Mandolin Orange began in Carrboro in 2009, but it’s only been since last summer that the duo has significantly taken off on a national level. They signed to Hillsborough’s Yep Roc records, who released This Side of Jordan, the band’s best effort to date that captures their skillful hooks and harmonies. After months on the road touring in support of the album, the band plays a pair of hometown shows in the main room of the Cat’s Cradle. Friday night’s seated duo show has been sold out for a few weeks now, but you can still catch the full band version of Mandolin Orange on Saturday night. Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin caught up with the INDY two days after returning from their first European tour in an opening slot for Chatham County Line about their major growing year.
INDY: You two just got back from Europe, how did that go?
EMILY FRANTZ: Europe was super awesome. It was just one of those trips that felt totally a privilege the whole time. I think a lot of that had to do with Chatham County Line inviting us to come along with them, but also it was just such an opportunity for us. We wouldn’t have gone otherwise. They’ve been there a bunch of times, and they really organized the whole tour and took care of all the logistics and stuff. They had the van rented and all the ferrys booked, so we really just got to learn from them and be along for the ride. The shows were super fun and hanging out with them was super fun. It couldn’t have been better.
We went to Ireland once for a festival a couple years ago, but because of the festival flying us over there, we weren’t allowed to play any other gigs, so it was just that one thing. This was our first experience playing club shows in Europe.
That’s nice that you had Chatham County Line helping you out, I’ve heard booking European tours can be a nightmare.
EF: Yeah. Now, I think the next time we’re able to go back, we’ll feel so much more—it’ll still be stressful and a lot of work putting all that together, but we’ll just know that it’s doable and now that we’ve seen someone do it before, I think that will be huge.
How were the audiences different over there?
EF: I don’t know if they were really that different. They had cute accents.
ANDREW MARLIN: It was a little different, though. I felt like here, you definitely have people that are into it who are more in your face about it.
EF: In a good way.
AM: In a great way, yeah. But over there, it kind of took an adjustment to the crowds, because they were hanging on every single note and not always giving you—
EF:—any way of knowing that that’s the case. You’re not necessarily getting any crowd energy back. And it’s there, it’s just that we’re used to sort of a different kind of energy. It’s a good thing, afterwards, you realize, you talk to people and everybody loved the show and that’s all great, but when it’s happening you’re like, “Shit! Can they understand us? Are they out there?”
How about the rest of this year touring, how has that been?
AM: There’s nothing to complain about. I’d like to see a little more of home, and we will for the next two months. We’re just going to be around. But the tours are great, and I definitely feel like it was a great building year for us in a lot of different markets. We played some great shows in some great clubs, all the way on the West Coast we had some great crowds coming out. It seems like we made a lot of headway this year that’s sort of necessary to the longevity of whatever we’ve got going.
EF: It was one of the first times that really felt like things were just—we’ve always been pleased with the band growing and being able to go out more and play shows, but this was really the first year where I felt like things went unexpectedly well. A lot of the shows really exceeded our expectations, crowds were exceeding our expectations. Which is kind of interesting, because it wasn’t an album release year or anything like that. I guess because our band growth really has been a lot more word of mouth over the years, it’s not so much, “Oh, Rolling Stone wrote about us and we went on late night TV” and that, you know what I mean? That’s not in our trajectory. It was just special this year to feel like all of a sudden people really were buying tickets to shows. It gave us a lot of confidence, I think.
Now that you have a manager and a label team, how has it felt not having to book and manage everything yourself?
EF: Really awesome. Not just from a perspective of my workload—which, it’s great that I’m not doing that—but also booking agents are way better than that than people who aren’t. Our tours make sense now, we have relationships with promoters and clubs, our routing makes sense, we’re able to go out on the road and not waste money with a bunch of off days like we probably did in the past. The huge benefit, way more so than me having a lighter workload, is just having tours that make sense and are productive and efficient. And I think it makes them easier to promote as well, when you have a whole tour to announce. That sounds so obvious. A lot of bands, that’s the only way you ever do it. But when you do stuff on your own for many years and then you switch over to this way more professional mode, you can really feel the difference.
What’s surprised you most with touring so much this year?
AM: I think how much we can be gone and it not drive us crazy. We were gone a lot. Carrboro and Chapel Hill’s not an easy place to leave, you’ve got anything you want. There’s great food, all of our friends are here, our families are nearby.
EF: We have our own bed.
AM: So, to leave this place isn’t always easy. But what was surprising is that it never really got to us or made us want to turn back around and come home. The tour was fun, I think because of the crowds. It just makes life on the road so much easier.
EF: I think, too, as far as being on the road, the biggest surprise was turnouts. Not every show was amazing or anything, but we’ve played enough shitty shows on the road to know how awesome it is to have a couple hundred people out who bought a ticket to come to your show. For us, we’re still very aware of how special that is, I think.
And you guys sold out places you’d never played before.
EF: Yeah! We had a sold-out show in Denver the first time we ever went there, which for us, we were like, “What?!”
AM: That’s just unheard of.
EF: I guess that’s what I mean about our fan base being really grassroots and word of mouth. We’re not on an album cycle year, we’re not getting write-ups in papers and things. It’s just people who have found the music online or whatever and want to come to the show. I have nothing to compare it to, but I think it just makes you really appreciative of that.
You’ve got these shows this weekend coming up, what made you want to do the two-night presentation?
EF: I think we’ve tried to make a constant effort to try and be really thoughtful about our local shows and make sure they’re something that’s special, not just for us, but for the crowd. We don’t want people to get bored. But that’s not as much it. We were just super pleasantly surprised to sell out the Cradle for our last album release show. So I think it’s more just an effort not to do the same thing over and over again. We probably couldn’t do just two standard nights at the Cradle, but doing one of them seated and one of them standing allows us to get more people to the show, but also showcase—we’re doing different sets each night, so it will allow us to be a little more creative.
AM: And I think the cool thing with the two nights is the openers are so different. Leif Vollebekk is a great songwriter and a really bubbly dude. We did a tour with him in September and just had the best time with him. We were trying to think of who we wanted to do this sit-down show, and finally, at the end of that tour when we had to say bye to him, we were like, “Dude, you’ve got to come play this show with us.” He was like, “I’m there! Done! Go ahead, put me on the thing, I’m there.” We were like, “Well, you should probably check your schedule?” and he was like, “Nope. I’m gonna do it, let’s do it.” So I think that will be really fun for people to see. He’s a really great dude and he carries himself well and he’s funny as shit, too, so that’ll be fun. The second night, Mike Compton and Joe Newberry, who are two really big influences on what we do—
EF: Yeah, for us that was really huge. Mike Compton is a super famous mandolin player and we’ve met him once or twice, and we know Joe Newberry because he lives in Raleigh, but to get them into the show enough for them to play it with us, we really appreciate. And that goes back to the local show thing, we just want them to feel special for us and for the people who are there. So getting support acts who mean something to us—it’s fun to have an excuse to do that.
Did you two ever expect to get to this point where you’ve been able to find this success?
AM: It’s all just kind of—it’s not a snowball effect, it’s more like a ball rolling down the street with not much gravity. It just keeps going. It hasn’t been super fast growth in our eyes.
EF: We’re always trying to set the bar higher. We’ve never had super concrete goals or numerical goals or anything like that, it’s always just kind of pushing yourself ahead seems like the only way to do it. We never really thought, “Okay, in a year, we’ll be doing this and doing that.” You just kind of take it one step at a time.
With all this positive growth, have there been any new challenges associated with it?
EF: There are sometimes little sacrifices that you have to make that I think you could allow yourself to resent, whether it’s “Oh, I can never do anything else because I’m always doing this,” or I can’t book and advertise five local shows right now because I have this one show that I have to put all my energy in, and that starts to make you feel like, “Ugh, I just want to go play this easy gig right now!” But it’s nothing to complain about. You just find ways to make it sustainable. Find other projects to keep your wheels turning but that aren’t so involved that they take away from your main project.
What do you have planned for after the release shows?
EF: We’re basically here all of December and January, and then starting at the beginning of February, end of January, we’ll have some sporadic things throughout the spring, but it’s going to be a lot more tame than this year. But we’ve got a new record that’s going to come out in the spring, late spring. We’re gearing up for that, resting up for it. I don’t know if there’s that much to say about it that we can say about it, but we’re really excited about it. We’re definitely going to play some of the new songs at the Cradle shows and start to work those into our live repertoire. We recorded it last summer. And I think ever since then, things really got good after that with our live shows. We weren’t even really playing any of those songs, but I think when you’re doing something creative like this, there’s always this totally sub-conscious fear of “What if we never make a good record again?” The future is so undetermined. So as soon as we recorded that record and it totally exceeded our expectations of what we thought it was going to sound like, it made it easier to tour after that, because we knew what was on the horizon.