Mandolin Orange are an Americana duo out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The group is comprised of Andrew Marlin (vocals, mandolin, guitar, and banjo) and Emily Frantz (vocals, violin, and guitar). They were gracious enough to speak to me before their show in Portland Oregon on their fall tour. This was less than a week after the release of their stellar album Blindfaller. They speak about playing, recording, and life on the road.
Twangri-La: First I want to congratulate you on your new album, Blindfaller. It is fantastic.
Mandolin Orange: Thank you
Twangri-La: Some groups seem to hit that sophomore jinx after their first album, but you guys are on your fifth and you just seem to be getting better. What is your secret?
Andrew: Wow, that’s a really nice thing to say. Thank you.
Emily: I think our secret was we set the bar really low in the beginning (laughter). In all seriousness, in the beginning, we self-recorded a lot of stuff and we were learning about the recording process as we were recording our own records. I think that translated into records we really liked at the time and now listening back we know there are things we could have done so much better. It doesn’t mean they are bad or anything, it just means we were able to build on that and learn along the way.
Twangri-La: I think the early albums were great but I can see the evolution musically and sonically and they have gotten better. In general, I think this has been an incredible year in music for Americana. What do you think?
Andrew: I think the past few years have been great. There are a lot of amazing bands coming out and putting out great records. I think the inspiration for one reason or another is really peaking right now.
Emily: There is a really strong community. I don’t know if it just developing now or we are just becoming more involved in it……I think there is a lot of great musicians in the Americana/folk/country/bluegrass scene that a really starting to get out and play a lot more and write together. That definitely fuels things for the fans and for those of us making the music.
Andrew: I think that sense of community drives the spirit of the whole thing.
Twangri-La: So you guys have been together since 2009. How did you meet and how did you become Mandolin Orange?
Emily: We met through some friends of ours that had a bluegrass band in Chapel Hill and started playing bluegrass together. We started playing bluegrass covers and working on Andrew’s original material until Andrew’s original material overtook the traditional covers we were playing.
Twangri-La: So used to do some bluegrass covers?
Emily: We still do occasionally, but that used to be a bigger part of our set when we first started playing together. That is like an infinite amount of material.
Twangri-La: What did you play? Stanley Brothers?
Andrew: Stanley Bothers, Monroe Brothers, Norman Blake…….I am a big Norman Blake fan….Tim O’Brien, a bunch of Tim O’Brien.
Twangri-La: I like covers in a live concert. It helps the fans connect. Maybe they don’t know all the material of that artist, but they can connect to the cover and that is a good entry point.
Andrew: I think so. And there is less weighing on it. Instead of putting yourself out there and playing a song, you are taking a song that someone else wrote and having fun with it. You can take a song that people are familiar with and they hear how you do that song. It creates a relationship between us and the crowd.
Emily: I think it’s fun too, especially when we have a new record out. We don’t play the same set every night, but a majority of the songs we play on a nightly basis are the same. By mixing in a few covers, it changes things up for our audience and for us.
Twangri-La: So you don’t have a set list every night?
Emily: Well, we try and rotate it. Different order of songs each night. But now that we have the new album out, those songs are taking up a bulk of the set list every night.
Twangri-La: Those are some great songs. You guys wrote all of the songs on Blindfaller?
Emily: Yes, Andrew does all the songwriting.
Twangri-La: So when bands have extraordinary names, I like to ask how they came up with it (laughter). So how did you come up with Mandolin Orange?
Andrew: I wish there was a better story, but we had an orange mandolin in the beginning. When we first started playing, we were trying to figure out what to call ourselves so that was one that we came up with. And what do you know, almost eight years later, the name stuck.
Twangri-La: I like the play on words.
Andrew: It seems to stick with people. Something that is easy to remember.
Twangri-La: So Andrew you do all the writing. Are you a music first guy or words first? How do you go about the writing process?
Andrew: Usually it happens simultaneously. I will come up with a progression or a melody and just play it and if I can get a first lyric to a tune the rest will follow. Almost stream of consciousness. I just start humming along or throwing random words in there to get a general idea. Then, I start shaping it from there. I will then dive into what I want to talk about. I guess the music does come first but it seems to happen and the same time.
Twangri-La: So where do you get your inspiration for the written material of the songs?
Andrew: All over map I would say. I mean it really depends on what I am listening to at the time, how much time I spend at home versus on the road. I thing when I am at home is when I write the most.
Twangri-La: I can understand that. It is hard writing on the road trying to be creative in an unfamiliar environment.
Andrew: Yeah, it’s hard to get in that space. You gotta have the light just right and be comfortable.
Twangri-La: So I know the beginning of the tour didn’t go so well. I saw the picture of your van that got broken into.
Emily: It was quite a way to start the tour. Honestly, we are SO lucky. All of our instruments were in the van and whoever broke in didn’t notice. They didn’t touch any of our instruments or gear, they just took our back packs. So it was more of a loss of small monetary investments and personal identification. But other than that, the shows have been really great. We deal with a whirlwind of chaos after the van break in for 24 hours. Trying to get the van fixed, dealing with our credit cards, and changing all our passwords. Then when we got to the venue for the shirt show, we just wiped our heads clean and got in the right head space. I think we were all really happy to be playing music and not having to think about all of that.
Twangri-La: So do you guys enjoy touring?
Emily: Yes, we do it a lot! (chuckles)
Andrew: It’s pretty much all we do! We’ve developed a good relationship with the road, I think. We joke that we sleep better when we are travelling than we do at home. There is a great energy you got for playing for folks every night.
Twangri-La: So how many shows do you guys do a year?
Emily: I think it is in the neighborhood of 150. So probably 200 days on the road.
Twangri-La: That is substantial. So I guess you consider yourself more of a live band than a studio act?
Emily: We like to make records but ultimately we just like to play. We have a blast making records and we are proud of the records we make, but we like playing live the most.
Twangri-La: The energy of the crowd?
Andrew: yes, the spontaneity of it all as well. Some nights you get a great energy from the crowd and you are feeling good, could be something you ate…who knows? (laughter). But that energy is what we are shooting for. It is kind of a gamble, but when it pays off, it is great.
Twangri-La: So do you leave it open for some improvisation in your sets?
Andrew: Definitely. All of the solos are off the cuff.
Twangri-La: Do you have people that see more than one show during a tour?
Emily: Yes, sometimes depending on where we are. Out here (Portland) it is tough because everything is so spread out. So we drove straight here from San Diego but I doubt anyone would follow us up from San Diego (laughter). But we do run into the same folks and that does keep us on our toes. So we are not going to get up on stage and say the same jokes every night (laughter).
Twangri-La: So what’s next for you guys?
Emily: Well, we haven’t really thought past this tour. We just go one day at a time. The next 24 hours are all you really think about. We’ve got this whole tour ahead of us which we are really excited about. Then when we get home, we will have a few, long awaited months off.
Twangri-La: It’s nice to tour, but it’s also nice to have that down time.
Emily: Especially around the holidays.
Andrew: I am going to write some fiddle tunes.
Twangri-La: So where can people buy this fine album of yours?
Emily: All over I am sure. A quick Google search (laughter). Amazon, ITunes, Google….And folks can buy it through our label, Yep Roc www.yeproc.com.
Twangri-La: So thank you both for taking time out for the interview. I wish you a successful tour and best wishes for the future.