SPOTLIGHT: Mark Erelli Lets the Light In for ‘Lay Your Darkness Down’
Photo by Joe Navas
EDITOR’S NOTE: Mark Erelli is No Depression’s Spotlight artist for February 2023. Look for more about Erelli and his new album, Lay Your Darkness Down, all month long.
The highways were empty in that surreal autumn of 2020, desolate from the lack of rush hour commuters funneling in and out of Boston, and Mark Erelli was driving home from visiting a friend. Suddenly, as he entered a traffic tunnel, the road in front of him vanished before his eyes.
Thankfully, he was able to safely hit the brakes and get his bearings, but this was the second incident in a few months where his line of sight seemed to be playing tricks on him. That summer, he’d been playing an outdoor gig when he glanced down mid-song and couldn’t see the frets on his guitar. He had chalked it up to just being a little rusty having gone months without regularly performing live.
But in that tunnel he knew: Something was wrong.
A Difficult Diagnosis
Tests and specialist visits revealed a terrifying degenerative eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa, or RP, that would inevitably result in a loss of vision over time. Exactly how much time was difficult to predict, but timing suddenly became especially poignant. In March that year he had released a record titled Blindsided, unrelated but cruelly ironic none the less.
“Maybe I had been experiencing some of these symptoms for longer than I realized, but the more interesting, kind of cosmic interpretation of all this is that sometimes the art and the songs, they get there before the artist does, before the writers do,” Erelli reflects. “It’s possible that on some deeper level my psyche was kind of trying to prepare me for this. Regardless of all that, what I do know is that I used that Blindsided album title one release too early. I should have saved it for one more record!”
He can laugh at this coincidence now, but there has been real, difficult work behind that lightheartedness, which drives his powerful new record, Lay Your Darkness Down, out Feb. 3 on Soundly Music. In its 10 utterly beautiful tracks, the word “blind” is nowhere to be found; just genuine hope and a fearless exploration of this unexpected journey.
“In a way, listening to this record is akin to listening to me learn how to choose to lay my own personal darkness down. It’s kind of like that play on words, ‘blood on the tracks.’ I’m literally laying my darkness down in these tracks,” he says.
The melodic opener, “Break in the Clouds,” emphasizes persistence through hardship. “Fuel for the Fire,” with Anthony da Costa’s epic guitar solos, invokes fear as a tool for growth. The soulful groove “The Man I Am” says love is the greatest shaper of the self. With his warm, Tom Petty-inflected voice and honest songwriting, Erelli navigates this tricky new terrain with graceful contemplation and resilience.
“It was important that there be some appreciation of beauty and joy on the record,” he says. Though, he adds, “There are just some songs that I could only write from a perspective of slowly losing my sight.”
“Sense of Wonder,” a standout on the album, is a particularly prescient example of the art preceding the artist. Erelli whimsically “ooohs” as he captures the awe of precious objects and nature’s creations, all the while examining the multitude of ways to find truth and beauty in the world. “That song was really an ode to not letting vision be the only way you can credibly experience all that life has to offer. There are some things you can’t see that are also very important and part of what make up a rich and satisfying life,” he says. Erelli points to things like faith and love as examples of being deeply felt even if invisible to the naked eye.
“I’ve come to understand it as, essentially, my entire life philosophy distilled into five verses.”
A New Process
Erelli has been at it for more than 25 years, but Lay Your Darkness Down represents a significant shift in how he makes a record. When he realized RP would undoubtedly affect the usual recording process — putting him in an unfamiliar space with lots of knobs and expensive gear — he reevaluated. “The alternative is I’m not gonna do my job,” he says. “That was not acceptable to me. So, I had to figure out a way to do it here.”
“Here” is a modest 12-by-10-foot room in his Massachusetts home that contains all his equipment and instruments. “Everything’s kind of an arm’s length away,” he explains, emphasizing one of the myriad ways he has learned to adjust.
Erelli also began to experiment with a recording style inspired by ELO’s Jeff Lynne, a prolific producer for artists like Paul McCartney, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty. Where before Erelli might have had his band together in the studio, recording everything simultaneously, Lynne’s method required an ambitious level of patience. Each instrument’s part would need to be mapped out and then recorded by itself. First the kick drum, then the snare, then the acoustic guitar, then the electric, the bass, keys, and so on, eventually blended and smoothed over in the mixing process. Adapting this tedious process was a decidedly efficient solution for Erelli to make an album entirely on his own terms, but there was something missing when he’d listen back to the arrangements. In separately recording each granular piece, he found his songs lacking in humanity.
“There came a day when I was working on a song and I did a crappy, rough mix of it at home and I remember it moved me. I got a little emotional listening to the song. And I realized that I had not been thinking at all about where the mic on the drums had been or what reverb treatment I had given to the vocals. I was feeling the emotional impact of the song and I thought, ‘Oh my God, the monster is alive,’” he says. “I brought this thing — through this process that can be very inorganic on its parts — to life! That was, like, proof of concept for me. Once I got to that point, I was basically recording every day.”
Teaching himself a new skill gave Erelli some needed sense of purpose in the dark days following his diagnosis. This meticulous recording became a form of therapy, a spiritual practice to temporarily replace live performance.
“I’ve never been so fully invested both physically and emotionally in a project as I was in this process. The making of this record really mirrored my emotional healing process, or the evolution of my grief,” he says. “I had time to really get under the hood and tweak the way that I approach my craft.”
Still, despite a strong support net of family and friends — including his eye doctor, an enthusiastic fan of his music — the process was isolating, and it took some courage to let people in. “If I’m not alone, maybe that means I don’t have to do everything quite alone,” he remembers thinking. “I made a decision to bring in my rhythm section from my band, Zachariah Hickman on bass and Dave Brophy on drums. And I’ve never been so nervous in my life as the day I brought all my tracks into the studio that I’d been working on for the better part of a year.”
As it turned out, collaboration was the missing piece. “In opening up the record to them it really helped me think [consciously], if I was gonna bring in other people, who should they be?”
At least one person was obvious.
Help From a Friend
Lori McKenna, an old friend Erelli met decades ago when both lost a songwriting competition, lent background vocals to the album’s title track. On its surface, “Lay Your Darkness Down” is a tribute to the late Justin Townes Earle, who passed away in 2020. McKenna had turned Erelli on to his music years earlier, so it felt fitting to include her voice. The song is a heavy meditation on perseverance, even when it feels impossible. Erelli didn’t personally know Earle, but his death struck a chord.
“I was obsessed during the pandemic with as many people making it to the other side as possible. I don’t think we’ve really processed it, certainly not as a society. As artists, we’ve just been so grateful, a lot of us, to get back to work,” says Erelli. “I was just trying to find a way in that song to acknowledge the loss and try and use loss to illuminate the way forward. How does it define us in the eyes of others? How do we let it define ourselves? Can we use these feelings of darkness to lead us toward a brighter way?”
Like many songs on the record, it was written before Erelli’s diagnosis — his own kind of loss to grapple with and grieve. “It just kind of presaged some monumental development in my life and I had no idea how relevant it would become.”
McKenna also co-wrote a song on the record, the yield of one of those pandemic virtual cocktail hours that could never quite replicate the warmth of imbibing with friends in person. As Erelli and his wife sat on the other side of a screen from McKenna and her husband, he lamented his lack of inspiration and output. McKenna, conversely, was in a fruitful songwriting period fueled by Zoom collaborations, and she offered him some help.
“The songwriting thing was a relatively unexplored dimension of our relationship … I have just seen how people kind of come out of the woodwork wanting things when you have that kind of success,” he says, referring to McKenna’s illustrious career. “I’ve seen it secondhand,” he laughs. “I have not wanted to be one of those people in her life. I’ve wanted to be someone that can be supportive and provide a little bit of protection and insulation for her.”
But an offer is an offer, and as he tried to think of a jumping-off point for their session, he flashed to a memory from his 40th birthday party years earlier. His wife had filled Club Passim in Cambridge with a “house band” of musician friends who played covers of Erelli’s songs. That evening, McKenna sidled up next to him and as the two watched the music, she nudged him and said, “Pay attention, Erelli, you’re gonna wanna remember this.” It stuck with him, and a very special song, “You’re Gonna Wanna Remember This,” was born.
Lay Your Darkness Down brims with hope, but never rings false. “The diagnosis was like a fundamental hit for sure, but I didn’t want it to feel like it changed who I was. It’s part of me but it doesn’t define me,” Erelli says. “Any kind of optimism or hopefulness I’ve managed to come by, in part it’s because I’m stubborn and don’t want to give up on that stuff. But it’s in large part something that I haven’t arrived at alone. It’s important to highlight the people around me and the role they’ve played in getting my spirits up and showing me what’s possible.”
For Erelli, it is also about setting an example. “I love what I do, and I cannot envision a world where I don’t get to do it,” he says. “I also have kids who are constantly paying attention and watching to see how I react to things. I don’t have the luxury of sending them the message that when life deals you a rough hand, you just fold and crumple completely. If I’m not gonna feel super strong myself sometimes, I have to show them that you have a choice for how you deal with things.”
As he prepares to get back out on the road with a literal new perspective, Erelli is grateful for all the time he’s had to sit with these songs and embody them, ready to meet whatever challenges lay ahead. Playing in a different environment for each show will require a lot of flexibility and compromise, and there may be surprising hurdles along the way.
But, he says, “Even the difficult parts beat not doing it at all.”