Mandolin Orange have long kept up a pace that belies their lithe, organic music. The bluegrass-and-Americana duo released five albums in six years, filling the spaces between discs with relentless touring.
After wrapping up dates supporting the acclaimed 2016 release Blindfaller, the group’s first with a full band, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Marlin decamped and set aside his guitar and mandolin. “I can be a little pushy sometimes with wanting to stay productive musically,” Marlin reflects, “but with these songs, I just let them come. I would sometimes go two months without writing a song. A big part of the writing process was patience.”
While unwinding from the whirlwind of their schedule, Marlin also unraveled the grief that compelled him to write in the first place — the untimely passing of his mother when he was 18. It came out in writings that formed the lyrics on Mandolin Orange’s new album, Tides of a Teardrop (YepRoc), and it turns up in wistful moments like the sparse, autumnal opener, “Golden Embers,” and the gentle trills on “Mother Deer.”
The song cycle’s spiritual center is “Suspended in Heaven,” a direct tribute to his mother. The shuffling, traditional bluegrass ballad harkens to the band’s earliest days as a duo, with Marlin and Emily Frantz, the group’s co-founder, guitarist and fiddle player, harmonizing like old-time Appalachian pickers. “They’re heavy tunes,” Marlin says. “I think letting them be just that, letting them feel weighty and leaving that space there makes it a little heavier than putting a bunch of stuff on it.”
How did you find traditional bluegrass and Appalachian music?
Emily Frantz: For me it was a pretty straight shot. I was taking classical violin lessons when I was a kid, and when I got tired of that, I started taking bluegrass fiddle lessons, which was a lot more fun for me at the time ’cause I got to do everything by ear and play in what were more exciting contexts for me. I got introduced to a lot of the heavy hitters, like Tony Rice, Allison Krauss’s early stuff, a lot of Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe…
I hear a lot of playing styles on the new record, like fingerpicking and some flatpicking.
Andrew Marlin: I’ve always been a big flatpicking fan. A lot of my early guitar influences were heavy metal based, so I was learning Dimebag Darrell and Kerry King riffs. When I first heard Tony Rice play, I was just completely enamored and wanted to learn what he was doing with all that crosspicking. From there I fell into Clarence White. He is one of those people that, if you’re a guitar player, and whether or not you are super into bluegrass or country music, he’s a great source of knowledge on the right hand.
You were a metalhead until you heard Tony Rice?
Marlin: Pretty much. It’s a little more aggressive, but it’s still, to me, very rhythm based. The chord structures are simple, but there’s a lot of great ideas being woven into these very basic progressions, and I feel like bluegrass definitely fits into that as well. It also contains a lot of variations and complex thoughts presented in simple progressions.
You’re both multi-instrumentalists, and the band’s sound has expanded on each record. How does it all come together?
Frantz: Usually Andrew gets the song to a fairly finished point, and then we sit down to figure out how to flesh it out and arrange it. That usually starts as a duo and sometimes ends as a duo, and that’s as far as we take it. But other times, we end up working on it with the band and trying to figure out arrangements and parts for bass, percussion and electric guitars that really complement the song.
Space is a key dynamic in your songs. Do you envision that when you’re writing, or does it come organically later?
Marlin: I think it’s maybe both. When I started playing with Emily early on, my songwriting changed a lot, because all of a sudden I didn’t have to carry all the weight, and I had a really powerful performer playing along with these songs. Also, it helps just being able to bounce ideas off of her. I think as a songwriter, sometimes you can believe everything you’re doing is great, and everything that you’re doing should be out in the world. And it’s nice to have somebody who you trust, who is going to listen to it very honestly and tell you what’s actually coming across.
Frantz: It comes naturally to us to not overfill the songs. I think probably, subconsciously, Andrew is laying that groundwork when he’s writing the song. But I think a lot of it is just our intuition when we’re arranging it, and the same goes when we’re doing that with the band as well.
Your music lends itself to old-time acoustic instruments. What guitars do you lean toward, and are there some you won’t let out of the house?
Frantz: We pretty much try to play whatever we have, so anything we use at home tends to get brought out on the road with us. As far as this record goes, I played a 1951 [Gibson] J-45 on some of the songs. We’re also friends with the people at Pre-War Guitars. They live just up the road in Hillsborough, North Carolina, and make vintage-inspired guitars. We have one of their guitars based on a [Martin] D-28. I didn’t go into the studio intending to use it as much as the Gibson, but I ended up using it more.
Marlin: We also used an old Larson Brothers guitar for a lot of things. I think it’s on “Time We Made Time” and “Mother Deer.” It’s from the ’30s, I think. It’s a parlor that has that light, Willie Nelson feel to it.
You established yourselves as an acoustic duo. Now that you have a fuller band behind you, how does that change your performance?
Marlin: I think at first it made it a little more rigid, but now that we’ve gotten used to playing with these musicians and gotten extremely comfortable with them onstage, we trust them a little more. It’s like a jam session every night. We’re all just looking at each other, messing with the groove a little bit. Josh [Oliver, electric guitarist] is changing up his leads every night. I change mine up too, and so does Emily when she’s on the fiddle. It’s become way more communicative and free onstage. I think that’s really important for us, as musicians and as performers, to be able to take these songs and expand on them, depending on how we’re feeling, and not just play the same way every night.