Emily Frantz, sundress-clad and barefoot, squinted in the afternoon sunlight, crooning over her fiddle. On the last day of the Spoleto Festival, in Charleston, S.C., the sun was roasting an audience too bloated with barbeque to dance. Frantz's voice melted over the plantation treetops, and Mandolin Orange — Frantz and Andrew Marlin — collapsed onto a picnic table, exhausted.
Songwriter Marlin had a metal background when he met Frantz at a jam session in 2009. What drew him to folk, he says, was the unabashed emotion behind it. When he plays the mandolin, there are still some metal vibes; "I really beat the hell out of it," he admits. But three albums later, the band has inherited the wisdom and honesty of its Appalachian plucking forefathers. Mandolin Orange is pure feeling — stripped down and sometimes shoeless.
The band's latest album, This Side of Jordan, cultivates mountain folk for a new generation. Marlin and Frantz are accompanied by several of their contemporaries from Chapel Hill, who have also joined the band on tour. The electric guitar and bass on the song "Morphine Girl" bring to mind a high school band playing at the local dive bar for their fathers' drinking buddies. It moves straight into "Hey Adam," a comfortable ballad that feels like the whimsical sadness of Jack's Mannequin's "The Last Straw," rolling down an Appalachian foothill.
"It feels like we hit a nice stride with that record." Marlin says. "The songs just really came together this time, and we recorded them all in the same place, with a bunch of guys that have played with us a bunch. Everyone who played on the record brought their own flavor to it, and it all meshed together really well."
Mandolin Orange walks all of the right lines with This Side of Jordan. The songs lead each other without sounding the same, with instrumentals that are composed without being formulaic. The lyrics prove that, in an age when emotions are often diffused by screens, the rawness of bluegrass can still resonate. The music of '30s and '40s North Carolina influences Frantz and Marlin, but it by no means dates their approach.
"Regardless of what era you're being inspired by, you can only really write about the times that you have to be living in," says Marlin. "And I think that's very true for what we're doing and for a lot of bands that are doing what we're doing. They're being inspired by these old styles of music, but it's hard not to write about your own time. And if you're not writing about your own time, you're kind of, maybe, trying a little bit too hard."
This Side of Jordan articulates an emotional consciousness present on the band's earlier work, though less accessible. True folk has a vulnerability many bands find difficult to manufacture. Marlin explains that honesty in songwriting comes from being flexible, and open to unfamiliar ideas.
"I was at the Open Eye [in Carrboro, N.C.]; just me and a buddy were jamming," Marlin recalls. "This guy comes up with a fiddle case and asks if he can jam, and he opens up the fiddle case and pulls out a saw, and is bowing the saw, and it has this amazing sound. So it's not something I'd ever say, you know, ‘I'd love to play with a saw player,' but it ended up working out great."
Marlin does his songwriting much like his outdoor jam sessions. "I'm usually writing at home, in the wee hours of the night, and Emily's kind of listening as it's going down. And then when we sit down to actually work on the tunes, she's heard them enough times to where she's kind of got her head wrapped around the melodies, and the vibe of the tune. We'll sit down and arrange them together, and then just go out and try it at shows, and that's usually how we end up finalizing them, is just reading people's reactions on the road." The two alternate their voices the same way in songs: "We'll try a couple different arrangements, and whichever one feels most comfortable, that's the one we go with."
Inspired by the music of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Marlin and Frantz want their music to reflect not only their heritage, but the flexible nature of their performances. Frantz's voice, sometimes drawling, sometimes tiptoeing down the D string of her violin, is always full, consistently rounding out Marlin's choppy diction. A favorite show, Marlin says, was outside a winery in Portland, Ore., where the band coaxed the audience to its feet without any amplification. That, Marlin adds, was "the kind of music I really want to be playing. I want people to walk away saying, ‘Wow, that felt natural. It's easy to listen to, and I got a good sense of what they're about, and who they are as people.' I hope that comes across."
It's certainly getting them somewhere. On the heels of two sold-out shows in the Midwest, and two music festivals in its home state of North Carolina, Mandolin Orange just announced a set at Newport Folk Festival, this July. Fans can also look forward to a collaboration with songwriter Tim O'Brien. But with all of the band's achievements, don't expect a change in style. At Club Café, Frantz will probably be wearing shoes, but Mandolin Orange will by no means be out of its element.