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The Mysterious Charm of Mandolin Orange: A Dynamic Duo

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

Mandolin Orange plays at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, March 12 at the Wilma Theater in Missoula.

Musicians Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin first met through mutual friends at a bluegrass jam in 2009. A mysterious warmth materialized between the two and they soon formed Mandolin Orange to pursue their common musical goals. Within a few years, they were playing intimate shows to audiences and releasing albums.

Recently, the North Carolina twosome added a few more members to their musical mosaic, touring as a five-piece arrangement with an electric guitarist, a bassist, and a drummer. Despite the addition, their method still resounds as duo-centric.

“As a pair, we are still getting better little by little as time goes on,” says multi-instrumentalist Emily Frantz. “The more we work together, the more we can get out the songs and it becomes more fluid. It only gets smoother the longer we do it.”

The music they create music radiates mystifying charm and tenderness of sentiment, as well as both sensibility and sensitive power. They have built a steady following with their own kind of intimacy, investigating new material with provocative talents.

Singer-songwriter Andrew Marlin conjoins his lyrical wallop with the vigor of multi-instrumentalist Frantz, a combination worth watching. When the violin is in her grasp, Frantz conveys a certain flair and obvious integrity.

“I started with the violin in elementary school while in second grade,” says Frantz, 31. “I played the violin through middle school, reading sheet music and learning the Suzuki method. After that, it was more of a bluegrass sound which I played by ear. Learning by ear was a lot more informal and it helped me find my stride. I found it easier to pick up on the notes and the dynamics and I liked not having to translate sheet music.”

Frantz’s first organized musical experience came when she played bluegrass fiddle as a high school kid in a band full of well-schooled fifty-somethings.

“In high school my parents would take me to band rehearsal and on Friday nights I’d play music with 50-year-old dudes and learn bluegrass harmonies. I learned the role of the fiddle in a bluegrass band and I learned the catalog and the bluegrass language.”

Frantz was born and raised in the suburbs of Chapel Hill and Marlin grew up in the rural northeast corner of the Tar Heel State. When they met, she introduced him to her already-expansive acoustic songbook.

“You think of bluegrass and folk music as being a hillbilly thing and rural thing. Andrew, however, had a lot less exposure to it than I did. I knew all of the bluegrass tunes and he was just learning the mandolin, and a newcomer.”

Mandolin Orange nourishes a repertoire of originals, and several of them stand out as Frantz’s favorites, such as “Wildfire” on the 2016 album Blindfaller.

“Some of them become favorites because of the subject matter and others are just catchy songs which are fun and easy to play. Sometimes it is the simplest songs that you don’t get tired of… ‘Wildfire’ has gotten a lot of attention, and it is literally three chords straight through, with no variation, and the simplicity allows it to not grow old. Sometimes if it’s too intricate and too highly arranged, you are more likely to get tired of playing them. ‘Into the Sun,’ which is an ode to my late grandfather, is not necessary to play every night because it requires too much emotional energy.”

Mandolin Orange provides a fond intermingling and rotation of male and female vocals.

“(Balance) has been easy enough for us all along and our strength,” she says. “Andrew has always provided our lead vocals and he has always been a songwriter and he gravitates toward that. I sing harmony and compliment a foundation that’s already there. We try not to think too hard and to just fill the role that feels most natural to us.”

Indeed, their songs are well-timed to emphasize melody and space and the mutual understanding between them, sparking a roomy atmosphere of two halves concluding one philosophy.

“We still leave a lot of that open space in the music,” she says. “We are not trying to bash anyone over the head with jumping around or craziness on the stage - and that space helps us to atone. We are not trying to rage with our four fastest songs at beginning of the set. We’ve gained a lot of confidence, where at first when we were playing clubs, the knee-jerk reaction was to engage the audience similarly to how everyone else was doing it. But we’ve decided to own up more to what’s true to us and true to those who are engaged with us. Space makes it quieter and easier to engage.”

Marlin’s songwriting packs more emotional power and sense of taut realism than an average tune and Frantz tightly pads him with the sounds of simplicity and sympathy.

“It’s pretty informal,” says Frantz of their process of creating songs “Sometimes he will write a whole song before I’ve heard any of it, though more often it is slightly more drawn out. He will have the basic 75 percent done and I’ll hum along and work it a little bit, and Andrew will take a week of making the lyrics as concise and to the point as he can make them. It’s true to the old-time nature of music to sit down and play it and then find a different idea of arrangement, harmony, or riffs. We don’t want to work too far outside of sitting down and playing the song. That feels most natural to us and gives us the headspace to be able to create something new.”

On the recently released Tides Of A Teardrop, Marlin’s lyrics meet head-on the defining bereavement of his mother, who died of complications from surgery when he was 18. Similar to most of Mandolin Orange’s music, the songs exhibit minimalism and quietude, with “thoughtful, intentional space,” as Frantz describes it, between the notes which cushion the vulnerability of the language.

“The simplicity is there not there as if we were striving for something,” he says. “There are not a lot of bells and whistles or a ton of overcrowded production things. We were comfortable to leave that simple feel there. That’s simple in the sense of being basic but also simple in not having the overcrowding of elements there.”

The loneliness of Marlin’s words stamps these works with an unquestionable personality of mood.

“Andrew has never really shied away from talking about loss and yet the writing on Tides Of A Teardrop was new territory,” Franz adds. “He approached loss more directly into the lyrics of these tunes. All in all, though, it was a positive experience for him. While the lyrics may be sad, it doesn’t necessarily feel sad for him or us to perform them or listen to them every night. The writing is therapeutic and so is the fact that we are getting to express these feelings.”

Mandolin Orange plays at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, March 12 at the Wilma Theater in Missoula.

—Brian D’Ambrosio

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