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Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
From the Summer 2018 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
Strong vocals, poignant lyrics and virtuosic playing has always been the secret sauce to North Carolina Americana/folk duo Mandolin Orange’s critical acclaim. Comprised of the group’s songwriter, Andrew Marlin (vocals, mandolin, guitar, banjo), and Emily Frantz (vocals, violin, guitar), the band’s signature voice is a seamless blend of genres that really present as a cohesive sound all unto itself. After meeting at a jam session in a fast-casual restaurant in Chapel Hill in 2009, the two immediately began working together and stomping the circuit for a few years before dropping their breakthrough album on the Yep Roc Records label, 2013’s This Side of Jordan. The two have been picking up steam ever since.
Today, with five albums under their belt, they’re road warriors who know just who they are. And a big part of who Mandolin Orange is begins and ends with their writing. I had a chance to sit down with Martin, who is responsible for composing the duo's signature tracks, to get a sense of who they are, where they’ve been and where they’re going in advance of their summer concert at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
Growing up in North Carolina, who were your biggest musical influences?
My first big aha moment was the Led Zeppelin Early Days compilation. I was just starting ninth grade.
A lot of artists incorporate a variety of genres into their sound, but for Mandolin Orange, it feels intuitive. Is that organic to your writing, or do you actively seek out a variety of sounds to incorporate in your work?
Songwriting is still a mystery to me. I have had many influences over the years, and I hope that somewhere in between them all I am finding my own style. It is not something I think about when I write.
With tracks like "Gospel Shoes," your latest album seems to be more extrospective than other projects you've done. Tell me about the impetus for some of the themes you explore.
Writing songs is a great way to process your feelings. It combines so many elements of expression and those elements don’t necessarily have to fit perfectly to work perfectly. Thematically I tend to end up writing about things that I am trying to internalize or process emotionally.
Tell me about the name, Mandolin Orange. What is its origin?
I had an orange mandolin when we started.
Which do you prefer, studio recording sessions or live?
I enjoy both. The two are so completely different energetically that they don’t compete in my mind.
You have suggested there was a more improvisory aspect to the recording process for your latest album, Blindfaller. How important is it to balance the spontaneity of live recording with the more measured studio approach?
Being a capable and expressive musician is just as important to me as being a songwriter. I like recording live takes because it captures a certain human element. When it works, it is very magical and inspiring to me as a musician and as a fan of live music. However, an important part of the process, for us, is to remember that part of the listening experience can also remove you from the monotony of everyday life. In exploring that space beyond the realm of reality, it is also very satisfying to add elements to a recording that we may never be able to achieve in a live setting.
You’ve said Blindfaller has become sort of a turning point for the group. Tell me about how you first began to realize that?
Blindfaller was a turning point for me because I realized that there were people other than Emily that I could trust with my songs. I write from a very personal place, and I don’t care to hit people over the head with it. We found some kindred spirits in this approach with that album.
Was it a welcome juncture in your journey?
It was a very welcome juncture and playing music with these folks inspires me every time we step on stage together.
How do you cope with the growing touring schedule and is it an adjustment you enjoy?
Emily and I have been touring pretty constantly for almost eight years now. It has become a part of life that we enjoy immensely.
How does the schedule impact your writing, or do you save that for your time back at home in North Carolina?
I never have been a road writer. It is hard to find a space free from distraction. I do most of my writing at home in Chapel Hill.
If you could perform with any artist of years past, who would it be and why?
Hazel Dickens...she wrote so many amazing songs that she sang and recorded with Alice Gerrard. It would have been such an honor to play with her.
Mandolin Orange will perform songs from their recent release, Blindfaller, at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music on August 14, 2018.
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Members of Mandolin Orange, Emily Frantz and writer Andrew Marlin (photo courtesy of Mandolin Orange).