An interview with songwriter Mark Erelli

How a “largely unknown independent folksinger” partnered with Sheryl Crow, Rosanne Cash, Josh Ritter, Anaïs Mitchell, and Lori McKenna on his new single.

It’s funny to hear Mark Erelli describe himself as “largely unknown,” since I’ve admired his songwriting and singing for years. But I suppose all things are measured on a scale, and weighed against the Taylor Swifts of the world, his assessment is fair. That being said, he’s a frequent sideman for both Josh Ritter and Lori McKenna, and in the smaller world of folk singer-songwriters, he’s well respected for his own music too.

Aiming to make Americana’s first socially-conscious, multi-artist project (like “We Are the World,” only with more acoustic guitar), Mark recently recorded and released a single about the gun violence epidemic. He called in some favors from a number of other notable singers, including Ritter and McKenna, Sheryl Crow, Rosanne Cash, and Anaïs Mitchell — and partnered with Congresswoman Gabby Gifford’s Courage to Fight Gun Violence organization, which receives 100% of the proceeds.

“By Degrees” is a great song — Rosanne Cash called it “the most compassionate, vivid and non-preaching anti-gun violence song I’ve ever heard” — so I wanted to ask Mark Erelli some questions about the writing process, the collaboration, and what it’s like to distribute and promote a song that has such a clear social purpose. My thanks to him for taking the time.

Mark Erelli on songwriting, collaboration, mysterious music revenues, and laundry.

As someone who admires your songwriting, I’m curious — if you can average out such things — how much stuff do you throw away, compared with how much you keep?

I guess it depends what is meant by “throw away” and “keep.” I might have anywhere from 15-30 new songs when I begin making a new record that will ultimately only have 10-11 tracks on it. It might seem that I throw away as much as 2/3 of what I write, but the just because something doesn’t make the record doesn’t mean it’s discarded.

Some songs get used on future recordings or as part of a concert set. Some of those songs have imagery that I love, but it’s not enough to carry that particular song. Oftentimes, the same or similar lines may appear in a completely different context in a newer song, but does that mean I threw the first song away, or was it just a draft that I had to work through to get to the one I “kept?”

How do you know whether it’s time to discard it, set it aside, or move ahead?

If I’m trying to decide what stage a song is at in this process, the guiding principle is always “what am I trying to say?” Does the song communicate an idea clearly, does it evoke a deep emotional response? If it does, I keep it. If it doesn’t, then I know I’m not finished with it yet. This process can take an hour or two or, literally, years.

“By Degrees” has four strong verses, but for me the real punch of the song happens in verses five and six, when we have to consider the children. Maybe that means I’m as numb as anyone to the feeds and headlines and arguments you refer to earlier in the tune, but Jesus, the kids! When you were writing, did you discover those verses later in the process, or did you start with the kids, and reverse engineer the song? 

I don’t always write linearly, but I think in the case of “By Degrees” I did write the earlier verses first before following the river downstream. It’s not religious, but it is a very “moral” song, in the sense that I felt the need to explore why all these little changes and degradations matter. Adults, at least some of them, can think critically and see how we got to where we are. But the thought that this sort of gun violence might be the only sort of world my kids knew was and remains a sobering thought, so bringing it back to the kids felt like a very natural conclusion.

As I write in the song, I really don’t know what to tell my boys (ages 8 and 11), so I have not had any explicit conversations about societal gun violence with my kids. They’ve heard the song many times, of course, but I’m not sure those later verses have sunken in yet.

Why make this song a collaboration?

I grew up in the 80’s with MTV and I still have vivid memories of things like “We Are The World,” where multiple artists banded together behind a common message. Not that my song is on an equivalent scale, but I felt there was a place for a project like this in the Americana scene. It’s a relatively new designation, and though many great artists identify or are identified with the genre, there really hasn’t been a socially-conscious, multi-artist project like this before, that I can remember.

Ultimately, I am not alone in my struggle to comprehend how we got to where we are, and having multiple voices sing the song kind of emphasizes that this is a problem that we all face collectively and will all have to work together to solve.

How does this kind of collaboration work, I guess first in terms of asking the artists and getting permissions, and then actually piecing the vocals together? Lots of Dropbox?

So much Dropbox! I would have loved to get everyone in the same room and run it down, old-school, which would have saved me months of work. But when you’re a largely unknown independent folksinger, you’re calling in too many favors to work that way.

The whole collaboration started with Rosanne Cash, who was aware of the song and had sung it with me before at a Brady campaign fundraiser. I knew I would need help bringing artists on board, but I felt that if Rosanne wasn’t into it, then it was basically a non-starter. Thankfully, she is so generous and supportive, and it only took her an hour or so to respond enthusiastically.

From there, it was just a matter of dreaming up artists to work with and seeing what connections we had with them. The band signed on right away, so I was able to at least build a good basic track and sing a guide vocal, so artists would get a sense of what they were signing up for. Once people did commit, they basically each sang their verses at different studios, Dropboxed us the files, and mix engineer Lorne Entress did a painstakingly brilliant job of making it all sound cohesive and musical.

How did you come to work with Gabby Gifford’s organization?

For some reason, I have never thought of this song as anything other than one that should raise money for some other group that is doing good work in the fight against gun violence. There are so many that are addressing this issue—Moms Demand, Sandy Hook Promise, Everytown —but Rosanne was the one who suggested and put me in touch with Giffords.

How has the promotion for this song differed from your past releases? Like, I noticed the song has its own website.

I’ve never released a standalone single song before, but it turns out that if you want to do a good job getting it heard than you basically have to do everything to promote and publicize it that you would a full-length record.

The biggest difference was timing: I didn’t get the final verse vocal til just after Labor Day, but the Giffords folks really wanted the song to help amplify their efforts leading up to the midterms. So we basically had to rush to assemble a promotional team on very short notice. I got a few “we don’t have time for this” sort of responses, which I could sympathize with because between my own records and sideman work, I didn’t really have enough time to work on this!

But it was something I felt compelled to do that just happened to have a well-defined political, non-musical timeline, and I just had to find champions who felt similarly compelled to get involved. Fortunately, Signature Sounds, Brad Paul Media and Songlines all came on board, donated their services and gave it their all on very short notice. I am extremely grateful for their efforts.

When a song has such a clear purpose, does it free you up from some of the usual ego things that songwriters deal with when sharing or promoting their music?

Completely. I find it very difficult to talk about the worth of my own material, though I obviously wouldn’t devote my life to something I didn’t fully believe in. But if there’s a bigger purpose other than “look at me!” it makes it a lot easier to push for people to listen to it.

For example, with the Milltowns record, I really wanted to shine a light on the legacy of Bill Morrissey, so it was a lot easier to advocate for it. “By Degrees” was the same way—I don’t make a cent from this. It’s not enriching me personally in any way or selling out concerts for me. It’s just something I’m doing because I know what doing nothing looks like and I can’t just stand by anymore.

I don’t really know how to do political organizing and push for legislation; all I know how to do is write and sing songs that hopefully support the ones directly engaged in those efforts. It feels very good to put myself in service to the music and an idea larger than my own gain.

You’re a professional songwriter and performer, but I’m curious about your day-to-day work that happens away from the guitar or stage. How much of your life is emails, booking, promoting, packing lunches?

Next year will mark my 20th year as a professional musician, and it’s a bit dizzying to think of how my day-to-day routine has changed over that time. The biggest change was becoming a parent, and since I’m home a lot of the weekdays most of my work happens during the school day, between 8 am and 2 pm. I can be pretty productive in that time, but I have to be ruthlessly efficient and come up with a plan for every day.

My average non-gig work day is as scheduled and planned out as anyone who works in an office, and it has to be if anything is ever going to be accomplished. I’m up between 5-6 am everyday, making lunches, doing the morning routines with the boys. After drop off, I head straight to the gym for swimming or lifting. It’s about 9 am after that, so the next 5 hours can go any number of ways, though several loads of laundry are nearly always involved.

If I’m taking a day to do office work, I can spend that entire time keeping up with emails, social media, and advancing gigs. More often than not, I spend those 5 hours rehearsing for whatever I have coming up next. Could be shedding Josh Ritter or Lori McKenna tunes, reminding myself how to play bluegrass, working out and rehearsing set lists for solo shows, and more. I like to say that I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I haven’t been bored since 1998.

And what’s the revenue picture like for you? Are you earning a living mainly from your own touring? CDs and vinyl sales? Sideman gigs? A little bit of each?

It’s a bit of a mystery to me how it all works out, because I get income from several different streams, and they seem to tag team at random to for the distinction of being the most lucrative.

Sometimes I’m doing lots of solo gigs and that’s where the money comes from, other times it’s a lot of sideman work, which is great because it’s all income and no expenses. I’ll occasionally get a recording session or something like that, and then there are modest checks from Soundexchange, CD Baby for digital online sales, and ASCAP royalties.

Every once in awhile, an extra zero will really surprise me at the end of the payout, which is lovely but completely random and can’t be depended upon. For example, my ASCAP check just tripled for one month and as best I can tell, it’s due to recent airplay of a song from a 16-year old record…in Belgium. I’ve never performed in or even been to Belgium, so that about sums up how unpredictable and capricious making a living as a musician can be. I basically look up at the end of every month and think “holy sh&t, I did it again!”

What’s up next?

I’m working on my 12th full-length album of originals, and it’ll hopefully be released in fall of 2019.

Check out Mark Erelli’s website for concert dates, music, and more.

[Photo by Lara Kimmerer.]