Watchhouse (fka Mandolin Orange) over in the Benelux with their ST release next November21-06-2022
By the time 2019 came to its fitful end, Andrew Marlin knew he was tired of touring. He was grateful, of course, for the ascendancy of Mandolin Orange, the duo he’d cofounded in North Carolina with fiddler Emily Frantz exactly a decade earlier. With time, they had become new flagbearers of the contemporary folk world, sweetly singing soft songs about the hardest parts of our lives, both as people and as a people. Their rise, particularly crowds that grew first to fill small dives, then the Ryman, then amphitheaters the size of Red Rocks, humbled Emily and Andrew, who became parents to Ruby late in 2018. They’d made a life of this.
Still, every night, Andrew especially was paid to relive a lifetime of grievances and griefs onstage. After 2019’s Tides of a Teardrop, a tender accounting of his mother’s early death, the process became evermore arduous, even exhausting. What’s more, those tunes, and the band’s entire catalogue, really conflicted with the name Mandolin Orange, an early-20s holdover that never quite comported with the music they made. Nightly soundchecks, at least, provided temporary relief, as the band worked through a batch of guarded but hopeful songs written just after Ruby’s birth. They offered a new way to think about an established act.
Those tunes are now Watchhouse, which would have been Mandolin Orange’s sixth album but is instead their first also under the name Watchhouse, a moniker inspired by Marlin’s place of childhood solace. The name, like the new record itself, represents their reinvention as a band at the regenerative edges of subtly experimental folk-rock. Challenging as they are charming, and an inspired search for personal and political goodness, these nine songs offer welcome lessons about what any of us might become when the night begins to break.
“We’re different people than when we started this band,” Marlin says, reflecting on all these shifts. “We’re setting new intentions, taking control of this thing again.”
When 2020 dawned, Emily and Andrew hatched a plan to break old habits: For the first time, they’d leave Ruby with Emily’s mom and escape with their longtime bandmates to a cabin on the edge of Smith Mountain Lake, a sprawling hideaway at the foot of the Appalachians. Also for the first time, after a decade of Andrew engineering and producing most of the music the band made, they’d bring help, Josh Kaufman, the producer and multi-instrumentalist who had wowed them with his work alongside the likes of The National and his trio Bonny Light Horseman. There were no expectations. This was simply a full-band retreat with a new friend and co-producer, working together in the refulgent sunshine of grand lakeside windows.
Almost immediately, they realized this wasn’t some audition; they were making Watchhouse. On the first day, Kaufman told Emily and Andrew to imagine this were their first record and to realize that conceptions of how they had worked, recorded, or even sounded belonged only in the past. In a way, Andrew had new permission and space to lean into his vision for what Watchhouse might become.
In our era of recalcitrant typecasts and incessant cultural churn, it is rare to witness anyone press ahead into the unknown while holding fast to what’s best about their past, too. That’s what Watchhouse have done with their self-titled debut. Emily and Andrew have discarded neither their tenderness nor thoughtfulness; instead, they’ve enriched those essential qualities by submitting to the risks of new sounds, structures, and inputs. They’ve embraced surprising notions that make their steadfastness stronger.
It will be tempting to summarize this record as Watchhouse’s inevitable parenthood record, or maybe the one where they got a little strange, or maybe the one where they change their name. It is, instead, a record about growing up without growing old, about experiencing the world and letting it change you, whether through the mystery of a newborn or the vagaries of improvising or the comforts of familiar and wondrous love. Watchhouse is a perfectly rendered link between their longtime allure as Mandolin Orange and an unwritten future as the band Watchhouse, one that’s only as hopeful as we can imagine it might be.