It's a mild spring night in Carrboro, just right for sidewalk sipping, and the two musicians that compose the hushed-country duo Mandolin Orange share a table in front of the Open Eye Café. Emily Frantz is on the right, doe-eyed and as young and lovely as Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors." Andrew Marlin's on the left, tousle-haired and as young and handsome as Gram Parsons' "Brass Buttons." And they're preparing to listen to a passage about duets from Americana heroine Gillian Welch.
In an interview with TheAge.com, Welch talks about the freedom of being a soloist and the comfort of having a big chugging band behind you. Then she gets down to duet life: "It's like the haiku of musical ensembles... In a duet, if one person goes off from the plan, all you have is a train wreck. So there has to be a delicate balance of arrangement and improvisation."
"That's so true," says Marlin, after some contemplative silence. "We spend a lot of time just making sure that the arrangement of each song is as strong as it can possibly be because, with just two people, the song has to be arranged in such a way that it's easy for us both to play our parts."
"And without stepping on each other or without leaving a big open space somewhere," offers Frantz, completing the thought and showing that the pair's collaborative magic extends beyond music and into the conversational arts. "We talk about that all the time, how when performing each of us carries so much weight. If one of us messes up, there's no hiding it. There's no backbone to fall back on of bass and drums carrying the groove. You really have to be on your game and hold up your end of the bargain."
Before there was a bargain, however, there were beginnings. Frantz contributes fiddle, harmonies, rhythm guitar and the occasional lead vocal and lead guitar to Mandolin Orange. In elementary school, she began studying the violin via the time-tested Suzuki method. She lost interest in the methodology of it all, so she shifted to fiddle lessons and played in a couple bluegrass bands while in high school in Chapel Hill, including an outfit led by ex-Two Dollar Pistol and Trembler Greg Hawks.
Marlin, the duo's songwriter and primary lead vocalist and guitarist, is self-taught. He grew up in Warrenton, N.C., listening to his grandmother play ragtime piano. But long before that, his mom would play piano to get him to stop kicking in the womb. At 14, he bought a guitar off a friend and immediately began creating melodies and writing songs for his own entertainment. "All the fun you had, you had to make for yourself," he says of his small-town upbringing, a sentiment probably not destined for "Welcome to Warrenton" signs.
So as introductions to music go, Frantz's and Marlin's could barely have been more dicohotomous.
"When he first picked up the guitar, the way he learned to play was by writing his own tunes," Frantz says of Marlin. "The way I learned to play was by copying what other people were doing and learning from my teachers." Those backgrounds—rooted in history vs. DIY—are even reflected in their instruments: Frantz plays a fiddle from the 1840s that she found at Durham's High Strung Violins & Guitars, while Marlin favors a guitar that he just finished making.
Opposite introductions apparently attract—and flourish. Frantz and Marlin met at a jam at the Armadillo Grill hosted by bluegrassers Big Fat Gap and began playing together for fun, leading to a couple of pickup gigs at the Station. They consider a March 2009 house concert in Plymouth, N.C., with the Kickin Grass Band to be their first official show, a tidbit they share with the glow that couples typically reserve for recalling their first date. (And, yes, if you need to know, their relationship is not just a musical one.)
But they cite another night as the source of the biggest where-have-you-been-all-my-life moment. Early on, they were working up an arrangement of Bob Dylan's "Boots of Spanish Leather" outside Chapel Hill's Caffé Driade, playing their instruments in the dark and establishing how their voices might work off one another. "We both felt like, 'Oh my gosh, this is perfect,'" Frantz recalls. "It felt like we'd been playing together forever. Our roles were just so complementary."
That chemistry illuminates the band's debut full-length, the self-produced Quiet Little Room. Look no further than the song "Easy," a story of death told in three parts. The pair sings together at the start, creating a third voice. When Marlin's vocals move centerstage, Frantz shifts to a comforting harmony. And her rhythm playing forms the perfect backdrop as the warm tone of Marlin's electric guitar counters the chill of loss. Here, and all across the record, is the sound of voices and instruments in the dark, finding light.
"I can hum her a melody that I'm thinking about, and she can play it right back to me on the fiddle. It's almost like an extension of her voice," says Marlin. "It's pretty amazing."