Thursday, June 5 will be a return of sorts for Mark Erelli. “It feels like coming back to visit old friends,” says the singer-songwriter, who performed at Oona’s and the Windham when they were both open.
Erelli opens the ninth annual “Fred Fest,” four days of music officially called Roots on the River, with a set at the newly remodeled Bellows Falls Opera House. He’ll play songs from his forthcoming album, then join Lori McKenna’s band for her headliner set, something he’s been doing for the past few years.
Usually, he sticks to backing McKenna, a task that last year found him in front of thousands of Tim McGraw and Faith Hill concert fans and national television audiences, and in support of her “Unglamorous” album. But with a new record to promote, Erelli’s doing double duty.
“These nights are really hectic for me,” he says. “I have to activate different parts of my brain as a solo player and a sideman.”
The new album, called “Delivered,” is due for release later this summer, though fans can buy it at a few select preview shows. It’s a work that Erelli considers to be the high point of his 10-year career; a deft blending of the topical and personal.
“It’s like ‘Hope and Other Casualties,’ only more so,” he says, though it’s imbued with a sense of optimism that was missing from his last album of new songs two years ago. He isn’t pulling his punches, whether denouncing a president “who’d rather talk to Jesus than those who disagree” or lamenting history’s courageous leaders who were “rewarded with a bullet to the brain,” but Erelli seems to have more faith that things will turn out well.
The title of the record’s opening track, for example, is “Hope Dies Last.” In it, Erelli bookends the world’s problems – floods, fear and tyrants – with his own domestic bliss. The buoyant “Once” celebrates the birth of his first child, an event that informs much of the record’s mood.
“There’s a certain amount of bravery and fearlessness that you have to have as an independent artist,” he says. “You also have to be a little crazy. Parenting reinforces that.”
The album’s centerpiece is the title song, a haunting, gorgeous meditation of enduring love. With a beautiful counterpoint from Crooked Still vocalist Aoife O’Donovan, “Delivered” is an elegy wrapped with a sense of wonder, stark in mood and deceptively simple in structure.
For the project, Erelli used a new producer and a group of musicians he’d long admired, but never played with. “This record is unique in that I came to it with fewer preconceived notions than anything I’ve done.”
He borrowed his studio band, including producer Zack Hickman, from former label mate Josh Ritter. “I was lucky to be able to import a certain amount of musical chemistry right off the bat, even though we didn’t know each other when we started,” says Erelli. “It was a very easy, unforced process.”
He’d made five records with long-time collaborator Lorne Entress, but felt he needed a change. “We had and still have a great relationship, but we got to the point where we’d done so many things,” he says. “It seemed like a good time to broaden my horizons.”
With financing locked in, and a heady period of his life winding down, Erelli began work on “Delivered” feeling loose, and ready for anything,
“I’d just gotten of the Tim/Faith tour, we had our baby and two weeks later I went into the studio. I didn’t have the energy to be stressed out by what were we going for. I had a group of songs I felt strongly about, I knew we had a great group of musicians. I kind of trusted that was going to be enough. I think we came up with my best record to date, and I never thought I’d be able to say that seven records in.”
“Delivered” was made through a creative financing scheme that Erelli dubbed a “musical barn raising.” “I got a bunch of fans to contribute all different kinds of money and basically paid for the project in advance,” he says.
Backers included old college friends, long time fans and supporters, some of whom he knew well, and others he didn’t. When he began advertising for investors early in 2007, Erelli was unsure of what kind of response he’d receive. He wound up with more money than he’d planned on in less time than anticipated.
He found the experience both gratifying and artistically liberating, and something he’d happily do again. The approach, he says, “relies on something real, the people that actually know they want my record, as opposed to investing all kinds of funds up front from a record company.”
For their contributions, each “barn raiser” received an early copy of “Delivered,” along with posters, unreleased tracks and other goodies.
Erelli recalls performing at one of the earliest Fred Eaglesmith weekends, in 2001. “It makes no sense at all,” he says. “Fred’s great, and there’s many people that deserve their own festival booked around them, but to see in this one little town in Vermont that has fallen for him and draws people from all around the world to do this event. I call it blissfully random. It works – I’m glad it does, and grateful to be a part of it.”