Mark Erelli is preparing a new album for a 2020 release but he’s happy to talk about his latest single, “Her Town Now”, which finds him teaming up with relatively new pal, Chuck Prophet. The song is the result of what might happen were two esteemed singer-songwriters to run into each other in the woods, then collaborate with poet Klipschutz on a song about love lost. The song is essentially the result of what happened when all that did indeed go down, back about 2015 or so.
“There’s a folk festival in rural Oregon and the week before there’s a songwriting camp that people can sign up for,” Erelli recalls. “They hire some of the artists at the festival as instructors. I don’t usually do that kind of stuff because it usually means another week away from home. I know Chuck had never done that before either. But, for some reason, we both found ourselves there. I had known who he was, but I had never met him before. We had this instructors’ open mic the night before everything started to introduce all the instructors to the campers. Fortunately, I went right before Chuck because I would never want to follow him. There was mutual respect from the get-go.”
“Her Town Now” imagines the infectiousness of Tom Petty mixed with the world-weary view of a John Prine character while retaining all of Erelli’s inimitable spirit. It’s not just a song about a breakup, of course, it’s a song about how we navigate territories that were once friendly, but now transport us across enemy lines. Leave it to Prophet and Erelli to strike the perfect balance between that which breaks and that which mends the heart.
Erelli recently spoke with PopMatters about his approach to making albums, collaboration, and his song “By Degrees”, a commentary on gun violence featuring Lori McKenna, Josh Ritter, Rosanne Cash, Sheryl Crow, and Anais Mitchell. All the proceeds went and still go to Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence. The Americana Music Association nominated the tune for Song of the Year.
What inspires you to make new albums?
I’m kind of old-fashioned. I’m always thinking about another album, from the moment that we finish tracking the current album! I’ve had times where I’ve been in the studio, cleaning up equipment, and I’m already enthusiastically brainstorming for the next one. Albums are, to me, the best presentation of songs. I’ll occasionally put out a single when I need to address something newsworthy or something that isn’t going to fit on a record.
That’s probably what you hope for as a songwriter: That the songs will keep coming and that they’ll have a home.
I think there’s something special about what happens when the right songs are collected together and consumed in succession. You can read a chapter out of a really good book and be moved and understand that the writing is incredible. But you don’t get a sense of arc until you read the whole book. I can hear a song off Joni Mitchell’s Blue and be blown away, but I’m going to be more blown away by listening to the whole thing and seeing that song in the context of a succession.
Does it happen with songs where they have to wait long periods to find their rightful place on a collection?
It has. I put out a song earlier this year called “The Hitter”. It was something that people were really responding to in my live shows. It’s about my youngest son’s baseball season. Baseball season and Father’s Day were approaching, and so I chose to put it out. I would have preferred to put it on a record, but I also didn’t want it to languish for ten years and have the seven-year-old baseball player going off to college by the time the song came out.
Has your son heard it?
He told me that I owed him half the money because if he had never lived it, then I would have never written it. I said, “Half of zero is still zero!” [Laughs.]
Do you find yourself saying, “This is what’s going on in the world, and I need to respond to it”?
I definitely don’t go into a record with a good understanding of the theme all the time. Often, it’s more concrete: Are we limited in the instrumentation? Are we doing it live in the studio? At the time of making the record, that’s usually the organizing principle. Later on, I might start thinking about the themes. The stuff I’m wrestling with usually comes to light after the fact.
If you had to guess, how many songs do you think you’ve written to this point in your career?
Probably over 300 total.
Do you keep an active relationship with the songs that you’ve recorded or do you say, “That was a million years ago. That’s not who I am”?
I did a record in 2004 that was a straight-up western swing record [Hillbilly Pilgrim].I was full-on committed to it for a couple of years, but I hardly play any of those songs anymore. But if there’s anything that’s a dividing line, it’s probably when I started to have kids in 2007. When I became a parent, it really changed the stakes and perspective that I brought to the songs in performing them.
Do you have to click with someone in order to collaborate?
I try to lower my expectations in terms of how much control I’m going to exert over it. It differs with every co-write. Sometimes people will reach out to me and say, “I need a new song for my record, I’m trying to write a song about a particular subject. I can’t do it on my own. Can you help me?” I try to help them get to what they need. Other times, the tables are reversed, and I’ve got something that I can’t seem to do on my own.
In general, I think co-writing is best when it helps you do things you wouldn’t normally do. I have to sacrifice some of my sensibility so that I can bring in a fresh perspective.
Did you have any idea that the song “By Degrees” would have the life that it has had?
I knew that it resonated with people when I played it at shows. I always thought that it could resonate with people in a larger context. But I knew that it wasn’t going to do that with just my voice. To see it reach a wider audience than I would have on my own is incredibly gratifying.