It was early June when Andrew Marlin of the acclaimed folk duo Mandolin Orange received a call from his friend Sean Sullivan. The recording engineer was reaching out to tell Marlin that The Butcher Shoppe—originally founded by the late legend John Prine—was closing and being turned into a condo. The revered studio has sowed many generations of successful sessions, including Marlin’s first instrumental record in Buried in a Cape. Devastated by the news, the new father left his North Carolina home for a worthy pilgrimage to Music City amidst a pandemic.
He had not planned on making a record, but Marlin could not pass up the opportunity to share that holy space for the last time. Scrolling through the notes on his phone, he finally pieced together a moving vignette of parenthood—displaying sophistication as a musician.
Being in The Butcher Shoppe just weeks after Prine passed felt heavy. “It was definitely in the air,” Marlin recalls to American Songwriter. “Not just John, but everything else we had lost. I was back in the room with people I hadn’t seen in months, that I’m used to traveling with all the time. We have this shared lifestyle we have come to love that was gone. So there was a lot of elation, but also heaviness.”
The piece-meal production became Marlin’s first of two instrumental records. Released on February 5, Witching Hour is an evocative soundtrack of his last two years. Growing into his new role as a father, much of the content was born at his daughter Ruby’s cribside.
“Writing these instrumentals, I was staying up super late, just barely touching the mandolin, watching her sleep,” Marlin recalls. “Sometimes it didn’t feel real, like she was a statue of an idea of having a kid. But, that was probably closer to four o’clock in the morning.”
Marlin’s mandolin, bolstered by the accompaniment of Josh Oliver’s guitar, Christian Sedelmyer’s fiddle, and Clint Mullican’s bass, evoke both the mania of sleepless nights and the serenity of intermittent moments of peace. These instruments detail the juxtapositions of parenthood.
“They allow for this push-and-pull of happiness and regret, the question of have I done everything I can?” Marlin describes. “And just the absolute elation that you get to finally hang out with this little person who you’ve missed forever, and you didn’t know it until you finally get to see them.”
“Something in the way this came together lit a fire under me,” Marlin recalls. “Because Witching Hour was so thrown together, it was a combination of songs I wrote over two years. So, I wanted to write something very cohesive, where one song just led into the next.”
In August, this set started as medleys, just stringing ideas together. Rather than being a collection of songs, his latest album, Fable & Fire, released February 19, is an entire thought, mapped out from start-to-finish.
Marlin recorded Fable & Fire at Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville, North Carolina. Nat Smith joined Marlin and his same Nashville crew on the cello.
“Anytime you add a new person to the ensemble, it creates a different vibe. We like to record it all live, sitting in a circle. Having Nat’s cello there freed up a lot of space between the guitars and the bass. It felt a lot lighter and airier. He added more possibility, a ‘do-no-wrong’ sentiment, which you don’t often feel in a string band.”
The musician explained that without drums, a string band is very delicate. “Everyone is contributing the momentum of the song,” he continues. “Adding a sixth person took some weight off everyone else and made it fun to play, and a little more light-hearted, despite the content.”
The opening track, “Stormy Point / Back of Beyond / The Seamstress,” is nearly 11 minutes long. The storylines continue effortlessly down an enchantingly delineated through-line. “Oxcart Man” is a shorter journey, one of Marlin’s favorites. The interactive string plot climaxes at the midpoint, easing through the entrance and allowing for a peaceful transfer into the next track.
Witching Hour and Fable & Fire follow Mandolin Orange’s lauded 2019 album Tides Of A Teardrop. The record is his and his wife, Emily Frantz’s, fifth album as a duo. Mandolin Orange is praised for its storytelling style, particularly the strength of Frantz and Marlin’s blended harmonies to support their lyrical delivery. Yet, Marlin managed to bring forth two storybooks that do not necessitate words.
“One of my favorite things about instrumentals is the openness,” he explains. “A listener can put on one of these records and not be told how to feel—it’s up to them. I think it’s necessary right now when there are so many specific things to write about.”
He points to the pandemic and efforts to dismantle systemic racism as both heavy topics to tackle at the moment.
“Everyone has their varying degrees of interest and engagement,” he adds. “And instrumentals lend themselves as an opportunity to take a break from that or even add weight that. It’s more about how you feel and what you need. That has been a nice approach for me this year.”
Listen to Andrew Marlin’s instrumental record, Fable & Fire, below.Fable & Fire by Andrew Marlin