tonight in support of his latest, “Hope and Other Casualties.” He spoke about the record, politics and musical philosophy with Express’ Tim Follos.
EXPRESS: The liner notes for “Hope and Other Casualties” say that you played 11 instruments on the album.
ERELLI: Yeah, and I left out harmonica, which is ironically one of the instruments that I play the most. I actually played a dozen instruments on this record, and I play another half dozen more.
I have used other bands on my previous CDs. And they’re really kind of master artists. Real wonderful, versatile players. I thought about using them again, but I wanted to do something different, and [producer] Lorne [Entress] and I are big Beatles fans. The Beatles made a lot of great records and were great musicians; they weren’t necessarily virtuosos, you know. They picked up instruments, they weren’t afraid to pick up instruments, even thought they didn’t know anything about sitar and whatever, and they find cool parts on them, and work it all together and it’s a kind of simple … they’re simple parts, but as a whole, it’s a very touching thing, and that’s really an inspiration for taking a little more of the lead and playing lots of instruments on this record. I’m interested in more than strumming my guitar. I’m not the best lap steel player out there, but if you give me 15, 20 seconds, I can come up with a cool part.
EXPRESS: Do you really use a guitar made in 1947?
ERELLI: Yeah, that’s a thing you probably don’t see a lot of other people playing, which is kinda funny because, when it was made, it’s a Martin 017, and it was a very popular student guitar at the time. It’s all mahogany, very bare-bones, not a lot of decorative [expletive] on it. They were very popular right up through the ’60s — when you see Tom Paxton and Bob Dylan with these Martin 017s — and then kinda fell out of favor, people stopped using them, and because they’re not rosewood, because they’re made out of mahogany, which is not as good as some of the other wood they used to make guitars, they weren’t as collectible, and so they weren’t as pricey. And so, I bought mine pretty cheap, and it had been abused pretty badly when I bought it — I didn’t know what I was getting into when I bought it — and ended up putting a bunch of work into it and sinking a little bit of money into it, but we now have an amazing little guitar that plays great and sounds wonderful, and ends up being something kind of unique.
EXPRESS: Did you see that write-up where they called you one of the most respected musicians of your generation?
ERELLI: Wow [laughs]. I probably have, but I don’t dwell on that stuff. You know, it’s not how I think of myself. I’m part of this really great community of singer-songwriters, kinda folk people. A lot of ’em are on my record label, Signature Sounds. And they’re really a community, in the sense that we’re all huge supporters and fans of each other’s music.
I’ve kind of taken that to the next level, in terms of like, I will often play the sideman for a lot of people. … I could be playing my own gig, but I’m their sideman for the night. And I’ll go out and do tour with them like that, just ’cause I love their music and I love them as people and I love how we are together. That might play into gaining some respect, more so than a selfish, go-play-on-my-own thing. But, I have to say that the respect and admiration is completely mutual. It’s an incredible group of people that I’m traveling in the same circles with. It’s a real blessing.
EXPRESS: What are your fans like?
ERELLI: You know, I’m very fortunate. They really cut across all ages. It’s not like I’m playing just for college kids, or what have you. I just played at the Children’s Museum in Boston and I had a seven-year-old boy whose mom tells me that he listens to my CDs and plays his electric guitar along to them. It’s a real diverse range of people and that’s the way I like it. It’s independent of any kind of marketing demographic, you know? I think what I’m saying and what I’m offering in my music is universal, at least in its aspiration. It comes from a very personal, moving place, but it’s universal in that anybody could find something in it. That’s really kinda borne out in the composition of the audience.
The core fans follow me from record to record. The record before Hope and Other Casualties was a Western swing record and there’s a lot of people in the audience who don’t consider themselves country music fans, but I didn’t get the sense that I really lost any of them. The audience is really forgiving, and they know that whatever I’m doing, I’m totally invested in it. I respect their capacity to be exposed to different things and not freak out [laughs].
It’s a cool relationship. It’s always evolving, and you can never take it for granted. The whole process is about the relationship to the audience. What they do with the record when they take it home and play it in an everyday environment, I’m not there personally. But, at the show, we’re all there together and that’s a very real connection and it’s nice. In a day and age, when there’s a lot of social “surfacey” kinda stuff in our culture, it feels a little deeper than that, at least to me.
EXPRESS: Do you ever wanna rock?
ERELLI: Oh yeah, all the time. I play electric guitar when I’m backing other people up. I just love it. There’s something about plugging in a guitar. There’s dynamics available to you that may not be part of the palette of acoustic. Yeah, I’ve definitely thought about doing a whole record that way. You know, the records are kinda dictated by what songs demand, production-wise. There’s some songs you just can’t rock out on. But, I’ve got a couple of new songs that are in that vein, and when a song seems to want it or can handle it, or sometimes even demands it — some songs just demand to be played really rockin’ out. I always kinda go with that decision after I listen to the song.
So, I’m not afraid of rockin’ out. Even in a solo show … rock ‘n’ roll is a state of mind, and that’s part of what I do, even in the solo stuff. Even if there’s not two guitars, bass, and drums, you can still get there once and a while.
EXPRESS: Is “Hope and Other Casualties” a concept album?
ERELLI: It’s not a concept album in the sense that there’s this fictional story like Tommy or something like that. It’s a thematic album in that the songs might be about different things ostensibly, there’s concepts behind the songs. They all came out of my life over the past three or four years.
The country has been through a lot, since 2000 really. Before September 11, that election of 2000 was a major thing. So, all the songs come out of that context.
If the songs seem related, they all come out of that context over the last four years and they’re all coming through my lens and how I’m looking at the world. They all, in kinda one way or another, deal with the issue of how do you keep on keepin’ on when things seem really grim.
It wasn’t really intended to be something a concept record per se, but as I was looking for songs that went together, they all seemed to kind of echo each other, at least in terms of being variations on a theme: the trials of modern life. That’s not unique to me, and I think that’s what kind of gives them their power.
EXPRESS: One of the ideas in the song “Seeds of Peace” — that you’re “thankful for any good news” from Iraq — seems pretty easy to relate to.
ERELLI: I was kinda thinking that it might be a litmus test. If you feel the way I express in my song, then you might like the record. If that kinda pushes your buttons, you might not like it.
There’s so many different ways to look at the stuff we’re going through as a nation right now — and I don’t claim to have any of the answers — I’ve hit on a few things, a few strategies, and a few ways of looking at things that work for me.
Are they gonna work for somebody else? I don’t know. But the great thing about being in this country is that you can express those things and if people agree, great. If they don’t, it goes back to that relationship with my audience. And that whole thing about not being able to wash the blood off his cowboy boots in “Seeds of Peace” — I realize that there are going to be people that just flat-out disagree with that. That’s fine. I don’t make any apologies for feeling that way. If you don’t like it, that’s fine, you can write your own song.
EXPRESS: Is this your most political album?
ERELLI: The easy answer would be yes … I stand by my political views as being as valid as anybody else’s. I do think that there are deeper issues at stake here that everyone finds compelling and is affected by. I think there’s more that’s going on than just “if you’re a Democrat, buy this record; If you’re a Republican, you may not like it.”
In fact, the last time I played Iota, a guy came up to me before the show. The show was four to six months after I had an e-mail exchange with this guy who had taken exception to something I had written in my newsletter. I think it was around the declaration of the Iraq War. He sent me this really nasty e-mail saying, “Take me off your new mailing list; this is ridiculous.” And that’s a very kind paraphrasing of what he said. Very vitriolic and short.
I was like, “No way. You just gained yourself a lifetime membership to my newsletter. If you wanna ask to be taken off a mailing list, you can at least do it with a little common courtesy.” I didn’t say that to him; I just kept him on. Months later I played Iota and this guy comes up to me and he says, “Hi, you don’t know me, but I sent you an email six months back,” and I’m thinkin’, “Oh my God, this guy came out to the show to kick my ass.”
But he held out his hand and he said, “I just want to say that I’ve done a lot of thinking in the last six months and you and I are a lot closer than we were six months ago and I’ve really come around to seeing the world in a different way and you and I actually agree on a lot of things. And I just wanted to come down here and thank you for doin’ what you do and I wanna buy your new record.”
I was blown away. That took so much for this guy to do. I can imagine how you’d have to screw your courage up to do that. That’s the kind of thing that happens when you treat your audience with respect, and you put your own viewpoint and heart on the line.
I was really thankful to that guy. I’m just a folk singer. I’m not tryin’ to piss anybody off, but I’m not trying to pull any punches about things I feel strongly about, either.
EXPRESS: You’ve played down here a fair amount. Who did you open for at the Birchmere and the Wolf Trap?
ERELLI: I opened for the Subdudes at the Birchmere, and I did a show with Lucy Kaplanlski at the Wolf Trap. … The first time I played Iota it was a co-bill with a friend of mine. I’d never played there, but she’d played there before.
A bunch of people showed up and it was such a mellow show that people ended up going to get beers and then like sitting down on the floor and watching the show. I just thought that was the coolest thing. I’d never seen that at a bar before. 70 people at a bar, sitting down on the floor with bottles of beer.
» Iota Club & Cafe, 2832 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; with Julian Velard, Jay Nash, 9 p.m., $10; 703-522-8340. (Clarendon)
Photos by Sondra Peron