Heartstrings Interview New Release Review

‘Blindfaller’: An Interview with Mandolin Orange

By Arran Fagan

The music of Mandolin Orange evokes the feeling of lost time colliding with the trials of today—tales of self-destruction and historical despair blend with the hopeful sunrise of tomorrow and the possibility of redemption. The folk duo consists of violinist and harmonizing vocalist, Emily Frantz, along with guitar, mandolin and singer-songwriter, Andrew Marlin. The duo plays with feeling mined from the veins and hearts of old folk songs and old-time country. Their new album Blindfaller, released on Yep Roc, is a perfect example of everything Mandolin Orange is. In the studio, Frantz and Marlin intentionally left room and only played what was necessary for each song to evolve organically. Not a single note feels over produced, as every detail is created by emotion, allowing for each song to grow and be the best that it can possibly be.

Arran Fagan: Hey Emily! How are you doing? Where are you right now?

Emily Frantz: I am doing well thanks! I am standing in a mostly deserted parking lot some where in central California.

How have the shows been on this tour so far?

Oh they have been so awesome, we’ve just had the best Friday, Saturday, Sunday, in San Francisco, LA, and San Diego, and it’s just been a complete blast every night.

What does Blindfaller mean? It isn’t a title of a song on the record. Do you have a story behind why chose it as the title?

Yeah, ultimately we just liked the sound of it. What kind of led up to it was that we were trying to think of good album titles, and we were trying to think of recurring themes and there is a lot of impending doom and destruction on the record, as well as a lot of tree references. Somehow that led us down a rabbit hole to looking up words about lumberjack terminology and stuff like that, so we were thinking of the “faller”, being the person who is actually cutting the tree down. We just kind of came up with the conjunction “blindfaller” because

we were thinking about someone who was going through life being reckless and destructive without really looking or thinking about what they’re destroying.

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How did this record come about? Has your process of writing and recording changed since your last album?

I would say it’s mostly the same in terms of the songwriting process being mostly Andrew’s field. I think I was a little more hands-on in some of the arranging, in particular with the lead track “Hey Stranger.” With that one we went into the studio and recorded in a completely different way. It was in a different time signature and had a totally different sound at first. We weren’t really happy with it. So I was hands-on with the chord structure and the rhythm of that one, which was really fun for me. But, for the most part, they are all Andrew’s lyrics and melodies. We were pretty hands on in the studio. A lot of the arrangements happened in the studio as we were recording live with the guys that played bass and drums and electric guitar. We just let the songs come in to their own while recording them and it made it a ton of fun, and kept it really fresh for us.

How long did you take to record this album? If you are letting the song come into its own it could be either a very fast or a very long and drawn out process.

The way we like to record, especially the way we did it with this record, which was very live, we were set up in a studio where we could isolate the bass and the drums and the electric guitar from Andrew and myself, but we could all see each other, and so we were able to get full on live tracks with singing and picking our solos all at the same time. So you spend a little more time honing in on the arrangement of the song and making sure that everyone has it, but then I think it does come out a little more quickly. You’re not going back and over-analyzing every note of every solo because you just don’t have that option, you have to keep the track that you got.

How do you know when a song is done?

It was a lot of going through the song until everybody had it down and then getting a few takes of it where nobody severely messed up and then going back and listening. We would usually have one or two that we were kind of honed in on, thinking it would be one of those two, and then just listening back to them. That’s a really fun process too because I feel like a lot of times the ones that you didn’t think were as good when you were tracking them, when you listen back, they have that special something in them and that ends up being the keeper track.

What was your musical upbringing? I read that you learned violin through the Suzuki method?

Yeah, so I learned Suzuki violin when I was a kid, so I learned a little bit more classically and how to read music and other things. I am really happy I learned that way because it also really emphasizes training your ear and learning by ear. I don’t really use my technical music reading training at all anymore, it’s all just sort of by ear, but I am really glad that I was able to learn that way.

How has your and Andrew’s music changed over the years? When you first met him I bet your creative process was different than it is now, especially since you both are around each other so much now.

I think at this point it’s hard to even separate what we are sharing with each other musically because we are just making music together and listening to music together all the time. I think it’s a very fluid and sort of natural process in which we are working on music together and coming up with things. It’s definitely not something that we have a formal process for. We sing a lot of folk tunes and bluegrass tunes and old time tunes. We are always learning new harmony parts and trying to work on our instruments; I know Andrew’s constantly working on his mandolin. I think that really informs what we do. The nice thing about it is that we are around each other a lot and a lot of times if he is working on a song I can hear it in its different phases of development before we actually sit down to really work it out together. When he’s still working on the melody or a line here, a line there in those stages, I am still hearing it and familiarizing myself with it pretty subconsciously. So then when we do sit down to play together it already feels familiar to me, and I think that makes it a natural feeling process.

I bet that is quite helpful, you are able to take what you want from it and come up with your own ideas and have a relationship with the song while its being built, and then add what you want after thinking about it intentionally for a while.

Definitely. I was actually thinking about this the other night because one of the guys that is traveling with us right now was asking me what a certain line was about, and I answered him but then said he should actually ask Andrew because a lot of the time what Andrew will say a song is about, I will have a completely different idea. I think that’s kind of cool! Obviously he gets the last dig since he wrote it, but I think it’s fun to have the two perspectives of any given song.

That’s very true, there is an idea out there that once a song has been recorded and made it really no longer belongs to the person who created it, only because the audience gets to create what they want out of it. There are so many ideas and so many people in the world that everyone is probably going to have a bit of a different take.

Absolutely, and that’s what makes people enjoy music.

I think it has to mean something to them as it relates to their life and how they way they go through the world. I think that putting songs out there and knowing that people are going to take their own meaning from it is a really great part of performing and releasing records.

The last song on the record, “Take This Heart of Gold,” hit me hard, especially the line, “Take this heart of gold and melt it down.” What is this song to you?

Aw man, I love that song too! It’s had a bit of a transformation before we recorded it, because it had a little more of a country feel for a while. I think we realized that we just wanted to let the lyrics and the emotion of the song shine and took it a bit more in that ballad-y direction. But about the line “take this heart of gold and melt it down”—I love that line so much. Andrew said we were listening to a Tom Waits record and he thought he heard that as a line in a song, but then we realized it wasn’t. He just misheard it. He loved that line so he held on to it for a long time, really wanting to write a song about it or at least in that vein.

I guess you could say the line “Take this heart of gold and melt it down” means changing your heart but also the ultimate giving of your heart to someone else, saying this is what I have and I’ll let it be completely yours? I don’t know… I’m on a real cheese train right now (laughs).

Another great one is “My Blinded Heart”—can you tell me what this song is about?

Yeah, that one definitely stayed more in that country feeling vein. I think that was one that was born in the studio with the bass player and the drummer because they were able to take it into those awesome half time parts that really give it such a fun groove to play and to sink in to. I think that is definitely a sort of relationship song, it has a lot of long relationship sentences in it, and sort of navigating those feelings of dedication but also the restlessness that sometimes creeps up for most people probably.

 

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