Emily Frantz of Mandolin Orange on Why Simple Songs Are Timeless

Mandolin Orange is playing two sold-out concerts on the Front Range.
Mandolin Orange is playing two sold-out concerts on the Front Range. Courtesy of the artist
Mandolin Orange is a folk duo comprising songwriter Andrew Marlin (vocals, mandolin, guitar, banjo) and Emily Frantz (vocals, violin, guitar). Marlin and Frantz have produced five albums of original work that blend elements of folk, country, bluegrass, gospel and pop to create an appealing blend of modern roots music. Their songs are marked by tight vocal harmonies, virtuosic instrumentation and engaging storytelling. In the past three years, the two musicians have toured throughout the U.S and Europe together, including appearances at Austin City Limits, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, the Newport Folk Festival, Pickathon and Bonnaroo. They recently expanded their musical ranks, performing on occasion with bass, drums and electric guitar accompaniment.

Westword: Hi, Emily. Where are you at the moment?

Emily Frantz/Mandolin Orange: Right now we're in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which is where we live and where we grew up.

Have you been performing a lot recently?

Yes, although it's festival season, so we're playing mostly on the weekends, and then we're at home during the week, which is a nice change of pace from the grind of every-night touring.

Do you do a lot of every-night touring?

It depends somewhat on the time of year and whether we have any records out or not, but, yeah, we've done a lot of night-by-night club show touring, which is also awesome. It's nice to do both the festival schedule and the night-to-night stuff. It's a tradeoff.

How long have you and Andrew been performing as a duo?

We met in 2009, and then we gradually started playing shows. We've been releasing albums and sort of touring for the better part of the last decade. Our first couple albums were self-released, and then the last few we released through Yep Roc Records.

How did you meet for the first time?

We met through mutual friends at a bluegrass jam, and we hit it off right from the beginning. We arrange things as a duo and perform a lot as just the two of us. That's how it's been for the majority of the time we've been playing together. The last couple of years we've gotten the band a lot more involved, and we've been performing as a five-piece and touring that way. Our sound is still very duo-centric, though. We get sort of an alternate version of our sound with the guys we've added, who are very musically sensitive and know how to leave that space in there. Sometimes we'll do portions of a given show as a duo and then bring in the rest of the band. I think we'll be the five-piece when we play in Colorado. The band adds electric guitar, bass and a drummer to our lineup.

It's a great sound, and the band doesn't seem to intrude, but rather they complement on the tracks I've heard.

Thanks. We worked hard at getting our legs as a duo before we decided to get a band going, and we definitely wanted people who were intuitive and who would enhance our sound.

Do you do many covers, or are you mostly playing original music?

Well, everything we've ever put on a record is our own material. Andrew does all the songwriting and writes the lyrics, but it becomes more collaborative when it comes down to how we arrange the tunes and how we present them.

Do you ever sing lead?

Yeah, sometimes, but I think of myself as more of a harmony singer, and that's kind of my role. I do sing on certain songs if it feels right for me to sing the lead.

Have you always played the fiddle?

I played the fiddle when I was growing up, but I play more rhythm guitar now with Andrew. It's mostly me on guitar and him on mandolin. But sometimes we'll do a fiddle and mandolin tune if we're doing something more traditional-sounding.

How do you approach your sound? Do you put a lot of thought into it, or do you just kind of let it roll?

It's some of both. There's definitely some thought to it, because the more time that goes by, the better we are at trying to identify what it is we're trying to achieve without having too much of a goal in mind. You don't want to be overly aware of how you want to sound. You don't want to overthink it; you just want to play it and let it sound the way it sounds. But of course we try to present the songs in a way that sounds musically appealing to us. We do focus on things like the tone of our instruments and our dynamics.

Do you try to stay grounded in old-time music or bluegrass?

That's a huge part of what we listen to on our own time. We take in a lot of instrumental music, old-time music, old-school bluegrass, and some other things that fall mostly into an acoustic category. We don't just listen to older music exclusively, but that tends to be what sticks with us.

Are there any artists who you especially like?

We like Tim O'Brien a lot, the Stanley Brothers, the Monroe Brothers — a lot of the old classic bluegrass recordings. It's not cluttered music. That tends to be what we like. We listen to some more contemporary stuff, too. We love this band called Hawktail. It's all original instrumental acoustic music that's pretty awesome. And Andrew has gotten into this artist named Jeremy Udden who is kind of jazzy with a slight bit of Americana; it's very relaxed and atmospheric. His sound includes both sax and banjo, among other things.

Do you team up and tour with any particular artists?

It depends. We've done opening spots for other artists, and we've had some artists open for us when we headline. That's definitely a way to spend time with other musicians whose music we really enjoy. Last year Rachel Baiman and Kate Rhudy came with us. They're both singer-songwriters with awesome songs. Andrew produced albums for both of them, so it was fun to take that relationship on the road, where we could collaborate a bit and sit in with each other.

You've been out to Colorado a lot, right?

Yeah, Colorado is just such a hotbed for music, and people have such an appetite for our kind of sound that it's been a home away from home for us.

Can you tell me a little bit about your song "Wildfire"?

Yes. That one came about right around the spring of 2015, before we released it on our [Blindfaller] album. Andrew wrote the song, and it begins with him diving into the history of his home town of Warrenton, NC. It's kind of a look at U.S. history condensed into the form of a song. The verses flow chronologically, starting with the Revolutionary War, then onto the Civil War and up to current times. It examines various crossroads that we've come to as a country and the opportunities that the nation has had to get things right, but somehow we never have. Not that improvement hasn't been made, but there are still these movements of people that embrace things that can be so contagious, like racism, and somehow these things linger. The song has several different story lines. It's very much about how sick of an environment we can still be in, and it wonders how it can still be that way.

You sometimes cover Bob Dylan, right?

Yeah, the song that people seem to see the most is our cover of "Boots of Spanish Leather." That was actually one of the first things that Andrew and I played when we first sat down together and began working out tunes. We didn't have a lot of original material at that point, but it so happened that we both knew the song. We don't play it all the time, but we still mix it in every now and then, and people seem to really like our version. It's fun to have a cover that's lasted that long. And because we don't play it every night, we haven't burned it out.

Have you burned out on playing "Wildfire" yet?

No, fortunately not. It's a very meaningful song, and from a lyrical perspective, I really like singing it every night. A lot of times I think the simpler the song the less likely you are to get tired of it. And that one is just three chords. It feels right every time we play it.

Do you have any new albums coming up?

Nothing that I can talk about yet, but we have a bunch of new stuff in the works that we are excited about and that we plan to share very soon.

Mandolin Orange, Friday, August 24, Mishawaka, sold out; Sunday, August 26, Chautauqua Auditorium, sold out. 
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Nick Hutchinson writes about music for Westword and enjoys playing his guitar when not on deadline.
Contact: Nick Hutchinson