LEICESTER, Mass. - These days, singer-songwriter Mark Erelli's diaper changing to song writing ratio is pretty high. Erelli, who plays the next monthly show at Hezekiah Stone's Coffeehouse on Thursday, Oct. 7, just had his second son three months ago, and touring and writing songs can slow down with a newborn around.
Still, Erelli is a solid fixture on the singer-songwriter circuit, and has been since he was discovered at a 3 a.m. impromptu hotel room jam when he was 23 years old.
"I finished up a graduate degree in evolutionary biology shortly after my self-titled debut was released in 1999," Erelli said. "I was inspired to get into folk music after hearing Chris Smither play on the radio. I had been really into music for a long time - the blues, folksingers like Bob Dylan, but Smither was first solo performer I ever heard that framed wise and philosophical lyrics against a really rich and rollicking musical backdrop."
Since, his career has been peppered with numerous accolades. He's won several awards, from the Kerrville New Folk contest in 1999 to the 2006 International Song Contest, where a song he co-wrote with Catie Curtis bested 15,000 entries to win the grand prize. For the past 11 years, he has maintained a rigorous, international touring schedule, sharing the stage with Dave Alvin, Gillian Welch, John Hiatt and others, as well appearing at many major folk festivals, including Newport, Philadelphia and Shrewsbury (UK).
In recent years, he has worked increasingly as a multi-instrumentalist sideman, accompanying artists such as Lori McKenna and Josh Ritter everywhere from Nashville's Grand Ole Opry to London's Royal Albert Hall. Erelli also has nine records under his belt, including collections of western swing ("Hillbilly Pilgrim"), lullabies ("Innocent When You Dream") and songs of social conscience ("Hope & Other Casualties," which was WUMB Folk Radio's number one record of 2006). In 2009, Erelli was one of eight artists invited to the UK to take part in the Darwin Song Project, a collaborative release featuring songs inspired by the life and work of Charles Darwin.
"The current year has been my most prolific yet," Erelli said, "with the release of 'Seven Curses,' a collection of murder ballads recorded with Jeffrey Foucault, and 'Little Vigils,' my ninth full-length studio record."
Not one to be pigeonholed, particularly in the lyrical realm, Erelli has covered more subjects in his songs than you can find in a library's card catalog. "I've written songs about lots of things," he said. "Life, death, love, sex, marriage, fatherhood, faith, doubt, home, traveling, insects, and just to spice things up every once in a while there's a song about a circus fire."
These days, I get the most inspiration from my friends. Hearing the great things that folks like Kris Delmhorst, Jeffrey Foucault, Lori McKenna, Josh Ritter and so many others are doing really makes me want to take my own deal to the next level."
When Erelli is not home with his two boys, he rotates between a few different types of performances. His solo shows, which includes the style he'll do in Leicester this week, features material from throughout his career, with a special emphasis on tunes from his newest record.
"I also team up with my friend Jeffrey Foucault for concerts," Erelli said, "where we perform the entirety of 'Seven Curses,' our new collection of murder ballads, as well as other tunes from that genre. I also moonlight with Boston-based bluegrass group Barnstar, and accompany Lori McKenna on electric guitar and mandolin for lots of her shows."
After 11 years, Erelli admits he should have a better way to describe his music to people. "I am just so busy with doing whatever it is I happen to be doing musically," he said, "that I don't want to waste any time sitting around trying to figure out what to call it. Whenever people ask me this at a party, I tell them 'I'm a folksinger,' and it usually stops the conversation.
"I think one of the best things about pursuing a career as a singer/songwriter," he continued, "is that because of the nature of the venues you perform in and the lack of a commercial outlet for this sort of music, I truly build a fan base one person at a time. This way of building a career can be slow and arduous, but every gain is real, and I know I work honestly for every little bit of support I am fortunate enough to gain. One of the frustrating things about pursuing a career as a singer/songwriter it takes a such a long time to make any real impact, and most of that journey is incredibly solitary. Most of the time, it's just me standing on a stage with my guitar, or me alone in a car driving from the gig to gig. I spend a lot of time talking to myself."
Erelli plays at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 7, at Hezekiah Stone's Coffeehouse, Christ Episcopal Church, 1089 Stafford St., Leicester. Visit www.hezstone.com.