After the breakout critical success of Mandolin Orange's Yep Roc debut, 'This Side of Jordan,' you'd expect the relentless onslaught of touring that accompanied it to seep into the writing of the North Carolina duo's follow-up. You'd expect the sound to reflect long days on the road, long nights onstage, unfamiliar cities, countless miles. You'd expect the classic "road record." But you'd be wrong.
"All of these songs are definitely a product of being on the road," says multi-instrumentalist/singer Emily Frantz of Mandolin Orange's gorgeous new album, 'Such Jubilee,' "but they're not about the road."
"They're about home," explains songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/singer Andrew Marlin. "Not because we were missing it, but because when you're gone so much, you start realizing what you have and what's waiting for you. You realize there's this place to come back to at the end of the journey, and that's where a lot of these songs come from."
The road has been good to Mandolin Orange since the 2013 release of 'This Side of Jordan.' NPR called the album "effortless and beautiful," naming it one of the year's best folk/Americana releases, while Magnet dubbed it "magnificent," and American Songwriter said it was "honest music, shot through with coed harmonies, sweeping fiddle, mandolin, acoustic guitar and the sort of unfakeable intimacy that bonds simpatico musicians like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings." The record earned them performances everywhere from the iconic Newport Folk Festival to Pickathon, as well as tours with Willie Watson, Gregory Alan Isakov, The Wood Brothers, and more.
"When you play these festivals, you start meeting all these other people doing what you're doing," says Marlin. "There are so many musicians together in one place and you become part of this community. We got to hang out with Tim O'Brien and Peter Rowan and Norman Blake. Sitting down and talking to them and playing with them, you get to see the personal side of them rather than the hero side."
"With all the touring and festivals, you look around and realize, 'OK we're actually doing this now,'" adds Frantz. "We're not just trying to do it, it's what we do, and that ties into a lot of the themes on the record."
It's at the heart of album opener 'Old Ties and Companions,' which takes stock of such rewarding moments.
"A good friend of mine and I were talking about this time in our lives - we've got all these friends playing music and everybody's playing with everybody and trading songs and it's really special," explains Marlin. "But you don't know how long that's going to be around, so we don't take this time for granted."
"Old man give me endless time," he and Frantz sing in stirring harmony. "Never let these ties sever / Cause heaven knows in all this foolin' round these times won't last forever."
To make the most of such magical, ephemeral moments, the duo set up facing each other with just a vocal and instrumental mic each in Asheville's Echo Mountain studio for the 'Such Jubilee' sessions. It proved to be the perfect setup to capture the undeniable chemistry of their live performances.
"I think a lot of times when people set out to layer tracks on a recording, they want the rhythm or a click track first," says Frantz, who initially met Marlin at a 2009 bluegrass jam in Carrboro, North Carolina. "But we've just played together for so long that subconsciously we know where all the spaces need to be and what's going to fill in afterwards. When it's just the two of us in there, we don't have to orchestrate as much ahead of time because it all just falls into place so naturally."
On "Settled Down," Marlin looks at what it takes to find that level of comfort in a relationship, singing, "Moments, just fleeting times with little wings of gold / remind us of how real we find true love in every sign of getting older." "Daylight" looks for peace in long-term companionship and trust, "That Wrecking Ball" meditates on the sometimes ravaging passage of time, and album closer "Of Which There Is No Like" is a delicate, wistful duet about coming home, literally and metaphorically.
Not all of the songs are purely introspective, though. "Jump Mountain Blues" takes its name from a town in Virginia where Marlin spent weekends growing up. According to local folklore, a Native American girl threw herself off of the mountain rather than give up her true love to marry the man of her father's choosing. Marlin conjures up a haunting vision of the father, forced to watch her ghost rise and fall again every night when he looks at the peak. "Rounder" is written in the cowboy tradition and can be heard as a statement against capital punishment, while "Blue Ruin" was penned in response to the horrific violence at Sandy Hook.
"I was thinking about all those kids who wouldn't be there on Christmas morning," says Marlin. "People can get so heated and so serious about change and addressing gun violence when something that traumatic happens, but a month or two afterwards, they've all cooled down and it's not in the forefront of their thoughts anymore. But two years later, those kids still aren't around on Christmas morning and their parents are still dealing with that."
It's a weighty moment on an album that doesn't shy away from grappling with difficult topics: intimacy, death, distance, regret. 'Such Jubilee' is a record about home, both the place and the idea. Some days it's a safe, warm, loving refuge from the world outside. Other days it's cold and empty and too quiet. Either way, it's always waiting for you at the end of the road.