For his 11th studio album, Mark Erelli
has decided to move forward by looking back. Mixtape
is out January 26, 2018
and consists entirely of cover songs – It’s a joint declaration of appreciation, for both his favorite music and his audience.
Mixtape draws on inspiration from the past 50 years of popular music, covering artists Erelli considers to be fundamental influences (The Band, The Grateful Dead, Richard Thompson) alongside newer favorites like Neko Case and Arcade Fire. According to Erelli, “Groups like The Dead were ‘gateway bands,’ because in the process of getting hooked on their music I also got exposed to bluegrass, jazz, early rock n’ roll and so much more.” The album is available for pre-order now at iTunes and Bandcamp.
On Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer”, Erelli again demonstrates how thrilling it can sound to extricate a hit song from its original production aesthetic. “Despite it being awash in 80’s synthesizers and drum machines,” admits Erelli, “Henley’s original recording is dark, wistful, and when it shifts to the major key at the end it’s one of my favorite fist-raising anthems.” Henley’s song has the same tension and catharsis in Erelli’s hands, but the sustained noir vibe and tortured wails at its conclusion give it a tougher edge.
“Before dragging, dropping or streaming,” says Erelli, “I waited by the stereo, finger hovering over the ‘record’ button, to capture my favorite songs as they were broadcast.” Erelli vividly recalls how the whole process felt like “so much more than just a collection of songs. Working up the courage to give someone a mixtape didn’t just say ‘this music matters to me,’ it also said ‘you matter to me’.
Mixtape features songs culled from thirteen years’ worth of Erelli and friends’ annual Under The Covers shows performed each December at Harvard Square’s famed folk mecca, Club Passim. The covers show provides a valued tradition for Erelli and regulars like Lori McKenna, Rose Cousins, Jake Armerding and Mixtape producer Zachariah Hickman. “It’s the organizing principle of my entire year,” claims Erelli. “The day after each year’s show, I start compiling a new list of potential covers for the following year’s gig.
Erelli’s elegiac take on Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter’s “Brokedown Palace” kicks off the album, with a string prelude that signals he is forging ahead into new sonic territory. By simply changing the meter of Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds” from 4/4 to 6/8, Erelli reimagines the mega hit as a string-drenched soul B-side, more reminiscent of Marvin Gaye than MTV. By the time Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is A Cage” hits, deep on Mixtape’s second side, Erelli’s is howling with abandon, his voice surfing a veritable maelstrom of strings, skittering drums and thunderous, dark piano chords. Perhaps the best example of dynamic control is his simmering cover of the Roy Orbison classic “Crying.”
“One of the biggest goals we had for this project was to highlight my singing more directly than ever before,” Erelli explains. “Cover songs allow me to approach a melody or lyric without the constraints of my songwriting choices or limited formal musical knowledge—they unleash me.”
Mark Erelli still has plenty of his own songs to sing, and isn’t looking to join any tribute bands just yet. But the joy he gets from covering a song, be it an obvious match or unexpected choice, comes through loud and clear on Mixtape. “Even though it’s been a long time since I made an actual mixtape for someone,” Erelli acknowledges, “I still get a real thrill from turning other people on to the music I love.”
Perhaps that process will be a two-way street, and fans of Phil Collins, Patty Griffin or Arcade Fire will discover Erelli’s own material in the process. When asked to consider that scenario, Erelli pauses for a moment, then says “I guess that would make this the most successful mixtape of all time!”