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Rising Americana duo Mandolin Orange on songwriting, the South, and their new album

mandolin orange
Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz of Mandolin Orange.
Mandolin Orange

Over the past couple of years, no single album has occupied more of my time than Mandolin Orange’s Such Jubilee, released in May 2015. On the surface, the duo’s sound is familiar: guitar, mandolin, fiddle, pretty harmonies, and unfussy melodies, all the elements of traditional, old-time American music, known in its current resurgence as "Americana" (or as my kids call it, Dad Music).

There’s a lot of strummy, derivative dreck under the Americana banner. Lots of bands can get the sound — what sets the good ones apart are songs, and Mandolin Orange has superb songs. They are sturdy and indelible, the kind you feel like you’ve known your whole life the first time you hear them.

Songwriter, singer, and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Marlin met Emily Frantz at a jam session in a Tex-Mex restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on the night of President Obama’s 2009 inauguration. She played fiddle and guitar, sang like an angel, and loved the same old-time music as him. They did a few Stanley Brothers tunes.

"That night singing together just felt awesome," Marlin says.

Soon, Marlin and Frantz were working up originals together; their first two albums were released the following two years. In 2013, they moved to Yep Roc Records and released their breakout, This Side of Jordan. It caught the ear of the loyal Americana audience, and their crowds and sales grew through 2015, with the release of Such Jubilee.

This September, the band released their third record on Yep Roc, Blindfaller, a set of songs that finds them moving to a slightly more expansive sound — bass and pedal steel add a country swing to several tunes — and more outward-looking lyrics. Several songs address the recent resurgence of hate, its history in the South ("Wildfire"), and the demagogues who peddle it ("Gospel Shoes").

The songs also highlight Marlin’s growing devotion to, and mastery of, the mandolin. Blindfaller features low-key instrumental heroics throughout, as on the lovely "Echo."

What hasn’t changed is the simple classicism of Mandolin Orange’s songs. Bands with sounds rooted in Americana often pursue crossover appeal with big, stomping anthems (see Mumford & Sons, the Avett Brothers, the Lumineers, etc.). Mandolin Orange does not. These songs don’t beg for your affection; they let you come to them. Marlin is as likely to bend his notes down at the end of a line as up. Tunes are as likely to fade as crescendo. Each line and instrument is given room to breathe. It feels, like very few things in pop culture these days, timeless.

It’s also catchy as hell, lodged so firmly in my head I fear I may never be able to sing anything else in the shower.

The band recently came through Seattle for a two-night stand at the Tractor Tavern, so I took the opportunity to chat with them over coffee about songwriting, the troubled politics in their home state, and what it’s been like to meet and play with some of their heroes. They wear their intimacy comfortably — Marlin is more reserved, content to let Frantz do most of the talking, but they frequently finish each other’s sentences and nod along.

Portions of this interview have been edited for length and clarity.

David Roberts

There seems to be an Americana scene happening in North Carolina. Do you feel connected to something bigger?

Emily Frantz

Definitely. I don't know if it's just lucky or if there is a reason why a lot of great musicians have moved to the area and settled there, but there's really a community — all over the state, but especially in the Triangle, where we live. There's a lot of artists there that love each other's music, and a lot of mutual respect. It's really cool.

David Roberts

Did you grow up playing roots music, or did you begin elsewhere?

Andrew Marlin

I used to play metal and heavy rock 'n' roll. When I moved to Chapel Hill, I was about 20 years old. I started being given my first bluegrass and folk records and just fell in love with the mandolin. Then I found Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs. They do this duo record — when I heard that, I was like, "All right, I never want to play an electric guitar again."

David Roberts

How difficult was the transition from guitar?

Andrew Marlin

The mandolin is actually tuned the same way as a violin; they're both tuned to be melodic instruments. So once you learn the basis of it...

Emily Frantz

...it makes a lot more sense.

Andrew Marlin

Yeah, theoretically, the mandolin makes more sense.

Emily Frantz

We met playing a lot of bluegrass together, because that was our common ground at first. Then we started working up a lot more original material, and then, just in the last couple of years, we've started to try to find more ways to bring some of that back into our sets — not necessarily a bunch of old-time and bluegrass songs, but what we get out of playing those songs, a little bit looser format, more ability to just jam out on the songs instead of having these super-strict, quiet arrangements. [laughs]

Andrew Marlin

Arrangements are a huge part of what we do, but I think sometimes they can hinder you a little bit, because all of a sudden you're stuck to that format and every night you're fitting a mold. With these new tunes, leaving them a little bit more loose, we can extend those solo sections, or I can fuck with [touring guitarist] Josh [Oliver] while he's taking a guitar solo. Stuff like that makes it more interesting every night.

David Roberts

The new music seems a little more expansive. "Wildfire" is practically jammy, in its quiet way.

Andrew Marlin

"Wildfire" was written probably three days before we went into the studio. We showed that tune to the guys on the record the day we decided to record it. We hadn't really thought about an arrangement, so we kind of just went for it. At the end of the first solo section, I actually forgot to come in with the lyrics, because I was thinking, "What the hell is the next lyric?" So we just decided to keep playing, and it ended up being this really great spot for Allyn Love on the pedal steel. Those little happy accidents make for some character on the record.

David Roberts

Some of the lyrics on the new record have a political edge. Is that a response to what’s going on in North Carolina these days?

Andrew Marlin

Definitely. With the way things are going right now, a lot of people are being forced to make decisions about certain issues that before they hadn't really had to think about. In some sense, that's a good thing. But it's just unfortunate that it's these times that are having to inspire those decisions. I hope that we'll get [North Carolina Gov.] Pat McCrory out of there real soon — this next election.

David Roberts

I’m a "Southern son" as well, and share your anguish about it. What's next for the South?

Emily Frantz

There's a lot of great things about living there. North Carolina has a growing population; it's a great place to be. While so much of what is happening is incredibly discouraging and disturbing, it's really lighting a fire under a lot of the people that live there, who don't want any part of that, and don't want the place they live and care about to be that way.

It's like we're seeing everywhere right now — it's so polarized, it's bringing everyone out of the woodwork on both sides. We happen to have a lot of legislators in our state right now that are not representing a large part of the people that live in NC.

David Roberts

What does success look like? What do you want five years from now? Any particular milestones?

Emily Frantz

Well, we're never gonna be the indie It band that every hip publication is writing about. [laughs] It's always been step by step for us. So much of the support that we've seen in our careers is just people coming to shows. For us personally, that is by far the biggest measure of success. So when we're on tour, when we're playing bigger rooms and more and more people are coming to the shows, that is the accomplishment to us.

Andrew Marlin

So much of what we do is focused on the music itself, and the playing itself, so for me it would probably be to make a recording with Norman Blake.

And it's little things. Figuring out how to tastefully use the diminished scale in a solo would be amazing.

David Roberts

Are there particular musicians or careers you see as a model?

Emily Frantz

One person we really admire who we've gotten to know over the last couple years is Gregory Alan Isakov. What he's been able to do —growing his fan base and staying true artistically to what he wants to be doing, taking his shows and his music seriously — it resonates with us.

David Roberts

Plus chilling on his organic farm.

Andrew Marlin

Raising goats and stuff.

David Roberts

Any other artists you would recommend to your fans?

Emily Frantz

There's this guy that we're pretty obsessed with, Doug Paisley, from Toronto. We have all his records. They're so good.

Andrew Marlin

I just found this guy yesterday, I'm really excited about this record: Jeremy Udden; the album is called Plainville. It rides the line between Americana and jazz. It's awesome — great driving music.

David Roberts

Do you have custom-made instruments? A favorite luthier?

Andrew Marlin

I'm obsessed with a luthier who lived in Portland, Oregon, named John Sullivan. He passed in 2007, but man, he made some amazing mandolins and fiddles. I'm very fortunate to have two now, an A-style and an F-style.

Emily Frantz

It's kind of a cool story. Last summer, Andrew procured his F-style mandolin, the Sullivan, and has been in love with it ever since. And then I guess John Sullivan's widow, who lives in Portland, heard through the mandolin community that Andrew was looking for an A-style mandolin and wrote us an email a few days ago, saying, "Hey, I have this A-style I've been holding on to for forever, I would love for you to play it." It was amazing. Andrew got to go meet her and play the mandolin and talk about...

Andrew Marlin

...talk about John...

Emily Frantz

...his processes. It was really cool.

David Roberts

How much do you think about technical mastery of your instrument? Is that a big thing for you?

Andrew Marlin

Yeah, it is. I read an interview with Brad and Phil Cook one time where they summed it up perfectly: They want to get better on their instruments so they don't have to think about them anymore.

Getting more comfortable with the technical side allows you to kind of shut off that part of you and just go with the feeling. If an idea pops into your head, or you feel something change with what everybody else is doing in the band, you can just go there, without having to think about it. So for me, chasing that technical side has allowed me to open up and play more heartfelt solos.

Emily Frantz

Andrew really, truly is obsessed [with the mandolin]. We'll stop at a rest stop and he'll opt to sit in the car and play mandolin for 10 minutes while everyone else is going to the bathroom and stretching.

Andrew Marlin

I usually have to pee really bad when we get where we're going.

David Roberts

Emily, is fiddle your favorite?

Emily Frantz

Fiddle was my original instrument. It's kind of taken a back seat in the last year or two because Andrew's been playing so much more mandolin — by default, that puts me on guitar. Which I'm great with! I actually get a lot of satisfaction out of playing rhythm guitar. Especially when we're playing as a duo, there's a lot you can do with bass notes and rhythm — you're really controlling the song. That part is fun for me.

Andrew Marlin

So that's why you like the rhythm guitar.

Emily Frantz

I'm in complete control all the time.

Andrew Marlin

The truth comes out.

David Roberts

How do songs come together for you? Do you start with lyrics? A melody line? Just jamming?

Andrew Marlin

It's all over the place. The thing I've become more and more comfortable with is just waiting for inspiration to strike, whereas before I was trying to write two or three songs a week. Now it's really slowed down, to maybe two or three a month.

It definitely depends on the song. A lot of times when I sit down to write, I'll have a chord progression in mind, or maybe a melody that's been playing around in my head. The lyrics usually come on stream of consciousness, and I'll go back and shape those, depending on the story I wanna tell or the direction I want to go. A lot of times [lyrics] get ironed out after the initial tune is roughed out.

David Roberts

What’s a song that you had to wrestle with for a long time to get right?

Andrew Marlin

"Gospel Shoes" was one that I recollect was written over a period of about two months. I like to be kind of minimalistic as far as lyrics go. I love it when you can get one line that can be taken in five different directions. That's one of the things I like to do most of all, really start paring down. If I can take an entire section out of a song, take snippets and include them in earlier sections, I'll definitely do that.

"Gospel Shoes" was a subject matter — I wanted to make sure I was really happy with every line. That was one I toiled over for a few months.

Then you have a song like "Wildfire" — I didn't change a single thing about it after it was written the first time. It was done within the first 15 minutes of writing it.

David Roberts

The opening notes of "Hey Stranger" [the first track on Blindfaller] echo the opening notes of "Old Ties & Companions" [the first track on Such Jubilee]. Was that on purpose?

Emily Frantz

We actually struggled with that. We felt like "Hey Stranger" was the first track, but we were wondering if we shouldn't do it for that reason. But I kinda like that now. It's a bit of a nod to that record, but the records themselves are not all that similar.

Andrew Marlin

It's almost like starting from the same point and going on different journeys.

David Roberts

I love your vocal harmonies. Is that something that came naturally, or did you have to learn it?

Emily Frantz

I've always enjoyed singing harmony more than singing lead. I feel like I can sing stronger that way. And Andrew has a very strong, steady voice, so I think it was very easy and natural from the start; we both just sing with our full voices and it comes out that way.

Andrew Marlin

And our timbre somehow matches as well. I don't know if that's something you do consciously or if that just happens.

David Roberts

Emily, how do you pick the songs you sing lead on?

Emily Frantz

Usually it's a joint decision, or we'll try it out. Sometimes it feels totally wrong, but then other ones — I think "Hey Stranger," from the very beginning, was one I was singing. And same with "There Was a Time," from This Side of Jordan. Certain ones just immediately feel like I should do it. And I do like to sing lead when we find the right song.

David Roberts

Does the musical vernacular you work in — old-time, Americana, whatever you’d call it — ever feel restrictive or limiting to you?

Andrew Marlin

We definitely listen to a lot of old-time and traditional stuff, but I think one of the reasons we're in that genre is just because of the instruments we play. When it really boils down to it, I always consider us a songwriter group. So I don't feel too restricted by the Americana realm.

Emily Frantz

It's just like anything else — someone who doesn't listen to a lot of acoustic music, or bluegrass or Americana, might hear it and it seems so limited, but for us when we listen to electronic music, it seems like, oh, there's only so much you can do with this. It just depends on your perspective. I think because we're in it, and we play these instruments, and we know just how much there is still to be played, we don’t feel at all like we need to be changing the direction of the music to stay inspired.