Oldest Sea: Music that Shimmers

Sam and Andrew Marandola are a husband-and-wife duo who play to a beat all their own

It’s a hot Saturday night in August and I’m at Ortlieb’s, a popular bar and venue in Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties, to see Oldest Sea, which consists of Sam and Andrew Marandola. The husband and wife make post-country music that shimmers: slow, soft acoustic strumming soaked in reverb, with vocals as delicate and piercing as shards of glass. This is their record release show for their newest album, Orange Glow.

On stage, “All That Is False (The Dust Has Settled),” the closing track on Orange Glow, is slowly finger-picked into existence.

“Sun’s going down / July 4 / Side of the road / And the darkness for now,” Sam croons, “don’t mean all that much.” She paints pictures of pastures, fields stretched out, the soft elegance of velvet, and silhouettes of far-away trees, as piano keys bang out one at a time, echoing.

“You have gutted me,” she sings, “You stripped me down to nothin’.”

Drums roll in, bass too, cluttered together like logs in a fire. It’s music baked at its own rate—country, if you even want to call it that, burning and rubbed raw, tears gliding down a quivering smile, haunting and tender. Absolute heartbreak.

A Departure from Debut

It’s a departure from their debut album, Sage Burner, released in 2017 on Bandcamp. “I got better at recording and arranging,” Sam tells me over the phone from her home in New Jersey. “It’s a little more hopeful.”

On the cover of Sage Burner, moonlight pierces through pine trees—stark, black, white and blue, the colors of midnight. With a backdrop of foliage the size of buildings, Sam stands isolated on a more vibrant cover for Orange Glow. In her black dress, she is easily distinguishable against an overwhelming expanse of nature, but also appears as a part of it all. “Oh, it sounds so corny. I don’t know how to articulate this without making it sound corny,” she says. “I mean that’s just where my soul is. I feel like [nature] is what I connect with the most. That’s where I get most of my inspiration.”

Sam and Andrew Marandola grew up across the Delaware River in Woodstown, New Jersey, a rural place with a population just over 3,000. Whether it was for holiday shopping or even Taco Bell, Sam’s father would drive the family into Wilmington. Andrew used to play in hardcore bands when he was younger, and would frequent now shuttered New Castle metal outposts like The Harmony Grange and Mojo 13.

They first met in 2007 at Andrew’s house. He was talking to a group of friends when she walked into the room. “I just liked the way he was talking. I just liked him,” she says. “And I think he liked me back.”

Three years would go by. “I would see him and then I would get so bummed out because I really liked him. I would get bummed for like a week.” Then finally one night they told each other how they felt, they became a couple, and in 2015, they were married. “I just love him, more every day, and that’s pretty cool,” she says. “He’s my best bud.”

When she began work on Sage Burner, Andrew was there as a creative springboard, trusted critic, and loving partner. “It’s always, is Andrew going to like it? When he does, I know it must be good,” she says.

Her writing process begins first with atmosphere. “I don’t sit down on the couch with a guitar and start writing,” she says. She starts by using music-making tools, such as her recording software, Ableton. Like many of today’s breakout artists, such as Billie Ellish and (Sandy) Alex G, she writes and records all of her songs at home. She puts on her headphones, cranks up the reverb, and drifts into another world. Then she begins singing, playing, and writing lyrics on her MacBook.

“There’s a certain point in that flow state where everything is just like clear,” she says. “It’s a balance of emotion and clarity. You’re able to write something good.”

“It’s definitely a form of escapism,” she tells me. Through meditation, Marandola has also gotten in touch with a more spiritual part of herself. “There’s been a change for sure and I think it has to do with meditation,” she says.

Poetry Too

In addition to songwriting, she writes poetry. Like her music, it’s visual, simple, and emits an acceptance of the world as it is. One poem, “Street Lamp,” admires a streetlamp’s ability to weather everything without regret. Through hot summers and freezing winters, “It does not wish,” she writes, “To be someplace else.”

It does not complain

Instead

It bows its head

In reverence

To a sacred

And nameless thing

The Marandolas, who grew up in Woodstown, New Jersey, are partners in music and in life. Photo courtesy of Sam Marandola

In Ortlieb’s, the Phillies play on two TVs. A massive cape buffalo head hangs over the bar, with an American flag draped over its neck. In the back, there is a stage, where opener Littlun, the solo project of Molly Lynn White, sits behind a keyboard. After Littlun, another solo artist, Seth Carpenter, plays under the name Bucolic, a term that refers to the pleasant aspects of country life. His vintage aqua blue Danelectro electric guitar, a favorite of Jimmy Page, is radiant.

The crowd slowly grows, but no talent scouts or critics are watching tonight. There are no Pitchfork writers here, and Spin Magazine is now a webzine. Even Rolling Stone, once a dangerous and provocative publication, has gone the way of a Journey song, safe enough to play in an airport, perhaps a bit stale. So they won’t see Sam and her husband up on a small stage with flickering Edison lights behind them as Sam sings out the side of her mouth, flanked by couples and long-time friends like Christopher Clark and Amanda Black, who drove up from Baltimore to see Oldest Sea.

“It puts you in a trance,” says Black, 34, who has known Sam since childhood, after the set.

On stage, Sam plays acoustic guitar while Andrew fills in with pointed guitar picking on a Fender Telecaster. They are performing for the audience in this room—the rest of the world might as well not exist. Like Skip James, the depression-era Delta Blues artist, playing for a small crowd by the side of a barn, or Amy Winehouse singing for her neighbors in a London bar prior to festivals and limitless limelight, tonight like tomorrow, this stage, with its red curtain backdrop, dark paint, chipped wooden walls, where the beer is as cheap as all good things should be, White, Carpenter, and the Marandolas play for themselves, each other, and you. 

By the Delaware Bay, in Cumberland County, is Sam’s favorite place. There’s a dirt road there. You park your car under an observation area. Nearby there’s a bald eagle’s nest.

“I love going there, it’s just something about the landscape,” she says excitedly over the phone. When they first started dating, she and Andrew would venture there together. But now it’s become a personal place for Sam. “It’s just a good way to forget everything that’s going on in my life, and quiet my mind, if I feel that there’s too much chaos, I’ll go there.”

I feel at home with Oldest Sea, like someone has given a voice to our local landscape, greater Wilmington, a place both in the midst of the four of the most densely populated cities in America, but also sometimes nowhere—a perfect place to be.

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