Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz are the singers, songwriters, and musicians behind Chapel Hill’s Mandolin Orange, the dark bluegrass/country/rock band that performs at Music in the Gardens on July 11. On a recent, sunny spring morning, The Thread’s Chris Vitiello met Marlin and Frantz on the patio of Carrboro’s Open Eye Café to discuss their performance next month, their 2011 double-LP Haste Make/Hard Hearted Stranger, and how their music and lives intertwine.
The Thread: I wonder where some of the stories in your songs come from. From where are you fielding the ones from that aren’t from your own life?
Andrew Marlin: I feel like they’re all a part—or at least a thought—in my own life. Or at least at times, it can seem like real life. Starting with the central idea: that actually did happen. Sometimes what I like to do is just expand on that and act like it went in a certain direction. Then, in my own thought process, map it out the way it might have happened or could have happened. And then a lot of other life experiences get thrown into that one life experience, and it makes it seem like a huge life experience, but it’s not. It’s actually just a lot of snippets coming together.
Emily Frantz: One thing I like about Andrew’s songs is that I feel like they mean a certain thing to him. But anyone could listen to them and come up with a different thing that they think it’s about. Even we have that going on. Sometimes he’ll have a song and be like, “It’s about this.” And I’ll think, just from the first time he wrote it, “I don’t think it’s about that.” I’ll think it’s about something else and he just doesn’t know it.
Do you have an example song?
EF: I was thinking about “Ships Sail Away.”
AM: “Ships Sail Away” is on the Haste Make album. When I first came to Chapel Hill when I was 18, it was because my mom was in the hospital here. And she ended up dying in October, seven years ago. So that’s kind of what I started writing that song about. But Emily has this whole other reading.
EF: Yeah, and it’s not to say that you’re incorrect about the song that you yourself wrote. [Laughter] But this has happened before, times when Andrew says he’s writing a song about something and I’m like, “Really? Because it sounds like it’s about this.” And then he’ll say “Oh yeah, it is kind of about that.”
AM: It’s fine to have that perspective and to think about it that way. Even though Emily doesn’t write any of the lyrics, she definitely contributes to a lot of the ways that the stories end up coming out, just because she makes me think about it from a different perspective. Like, “Hmm. What if it did go that way? Let’s see what would happen.” And then it comes time to ride down the road and you start to arrange the lyrics in your head and miss all your turns.
EF: I always thought that “Ships Sail Away” had a lot of things happening in it that had to do with our relationship at the time, because I think that was the last song that you wrote before we broke up for awhile. It’s what I hear in that song. But who knows what the subconscious of Andrew is doing? [Laughter]
And then people listening to your records or coming to your shows will have their own take.
AM: It’s fun to leave it open sometimes. I’m definitely not one to get too specific about anything, as you can probably tell.
I jotted down some of my favorite lyrics from the record: I really like the line, “All the love we share could sink a ship.” It’s complex. It could go either way on the seesaw.
AM: That was also written during the time when we were broken up for a little while. The record, both sides, is kind of before we broke up and then during. It’s pretty vague to listen to those songs and tell that, but that was pretty much our lives during the writing process. I remember writing that line and thinking about how we were together all the time writing and playing. And how every aspect of our lives was intertwined. So we were kind of loving the musical part and loving being around each other. And sometimes that intensity has enough power that it actually starts destroying what made it magical in the first place. I think that’s the reason that line was written. Not to say it happened that way, but for awhile. And that’s why the line after it—“The ends of the earth will tip it all in time”—is saying that, whatever the possible outcome will be, it didn’t matter. It’s just that what was going on was so intense that eventually, that’s how we’d be able to stand it.
If you’re in a relationship that is on hiatus, how do you continue to make music together?
EF: It’s probably different for everybody it happens to, and you can’t really predict how it’ll go. But we just kind of plowed through it. We didn’t have a game plan. We just knew that we wanted to keep playing and so we did. And I think it was fortunate that Andrew was writing a lot of songs at that time because that gave us something to focus on. Whereas I think that if we hadn’t had new material, we wouldn’t have had the energy that we needed to get through that.
AM: It was actually a really productive time, musically. I think because our personal lives were on a hiatus, so to speak, we were able to focus on just the music when we were together. Because of that, we got a lot of arranging done, pretty much that whole second record.
In a lot of the songs, the music has an evenness and the lyrics have a turbulence. It’s oddly comforting to listen to. It gives me the sense that even when there’s something dark going on, that there will be some renewal.
AM: Maybe, with the lyrics being directed toward a turbulent time, the music is able to keep it relaxed and chilled out.
EF: For a lot of people, even though it doesn’t seem to make sense, the saddest songs can be the most therapeutic and make you feel the most good afterwards. I don’t know why that is. I guess it’s just an outlet that is indirect, so it makes us feel cleansed or something. I think you get that both as a listener and as someone playing and singing the songs.
Is there a particular song on the album that you each really like performing?
AM: “Ships Sail Away” is one of those, just because Emily gets to take a killer fiddle break. There’s a satisfying groove on that one. It’s kind of a lazy 6/8.
EF: I like the flow of that song. It builds and falls.
AM: “Never Die” is another one I really like to do.
EF: Some songs go really well live. And then there are other songs that you feel might be your favorite songs on the record or your favorite songs that you’ve written, but they don’t ever seem to come across live. What would one be?
AM: I feel like “Birds of a Feather” is one that we pull off well live but it’s not one that we really enjoy playing live that much. We usually leave sections for improvising on that one, and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. “Birds of a Feather” is a very linear tune that rises and falls with how hard you play the song, not really the parts. And because of that I think it’s not as fun to play as “Ships Sail Away” or “Never Die” where we actually have a second to step away from the tune and just play. That comes across well onstage because you get to give another side of yourself just by playing, which is itself kind of a conversation. “Birds of a Feather” is one of those.
I had a prediction for your favorite, Emily. I was thinking “Angel” because you just sing the hell out of that song. There’s so much room in it for your voice because the tune is kind of like a music box winding down.
EF: We’ve had a few times when we’ve played that live when it’s felt really awesome. But it’s one that we don’t put in our live sets all that much just because it is so lazy. I mean, we are already kind of lazy as it is. But that one doesn’t have a whole lot of momentum, so unless you’re playing to a really quiet room, or to people who are super focused, that’s a hard one to pull off live.
AM: Yeah, even crowd noise on a song like that will take away from how spacey the song is. And I feel like that song really needs that time to breathe.
EF: What were some of your other favorite lyrics? I’m curious.
I was really fascinated by “Slither,” and immediately had some expectations about what I’d hear in that song. And then you have the first line: “Slither slowly until you are close to me.” But then the word “slither” doesn’t appear again until the final line. You frame the whole song with it. The first thing you think of is snakes.
AM: It’s kind of just talking about a relationship. Sometimes people get close to you and you don’t realize who they really are until they’re that close to you. And it’s too late by then. That’s what that song is talking about, in a really intense way.
EF: I think you were mad when you wrote that. [Laughter]
AM: Most of the titles don’t come around until after the song is written. So I didn’t sit down and think, “I’m going to write a song called ‘Slither.’” It’s more like I’ll write a song and then sit back and think about what words best describe what’s going on in the whole song.
EF: The whole song is like turning this person you’re talking to into a sort of snake character. So “Slither” characterizes that person.
AM: To me, it seems like a really slow-moving thing, too, which is how the song goes. So finally you get to the end and you think, “Oh, that’s what he was talking about.
It sets up that last line to be powerful storytelling.
AM: Yeah, we were just talking about that one the other day. We hadn’t played it in a while. It makes a really great band song, when you’ve got the drums and the bass, pushing that groove. So I think we’re going to try to bring that back for the Duke Gardens show.
EF: There’s sort of a list of songs that, when we’re playing more as a duo, we end up not doing because they’re harder to pull off with just the two of us. But some are songs that we love, like “Slither.” So we’re getting together a list of the songs that we feel like we have to do at Duke Gardens because we haven’t gotten to do them for so long.
AM: That’s a good thing about having a lot of material to pull from. We don’t have a set list for each night. We just get up on stage and assess the night and the venue. And we choose our songs based on that, each night. And it keeps it interesting for us too. It’s not a show you’re seeing. We’re just kind of acting.
EF: What? I’d say it’s the opposite of that. We’re not acting.
AM: No, we’re acting on the situation, as it’s given to us. In the moment.
EF: Yeah, that’s it.
TOMORROW: HEAR MUSIC FROM MANDOLIN ORANGE