Photo: Alex Loops

Intimacy Between Two Voices: An Interview With Mandolin Orange

Discussing their latest album Such Jubilee, Mandolin Orange share insight into the inspiration of their melancholic songs.
Mandolin Orange
Such Jubilee
Yep Roc

Hailing from North Carolina, the bluegrass-folk duo that is Mandolin Orange (Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin) have made records together since 2009. Their third record, Such Jubilee, was released in May this year, and the two have been spending time on the road since then performing and promoting the album. After a recent New York show, the band spoke with us and explained why, despite the title, Such Jubilee isn’t as celebratory as one might guess, also sharing a deeper look into the gloom of a their songs, notably “Blue Ruin”.

Tell me about how you guys came together as a band. You met in 2009, correct?

Emily Frantz: Some mutual friends that we have play in a local bluegrass band called the Big Fat Gap, in a town where we live in North Carolina. They had a gig every week at this Mexican restaurant. It was technically their gig, but it always ended up being way more of a jam, because they would invite people. So we both ended up showing up there on the same night, and that’s how we met. [Then we] pretty much immediately started playing together, you know, on the side.

Your prior album [This Side of Jordan], was proclaimed your breakthrough. It was released on a bigger label, Yep Roc. How did that transform your musical careers?

Andrew Marlin: We definitely did more touring on that record than we ever have. I think that helped a lot, going to all these other cities that we haven’t been to before. I think frequenting those markets helped out a lot. But also, yeah, having push from the label definitely helped out a lot.

Frantz: I think that, also, that record, This Side of Jordan, came out in 2013, in the latter half of the year, and it was really in 2014 that we did a lot more touring. And even though it wasn’t when the album immediately came out, it wasn’t this huge blast. It just felt like the course of the whole year after that record came out it was really still like gaining new audiences for us. So, that has felt really strong going into this next record, because it feels like we were able to get in front of so many more people with this other one.

Marlin: I was going to say too, with This Side of Jordan, that was definitely, to me, some of the strongest tunes. Those are still our favorite ones to play, actually.

Well speaking of shows, did you tour with new material before you released the album?

Frantz: Not really. I think there was one or two songs that we were starting to put in our setlist before the album came out. But you can kind of go either way. You kind of want to put them out there in front of people and get a read on how people take them. But then, you also don’t want to be, like, tired of them — and, the whole thing now where everybody videotapes everything that you do at shows. And so, there is some degree of not wanting to put too many of the new songs out there because it’s not like you just played at that one show, it’s gonna exist everywhere after that. So you have to be a little more guarded with them, I think. But it works out, because now it feels fresh and new at the shows.

Andrew, I noticed that on this album, your voice is more at the forefront than before. Do you write all the lyrics to the songs?

Marlin: Yeah, I do all the songwriting, so I think sometimes it makes sense.

Frantz: Some songs, we usually mess around with them in the beginning, a bunch of different ways, to find how it feels the most natural. But all the ones on this record for some reason, even a lot of them we tried with me singing, but it didn’t feel right. It didn’t give the right vibe to the songs.

Marlin: But I think too, like in our natural role, Emily’s the more harmony singer. I’ve always kind of been the singer-songwriter type.

Frantz: That’s just natural for us.

In individual songs, lyrically I can identify characters. Are there characters that you’ve carried across albums, or across songs?

Marlin: Yeah, I think so. It’s kind of funny how a song can come together sometimes. Sometimes I’ll just have a friend in mind that I’ll want to get across a point. I’ll kind of try to take on their persona and write the song. Or take on their situation and write a song on that. So yeah, I’m sure that characters have definitely been on other records, but for the most part it’s hard to step outside of yourself. A lot of the songs are still really —

Frantz: Personal.

Marlin: Yeah, very personal. We’re definitely throughout all those records, so us as characters are definitely woven throughout each record.

So would you say it’s more than 50 percent yourselves?

Frantz: I would say the personal aspect is the recurring aspect throughout the records, whereas on each record it seems like there are songs that are inspired by someone else’s story or something like that. But those usually aren’t recurring. Those are usually kind of just like enveloped in that one song.

I wanted to ask you about the song “Jump Mountain Blues”. That is a tragic song; was it based on anything personal?

Marlin: That one, the place I grew up home to, called Jump Mountain, it’s just outside of Lexington, Virginia. There’s some old folklore surrounding the mountain. The legend goes — I’ll give you the Cliff’s Notes version — this young Native American girl was in love with this one guy, and her father wanted her to marry this other guy, this rich guy. So they had a race up the mountain to see who would catch her, and whoever caught her would win. So, instead of allowing herself to be caught, she ends up jumping off the mountain. So the whole moral behind it is, that her ghost rises up every night and makes that same run. So the song is basically her dad reflecting, watching his daughter’s ghost rise up.

Are there other songs that are folklore or fable related?

Frantz: I think that’s the only song that we’ve ever written that is, like, riffing on another story. There are other songs on the record that are, while I’m sure a lot of personal stuff sort of slips in there unintentionally. There are a couple of songs like “Rounder” and “Blue Ruin” that are, for the most part, kind of detached. They’re talking about something specific or telling a specific story that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with us.

I read in one of your interviews that you had been in a relationship together. Does that affect your songwriting together?

Frantz: We’re still in a relationship together…

Marlin: I would say our relationship isn’t at the forefront of what we’re doing. I think as far as the band goes, we’re musicians first. That’s how we’ve always kind of treated it. As far as the songwriting goes, because we are together so much, it definitely works its way into the songwriting. But it’s not the goal if that makes sense.

Going back to the idea of your songs being so melancholic, why is the album called Such Jubilee? I know the line appears in the last track (“Of Which There Is No Like”).

Frantz: I think on some level it’s maybe a little bit funny to us, because we know our music is so melancholy. But, relatively speaking, this record is less so than the other ones. And so I think that’s why we’re “oh this is, for us, a happy record!”

Marlin: Even though the songs are not exactly, like, shouting out at you, they’re still, lyrically, kind of a celebration of home. Those feelings that we get when we come off the road and we’re glad to be back home for a little bit. I think those feelings are interlaced through the record. And that’s kind of where the Such Jubilee comes in; it’s more just an idea, I guess.

Frantz: I think our songs have a sad sound to them no matter what we do. But, I think that so many of our records in the past have been about heartbreak, and emotional agony, or death and dealing with loss and grieving. Even if a lot of the songs have kind of a sad sound, to us, this record is a lot more about appreciating things, as opposed to [grieving].

My two favorite songs on the album are “Blue Ruin” and “Daylight”. What are your favorites on this album?

Frantz: That’s cool those are your favorites, because to me those two are maybe total opposite ends of the spectrum on the record. “Daylight” to me is one of the most fun ones, fun to play live, and it has that sort of train beat sort of groove. It’s one of the more —

Marlin: Upbeat numbers?

Frantz: Yeah. A little bit upbeat, mid-tempo! But then “Blue Ruin” is so specific and so intense. So, I like both of those.

Marlin: “Little Worlds” is probably my favorite one on the record. Lyrically, it’s a little more scattered, it’s less specific than some of the other tunes, but I think the feel of that one’s really cool too. It came together in a great way.

Frantz: I really like “That Wrecking Ball”. If I had to pick one song, I think that’s my favorite song.

I want to ask you about “Blue Ruin”, being that it’s about the children of Newtown [Connecticut]. It’s obviously a national, collective tragedy, but did it affect you in a personal way?

Marlin: It’s just one of those heavy things. I think, just the timing in our lives, when it happened. And just the fact it happened in school when all these kids were brutally murdered. I think the point of the tune was just to shine a spotlight on that, but also violence in general. You can’t stop violence with violence.

Frantz: It’s just one of those things too. Like, I think, with all of our music, and with anybody’s music, part of what compels — and I, again, don’t write the songs — but from being around it and thinking about it a lot, it’s not like Andrew woke up one day and was like, “I need to write a song about that.” It’s like those things that happen that are so — like you almost emotionally can’t process them because they’re so heavy. You can’t even think about it and make any kind of sense of it. That I feel like it’s almost inevitable that some kind of song or expression has to come out of that. Because you can’t, like, talk about it. You can’t figure it out. You can’t make it better. You just have to sort of like let it come out in a different way.

That song is basically… the night before that happened, our roommate at the time had had her 30th birthday party, so we threw down and woke up feeling terrible and I’m just lying in bed on Twitter, and that’s when I heard about it and I came out into the living room where they all were and we’re all just laid out feeling so sorry for ourselves because we poisoned ourselves the night before, and that’s kind of the first line of that song, it says, “one morning after drinking”.

Marlin: It’s not the sentiment of “no matter how shitty we feel right now, tomorrow we won’t be hung over anymore” but, like, “these kids still won’t be here”. The heaviest moment that we’ve ever faced doesn’t even come close to how heavy that realization must be for the parents and everyone involved. That song just kind of came out of that suffering and is what it is.

Have you played it live yet?

Frantz: It’s actually interesting because we never really planned on recording that. But then, we decided we wanted to. And then, even after putting out the record, we were like, “oh, well that’s just a record song. We’re not actually going to play it at shows.” And we’ve played it at every show so far.

What’s the response been?

Frantz: It seems… you know, some people, I think, just can’t handle how sad it is, or like don’t want to think about it. But for the most part people, I think, really appreciate it. It’s like how I was saying where the song came from, how there’s nothing to be said about it, there’s no way to deal, you just deal with it. But I think it’s therapeutic in that way for people. And, you know, the closing line of it is, “let’s put these guns away.” We had thought about, “are people gonna be pissed?” That’s kind of a polarizing thing. But even places where we’ve played that song, in the areas of the country where people are really into having guns, they seemed to respond well.

Marlin: That line can be taken a few ways, either like put them away as far as gun control goes, but also just like, putting it away and not having that be your go-to to fix a violent problem. You can’t always pull your guns, man. Stand and fight. Sometimes you just have to consciously put them away and be like, “Dude, let’s solve this a different way.”

I think that’s one reason we wanted to play it live, is just to remind people that we’re all in this together, you know? We’re all affected, when this happens, even if it’s five hours down the road, it affects us all, and those decisions that people make in terms of dealing with these problems affects everybody. And hopefully that song can serve as a small reminder of that.

Such Jubilee is about missing a loved one, right?

Marlin: It kind of came out of this feeling I was starting to have. I like to go out and drink and go to bars and stuff at night. It’s kind of having that sense of like, you know, not having that sense of anxiety any more. Like, wanting to go out and being part of…feeling like you’re missing the party. Basically it’s saying like, “yeah, there’s lots of fun to be had out there, but it still doesn’t compare to the joy you get from finding a companion and building a home together. That can be the most rewarding and enjoyable feeling. I think it’s coming around to those feelings is what that song’s talking about. Starting off always wanting to go out and be a part of the scene, and then kinda coming around to the realization that, hey, there are other things in life that are way more rewarding and long lasting. So, it has a tragic feel with an uplifting end.

Frantz: My grandma who is, like, 93 and super out of it — she lives in Pennsylvania and we stay with her sometimes. And this was like a couple years ago. Andrew’s always sitting around playing and singing and, you know, she knows Andrew’s my friend. She doesn’t really even know his name. But he was sitting there singing and she never makes any commentary but he was singing some random song and she just goes, “So melancholy!” But I don’t think he was even singing a sad song, I think it’s just like the way his voice sounds, you know?

[To Andrew] Do you remember that?

Marlin: I do, it was probably like a really happy song as far as we go, and she was like “So melancholy!” Well, we can go more melancholy that [Chuckles].

What are some musical inspirations for Such Jubilee? Are there specific inspirations for this album versus your career?

Frantz: I don’t know. Maybe not so much the songs, but I do feel like the songs for this album were written over the course of a year where we…, we played in the past along with a band, but also a lot as a duo. But we really came into our own as a duo last year when we were touring and I feel like we were listening to a lot more lo-fi music. Like not super elaborate sounding things, and I think just that in general factored into the way we recorded this record, because we didn’t want to go all out and make it super lush. We added a few things here and there.

Marlin: Yeah, for the most part keeping it simple. It’s like the old brother duo, like the Stanley Brothers.

So it was just the two of you and a microphone, basically?

Marlin: Yeah, pretty much. I really love those old brother duets, duet records. I think that we were trying to kind of convey that feeling of intimacy between the two voices, but with a slightly more modern approach.

Frantz: We’ve also learned with playing as just the two of us, but also playing with people is like… You can gain stuff by adding more people and more sounds, but you always lose something too. And we always lose something when we add more to the mix. Not to say we don’t get good use out of that too. I think we just wanted to try and keep the record focused in that way.

You’re touring basically through the year. What did you learn from last year’s touring that you’re going to apply to this year’s? What do you look forward to in touring?

Frantz: Man, so much. Last year, we learned how to be good at playing shows. It’s not something that comes really naturally to us. The kind of music we play isn’t, in its truest form, really meant to be performed on a stage. We sit around and play fiddle songs and we sing together and it’s not about putting on a show. And so we had to figure out how to put on a show so that people who come to hear us play, you want it to be an engaging experience.

But you also don’t want to put on a show to the point where you’re just up there reciting something. All the time spent on the road last year, we found a happy medium of how to still be ourselves but also how to perform. So this year, it’s just been nicer kicking off this release tour feeling like we’re really prepared for it. We haven’t really been hurting that much. That’s why we’re hurting so bad!

Marlin: I think too we learned that, in spite of what this record is talking about, being at home and loving the things that come with that, we actually really love touring. And we like being on the road and being gone. Even after we’re home for two weeks, we’re like, “OK it’s time to hit the road again,” you know?

Frantz: It’s what gives us purpose.

Marlin: We love going out and seeing new states and playing for folks and meeting them. It’s been a great experience last year and so far a great touring season as well.