Thursday January 13, 2011

GREENFIELD, Mass.

The songs written for "Little Vigils," the latest CD from biologist-turned-singer-songwriter Mark Erelli, were inspired by the nature walks he takes with his eldest son -- but they convey so much more than the simple joy of communing with the flora and fauna with family.

Erelli, who holds a master's degree in organismic and evolutionary biology, uses this record to re-explore the complexities, simple joys and confounding contradictions of Mother Nature that he studied at Bates College in his home state of Maine.

The groundwork for his eighth solo record was laid six months before entering the studio with producer Zack Hickman (best known as Josh Ritter's boisterous bass-man) and some had-picked Boston bluegrass pickers, when Erelli took part in the Darwin Song Project -- a collaborative songwriting venture celebrating the 150th anniversary of "The Origin of the Species.

Two of his contributions to that project evolved into pivotal tracks on "Little Vigils," including the powerful "Kingdom Come," which may be the only song in pop music history that speaks to the gruesome life cycle of a parasitic wasp.

In an e-mail, Erelli, who will be appearing this Saturday at The Arts Block Café in Greenfield, Mass. -- discussed the genesis of Little Vigils.

"A lot of the songs on ‘Little Vigils' have this finely wrought natural imagery at their core, and those sorts of details dovetail nicely with the approach I took in the Darwin Song Project tunes. I'm a biologist by training, and I've always spent a lot of time in the woods, but I had really gotten away from that as a touring songwriter. ... But I bought a house, and my oldest son loves to take walks in the woods around town, so I've reconnected with that part of myself through him."

The album opens with "August," an understated beauty that weaves together the major themes running through the rest of the collection.

"It uses the natural imagery of a Cape Cod summer night as a backdrop for the appreciation of life's simple pleasures," explained Erelli. "Family, marriage, music with friends, good food and drink ... it's all in there, while in the backdrop the katydids fiddle away and the bats wheel overhead in the dusk. It's a really sweet song and though it's about really simple, basic things, it feels really powerful to sing it in concert. I have to be careful not to let it overwhelm me because it's about the people and places closest to my heart."

Ironically, in order to make this record, Erelli needed to get some distance from the people so near and dear.

"The band and I recorded in a 1700s-era farmhouse up in Maine, and this project is the first time I ever holed up somewhere away from my family to make a record. Having little kids now, it was just easier and more fair to all involved to truly immerse myself in the record for a few days, and then go home and be totally focused on my duties there."

The past year proved a complicated one for Erelli, to juggle family responsibilities with so many musical projects on his plate -- and he wouldn't have it any other way. "2010 was in many ways a really monumental year for me. My wife and I welcomed our second son into the family and managed to release two records ( Little Vigils' and ‘Seven Curses,' a record of murder ballads I did with Jeffrey Foucault) against a backdrop of music industry upheaval. I have also been increasingly in-demand as a sideman for folks like Lori McKenna.

"What I do is really under the radar and easy to miss, what with all the other entertainment options out there, but people keep finding it, and enough of them that I can keep doing it. Building that audience, literally, one person at a time is really hard work but also very rewarding. Every little victory feels like it has been paid for in full, and I am very grateful to be able to call myself a musician. My life is my family and making music with my friends. And these friends also happen to be some of the best singers and songwriters out there. I have to pinch myself sometimes."

Dave Madeloni writes a weekly music column for the Arts & Entertainment section. He can be reached at madeloni@aol.com.

Mark Erelli Saturday, Jan 15th THE ARTS BLOCK 89 Main St., Greenfield, MA, 01301 www.theartsblock.com (413) 774-0150 8pm $13 adv / $15 door.