SPOTLIGHT: Mark Erelli on the Art and Science of Stories
Mark Erelli (photo by Joe Navas)
EDITOR’S NOTE: Mark Erelli is No Depression’s Spotlight artist for February 2023. Learn more about him and his new album, Lay Your Darkness Down, in our interview, and watch a performance of “Sense of Wonder” exclusively for ND readers here.
Who told the first story? When did our early tales begin to evolve, utilize metaphor, and become song? This much is known: In one form or another, we have been communicating essential truths to each other since before the development of organized religion, agriculture, or modern language. I would argue that the act of storytelling is perhaps our species’ most fundamental ritual: Stories are what make humans human.
Anyone can spin a good yarn, but the ritual has evolved to the point where some of us — songwriters, authors, poets — are lucky enough to do it for a living. We have all felt the visceral impact of the stories we tell about ourselves. I’ve always found great power in observation, in transmuting careful consideration of the world around me into song. In 2020, after being diagnosed with a degenerative retinal disease that is slowly and unpredictably stealing my sight, my catastrophic mindset tormented me with a series of existentially dreadful questions. How could I do my job if I couldn’t see? Would I be able to write and sing my truth if I couldn’t directly observe the world around me? How would I be able to play my small part in the ritual ever again?
Propped up by the compassionate love of my family and friends, as well as the steadfast support of my audience, I gradually found a way to reengage with the act of songwriting. Though my disability has changed the way I view and navigate the world around me, my songwriting has always drawn from all my senses, not just sight. New songs began tapping me on the shoulder, inviting me to tell stories from my new perspective, a hopeful yet hard-won worldview forged through defiance and perseverance in the face of loss. With a renewed sense of purpose, I toiled alone in my simple basement studio on a new album, the soundtrack of an artist reaffirming that he is far too in love with music (and far too stubborn) to abandon his chosen path. When I share these songs live at my shows, it feels akin to spiritual metamorphosis, as miraculous as a caterpillar dissolving and reorganizing itself into a butterfly.
I know a thing or two about entomological metaphors, having studied insect population dynamics as a young man living a double life as a scientist and songwriter. There is much common ground shared by artists and scientists, for science is no more black and white than art is exclusively rendered in shades of gray. One of the qualities great scientists and artists have in common is an abiding sense of wonder, an awesome appreciation of the natural world and compulsion to tell its stories. As we age, modern culture does its damnedest to disabuse us of the wonder we all share as children, to distract us from making time to marvel at the world around us. When was the last time you rolled a log over to gleefully note the centipedes or salamanders underneath? Have you ever stopped to wonder if the same leaves on a particular tree turn the same color year after year? The part of the storytelling ritual of which I am most enamored is pushing back on our distraction, reminding others (and myself) of the beauty — and cruelty — in the world we share.
One of the simultaneously maddening and bewitching aspects of my job is how hard it is to get at some notion of truth. Just when you think you’ve done it, you realize that you can always go, as Greg Brown so aptly put it, further in. This is another quality art and science share, the realization that every question you can think to ask ultimately contains multitudes you’ve yet to consider. Knowledge and mystery are inextricably bound, and the more closely you examine that duality the harder it is to tell where one ends and the other begins.
On my new album, there is a song called “Sense of Wonder” that comes closer than I ever have to celebrating the importance of full engagement with the world around us. We humans are effectively marooned in a black void, sharing a single rock with fantastical beings that we know very little about … I mean, come on, giant squid? Monarch butterflies somehow migrating back to the Mexican overwintering grounds only seen by their great-great-great-grandparents? These are just a few phenomena that we can see with the naked eye. But seeing is just one mode of perception. We clearly hunger for faith, yearning to honor an awesome mystery whose presence we feel but cannot directly observe. And we haven’t even talked about light somehow being both a particle and wave, or the relativity of time!
As I say in my song, life without a sense of wonder feels tragic and small. Conversely, fully succumbing to awe and wonder can be overwhelming. So, here’s where the ritual comes in. We gather together to share truth, and setting those truths to music makes them easier and more enjoyable to process. What I do as a songwriter and performer is not really about me: It’s about us. On any given night, on any stage in any town, we come together to tell stories and to witness their telling. In doing so, we are reminded anew of who we are, and just how much we need each other.
Give all you’ve got to give, ’cause at best it’s relative
Love is how we pull each other through
Hold onto your sense of wonder
Keep yours for me and I’ll keep mine for you