A nomadic impulse hums through the very heartbeat of American music, and, by extension, its newer occurrence of Americana. Many a name, from Merle Haggard to Miranda Lambert, have sung about the rambling spirit that fuels life’s journey, making it downright impossible sometimes to stay, and Mandolin Orange is no stranger among that company. With Blindfaller, the indie folk duo’s fourth studio album, rambling as a subject matter returns again and again. Andrew Marlin serves as the principal songwriter with Emily Frantz adding in harmonies both vocal and instrumental. The two native North Carolinians first met at a jam session in 2009, and with Marlin on guitar and Frantz on fiddle, they create woozy, tender folk songs that bleed at turns and soar at others.
Rambling as an instinct has reared its head across Mandolin Orange’s repertoire, but on “Lonesome Whistle,” Marlin sings about rambling in a different way. More than moving on, it has to do with saying goodbye to the youthful spirit that keeps many trekking from place to place. There’s a reckoning with stability that occurs, and as tempting a life as the rambler’s may be, Marlin has reached an age where he can pine for its movement while recognizing—and avoiding—its pitfalls. “As I get older, settling down is no longer this looming thing,” he says, “but I think there’s always going to be that element, kind of romanticizing or longing for a sense of freedom, to be able to put all your belongings in a bag and leave, but that’s less and less feasible as you get older.” Should the spirit ever strike him again, Marlin knows it wouldn’t be so easy to pick up and ramble on. “I definitely could not put all of my possessions in a bag,” he says, laughing.
Frantz, who often feels like Marlin’s clear-eyed translator, builds on his idea. “I feel, too, being a musician for a living is also…there’s not a whole lot of job security. You don’t really know what the future holds, and there is kind of that subconscious sense that you’re going along with things and seeing where it takes you,” she says, striking upon one reason why rambling keeps arising in songwriting. “You don’t know where you’re going to be six months from now; I think maybe that’s impressed upon people’s subconscious.”
As freeing as rambling can feel at times, it also involves endings. Whether that means leaving one place to move toward another, or leaving one person to move toward a fresh start, there’s always a sense of “goodbye.” Marlin admits that death fascinates him as a subject matter, which in a way deals with a similar finality. “There’s a lot of inspiration in that imagery for me,” he explains. “Sometimes that comes out in heartbreak, and you can twist around a few words so a death song becomes a breakup song.” In death and rambling, endings hold important weight, but Mandolin Orange’s songs don’t traverse the same well-worn territory others have crossed in detailing such experiences. Marlin approaches songwriting with a strong, specific lyricism curious to understand each moment. Having observed her partner’s process over the years, Frantz describes it from a slightly different point of view. “Andrew is very particular in his songwriting, and he spends a lot of time with the lyrics in his hand, and going over and over and over making sure every word is just the way he wants it,” she says.
Given Marlin’s penchant for endings in all their forms, a certain sadness radiates out from Blindfaller. “A lot of it was personal melancholy in this record, but I think even more so than the others, just kind of looking around at the outside world, outside of our own personal emotions and the melancholy and sadness and struggles in a lot of what’s going on around us now too,” Frantz says about the shift Mandolin Orange experienced between their last record, 2015’s Such Jubilee, and Blindfaller.
Marlin gets political on “Wildfire,” which looks askance at the South’s nostalgia for the past and all the problems that brings to the present. It’s a point that hits even closer to home for Marlin and Frantz. “I think everything that happens in North Carolina—because we were both born and raised there—it just feels a little more personal, and so it’s a lot of the regressive legislation that’s been going on the last few years,” she says. “I think maybe it inspires Andrew to write more than necessarily just the national political landscape because we see it affecting people we know, friends and family and everyone around us.”
As somber as the duo’s subject matter can sometimes be, Blindfaller actually feels downright lively. There’s a living, breathing sensation that comes across in their new collection of songs, which might have something to do with the band they used to record. The fullness of all those extra instruments—pedal steel, drums, bass and an extra guitar—comes into complete view on “Hard Travelin,’” which feels straight out of a Nashville honkytonk, and moves along at a fast-paced clip even while Marlin’s at-times despairing vocals keep things somewhat serious. But it imparts an interesting juxtaposition even on a slower number like the spare “Cold Lover’s Waltz.”
Once Marlin and Frantz got into the studio to work on Blindfaller, things moved quickly. As with past recording sessions, they tried not to get too bogged down aiming for perfection. Frantz says, “We’re not overly prone to revising because it’s really hard to know when to stop and know when you have what you wanna have when you start going down that path. I think that’s why we’ve gravitated toward a lot of live tracking, where you just have to get the track that feels right and you can’t necessarily fix every little mistake about it.”
In the way Frantz can often elucidate Marlin’s approach with a levelheaded interpretation, Marlin takes her thought and shapes it into something poetic. “I envy visual artists who, when they start to paint, touch the brush to the canvas and their inspiration is immediately put on the canvas. It’s there, they never have to recreate it,” he says. Mandolin Orange aim to attempt the same kind of moment, albeit sonically. “That’s what we try to do in the studio, capture that instance when everybody’s getting together to play at first,” he continues. “Intuition is everybody’s first gravitational pull.”
Check out Mandolin Orange’s recent Paste Studio session in the player below.