Mandolin Orange quietly has become one of the biggest live draws around

Mandolin Orange in concert at the NC Museum of Art Saturday night, June 24, 2018.
Mandolin Orange in concert at the NC Museum of Art Saturday night, June 24, 2018. ssharpe@newsobserver.com

This story was corrected Jan. 20 at 7:15 p.m. See story for details.

For such a subdued bunch, Mandolin Orange has been making a fair amount of noise over the past few years.

The Chapel Hill duo led by married couple Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz, both 31, plays soothing, meditative and disarmingly frank folk songs that seem as if they’d be better suited for smaller venues. But from their humble beginnings a decade ago, when Marlin and Frantz met at a bluegrass jam, they’ve become one of the biggest live draws on the local scene for venues of all sizes.

Mandolin Orange’s sixth and newest album “Tides of a Teardrop” is another exquisite collection of songs spotlighting the duo’s keening harmony vocals and Marlin’s straightforward drawl. It will be released Friday, Feb. 1, an occasion the group will mark with a soldout show at Durham Performing Arts Center.

Here is a brief primer on how things are going in Mandolin Orange’s world.

1. Their stages are still getting bigger and bigger.

Beyond this week’s DPAC sellout, Mandolin Orange is also scheduled to headline later this year at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, where “The Grand Ole Opry” was founded.

“We’re super-pumped to play the Ryman this fall,” Frantz said. “We opened for Josh Ritter there a year ago so we’ve played it before, but having our own true show there is a totally different ballgame. We’re really excited with how this tour is shaping up. It’s fun to see it grow. One of the most rewarding parts is more and more people coming to the shows every time.”

2. ‘Tides of a Teardrop’ is a little closer to the bone than usual.

While Mandolin Orange has never shied away from melancholia, the songs on “Tides of a Teardrop” still represent a new level of intimacy for the group. Much of that is due to a personal reckoning for Marlin, over the death of his mother. She died in the fall of 2005.

“I always make jokes about feeling too contented and having to stop that so I can write,” Marlin said. “Over the years, especially with the loss of my mom, there’s been a lot of inner turmoil and grief that never comes to the surface. I’ve built up a few walls and jokes that steer people away from that side. It was nice to dive into what was eating away at me, get it onto a record and have it be healing.”

3. It took a while for Marlin to work up to this.

His mother passed more than 13 years ago, and every fall since then has been a reminder.

“’Late September’ was the first song I wrote in this batch,” Marlin said. “Always around that time, with fall creeping up, I start feeling the blues. It’s almost like going back to that time when things were going downhill for her. She was at UNC Hospital, so being here in Chapel Hill when fall comes on, it’s hard to escape.”

4. The last song he wrote for the record is his favorite.

“We thought we were finished,” Marlin said. “But then on Mother’s Day last year, I sat down and decided to write a song for my mom. ‘Suspended in Heaven’ is not a melancholy song, more like excitement over what her soul could possibly be doing now. So I ran with that, put some science-fiction universal language into it. I like the imagery. It ties the entire record together.”

5. Mandolin Orange’s next generation is here.

Frantz and Marlin are new parents, with a four-month-old daughter — who, not surprisingly, is already showing some musical tendencies.

“It’s unbelievable how much she loves the mandolin,” said Frantz. “That makes sense, given how much of it she heard while still in the womb. Babies cycle through things they’re interested in, but that’s pretty consistent. She shows no signs of tiring of mandolin.”

Note: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect age for Andrew Marlin.
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David Menconi has covered music and the arts for The News & Observer since 1991. He can be reached at 919-829-4759 or dmenconi@newsobserver.com.