Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin have been performing together as Mandolin Orange since 2009, after they met at a performance by Big Fat Gap, a fixture of the North Carolina music scene with a revolving lineup and a passionate following. Bonding over their love of Americana music, Frantz and Marlin decided to join forces and see where they could take the traditional sounds they know and love as partners.
“We tend to stick with a folky Americana vibe, partially because of the instruments we play, but we love the freedom to take songs in any sort of direction,” vocalist and mandolinist Frantz says from the group’s home base in Chapel Hill, NC. “We like the freedom of being a songwriter-oriented project. We definitely went through a rock-band phase, and a phase where we only wanted to record and play as a duo. Now we feel like it’s time to branch out and bring more people in.”
For their new album, Blindfaller, out now on Yep Roc, Frantz and Marlin recruited three bandmates to record and travel with them. After years of touring, they knew the importance of finding the right personalities, as well as people with the skills to help them realize their musical vision. “We really lucked out by finding people we want to play with, and who also bring a lot of enthusiasm to live performances,” says Frantz.
Those bandmates are Knoxville, TN’s Josh Oliver, a guitarist and vocalist they’ve worked with in the past; Clint Mullican, a bass player with a background in jazz; and Kyle Keegan, a Charlotte, NC drummer who plays with bands on both sides of the Atlantic.
“The new album really came together along with the band,” says Frantz, who reports that almost all of Blindfaller was recorded live. “We went into the studio with really loose arrangements, which was something new for us. There’s a lot of sonic depth to the songs, but the arrangements themselves are pretty straightforward, which makes them really fun to play live. There’s lots of room to get into the groove and allow things to ebb and flow on a night-by-night basis.”
Frantz is excited for Mandolin Orange’s return to Athens, calling it a kind of sister city to Chapel Hill, and one of the more welcoming stops on the band’s early tours. “The Foundry was one of the venues that was willing to respond to my emails back when we had no agent and were booking ourselves,” says Frantz. “So we have a real soft spot for that place.”
With melodies on both sides of the divides between sweet and sour, breezy and urgent and wistful and grounded, the band’s catalog is ideal for both driving around town and through open countryside; tracks from the new album fall squarely in the toe-tapping territory of past efforts. The immediate difference is a richer and more confident sound, but pay attention to the lyrics and you’ll discover a greater awareness of national currents and the present political mood. The first single, “Wildfire,” features lines like, “I was born a Southern son in a small Southern town where the rebels run wild/ They beat their chests and they swear ‘we’re gonna rise again.’”
Frantz and Marlin felt compelled to speak out on the band’s Facebook page when they heard that one of their songs was being used by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Donald Trump’s running mate, at his rallies.
“We were thinking about the 1970s, when people like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan were speaking out,” says Frantz. “And we felt like, just because we play a fiddle and a mandolin and come from North Carolina, we’d hate to think that someone would get the wrong idea of what we’re about.”
MANDOLIN ORANGE North Carolina-based folk duo that touches on bluegrass and country. See story on p. 15.
DEAD HORSES Milwuakee-based Americana trio.