By Lindsey Lowe Osborne
Do you know what I think we need more of?
We need more muffins. Why don’t we make muffins more often?
We need more puns. The world can never have enough of them, in my opinion. And I’m not an expert, but I am an English major, so take that for what it’s worth.
And we need more easy listening. I call this “Saturday morning music”—it actually goes great with muffins, and, sure, puns—and I don’t think there’s enough of it.
I have found a band that checks two out of those three boxes, and I bet they would bring you muffins if they could: Mandolin Orange. Born in 2009 after the heart of the band—duo Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin—met at a bluegrass jam session, Mandolin Orange is bright but bluesy, sweet but soulful, and absolutely easy to listen to. “When I turned 14 and got my first guitar, I knew this was what I wanted to do. I have always had the drive to practice and absolutely love playing shows,” Marlin says. “When Emily and I started playing together, we played a lot of bar/bluegrass gigs and gradually started playing more official shows. There have been many moments of triumph and a few moments of despair, but we love what we do, and I think realizing that is what has gotten us this far.”
The duo signed under Yep Roc Records and has produced three albums: This Side of Jordan, Such Jubilee, and their most recent, 2016’s Blindfaller. For Blindfaller, Frantz and Marlin carefully handpicked a group of supplementary artists to enhance their sound: Clint Mullican on bass, Kyle Keegan on drums, Allyn Love on pedal steel, and previous collaborator Josh Oliver on guitar, keys, and vocals. “As a player, I was much more comfortable during the recording process of Blindfaller vs. This Side of Jordan. The songs were written from more of a player’s standpoint, with chord progressions that were more open to interpretation and with more sections for soloing. There was a lot of practice time in between those two records as well, so I think the playing has evolved,” Marlin says. “With Blindfaller, we were really excited to have a collection of tunes that came together naturally with the band. We were excited to bring a different expression of our music out into the world, but we also felt strongly about the tunes and lyrics themselves. It felt timely.”
The recording process, he says, is sometimes fraught with the hunt for ever-elusive perfectionism, but if you can get past that, he says, it offers the same kind of magic as playing a live show, which he loves. “I like spontaneity. Whether it is taking a solo over a song you have never heard or changing things up a bit on a song you have played a million times, I think it is the freedom within a given set of chords that I find to be so intriguing,” Marlin says. “It applies to playing and recording. Recording often comes with a certain amount of pressure to ‘get it right,’ but if you can let go of that and allow yourself the same freedom you have when you are just playing live, it is a very fun process. I don’t really have an end goal in mind or some overarching dream of where I would like to see the songs go. I write in metaphors and I think the nature of that lets people draw their own conclusions. I do hope people are able to connect with the music, but I don’t believe I can shape that connection outside of creating the songs themselves.”
Marlin says Mandolin Orange is excited about what’s next; namely, for them, that’s lots of appearances on the festival circuit this summer. “It always feels like a real accomplishment when something as big and mainstream as Bonnaroo comes through,” he explains.
But first, they’ll be stopping at Saturn on April 25. Marlin promises the listening will come easy: “As a musician, it is hard to remember that playing an instrument is not the same as playing a sport. The fastest isn’t always the best and the best isn’t always what someone wants to hear. It’s an interpretive art form that has an infinite amount of room for players on any level.”
5/5: Jesse Payne at the
First Listen: “Ravens,”
from 2015’s Heirloom
5/23: Primus at Iron City.
First Listen: “Jerry Was a Race
Car Driver,” from 2006’s They
Can’t All Be Zingers
5/25: The Mountain Goats at
Saturn. First Listen: “This Year,” from 2005’s The Sunset Tree