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Monday, 04 August 2014 12:55

'Most comfortable when we're playing these old bluegrass and folk tunes' An interview with Mandolin Orange

'Most comfortable when we're playing these old bluegrass and folk tunes' An interview with Mandolin Orange / Alex Loops
Written by Kyle Kapper

You know providence is smiling on you when you play the Newport Folk Festival and find one of your heroes in the greenroom waiting to sing "Happy Birthday" for you.

It's been that sort of year for Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz, who band together as the folk and old-time outfit Mandolin Orange. The good fortune is largely the result of their latest album, "This Side of Jordan," a collection of songs which dares dig deeper into the bedrock of America's traditional music than many of the pair's contemporaries.

Marlin and Frantz were enjoying a day at the beach when they answered my call. "Sittin' here staring at water right now," said Marlin. "You've probably never interviewed somebody who's sweating in the sand," added Frantz.

Mandolin Orange performs as part of the KDHX Discovery Series at The Stage at KDHX on Wednesday, August 6, 2014.

Kyle Kapper: "This Side of Jordan" closes with "Until the Last Light Fades," which from its opening line ("Born to die / Darlin' you'll live") could be a folk traditional. Is there a story behind that song?

Andrew Marlin: I wrote that one about seven or eight years ago. I had an idea of how I wanted to leave the last verse and lead it into the chorus, but I could never really get it down. But then Emily tried singing it, and it sounded so pretty. It really inspired me to sit down and think about it.

Emily Frantz: Andrew wrote it when a friend of his, a fellow musician, passed away unexpectedly. He wrote that song to sing at his memorial service. That happened a couple of months before Andrew and I met. When we first started playing, it seemed like not only an intensely emotional song but like a song that was written for a very specific purpose and a specific occasion.

We really didn't play it or do anything with it for a long time, but when we were making "This Side of Jordan," we realized that thematically, that song fit perfectly, so we brought it back and figured out how to rearrange it, and Andrew changed some of the verses. I don't even remember what some of the old lines were that he changed, but once he did that, we both felt like it was our song to do and that it carried a new meaning.

Is that how Emily came to be the one singing lead on it for the record?

Frantz: [Andrew] used to always sing it. Since he writes all the songs, he's always initially singing them. Then, for one reason or another, I'll start singing. I guess maybe when I tried singing it...sometimes, like with anything, when you get some distance from something and hear someone else do it, you can step away from it and hear it in a different light. But yeah, that's one of my favorite songs to sing.

Andrew, I understand that while recording, you were healing from an accident that landed you in a wheelchair for a time.

Marlin: Yeah, I fell off of a dam a few miles down the road from where we live, and I broke my pelvis. It was definitely an eye-opener, and it kind of makes you think about your own mortality a little bit. I think that's where this all came from. The hardest part about it was thinking about the many ways it could have gone. As far as the healing went, after the first few weeks, it was more just getting used to not being able to walk. It was more just thinking about how it could have gone so many ways. You know, I could have landed on my head or I could have broken a finger and not been able to write at all through that time. It was a serious break and a serious fall, but I'd say, as far as the grand scheme of things goes, it really went about as well as it possibly could have.

You're probably the first person to fall off of a dam and say it went as well as it could have.

Marlin: (laughs) Yeah, well, in terms of what it could have been, that's about all you can think.

Another song from the album, "Hey Adam," evokes folk tradition in a different way, speaking out for gay rights in a direct way but also with a sense of humor.

Marlin: Yeah, man, that's why I wrote the tune. North Carolina passed this law called Amendment 1 [which banned gay marriage and civil unions]. It was just one of [those] things, like, really? The law itself pushed the state back about 20 to 30 years as far as all the progress that had been made for gay rights and civil unions. You know, we play all these weddings sometimes, and there's always this whole underlying thing of Adam and Eve and the real way to marriage. They always use that against gay rights and gay marriage, and they always want to point out Adam and Eve in the Bible, and I was just like, "Well, here's a song about Adam's secret gay lover that nobody knows about."

It's like, what are we talking about here? It's about love, and it's about companionship. Why would you want to destroy that for somebody, regardless of who they love? Why would you hinder somebody's happiness? That's what that song is about. Because it is a love letter to Adam from another man, it sounds a little ridiculous, but it's the same point that people bring up about the Bible being against gay marriage, which is just as ridiculous.

Speaking of North Carolina, the Americana resurgence of the last 10-15 years is often accompanied by perhaps romanticized perceptions of the South Appalachia region. Were you surrounded by folk and bluegrass growing up?

Frantz: I did kind of grow up with it once I started playing the fiddle and going to bluegrass festivals. That would be when I was around 13 or 14. But it wasn't the kind of - my family listens to that kind of music now, but it wasn't necessarily what I grew up listening to. I grew up listening to my parents' Tom Petty records.

I would say that the portrayal of the music scene in North Carolina is definitely accurate. It's romanticized in pop culture now, and with bands like the Avett Brothers and Old Crow [Medicine Show], it definitely brings it into the mainstream, and I think that's good. It's been going on in North Carolina always, and so yeah, now that everyone's paying attention to it, everyone's paying attention to it.

Marlin: I definitely think it's making a resurgence, but I think it's always been here as well. I can tell you a story. When I first heard bluegrass and country music, it was just down the road from where I grew up, in Ridgeway, North Carolina. It's this place called the Ridgeway Opry House. Every weekend they have this get-together where a bunch of local musicians come down and either sing a bunch of old gospel tunes or old bluegrass tunes, and everybody plays guitars, banjos, dobros, fiddles. I'd never known about it until I was about 16 years old. I went down there with a friend of mine, and I was like, "What the hell? This has been here this whole time and I didn't know about it?"

We played this one gig in Kentucky - sorry if I'm rambling - but I played this one gig in Kentucky with a friend of mine, Arthur Hancock, who's a great banjo player. He's worked on a horse farm pretty much his whole life. So he threw this barn party for us, and so we go there and do our set, and he got a whole bunch of people to come out from all around, and we played a really nice set, and everybody was sitting there, drinking beer, Kentucky bourbon, and had a great time, and then afterwards we had a big bluegrass jam, you know?

And these kids were coming up. They were 10 or 11 years old, and they'd jam on the fiddle and banjo and guitar. It's kind of engrained into the culture in this area. You can take it as far as you want to take it, but even if it's just going down to the Ridgeway Opry House every weekend and enjoying the music, I think it's just as important as carrying it around the world, you know?

Your road stories must be really adding up, with your current tour winding from Newport to Oslo.

Frantz: Well, this isn't really a road story, but it was cool. A couple of weekends ago, we were at Red Wing Roots Fest, which is kind of a new festival outside of Harrisonburg, Virginia. We played a set there on my birthday, actually, and we recently had gotten to meet Tim O'Brien, who's one of our heroes, and he and his girlfriend came for our set. We didn't know that at the time, but as soon as we walked offstage -and we had a super set and everything, and it was awesome - we walked back into the greenroom, and Tim O'Brien and his girlfriend stood there and sang me a personal happy birthday in perfect harmony. That was a pretty cool moment.

It's just been a really good year. All the touring we've been doing. It's been great, building up a fan base and connecting with people everywhere.

Another part that's been really cool has been all the connections we've been able to make with other people in the industry, artists who we love and people who we really look up to. People like Tim O'Brien, but then also our contemporary musicians who you just meet and see a lot more of when you're all touring around in the same places and same towns.

Marlin: One of the biggest things that I've been coming to terms with is that I love all these kinds of music, but I'm most comfortable when we're playing these old bluegrass and folk tunes. It's what comes naturally to me, and it just feels the best. People are able to take so many different genres and mold them together to make them this totally new thing. I envy that. But also, I think sticking to what comes natural has kept me and Emily really happy on the road. Coming to terms with that has been huge. It almost took moving away from our town and getting out on the road to be able to look back on that and say, "Wow, that's an important part of who I am."

KDHX presents Mandolin Orange as part of the Discovery Series at The Stage at KDHX on Wednesday, August 6, 2014.

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