The voices of Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin, the two members of North Carolina acoustic duo Mandolin Orange, are a study in contrasts. Frantz’s vocals are lilting, floating above the instrumentation, whereas Marlin’s are understated. He’s like the guy who tells a joke with such a deadpan delivery that you don’t realize until a beat or two after he stops talking that he said something really funny. It’s easy to miss the depth and lyricism of Marlin’s words. You have to pay attention.
On Mandolin Orange’s new album, Blindfaller, there’s more reason than ever to pay attention. Take the second track, “Wildfire.” It starts with the story of Boston physician and Revolutionary War patriot Joseph Warren, who was killed at Bunker Hill after insisting on fighting as a private, rather than serving as Major General, his recently commissioned rank.
It should have been different, it could have been easy
His rank could’ve saved him but a country unborn needs bravery
And it spread like wildfire
Then Marlin goes on to contrast the growth of the young, free country with the institution of slavery and the hatred that remained entrenched even after abolition. The song ends up in the modern day, with the struggle in the south between those who use history as a justification to hate, and those who want to leave the hate behind. With just a few words Marlin nails the weariness, the “we’re still doing this?” feeling of the modern South–the sense that the battle will never end.
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”
And it should have been different, it could have been easy
The day that old Warren died, hate should’ve gone with him
But here we are caught in a wildfire
That “small southern town” where Marlin is from is Warrenton, North Carolina, population 862, on the border with Virginia. When I talked on the phone and by email with Marlin we talked about his hometown, and about this song, but he left it to me to draw the connection that the town was named after Joseph Warren.
His small town North Carolina roots play a big part in his music sensibilities. His grandmother, mother and sister all played piano in the church, so he was surrounded by hymns and old songs as a child. Then he lost both his grandmother and mother at a young age.
He said, “I don’t consider myself a churchgoer these days or even much of a religious person but I think those tunes still hold a very special place in my heart. The melodies remind me of a time when my family just felt a little more whole than it does these days.”
He moved to Chapel Hill about ten years ago (Frantz is a Chapel Hill native) and encountered the burgeoning acoustic scene in Chapel Hill, its neighbor, Carrboro, and the surrounding Triangle area. This part of the state is rich in traditional music and in new approaches to traditional music. There’s a lot of music played on porches here.
“Moving to Chapel Hill,” Marlin said, “is when I first discovered acoustic music and people my own age that were actually playing bluegrass music and had these great ideas on how to take a simple three chord progression and make it into this masterpiece. I think the music is so simple it allows the players to do their own spin or do their own twist to the solos and the lead sections. I just became entranced with some of these players that I was meeting here. So that definitely was a turning point in my musical approach because it brought me out of just wanting to write songs and actually made me want to learn play leads and get better at my instrument as well.”
Marlin’s involvement in the local music scene includes producing records for other artists, including Mipso, Charles Humphrey III of Steep Canyon Rangers, Josh Oliver, and Rachel Baiman of Ten String Symphony. His approach to producing, he told me, is more listening than talking.
“It’s not being the guy to throw out ideas, it’s being the guy who, when you hear a good idea from somebody who isn’t speaking up, or if somebody accidentally plays a part that could be a really great theme, stopping the whole process and saying ‘Wait. Go back. What was that?’”
He and Frantz produced Blindfaller and took a similarly collaborative approach to the recording of a record that was already, from the start, their most collaborative effort. It’s the first record that they’ve recorded live with a full five-piece band. Joining Marlin and Frantz were Clint Mullican on bass, Kyle Keegan on drums, and Josh Oliver on guitar, keys and vocals. In addition, Allyn Love contributed on pedal steel.
“We really wanted to get a live energy on this one,” Marlin said. “We wanted to include some other people on it and let them put their own kind of spin on what’s happening, and speak up as far as the arrangements go.”
The openness to the guest musicians’ ideas led to some surprises for Marlin.
“There’s little things here and there, like at the end of ‘My Blinded Heart’ we do this ending section that starts on the 7th chord of the progression and it just goes between the 7th and the 1st (chords), and everyone’s just kind of floating in there. And that was an idea that Kyle, our drummer, and Clint, the bass player, had, and we all loved it. We were just messing around with it in the studio and it ended up being a big turning point for us because then we realized that not only did we have musicians that were capable of taking sections like that and just running with it, but also that these guys just have some great ideas. We all tried to open ourselves up to everyone’s ideas and I think that’s what led it to sounding like it does. It was more a collaborative production.”
I asked Marlin what part of the record was the biggest surprise for him.
“I think ‘Hard Travelin’’ was probably the biggest shock to me because it came out like straight out of a honkytonk. The first time we ever got the five guys together we did a demo session. I called Kyle, who played the drums, because we had a mutual friend. We had never played with him before and so he came in and just for fun at the end of the day we did ‘Hard Travelin’’ straight honkytonk. And Josh was just ripping it on electric guitar and Emily and I sang it live and sang it really hard. It was a demo session. We weren’t gonna use it. We were planning on doing that song a little more bluegrassy. So we messed around with a bluegrassy version a little bit but then at the end of the recording session we went back to the original demo and were like ‘that’s a take.’ I think that was probably the biggest surprise for me because it was the first time we had ever gone into the studio to just completely fool around and ended up coming out with a really great take. I’m glad it ended up on the record the way it did. I think it’s how it was supposed to be.”
Trees populate some of the songs on this album. In “Wildfire,” forests burn, regrow and burn down again in the forest fires of hate and bigotry. In the evocative, yearning “Echo,” Marlin uses different trees as metaphors. He searches for calmness in his memories of the pines of his youth. White Oaks signify a place of safety and wellbeing. Redwoods (perhaps—just one take on it) represent the way society can lose its way and become stagnant as it focuses more on growth and strength than on people.
But I saw it in a dream, monuments of trees
As the air we breathed turned our lungs to dust
And the redwoods so tall, in all their awe, began to rust
With no bend and sway at all, that ancient dance was lost
And the wind moved like an echo, with a sigh in every gust
When Frantz and Marlin listened to the album from start to finish they began picking up on these images of trees and zeroed in on the idea, for the album title, of a faller—the person in a lumberjack operation who’s responsible for felling the trees.
“We ended up liking the meaning of blind faller, meaning somebody who’s just recklessly tearing down all kinds of shit and not really paying attention to what it is or where it’s falling. When we looked at it as two separate words it could have meant so many things, and then we put it together. It just had that certain ring to it that for us seemed to sum up the record.”
“Blindfaller” is a reference, in part, to the political climate in the country right now, a subject that Marlin does not shy away from addressing. In “Gospel Shoes” he writes about politicians using religion as a weapon.
Gospel shoes are laced with shackles and chains
Fitted for the poor, the runners of the race
Now every hand is folded to the shape of a gun
The target’s ever changing but the war, it rages on
When I asked him how current events influenced the songs on this record, he said, “This is definitely a polarizing time in our country and most of these tunes were not really a way to state a political stance but more just let’s not forget to step away from politics and remember what’s truly important, which is that anybody who’s going to vote for anything is always looking for the same thing. Whether you’re on the left or the right, I think everybody just wants to find people that they can relate to and they want their voices to be heard. Some of the tunes on this record are just a reminder: don’t be afraid to let those voices be heard.”