Mandolin Orange Finds Their Way This Side of Jordan
“I think I’m becoming more of a settled person — and I’m feeling inspired by that,” Marlin says, sitting in cool sunshine with Mandolin Orange partner Emily Frantz behind their favorite hometown coffee house, the Open Eye Café in Carrboro, North Carolina. “I’m realizing, wow, you can really chill out in life and still accomplish things. You can be inspired by small things and not have to make giant gestures. Just getting up, making a cup of coffee and hanging out with Em in the morning can be as rewarding as staying out all night.”
Frantz quickly casts a sideways glance in Marlin’s direction and adds: “Hopefully more rewarding than staying out all night!”
The couple’s banter is relaxed, casting a quiet confidence in their art, their relationship and their future. They have worked through the issues that led to a brief personal breakup, during which they continued playing music together, and survived Marlin’s fall from a 10-foot dam spillway outside of Carrboro in 2011. The accident landed him in the hospital with a broken pelvis and Marlin likes to joke that he was just thankful his finger wasn’t injured so he could keep playing and writing during his recovery. But you can still hear a trace of fear under Frantz’s laugh. “I mean, he fell off a dam and landed on a rock. It’s all fine and good, he landed on his hip and we can laugh about it afterward. But really, he could have landed on his spine, or his head … ”
The realization of what could have happened, and didn’t, was ultimately therapeutic for Marlin. He let go of lingering grief from the loss of his mother at age 18 and, for the first time since her death, began to focus on memories of their time together. “It was like, ‘Hey, you’re still alive!’ That helped take some of sadness out of it and made me want to celebrate the life she lived instead of the life she left,” Marlin says.
Mandolin Orange’s third album, This Side of Jordan, released on Yep Roc Records in August, is a product of Marlin’s renewed optimism. While Jordan touches on some of the same dark themes as 2010’s Quiet Little Room and 2011’s double LP Haste Make/Hard Hearted Stranger, it is overall a much brighter record.
“It’s easy to see the dark side of life and that’s real easy to write about,” says Marlin. “I think that’s why so many amazing songs are really sad. But sometimes you have to find your way through the dark matter.”
This Side of Jordan dances playfully along the turning points between life and death, applying Biblical language and imagery to a modern framework. Spirituality pulsates through the tunes, but they are not religious. On “Turtle Dove & The Crow,” Marlin imagines his father crossing the River Jordan to visit his mother in the spiritual realm, with a stop to go fishing on the way: “I’m gonna climb that ladder, Jacob won’t you hold the door?” he sings. “Just gotta drop me a line this side of Jordan.”
Frantz, however, interpreted the song in a different way at first. “I heard it as him saying ‘Drop me a rope so I can get over there,’” Frantz says, laughing. “It’s funny how much time will go by, like years of us singing a song. We’ll be typing up the lyrics or something and I’ll be like, ‘Ohhh, that’s what it’s about?’ And I’ll have this moment of realization.”
The room for interpretation is by design, explains Marlin, who has written more than 300 songs since teaching himself to play guitar at age 14. He aims for a lyrical sweet spot, specific enough to make sense but vague enough for the listener to draw his or her own conclusion. “Some songs come really fast,” Marlin says. “It’s almost like the songs are floating ahead in a bubble, and I was able to jump up in the bubble and float along with them.”
Inspiration sometimes comes from Marlin’s personal life. As Frantz helped care for him through his recovery from the fall, Marlin wrote “The Runaround”: “Walked a mile or two alone, and it won’t long before I knew / That true love ain’t true love without you.”
He wrote “The Doorman,” which traces the murky line between curiosity and addiction, after hearing about a friend’s band that had to push out one of its members with a heroin problem, after many attempts to intervene. “You get a little too close to the edge, thinking ‘Yeah, everybody else fell in, but I’m not gonna. I just want to check it out and see how close I can get.’ And then realizing all the sudden that you can’t turn back,” Marlin says. “The Doorman is just the guy standing at the gate saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got no friends over here. Where are all my friends?’ So you come up and try to comfort this dude, and all the sudden he grabs your hand and pulls you in, and you’re stuck.”
Not every song on Jordan is so intense – “Cavalry” was inspired by the Lord of the Rings movies and “Waltz About Whiskey” is a cheerful send-up of traditional country music. Then there’s the politically charged “Hey Adam,” a gentle challenge to conservative Christians and politicians in North Carolina who passed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. By writing the song as a message from a secret same-sex lover, Marlin takes a clear stance: “Well, hey, Adam. Our secret’s safe / But I hope the world will learn / Go tend to Eve in the garden, crying, but please hear these words / Our father loves you all ways.” Frantz’s soaring fiddle brightens the song, suggesting a celebration of acceptance rather than a divisive attack.
“Our musical roles are very opposite and easy,” Frantz says. “He is a good leader and I’m a good follower. I like to just lay back and play easy parts that fit in with the song, I don’t feel like I need to be leading everything with the fiddle.”
There is no strict method to how a Mandolin Orange song takes shape. Frantz typically works on arrangements with Marlin after he’s finished writing, but there is subtle give and take throughout. “Emily will be in the next room listening sometimes, and I’ll just run in there and say, ‘Hey, can you sing this chorus with me real quick?’ Then she’ll try a go-to part and it just kind of pops out, then we can deviate from there.” And Frantz often hears enough of Marlin’s writing process to have ideas ready when they sit down to play it for the first time.
“I have some of the most fun coming up with harmony stuff,” Frantz says. “A lot of times it’s just a simple tenor part, but taking it out of that can be fun too. His voice and my voice are at a range where sometimes I can sing the melody an octave higher, sometimes high baritone, sometimes tenor. Just getting to weave in and out of those, instead of having to stick on one part throughout the whole song, can affect the way the melody songs and even the energy of the song.”
The collaboration reaches new heights on Jordan, more sharply focused and sonically rich than their previous records. Fans had to be turned away from a sold out house for their release show with a family reunion vibe at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro. Up next is the duo’s long-awaited first trip to the west coast with shows in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“You’re going get better at your craft, as long as you’re striving to get better,” Marlin says. “That’s what we do, and I think it shows on this record. We can feel it and it makes everything way easier: Touring on it to support it, talking about it, playing on it shows. All that stuff comes together.”
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