In a golden age before digital music and streaming services, Mark Erelli made his first mixtape.
It was the seventh grade, and back then, a mixtape was more than just a compilation of songs: it was a grand, romantic gesture, designed “to tell a story about the things you loved, or things about yourself that you couldn’t convey in words.”
In those days, the mixtape was the currency of the heart, and crafting one was an exercise in nuance, requiring a steady hand and subtle precision. Finding just the right song at just the right time to send just the right message was an artform, which blended sentiment and execution: it married confidence and vulnerability, pushed its creator to the romantic precipice, and saw many a young man use Phil Collins as their personal Cyrano de Bergerac.
…unsurprisingly, a plucky teenager who’d eventually grow up to be a folk singer was pretty good at mixtapes.
“Mine were definitely romantic aides,” Erelli laughs. “It was like craftsmanship to me: my fingers hovering over the play and record buttons, trying to catch the beginning of the song, hoping the DJ didn’t talk over the intro, like they often did. Then, trying to let it fade to the last possible second, gauging how much tape I had left.
“Could I squeeze one more song on there? How much time did I have left?”
But cassette-tape-love-letters didn’t last, and twenty-or-so years later, the cumbersome craft of the mixtape has fallen victim to technology, having long-since been replaced by the on-demand convenience of the playlist era.
And, yet, Mark Erelli is still making mixtapes.
Recently, there have been two: the first was a fifteenth anniversary present for his wife, which Erelli made after getting his hands on an old stereo with a cassette player. And the second is Mixtape, the eleventh studio album from the veteran, Massachusetts singer-songwriter, which, as its name suggests, is “a mixtape, but with [Erelli] singing all the songs.”
Due out in January, Mixtape is designed to tell the story of the music that matters to Erelli, which comes to include the Grateful Dead, Roy Orbison, Solomon Burke, and Arcade Fire, among others. But even as it pays homage, it was important to Erelli that this album not simply be a cover record, or viewed as something to hold fans over in between albums, when his own songs are scarce.
“That couldn’t be further from the truth,” Erelli says. “This album feels like a strong personal statement that’s been quite a long time in the making.”
In fact, the making of Mixtape dates back nearly fifteen years to Club Passim in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Erelli began a yearly covers show with Lori McKenna and Jake Armerding. Beginning as a songwriters-in-the round with the trio swapping old favorites, Under the Covers quickly grew into an annual, two-night event on Passim’s calendar, always held around Christmas.
This year’s performance—held over December 14th and 15th—was the fourteenth consecutive, and saw tickets sell out weeks in advance.
“It’s an annual checking in with ourselves and our friends and our audience,” Erelli says. “I think about songs all year long; I’ll be walking off stage, thinking about what I’m going to do next year. It’s an all-consuming sort of thing for me.”
Over the years, the cast of Under the Covers has shifted slightly, and now, Erelli and Armerding are flanked on stage by Zachariah Hickman of Josh Ritter’s Royal City Band and Canadian singer-songwriter Rose Cousins. (After ten years, Lori McKenna bowed out of the project.) But despite the changes, year after year, those in attendance hoped that these shows would one day be captured on record, a thought that Erelli long shared, but which only came to fruition at the urging of Hickman.
“It was a really a decision put on me by Zack, who produced my last record” Erelli says of deciding it was the right moment to make Mixtape. “He was in between projects with Josh Ritter, he’d been inspired by the songs we did last year, and said, ‘We should do a covers record. We have some time coming up, let’s just go and do it.’ It was something that had been informally in the works for such a long time, but it took someone else to pull the trigger and say, ‘We’re going to do this now.’ It could’ve been done earlier, but I think it was better having waited so many years because I’m a better singer, I’m a more mature artist, and I know better what I want. I’m not sure I could’ve made this specific record before now.”
The record Erelli makes now—two decades into his career as a professional musician—reflects that experience, that self-assurance, and sees a musical yeoman sculpt a dazzlingly diverse collection that holds together because of breadth and substance.
A carefully curated album, Mixtape’s track list is unified not by theme or style, but by its relationship to the artist, and while Erelli’s ability allows him to honor other’s work by simply putting it under his own fingers (of his cover of “Ophelia,” he says trying to improve upon the Band is “a fool’s errand”), he’s more frequently found taking the scrap metal of a song, melting it down to its essence, then reshaping it as his own.
“I look at songs as texts to be interpreted,” he says. “Not sacred texts that represent the word of God, or the final word on how something should be, but as texts that are there for me to study and dig into and find new meanings in.”
Mixtape opens with a stately take on the Grateful Dead’s “Brokedown Palace,” accented with strings and gentle ivories. But while it sets a course, it also seems like a throat-clearing for Erelli’s version of “Boys of Summer,” the record’s first single. As distinct a version from the original as can be imagined, Erelli saunters around Don Henley’s lyrics with hardly more than a whisper to open “Boys of Summer,” and sets the story against a shadowy, melodic atmosphere, driven by an organ and distant drums. With a slow build, the song repurposes the familiar images of Cadillacs, wayfarers, and young love, utilizing Erelli’s signature falsetto during a haunting crescendo, and proving that Mixtape is a record with ambitions beyond gathering well-loved songs and artists.
A similar transformative approach is taken with “Against All Odds,” which not only hits upon Mixtape’s Phil Collins requirement but updates a track that “has a really beautiful beating heart at its core.” Erelli calls the original a “touching song” with “an amazing melody,” but says that it’s restricted by its era, and here—as he often does on Mixtape—Erelli goes under the hood to try and restart the song’s engine.
“You can liberate a song from its production, and I do that a lot,” he says. “When we write a song, we bring out own limitations, for better or for worse, to the writing of that song, and what I’ve realized from covering other people’s work is where those limitations are: different turns of phrase, different kinds of language, different song structures, different melodic choices.
“I feel like a dog running off leash when I cover other people’s music. It’s incredibly joyful, because I don’t have to be Mark Erelli anymore, or who people think that is. I can make different choices, by virtue of those being the choices of the person who wrote the song. It lets me explore different things that I may not have the courage to do, or even think to do in my own songs, and inevitably, when I go back to writing my own music, I’m all that much wiser for having covered someone else’s work.”
But while there are plenty of moments where Erelli reinterprets or reimagines a song, perhaps the record’s most lasting impressions come when he shifts the original’s narrative voice: the only two songs on the album originally written and performed by women, “Deep Red Bells” by Neko Case and “Tony” by Patty Griffin are some of Mixtape’s most profound selections, and while Erelli’s voice doesn’t drastically alter the content of either, it certainly adds a new tenor to the conversation. Longtime listeners of Erelli will be unsurprised to find a murder ballad on this record (or any Mark Erelli record, for that matter), and with Case’s “Deep Red Bells” (currently on Spotify/YouTube as album’s second release)—a song about the Green River Killer, who was at large during Case’s childhood in Seattle—Erelli takes a tidal, poetic account, and ups its intensity with a rolling tempo and strained voice, reaching top-register, as he sings, “All those who lost their way, murdered on the interstate, while the red bells rang like thunder.”
In the opposite direction, “Tony” allows tragedy to resonate alongside something undeniably catchy, with Erelli’s spin sounding more Mountain Stage than Lilith Fair. A song about the suicide of Griffin’s gay high school classmate, Erelli’s echoes Griffin’s heartache in his version, setting a deeply emotive voice against rustic instrumentation, which allows the song—as well as its titular character—to travel a new road, and, hopefully, find an alternate ending.
Among Mixtape’s other highlights are a high-flying version of Richard Thompson’s “I Feel So Good,” and the rumbling “My Body Is a Cage” by Arcade Fire. But beyond interpretation, Erelli’s latest effort allows him to push his musicianship, and as such, he sees this record as “the best singing he’s ever done.”
“I’m so glad we finally captured the best nights on stage, when it feels like everything you’re singing is coming from the heavens. That’s kind of what it felt like in the studio this time,” he says. “I think Zack saw my singing voice evolving, and was like, ‘We gotta capture this now, because it’s really happening.’ I’m so glad he ran point on this, because I don’t think I could’ve made it without him. “
But the ever-modest Erelli credits his sterling singing—at least in part—to the nature of the cover, as a vessel, it pushes him in directions that he otherwise wouldn’t go. It allows for growth, and to find something new in a process that’s always been “a bit mythical.” No stranger to the cover, Erelli released Milltowns, a tribute record to the late Bill Morrisey, in 2014, and for the last six years, he’s played as part of Barnstar!, a bluegrass super group who have released two albums of narrative cover work. With that experience, Erelli has learned to treat a record like Mixtape as an avenue to self-discovery and self-improvement, an opportunity to learn more about what he doesn’t do, or doesn’t know.
“It goes back to limitations: I don’t write melodies like ‘Against All Odds’ or [Roy Orbison’s] ‘Crying,’” he says. “I try to take [what I learn] back, and let it inform what I do, to blow out some of the walls that I’ve built for myself and make my own house a little bit bigger. There’s always something more to know. There’s always further down to go, you can always go further in. The challenge now is getting people to hear what it is I’ve done and I’m doing.”
But while this mixtape is an exercise in Mark Erelli’s fandom, his arrangements, his voice, and the elusive pursuit of his craft, it ultimately aspires to do what all mixtapes intended back when he hovered over a radio to tell analog love stories.
Mixtape sends a message, and says more about how he feels about the recipient, than how he feels about himself.
“The subtext here—as it was with all mixtapes—is that you matter to me,” Erelli says.
“Whoever’s getting this mixtape, whoever hears this record and has a relationship with it, they matter to me a lot. They help me make a living, and I’m very grateful for that.”