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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Getting To Know Mandolin Orange

Mandolin Orange, a duo consisting of Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz, is based out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The prolific songwriters have crafted batches of memorable tunes which fuse their infectious harmonies with a wide variety of instrumentation such as acoustic and electric guitars, fiddle, and mandolin.

Mandolin Orange is influenced by everything from bluegrass to rock and roll, and they mold their inspirations into a naturalistic and genuine true country sound. The duo released a double-LP for their sophomore effort, called Haste Make/ Hard Hearted Stranger, back in November, 2011. The two have been touring their tunes ever since, steadily building their following, and gaining new fans with every performance.

Since their debut release, Quiet Little Room, Mandolin Orange has shared stages with Rosanne Cash, Chatham County Line, The Steep Canyon Rangers, and Abigail Washburn. The duo has also performed at festivals such as Shakori Hills Grassroots, Hopscotch Music Fest, Beaufort Music Festival, and Albino Skunk Festival.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Andrew and Emily of Mandolin Orange, regarding the duo's musical history, the writing and recording processes behind each of their albums, their most significant influences, and lots more. Here's our conversation

Can you each discuss your musical experiences and personal history before pairing up as Mandolin Orange?

Emily:  In my house, growing up my sisters, mom and I were always singing from as early as I can remember. We all had to choose an instrument to take lessons with, and I chose violin. So I did the classical Suzuki thing for several years in elementary school. I really started getting inspired by bluegrass in high school, and that was when I got exposed to then-local bands like Steep Canyon Rangers and Chatham County Line.

I played in bluegrass bands throughout high school, but didn't start expanding my fiddling styles until Andrew and I started playing together. Playing with a songwriter forced me to go back to some of those classical roots and broaden my musical inspiration.

I grew up in a musical household. My mom, sister, and grandma all played piano. I started picking up simple melodies on the piano at an early age. I got a guitar when I was 14 and started writing songs to teach myself the instrument. Throughout middle school and high school I listened to a lot more rock (Pearl Jam, Pantera, Nirvana, the Beatles) than any roots music. It wasn't until moving to Chapel Hill that I got hooked on the whole tradition and feel of folk music. 

When and how did you get together to form Mandolin Orange?

Emily: When we first started (early 2009) we were together trying to develop our own sense of  the tradition of folk music. We were playing a lot more traditional numbers back then, but also working out the tunes Andrew was writing. Singing together was the driving force from the beginning, with Andrew playing mostly guitar and me mostly fiddle. Andrew began his ever-growing obsession with the mandolin right around that time, so that led to me playing acoustic guitar sometimes.

Our vocal harmonies definitely stem from old bluegrass standards, but we like to take from that and push it a little further--try to think of less obvious notes to sing. That's really fun when you're singing two part harmony, because there's a lot more room for exploration.

Can you discuss your songwriting process and the recording of your first album, Quiet Little Room?

Emily: Andrew writes all the lyrics and melodies. But a lot of the song itself is born in how we arrange it together. We decide on the structure of the song, which instruments should be played on it (lots of trial and error), where to sing, which parts to sing, etc. Sometimes I'll have a totally different idea of what Andrew's talking about in a song than what he feels like he's writing about.

For the recording of the first album, we wanted to make it an accurate reflection of us as a duo, while allowing for a little more expansion. So for each song, we would focus on the instrument (either fiddle or mandolin) that we use live. That instrument would fill most of the space in the song, but with added embellishments (organ, electric guitar, occasional drums).

We recorded it ourselves, in a studio we know really well, which made it easier to convey our ideas. It was our first full length record, so knowing when to stop and when to add was our biggest challenge. Overall though, the only pressure surrounding that record was self-inflicted. We had no deadlines or anyone expecting a certain thing from us, so that made it really pleasurable to work on. Musically it was really natural, and honestly, not very challenging.

How did Quite Little Room and your experiences following that record set the course when you began working on new material?

Emily: After we released Quiet Little Room, we started doing lots of live shows with a drummer (James Wallace) and a bass player (Jeff Crawford). As we worked out a lot of new songs, we were doing so with the band, so they really had a more rocked out vibe and identity.

Most of those songs were the ones that ended up on Haste Make, which we recorded with Jeff and James. Also, Quiet Little Room also let us realize that we really like electric guitar in our songs. So we started incorporating that a lot more as well. Most of the songs on Hard Hearted Stranger were written after we recorded Haste Make. Hard Hearted Stranger is more of an answer to Quiet Little Room, and shows how we've grown as a duo. As far as recording and producing it, we took a similar approach and were even in the same studio for it.

Let's dig into the specifics of your new album (which is actually a double-album). Haste Make was recorded in the winter of 2010/ 2011 and Hard Hearted Stranger was recorded in summer of 2011.

Can you take us through your writing and recording process of your new double album?

We definitely had no preconceived direction for this album...It kind of unfolded as we went. We finished recording Haste Make in December 2010, and all of those songs were written over the course of that preceding year and arranged with a full band concept. They're an intense batch of songs that mirrored the degradation of our personal relationship over that year. Each song expresses some aspect of things that weren't right. We were slightly aware of what was in those songs at the time, but in hindsight, it's intense to hear them all together as one album.

We broke up for the first half of 2011, right after finishing the recording of Haste Make, but we were adamant about keeping the band and the music going. We knew we weren't going to release that album until the fall, but the only way we could be productive together musically was to work on new material.

To our own surprise, we felt a lot more comfortable and driven as a duo than as a band after we broke up. So that became a really productive time for new songs, songs which felt the best when we played them just the two of us. By May-ish, we had a whole new batch of songs we felt strongly about. We didn't want to lose everything we did in December, as we still loved those songs, but we couldn't think about releasing an album without the new material. We wanted to be playing the new songs, and not feel tied down to songs that felt like a closed book.

That's why we like to record and release things as they're pertinent to us. It doesn't undermine the previous work, it's OK to revisit, but you can't keep having the same conversation over and over again. Relevance changes and our musical mood changes. We just go with the flow of our ever-changing inspiration, because that's going to be the most convincing and the most honest music for us to share. Thus, we decided to record Hard Hearted Stranger, and keep it a separate entity from Haste Make, but release them at the same time since they were both ready. 

In your writing process, how do the musical arrangements and lyrics influence each other? How do these come together to shape the songs?

Meter and rhyme play a heavy role in word choice. The way certain words sound together (not just rhyme), the rhythm and emphasis of them, convey an idea just as much as the words themselves. The way the words sound together is just as musical as the notes that go behind them.

Since Emily and I started playing together, that has affected the way I write. Knowing the way the songs will be presented or performed is a big influence on how it's written. The lyrics of a song definitely play into how we arrange a song, whether it's fast or slow, which instrument flows the best, and which words to emphasize with the harmony.

What were you listening to that influenced you during the making of Hard Hearted Stranger/ Haste Make?

Emily: As far as what we were listening to, right before we recorded Hard Hearted Stranger, I had just bought The Black Keys' record Brothers. That got us to thinking a lot more about ways we could expand as a duo in the studio. We're always listening to older acoustic music (like Norman Blake, Monroe Brothers, Doc Watson, John Hartford, Bob Dylan) and mixing in more rocked out stuff (The Shins, My Morning Jacket, and The Black Keys). I'd say we were listening to a lot of Neil Young, Neko Case, Bob Dylan's Desire, when writing the stuff for Haste Make.

What would you say is most rewarding as a duo?

Mandolin Orange: At first it was challenging as a duo to get up on bigger stages and do shows at rock clubs. But it only took a few times of doing that to get our feet under us. It's unexpected that we've had some really great shows in these places, and it's been inspiring to feel ourselves be able to fill out a bigger space with just two people.


Emily: Another ongoing challenge is trying to stand out of the mold of the guy-girl duo. I think it's common for a reason, because people love coed harmonies and good chemistry on stage. But you begin to feel like that's the musical "genre" you're put in, without people paying as much attention to what the music actually sounds like on its own. Even still, we have a blast doing what we're doing, and I guess there's nothing we can do about the whole guy-girl aesthetic. 

Can you describe your live performances? What can fans expect from a Mandolin Orange show?

Emily: Our shows change from show to show. We like to choose songs that feel best on a particular day or that seem to fit the vibe of a place the best. We're still doing some duo shows but this spring we've incorporated some awesome new musicians and friends, and we're really excited about the way the songs are coming out with this lineup.

It's been hard in the past to incorporate other musicians without feeling like a lot of the "spaciness" of our music gets removed. On another note, we never hesitate to throw new songs into our sets. That's how we get to know them and they somewhat shape themselves that way.

You have toured and performed with an impressive roster of artists. Can you discuss a significantly inspiring and influential experience?

Mandolin Orange: We've been thrilled to have shared the stage with so many accomplished artists who we look up to. One really rewarding opening slot was with Abigail Washburn in January 2011. We got to sing on a song with her during her set as well. We were floored by all the musicians in her band, and of course Abigail herself. It's the biggest compliment you can receive when a musician who has influenced you appreciates your music and invites you to be a part of theirs.

We also go the honor of playing a show and a Carter Family tune with Rosanne Cash. After the song ("Bury Me Beneath the Willow"), she said it made her feel like she was in Bristol in 1928.

What have you been listening to lately?

Mandolin Orange:
Aleuchatistas, Skaggs and Rice, Cat Power, The Books, Charlie Monroe, Tim O'Brien

What are your plans for the rest of 2012?

Mandolin Orange:
We're always head over heels for the new material. Haste Make/ Hard Hearted Stranger was a heavy record, both discs. We're really enjoying the new songs being a little more playful, still lyrically engaging but not as burdensome. We've been able to focus ourselves a bit differently when coming up with a sound for the songs. The more lighthearted feel will hopefully carry us into a broader musical identity for this band. That's how we feel it going so far.

We're going to play a lot over the course of 2012 while we come to know this new material. Playing shows is still our favorite part of having a band. It's how we figure out what it is we're doing, and it's the time when we're most creatively productive.

As far as the future, that's all we can really map out.


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