In life, the moments when "it all comes together" sneak up on you. For singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Mark Erelli, that moment happened one random afternoon in his basement studio. While cutting a few Bill Morrissey songs to work on his recording chops, Erelli ended up recording a profound album that encapsulates his life in music. This September he issues this creative milestone, Milltowns, a loving tribute to his late musical hero Bill Morrissey.
"There are a lot of different themes at play on this album," Erelli says. "The student carrying on after the teacher is gone; me being the same age now that Bill was when he made my favorite albums of his; the nature of folk music being a passed down heritage; and the fact that this project weaves together my work as a solo artist, sideman and producer."
Mark Erelli's artistry resides where honeyed vocals and emotionally literate poetry intersect with accomplished and intuitive musicianship. Inspired by Jackson Browne and John Hiatt, as well as by consummate sidemen like Ry Cooder and David Lindley, Erelli has nurtured an elegantly rural aesthetic that permeates all facets of his creativity. In addition to being able to shift between his various creative roles, Erelli has been able to make meaningful and authentic statements in a variety of roots music-based settings, including western swing, murder ballads, bluegrass, folk, lullabies, and country rock.
A master at the art of appearing to be everywhere all of the time, Erelli has performed in church basement coffeehouses, Fenway Park, the Newport Folk Festival, London's Royal Albert Hall, and the Grand Ole Opry. In a supportive creative role, he has accompanied such artists as Lori McKenna, Josh Ritter, and Grammy Award-winning songwriter Paula Cole, among others. Out front, he is the singer of the bluegrass outfit Barnstar!, and a highly acclaimed solo artist with a 15-year career that spans nine albums. Tastemakers Twangville.com have heralded Erelli the solo artist as "the male counterpart to Neko Case."
Erelli first encountered the music of Bill Morrissey when he was a college student and spotted the famed Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen wearing a Bill Morrissey t-shirt in the liner notes of one of Keen's records. Erelli grew up in New England, and Bill Morrissey's music helped legitimize the budding singer-songwriter's perspective. "Up until then, I thought all the real troubadours were from Texas," Erelli reveals. "Bill's songs helped me tap into my own world and experiences and see New England as valid geography for Americana music. From that point on, Bill became one of my biggest musical heroes."
Milltowns opens with a sweetly weary version of Bill Morrissey's classic "Birches," and 12 songs later closes with the title track, an original Erelli penned for his mentor. Erelli says: "Milltowns chronicles the first time I met Bill and the last time I saw him." The two songwriters' initial meeting was celebratory, two folkies hanging out all night drinking and trading off playing everything from Mississippi John Hurt and the Beatles, to Gershwin and the Stones. The last time the two saw each other they played on a bill together in Portland Maine. Morrissey was in bad health due to years of drinking, and Erelli accompanied him
and helped him through the set. Erelli describes this painfully complex moment in "Milltowns:"
I was getting ready to go on / you said "Grasshopper, you sing 'Birches' / I've been singing it for too long" / So I sang it like I'd written it / though I wished you hadn't asked / 'Cause I couldn't shake the feeling / like something was being passed
Other Milltowns highlights are an achingly beautiful "23rd Street" featuring gorgeous harmonies by Anais Mitchell, and a devastating reading of one of Bill Morrissey's best-known ballads "These Cold Fingers," both of which also showcase the album's refined and bucolic production aesthetic. Recently, Erelli has been making a name for himself with his nuanced and atmospheric production style-prior to Milltowns, he produced an acclaimed album for Lori McKenna-and the album is a wonderful showcase for his stunning studio recording chops.
Erelli recorded the core of Milltowns in one marathon day-long recording session in his basement. "I had sent a batch of original songs to someone hoping he might produce my next album, and he said the songs weren't finished," reveals Erelli. "So I set them aside to reevaluate, and thought I would focus instead on getting better at recording at home. I had printed out a collection of all Bill Morrissey's lyrics that someone had recently posted online, and they were sitting there on a music stand. I picked one out and pressed 'record.' Four weeks and 12 Bill Morrissey songs later, I realized 'this is the new album I am supposed to make.'" Erelli layered on guitars, mandolin, harmonica, bass, drums and percussion himself, and then invited friends like Rose Cousins, Kris Delmhorst, Jeffrey Foucault, Sam Kassirer, Anais Mitchell, Peter Mulvey, Rose Polenzani, and Charlie Rose to add subtle beauty to the tracks.
"It felt right and meaningful to do this," Erelli says reflecting back on Milltowns. "As wonderful as Bill was, people aren't as familiar with his work as maybe they should be. He was like a lighthouse to me, and I want to give back and reflect some of that light to a new generation." Listen here.