Back in the winter, Imogen Hayward headed up to Oxford to interview the American Blue grass band on writing music, dreams, lyrics and travelling around like the old tradition of the bluegrass and folk artists.
Interview with Andrew Marlin (multi-singer) and Emily Frantz (violinist/guitarist-singer). Band members: Josh Oliver (keyboard/guitar), Allyn Love (pedal/steel), Clint Mullican (Bass), Kyle Keegan (Drums).
It must fun playing over here as bluegrass has part of its roots in British and Irish traditional music. How do you like touring the UK?
Emily: Yeah we love it. We’ve gotten to come here about once a year for the last few years. It’s been really fun to become more familiar with it. We’ve gotten to come to a lot of different places every time but also been able to return to some of the same places and just feel a lot more comfortable the more we come.
How did you guys meet/end up working together?
Andrew: We just met at a bluegrass jam when I first moved to Chapel Hill—which is where we live now, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. So I guess it was about after a year that I’d moved there that I went to this bluegrass jam that was happening every Tuesday and we turned up to the same jam and knew a lot of the same songs and started playing together.
Did you always play bluegrass? Did you listen to it growing up?
Emily: I started with Classical music, that’s how I learnt to play my instrument, my violin, but then I switched over to bluegrass around middle school and in high school I got a lot more interested in bluegrass. And so then Andrew and I met that way but since we’ve started to play together, we still like to play a lot more traditional music, but it’s sort of veered off into a little more of an interpretive direction.
Andrew: I first started playing in metal bands and rock and roll. And then when I moved to Chapel Hill, where we live, I got introduced to more traditional music like folk and bluegrass.
Who are some of your favourite artists in general and folk or bluegrass artists right now?
Emily: Over the last couple of years we’ve been listening to a ton of this mandolin player that Andrew loves named Caleb Klauder, he’s from the West Coast from Portland he has a band too a string band but he does a lot of projects and a lot of more old-timey music which to an untrained ear sounds similar to Bluegrass but they’re a little bit fundamentally different. And so he’s one of the most prominent players that plays Mandolin in an old time context and there isn’t a ton of that. So we’ve been listening to all of his various projects a lot. What else in terms of traditional? [turns to Andrew]
Andrew: A lot of Rayna Gellert.
Emily: Oh yeah, Rayna Gellert is a fiddle player from North Carolina as well, she lives in Nashville now. She just has one of the most awesome relaxed rhythmic fiddle style that we’re really drawn to, really melody driven, just a great bowing rhythm.
Do you listen to other genres of music too?
Emily: Yeah! Sometimes pop music but not a ton of pop music on the radio. A lot of stuff that doesn’t at all fit into the folk and bluegrass genre but is all over the map.
Andrew: Yeah, I’ve been listening to Larry Goldings’ album which is a jazz-piano record. I just love the simplification and all the melodies in that. I feel like there’s a lot of cross-over between jazz and bluegrass because they’re both very expressive even though bluegrass is a little bit more…
Andrew: Yeah more rigid I guess, but still the solo sections, when it comes down to take the solos, it’s very interpretive. So I guess that’s the crossover between jazz and bluegrass. Then there are a lot of players like David Grisman have incorporated bluegrass into jazz music. He’s created this whole idea, that he’s called “Dawg Music”, where it’s just bluegrass rhythms with a very jazz oriented chord-progressions.
How did you come up with the name?
Andrew: We had an orange mandolin. Not anymore, but yeah it was just for some of our first gigs and we needed to call ourselves something so we called ourselves Mandolin Orange and it stuck!
What has been one of your favourite places to play at?
Emily: Red Rocks has got to be a highlight! It’s just unlike getting to play anywhere else, you just feel like you’ve been given a gift to get to play there. Umm… also this fall we got to move up to a lot of really awesome venues across the country that have really nice rooms and great sound and that people really enjoy going to see shows there as they’re just set up well. And I just really enjoy playing in a room that’s been set up in a way where everybody is really enjoying themselves.
Andrew: I feel like too as time goes on, the tours get a little more organised in a way that we actually get a little better feel of the town and that’s been a nice change as time has progressed for us. So yeah I think one of our favourite places to play has been Red Rocks and I think Portland is one of our favourite places to play as well.
As a band what’s your aim or goal when creating music for you and your listeners?
Emily: I think you try especially as the more time that goes on and the more records that you put out (and we don’t necessarily struggle with this) you have to be aware that you’re creating music not necessarily for your listeners; you don’t want to create what people are expecting to hear or want to hear. You’re taking it in the direction that you want to take it and that’s going to satisfy you, because ultimately, if you can’t really get behind how you’re playing something or how you recorded something, then it’s probably not going to last as long for you.
Andrew: Yeah, and I think we try to not hit people over the head with it. I mean we play all the time, whether we’re on-stage and off-stage. It’s something that feels natural for us because it’s such a part of us and what we do. I hope that comes across to people in our recordings. It’s not something we’re trying to sell to people, it’s more like a part of us.
What’s the process like for writing your songs? Does the music come with the lyrics?
Andrew: Yeah, it usually comes with it. I do most of the writing and then Emily and I will do the arranging together for the songs! I guess it kind of starts with a chord progression and then from there, we work to find a melody within that. A lot of times I’ll spit out nonsensical words too, to get a nice metre going, and then I flow it to where I want the lyrics to go. The first phrase, the opening line, I just follow a stream of consciousness from there and then I go back and edit after that. So yeah, it seems to be that the melody and the lyrics and the chorus just come together all at once.
One thing that has always interested me as someone who writes poetry and studies literature, is whether music and its lyrics are like poetry or not. The topic has especially been a hot topic of discussion in the last few years with Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for poetry. For me lyrics can be poetry, they’re just set to music. What would your take on it be?
Emily: I don’t know a ton about poetry but from what I remember in school is there is a rhythm to it, even when it’s not in a song. So that part seems very relatable to music.
Andrew: I think also in the way that the lyrics fit into the music adds another dimension. For me poetry is like the lyrics, but music actually creates the sentiment without even having to say so, and I feel like that also allows you to leave out certain words and phrases that are just implied within the music.
Following on from that, would you say you use stories or experiences from your own life in your music?
Andrew: It comes in all forms really. I think as a songwriter, I kind of always have this one door open in the back of my head and it’s not a conscious thing, it’s a subconscious way of being where sometimes a phrase or story will enter in, or you’ll hear one of your friends talk about an experience they’re having at the time and then once it goes in there it gets stored there. And then when I sit down with a guitar or mandolin with the intent of writing a song it’s almost like I can access those stories. So yeah I think it comes from all of the above.
Emily: And I think it seems like, with the way that you write [addressing Andrew], that the line between it being first person or not is kind of blurry because a lot of times it’s inspired from what you’re hearing about or reading about but in order for you to get to that space where it’s coming out in this really emotive, poetic way you have to internalise it a little bit.
Obviously moving from place and place and travelling is one theme that bluegrass and folk music is based upon. Do you feel like travelling the world has impacted the music you produce- experiencing the different cultures?
Andrew: I’m sure it has, I can’t think of any concrete ways. I do think travelling around makes you, or it’s helped me become a little more comfortable with myself by getting to know different parts of the world and see how they do it. Also, it pulls you out of the day-to-day grind, you know? If I was just living on the same street all the time, I would be writing the same songs all the time.
Emily: It’s hard to imagine what it would be like if we weren’t travelling all the time, because it’s really the only reality that we know but I do think it kind of just helps to broaden your view of everything you know?
Yeah it’s like the idea of whether we belong in a place, often a topic country music talks about, and if we should stay there or whether it’s better for a person to be rootless and move from place to place. So the question of having a set home where you belong or gaining new experiences by moving about.
Emily: Yeah I almost feel like leaving allows you to reflect upon everything you know.
Andrew: Yeah, I was going to say that. I think it allows you to step back and see everything in its entirety, seeing the bigger picture of it.
Finally, how would you describe a new listener to your music how would you describe it?
Emily: Recently, we came up with the phrase “songwriter-picking music”, because in the bluegrass world, I don’t know if you’ve heard people say “let’s pick” when people want to play. And so it’s kind of like picking music, it’s kind of bluegrassy because we’re playing fiddle, mandolin and doing all that but it’s very song-orientated not just jam music. So yeah, we sum it up that way [laughing].
Andrew: Yeah and I was saying too that there’s a certain patience to listening to that kind of music as well you know there’s not an immediate hook that will come down and grab you. It’s just not in your face music. I hope there’s substance in our music; that the longer you listen to it, the more you can get out of it.