Witching Hour | Thirty Tigers; Feb. 5
Fable & Fire | Thirty Tigers; Feb. 19
Andrew Marlin is accustomed to spending the bulk of his time on the road. Since the late aughts—alongside his wife and musical partner, Emily Frantz—he has led the beloved Chapel Hill roots outfit, Mandolin Orange. But, as for so many others, the past year has kept him largely confined to the same spaces around his home, a restriction he admits has frustrated his ability to source lyrical inspiration for his songs.
“When I’m traveling and seeing a lot of people, I’m getting a lot of different perspectives on a daily basis,” he says. “I’ve been able to access a lot of that as inspiration [in the past] when I go to write a song. This year, it’s basically all been self-generated perspective.”
Marlin found a path forward in instrumentals, which he says enable him to express himself when lyrics prove challenging. This month, he will release his second and third solo albums, Witching Hour and Fable & Fire, in rapid succession.
“For me, writing these has been a way to confront how I’ve been dealing with all of the things that 2020 brought on, without having to be too specific about it,” he says. “This year in particular, it’s been difficult to pin down how I want to talk about things in a song. But those emotions and feelings are all still very present.”
After touring behind Mandolin Orange’s 2019 contemplative folk album, Tides of a Teardrop, Marlin says he’s realized that instrumentals evoke feelings in a different way than lyric-heavy songs. They feel “immediate,” he says, and capture the energy and emotion of a moment while remaining comfortingly open to interpretation.
“Recording those songs was such a huge release for me,” he says of Tides of a Teardrop. “They were all about dealing with the loss of my mom. But to play those songs and relive those moments every night on tour was very taxing.”
The new albums gather up an ace line-up of Mandolin Orange bandmates and past collaborators, including multi-instrumentalist Josh Oliver, guitarist Jordan Tice, bassist Clint Mullican, and fiddler Christian Sedelmyer, with Nat Smith contributing cello on Fable & Fire. Their familiarity is palpable in these sessions, which were recorded live, with the players arranged in a circle.
“It’s very reactionary, and I love that part about playing this music: giving myself that freedom to just improvise and getting other people’s intuition on the records,” Marlin says. “I think you can feel that in the grooves and the way we all interact throughout the songs.”
Witching Hour, comprised of tunes Marlin built up over 2019 and early 2020, finds Marlin often inspired by the birth of his daughter, Ruby, who makes a blurry appearance on the album’s black-and-white cover art. “I was staying up playing really quietly, trying not to wake her,” he says, pointing out that titles like “Milk Drunk” and “Witching Hour” reveal the musical window in which they were born. Fourth track “Woodland Star” was written as a lullaby.
“It definitely seemed to be a pacifier in those first few months,” he jokes. “But nothing seems to work right now.”
The songs on Fable & Fire, meanwhile, were born out of what Marlin describes as “a really intense purge” after he played last August on the Appalachian troubadour Tyler Childers’ most recent album, Long Violent History, which is largely instrumental.
“I was driving home from recording in Kentucky, and I just couldn’t wait to get home and start writing,” Marlin remembers. He wrote nearly all the songs on the album between August and September. “They all felt old, and very rooted in this feel of magic realism, with these fantastical elements that I associate with Irish music,” he says.
In the absence of travel, Marlin says he’s depended on literature to kickstart his imagination, be it his own sci-fi and fantasy interests—The Broken Earth trilogy is a recent read—or the children’s books he reads to his daughter, including modern tales like Dragon Loves Tacos and classics like as The Story of Ferdinand and Ox-Cart Man.
Fable & Fire features a spirited tune that shares its title with the latter story, while the elegant finale of Witching Hour, “Jenny and the Dulac”—starring some evocative twin fiddle action from Sedelmyer and Brittany Haas—was based on T.H. White’s The Once and Future King.
“It’s been great to just read a bunch and apply it to real life,” Marlin says. “You realize if your imagination is active, you start feeling like there’s so much going on around you—even when there’s not—and I think that works its way into these instrumentals.”
While Marlin admits he’s looking forward to the time when he and Mandolin Orange can hit the road once again, he appreciates the slower pace the past year has lent to both his songwriting and his lifestyle, something he says has allowed him to feel more present while getting to know a side of himself he hasn’t seen in over a decade.
“When we’re on tour, I’m always focusing on where we’re going and what we’re going to do,” he says. “Everything has been so uncertain this year that looking to the future hasn’t really been an option, so I’ve had to look within and see who I am as a homebody, as a father, and as a friend. I think I’ll come out of this stronger and knowing myself a lot better, which I think is going to translate in the songs and on stage.”
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