For Andrew Marlin (vocals, mandolin, guitar, banjo) and Emily Frantz (vocals, violin, guitar) of Mandolin Orange, trees hold a special significance. The band, which specializes in a blend of Americana, roots and country-fused folk, released its fourth album, Blindfaller, on Sept. 30 via Yep Roc Records.
The term "faller" — meaning one who cuts down trees — was combined with the word "blind" to reference the concept that one doesn't know what they are destroying. On the album's cover you'll also see what appears to be trees ablaze — though the cover is a bit ambiguous. As Marlin notes, it could also be a UFO landing or sunshine among the trees. But the idea of fire goes hand in hand with one of the most compelling tracks on the album, "Wildfire," as well as with the disc's overall feel of impending doom.
The track "Wildfire," was written with slavery and the Civil War in mind. That era plays an important role in the past and present racial climate.
"This song came from growing up in the South and being taught Southern pride, but not being taught about this history of oppression that's attached to that," says Marlin, who currently resides in Chapel Hill.
Some lyrics from the track read as followed: "Civil War came, Civil War went /Brother fought brother, the South was spent/ But its true demise was hatred, passed down through the years/It should have been different, it could have been easy /But pride has a way of holding too firm to history /And it burns like wildfire."
Along with Southern pride and its shady past comes another heavy-hearted critique of religion and politics as heard on "Gospel Shoes." Growing up in the Bible Belt, Marlin realized the strengths and weaknesses of religion.
"I think that anybody who wants to believe in a higher power and if that brings them peace and strength, that's definitely a good thing but when you have a certain religion or faith that oppresses other peoples freedom then I can't get behind that," he says. He was inspired to write the song after hearing a snippet of a speech by Ted Cruz, the Republican U.S. senator from Texas. "I think separation of church and state was one thing our country was founded on and we tend to overlook that sometimes."
While both "Wildfire" and "Gospel Shoes" tackle more controversial subject matter many of the other tracks on the album stumble around more personal content. Marlin feels that the album's final track "Take this Heart of Gold" is the most personal to him. It's about being in a long-term relationship.
"You're not always going to be this knight in shining armor and the person you're with is not always going to be this perfect mold of a human," Marlin says. "That's not why you decide to settle down with someone. You decide to be with somebody because you take the good and the bad together."
Other tracks on the album reflect on love and heartache. Take, "Cold Lover's Waltz," a dramatic track that comes alive through orchestration via string section flare. Frantz takes the reins singing on this song about unrequited love.
"I lost my mom at a young age and I think that sometimes instead of writing songs about death, that feeling of loss, comes out very easily in a breakup tune," says Marlin. "I'm able to take some of those feelings and apply those and just move around a few lyrics and all of a sudden instead of it being a song about losing someone you love to death, it's a song about losing someone you love and a relationship ending."
For the songwriting process, Marlin approach Blindfaller in a different way than previous releases. Rather than writing songs for the band, he wrote them as if he were writing them for someone else.
"Over the years I've written so many songs, and you just have to find new ways to get inspired and that was a fun way for me to step outside of myself a little bit and it gave me this whole sense of freedom," he says.
Keeping change in mind, the band also invited other musicians into the studio to record with them and this time around they allowed them to have a more forefront role, rather than being in the backdrop. This line up included Clint Mullican on bass, Kyle Keegan on drums, Allyn Love on pedal steel and previous collaborator, Josh Oliver, on guitar, keys and vocals.
Blindfaller was recorded live in the studio with a natural goal. Many of the recorded tracks are first takes and much of the instrumentation was somewhat spontaneous, lending to a more harmonic, array of sounds — from dashes of electric and acoustic guitar and bass to finger-picking mandolin and banjo and sweeping fiddle that comes together and also ventures out on its own for rhythmic solos. Marlin believes the result of the instrumentation is an album with more personality and character. On the band's website bio for the newest album they refer to lots of winking and head nods during the recording process. The personality of Blindfaller will be reflected when the band performs live on Oct. 28 at McGlohon Theater. The band will perform as a five-piece band rather than as a duo, setting the current tour apart from other past gigs. Although they've had other musicians featured on past albums, including 2013's This Side of the Jordan and 2015's Such Jubilee, which garnered praise from the likes of NPR and Rolling Stone, Blindfaller's soundscapes have taken on a more solid, connected chemistry of instrumental wonder.
"For this record we wanted to keep that same idea to go do the live shows as we did with the record, which is having a few more personalities on stage and expanding some of the solo stuff a little bit to let the songs breath more than maybe Emily and I can do on our own."