Track By Track: Watchhouse ‘Watchhouse’
photo credit: Shervin Lainez
“I started writing these songs in October of 2018, right after the birth of my daughter. I was doing a lot of writing at night, staying up with her and thinking about the world from a slightly different perspective,” Andrew Marlin says of the material that appears on the new self-titled studio album from Watchhouse, the musical project that he has shared with his wife Emily Frantz for more than a decade. And, now, the couple not only shares a band, but also a child named Ruby.
“It’s very cliché to say but it’s true that, when you see your kid for the first time, you just become a different person in a lot of ways,” Marlin adds. “It made me think about the future in a whole new way. It’s something that I need to try to shape in order to protect this little kid that I’m going to be sending out in the world one day. I think a lot of those thoughts made it onto this record.”
Although Marlin (vocals, mandolin, guitar, banjo) and Frantz (vocals, violin, guitar) have been recording together since 2010, this album marks a new era for the couple, not only because of the change in their family life but also because it’s their first release after changing their name from Mandolin Orange this past April. While their decision might raise marketing issues, Marlin explains that they ultimately dismissed such considerations: “Emily and I wanted to change the name for a long time and, at every point and every juncture, we always decided, ‘No, we’re too far in; now’s not a good time.’ I think what happened was— over quarantine, after we had already made this record—we realized that there was never going to be a great time to change our band name. But it’s still me and Emily making music and it’s still us playing a lot of the back catalog. We just wanted to set some new intentions. We wanted to be as true as possible to ourselves and to the music that we’re creating. Some people might want us to be a certain way, so that they always know what they’re getting. It’s like going to Starbucks and knowing what the cold brew is going to taste like. But you can’t treat being in a band like that. It has to be an adventure or you’re not doing it for the right reasons and the music’s going to suffer.”
The recording sessions that yielded Watchhouse started out as something else entirely. Initially, when Marlin and Frantz hunkered down at a lake house just outside of Roanoke, Va.—with drummer Joe Westerlund, guitarist Josh Oliver and bassist Clint Mullican—their intent was to cut a series of demos alongside potential co-producer Josh Kaufman (The Hold Steady, Bonny Light Horseman). Marlin explains, “We kept running into Josh at festivals where he’d be playing in various bands, and we’d sit down and chill together or just talk about music. I always trusted his vibe. Then, in 2019—when we started thinking about the next record and we were trying to figure out if we wanted to work with somebody—he opened for us with Bonny Light Horseman at the Ryman. We talked to him about our plans and kept that initial conversation going. It ended up working out where we were going to do basically a demo session at this lake house, which we set up like a studio. The first song we recorded was ‘Nightbird’ and it felt so good that we committed to the fact that this was no longer a demo session. We made the album then and there.”
The first thing that comes to mind when I think about this tune is the groove. I love how open it is. Emily played her fiddle part thinking that the song was in this 3/4 time and I think Joe, the drummer, was really hitting on this straight 4/4 feel. I love that 6/8 songs are really open and they’ve kind of got all the beats in them, so you can latch on and ride one. Then, all of a sudden, everything starts lining up in these bizarre ways. I think that’s my favorite track on the record in terms of the groove that we chose and the way that we pulled it off.
This is one where I feel like Josh really shined. I’d written the song in a slightly different groove and, when we went to record it, Josh said, “Man, I don’t think I would actually ride down the road and listen to that and I don’t think you would either. Is there a different groove we could do?” So we set that song aside and went off to record some other tunes. It ate at me for hours. And we still had not figured out that tune when we finally sat down to dinner. I basically scarfed down my food really fast, then ran and picked up a classical guitar. I started doing that kind of Leonard Cohen triplet fingerpick part that’s at the beginning of the tune.
Josh came right over and he was like, “What is that?” And I said, “I think this would work for ‘Better Way.’” So he picked up a guitar, and we got inside the mindset of this Leonard Cohen, broody type feel that we both loved. Then, Joe had the idea to use these big seed pods that he has on the backbeat, so it almost had a J.J. Cale feel, like on “Hey Baby.”
Between what we were doing on the guitar and what Joe was doing on the drums, there was this completely different feel. I love it and I don’t think we would’ve ended up there had Josh Kaufman not been very real with us and said, “I think you’ve got a better approach in you; let’s find it.”
Josh knew that I would appreciate the challenge and that I like to mess with all sorts of different grooves and try out a bunch of ideas before I settle on one. He wasn’t ripping the song apart or ripping me apart. It was all very positive, and I think a lot of that was him knowing the potential in the band and knowing our comfort level. I’m glad that he pushed us because it definitely ended up being a much better tune.
Belly of the Beast
I wrote this one after Jeff Austin’s passing to shine some light on how heavy things can get. I don’t pretend to know what was running through Jeff’s mind or where he was at [when he committed suicide].
I was just thinking about what led him to the point where he just didn’t want to exist anymore. As a musician, there are a lot of things people expect of you, and it can be a challenge to separate yourself from that entity. Otherwise, it can be really easy to lose yourself.
I love the one line goes, “Hiding from the monsters in the belly of the beast.” I think that’s very much a part of being a touring musician and being a songwriter. You can’t escape because you’ve already been consumed—you’re driven to be in this lifestyle but, at the same time, it’s a lifestyle that can ask so much of you and take so much from you.
I think that figuring out these little ways to keep yourself sane and keep yourself inspired is very healthy. And I think all of us could be talking about these things a lot more than we do instead of just throwing on sunglasses and trying to pretend like everything’s OK.
I got the idea for “New Star” from T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. There’s this one passage where Lancelot’s been on this long journey and he finally comes home. He sees Guinevere for the first time in years—by this time, I think they’re in their 50s. Guinevere is all dressed up and she’s really outdone herself to welcome Lancelot back. And, basically, he talks about how Lancelot doesn’t even see what she’s wearing. He looks straight through all of that into her eyes. And it’s there that he sees the same Guinevere that he’s known since they were in their early 20s.
I just love the idea of growing old with somebody. As the world around you changes, and your body changes, you’ll see someone’s eyes and notice that they haven’t changed. Their eyes will always be there; they just get more and more information behind them. There are so many pearls and so many secrets and so many exchanges that are just hanging out there for you to lock in with.
So that’s what inspired “New Star.” I was thinking about watching my daughter grow and, someday, we’re going to have to send her off to school or out into the world. And when that time comes, I’ll be able to look back, see Emily, look into her eyes and know the past that we’ve spent together raising this kid and traveling and doing all these things. It’s like an anchor for two people, though I still don’t know where the future might take us.
Emily and I moved into a new place in October 2019, just before everything shut down, and I think this was the first song I wrote around our fireplace. It took a while to get the fireplace inspected but, when we were finally good to go, we had a fire going and that’s another example of a time when I stayed up super late to write a song.
I love the idea that when Ruby was born, she basically was still more rooted in the spirit world than the real world. Her spirit was just waiting this whole time to find this little body so that she could join us. And this song is basically about a parent being haunted by the lack of a person in their life—until they finally see into the eyes of their child. The song goes on a long journey and ends up with her running down the hall, being who she is now.
I usually just write a song and then Emily and I will decide if it makes sense for her to sing it or for me to sing it. In most cases, it makes sense for me to sing it because I’ve got a certain meter that I go for and a certain cadence to the way I sing. So, a lot of times, the way I write lends itself to my voice more than Emily’s. But, when I finished writing this one, Emily was like, “I want to sing it.” So she picked up the guitar and obviously made it her own. I love when that happens—when she feels super compelled to sing one of the tunes.
Lonely Love Affair
The way we recorded this one, it almost offers a little break. It was originally a little more in your face. Then, as we kept playing it, the song just kept chilling out. It’s got that little bridge-chorus section in there and when we were playing it live, we would do it twice. We would take a long solo and then come back to that part.
For the recording, we loved the way that verse progression felt, so we ended up just extending it. Then, we tossed around ideas and asked, “Well, who’s going to play a solo on this?” Nobody wanted to, though, because it felt good to lock into a rhythm. So instead, we have a nice groove section that we decided to play until the cows come home.
Coming Down from Green Mountain
Emily and I love to play instrumental music, and I’ve been doing more instrumental writing as I’ve gotten more into the mandolin as time goes on. Usually, I’ll write my singing tunes on the guitar and I’ll write my instrumentals on the mandolin.
I wrote that tune at the end of the Green Mountain Bluegrass Festival up in Manchester, Vt. It was just a lovely time. A lot of friends were there—some of my favorite musicians to hear play onstage and then also play with backstage. For three days, basically, I didn’t sleep. I just stayed up playing with all of these amazing pickers. Finally, on the last day, I pulled myself away from the jam at 4 a.m. because I knew I needed to sleep. But, when I got back to the room, I just couldn’t. So I took out the mandolin again and wrote that melody to kind of see where I was at, mentally and emotionally. I ended up putting some chords to it and calling it “Coming Down From Green Mountain.”
This one is kind of a journey tune as well. I hit a butterfly one day riding down the road with my car and it made me think about all the things we accidentally hit with our cars. And then that led me to think about how we’re slowly destroying the planet with our cars. It’s all for the sake of convenience. We have enough technology that we don’t have to burn fossil fuels anymore, and yet it’s very convenient to continue doing it. Of course, it’s profitable as well. But I liked the idea of thinking about the first car being made and Carl Benz having no idea how the industry would evolve in the way that it has.
I wrote it in this John Hartford stringband style. It’s super swingy and a little goofy. Then, one day, Emily decided that she wanted to try and sing it. She really chilled it out and made it a little bit more reflective. I thought it was beautiful the way that she took that on, changed up the vibe and made it hers. That was one of the last songs we recorded, and we kept taking the capo and moving it down until it got into this silky, beautiful part of Emily’s voice that she hadn’t really ever used before on a recording.
I wrote this song after having not written a song for like three months, which I don’t usually do. So I decided to personify the muse a little bit and try to write a song about writer’s block. Lyrically, it kind of goes off into different places, but I think it kind of sums up where I sit with songwriting, in that it’s still a mystery to me.
Whenever I latch onto an idea and I’m able to put that into a song, it’s always exciting. Even though I’ve written many songs, the process is still so magical and mysterious to me that I’m compelled to try again because I’ll never perfect it. It’s always like going on a tiny adventure.