Boston-based musician, Mark Erelli, is known for both his songwriting acumen and his ability to bring that talent to co-writing sessions with other recordings artists, like Catie Curtis and Red Molly. But for his latest single, “A Little Kindness,” Erelli turned to a different type of collaborative counterpoint: the memory of the late Hall of Fame musician, Tom Petty.
Erelli, who began to listen to Petty when he was eight-years-old, would play his music at home on a Fisher Price record player. Petty’s LP, Long After Dark, was the first record Erelli bought with his own money. Ever since, Erelli has followed the quintessential American rock musician throughout his career until his death on October 2nd, 2017. On that day he and many more lost a hero.
Just one day before, though, 58 people at a Las Vegas music festival tragically lost their lives in a mass shooting and hundreds more were injured. This event, combined with Petty’s passing, made life seem devoid of much hope or warmth, Erelli says. So, taking control of what he could, Erelli turned to his notebook and guitar and wrote “A Little Kindness” in one sitting.
“I was looking for a softer place,” he says. “A refuge where you could have a moment’s peace and collect your thoughts. The national discourse at that time had devolved into this shouting match of truth versus lie. I was despairing. So, I wrote about the things that made me feel so lost.”
Erelli says the entirety of his forthcoming album, The Blindsided, which will include the new single and is set for a March release, is filtered through the lens of Tom Petty. The songs, therefore, are concise and include frequent repetition. Erelli says he got “ruthless” with his verses and cut wasn’t essential. The result is a tight 11 tracks, highlighted by the thumping “The River Always Wins” and the wistful “The Western Veil.” It’s the first record the Boston-born artist ever recorded outside New England and he did it in Nashville.
Listeners might not suspect it when one of Erelli’s rustic folk ballads come on, but the artist is also an accomplished scientist. The songwriter, to go along with his myriad albums, also has a master’s degree in evolutionary biology from UMASS Amherst. And while one might think that music and biology stand at opposite ends of the intellectual spectrum, Erelli says they are connected quite closely for him.
“I’m very comfortable with questions,” he says. “As a songwriter, my job is basically to pay attention. That’s it. People think science and music are so different. They’re really not. They’re both trying to make sense of what the heck is going on here.”
Erelli attributes his innate and strong sense of curiosity to his ability to be prolific.
“If you’re not curious and compassionate about the people around you,” he says, “then you’re going to run out of things to write about. That curiosity really helps propel me forward in terms of all the different things I’ve been able to do over the years. I keep my distance from people who say they have the answers.”
The musician maintains a creative mantra: keep digging. This applies to his songwriting craft, his passion for scientific discovery and his personal life. Each of us generally thinks we are each good people, Erelli says, but are we? Could we be doing better for our family or friends?
“It’s like this Russian nesting doll visualization of questions within questions,” he says. “That is so profound and so awesome, in the truest sense of the word. To me, that’s where you find god or spirituality – in this sense that there is no end. You can always go deeper, you can always go further.”
To that end, music challenges Erelli. While he admits he would be more of a homebody and not someone to go up in front of crowds if he were a fulltime teacher, for example, that’s exactly what the musical life he’s chosen demands. It’s like a constant social experiment he’s forced upon himself as a way to investigate new corners of the world that will one day end up in his music. It’s diabolical, really.
But beyond the challenge, for Erelli, music is a way to appreciate the world and the people in his life. And perhaps most acutely, the practice of music has taught Erelli the beauty of sublimation and reinforced the joy of helping others achieve their dreams, which, in turn, helps Erelli also achieve his.
“My dirty little secret for co-writing,” he says, “is to stuff my ego down and realize the session is about the other person. But that also makes me more willing to explore things that I might not on my own. As a Yankee, I can sometimes be stubborn in trying to be self-sufficient. But, man, it’s lonely. So, it’s nice to find a friend and some common understanding in a song. It’s a real magic trick.”