In August 2020, Mark Erelli was performing at the Word Barn in Exeter, N.H., when something strange happened.
“I looked down and couldn’t see my fingers on the guitar,” said the singer-songwriter. “I’m literally about to go into the downbeat for the solo, and, as you can imagine, it didn’t go great. It was embarrassing. I came offstage thinking, ‘Note to self: Check the lighting next time.’”
But a few weeks later, while driving on Storrow Drive in the middle of the day, “I went into a tunnel, and it was lights-out. I couldn’t see the road. I stepped on the brakes and got my bearings. I was like, ‘OK, something’s wrong.’”
He thought he just needed glasses. “And I did — but once I got my glasses, [my optometrist] said, ‘You know, your retinal imaging looks a little off. We’re going to send you to a specialist,’” Erelli recalls in a recent phone interview from his Melrose home.
In October 2020, the solo artist and sometime sideman for Lori McKenna, Josh Ritter, Marc Cohn, and others, was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, or RP, an inherited retinal disease that causes progressive loss of night and peripheral vision. Many who have RP become legally blind, and sometimes it can lead to complete blindness, according to FightingBlindness.org.
In the two years since his diagnosis, Erelli has gone through “the stages of grief” with his family — wife Polly and their two sons, ages 15 and 12. He’s also had time to write through it.
His single “You’re Gonna Wanna Remember This,” co-written with his good friend McKenna, drops Friday.
His upcoming album, “Lay Your Darkness Down,” releases in February. Ironically, Erelli’s last album was titled “Blindsided.” He also points out the first line of “By Degrees,” his 2019 Americana Music Award Song of the Year nominee: “When I take a look around me, sometimes I wish I was blind.”
Of the upcoming album, he says, “These aren’t songs about blindness. They’re songs I could only write once I realized what I was losing. My impending blindness opened my eyes, and I was able to write from that new viewpoint.”
We caught up with the Reading native ahead of a string of area shows — including dates at the Word Barn Oct. 7, Fall River’s Narrows Center Oct. 8, Northampton’s Parlor Room Oct. 21, and Cambridge’s Passim Oct. 22. He talked easily and honestly about what he’s going through, laughing often. And he made one thing crystal clear: He has no plans to stop touring.
Q. Did doctors give you any sense of a timeline?
A. There’s a big question mark of: How long will this take? How bad will it get? So far, it’s been pretty stable. The form I have tends to be slow-going. This mutation tends to show up in your 40s. It took me a while to learn how to break the news to my friends because I had to call them up, like, “I got this diagnosis . . .” And they’re like, “Oh no! cancer?!” It’s like, “No, no, it’s not cancer — but it’s not awesome.” [Laughs]
Q. [Laughs] Right. So how’s your vision right now?
A. That’s the interesting part. When you hear the word “blind,” people assume lights-out. That’s not what it is. With my glasses on, in daylight, right now looking out my window, I have 20/20 vision. But when the light starts to go, I lose details quickly. Even in the daytime, I’ve lost peripheral vision. I knock into things.
About 75 percent of my work conditions are exactly the kind of conditions I can hardly see in. It’s contextual. I’m probably the only suburban dad who’s not running around the house yelling at everybody for leaving lights on. [Laughs] I’m like, “Leave them on! I don’t care. Then I won’t fall down the stairs.” [Laughs] I’m exhausted by the end of the day. I don’t know quite why — I think the way I’m processing visual information is a lot more conscious than it used to be. After a day of paying attention like that, 8 p.m. comes around, I’m tired.
Q. Have you had any other scary moments like [on] Storrow Drive or [at] the Word Barn?
A. No, I fixed those things pretty quickly. I have a little light that I put on my mic stand. I no longer drive at night. But, again, that happened in the day, so I do have to be cognizant of routes I take. And if I ever feel like I’m not cutting it, I’ll take myself out of contention for driving.
Q. Have you had to make any other adjustments for shows?
A. A lot. Before, people would occasionally ask what I wanted for stage lights, and I’d be like, “I don’t know, turn them on, I guess?” [Laughs] Now I have to make sure there’s no bright lights in my face, that the stage is well-lit.
I need tape on stairs, so I can tell where one stair ends and the next begins. It helps to tape the railing. A lot of the time I’ll just bring a flashlight and bright tape.
Backstage is the challenge — navigating between a brightly lit stage and darkened backstage. Most clubs and venues have all sorts of lights and ramps and elevators for patrons — backstage, there’s none of that. I hope it’s not a conscious statement. The unconscious statement that I get is: “Why would there be any disabled people back here? This is where the artists are.”
Q. That’s interesting.
A. I bristled at using the D word at first, because I was like, “I’m not that disabled.” But that was in the middle of the pandemic when I didn’t need to go anywhere. Now I find myself advocating for things I need. You can’t see the disability — I don’t have a cane. Someday, I probably will. Then everybody can see, “Oh, there’s a blind guy, we better get out of his way and ask if he needs help.” But until then, I look and sound exactly the same. There’s no reason to expect that I need any additional help. And it’s this weird tension of not wanting to be defined by it, but at the same time needing to remind people.
Q. I can imagine. And these new songs are so personal. What are a few that stand out?
A. “You’re Gonna Wanna Remember This,” about paying attention to things that fly by. It’s also verbatim something Lori [McKenna] said to me at my 40th birthday party. A bunch of friends took turns covering my songs. It was amazing, like an Irish wake. Lori leaned over and said, “Pay attention. You’re gonna wanna remember this.”
Q. What’s the most personal song on the album?
A. “You.” That’s an exploration of what a diagnosis like this means for a relationship. Because in some ways it’s even more terrifying to be surrounded by people I love and think, “Oh my God, now they have to deal with this, too.” When I got the diagnosis, we were grieving this life we thought we might have a shot of having. “You” addresses that head-on.
“Up Against the Night” I wrote [before the diagnosis] as a metaphorical struggle, but now I’m literally every day up against how much daylight I have left.
Q. How have your sons reacted?
A. It’s not something I’ve tried to hide or protect them from. I feel like honesty is the best way to address it. There are times when I’ve said, “You can’t go because I can’t get you there.” That’s heartbreaking to tell a 12-year-old. But for the most part they seem to get it. They see me having trouble. I’ll walk into a room and the light’s not on, and say, “Where’s the dog?” And they’ll say, “Dad, he’s in the chair.” In all fairness, it’s a tan chair and a tan dog and the lights are off, but still. [Laughs]
Q. [Laughs] Right.
A. That said, it’s awkward when I meet people again. I was in Nashville the other day [and] a couple of people came up — I didn’t recognize them, I couldn’t see who it was, and these are people I’ve known for 20 years. So I just said, “Sorry, I couldn’t see you!” and they’re like, “It’s OK, we’re getting old!” And I’m like, “Yeah, it’s not that!” [Laughs]
But this material is the most intimate thing I’ve ever done. Songwriting and singing, in general, is one of the most vulnerable things you can do. So to sing about something you’ve lost — there’s an extra layer of vulnerability.
But it’s also exciting because people connect in their own way. They’re not necessarily getting emotional because I’m going blind — they’re thinking about things in their life they’ve lost, things they’re struggling with. I’ve heard from so many people already — fans, people I’ve known for my entire career — and I had no idea they had severely autistic children, or health problems. In some ways, the most personal thing I’ve ever done has brought me closer to my audience than I’ve ever been. And that’s a beautiful thing.