Mipso Finds a New Way Forward
Photo by DL Anderson Pictures
In 2018, North Carolina folk-pop band Mipso released Edges Run — and then came very close to splitting up.
That album was the product of an edgy, stressful studio session. The four members of the band had been playing together since their teenage years, and as they moved into their late 20s they were becoming different people. It happens, says mandolinist Jacob Sharp: Everyone changes between 20 and 30, yet in this case the personal growth of four people was also entangled in their art and collective livelihood.
There were subtle interpersonal differences that hadn’t been aired, that had been ignored, that had simmered in the close quarters of a tour van. And then, when Mipso arrived in Oregon to record, it was the middle of winter and the United States seemed to be unraveling. The music that came out of the session was great, says Sharp, but the process wasn’t fun amid all the friction.
“I had conversations with all three bandmates where we were almost trying to scare each other, like, ‘I thought about quitting.’ Kind of testing the water,” says fiddler Libby Rodenbough. “I think you do that in a relationship, too. … When that enters the public discourse between the two people, it’s like, ‘Now we really have to think about it.’”
Once the question hung in the air — What if we end this thing? — the musicians who comprise Mipso decided it was time to fix what is effectively a four-way marriage. It was time to communicate properly.
“Resentment is so easy to harbor in silence,” says Rodenbough.
Mutating and Maturing
Mipso formed as Mipso Trio in 2010, when University of North Carolina undergrads Sharp, bassist Wood Robinson, and guitarist Joseph Terrell formed a squeaky-clean Avett Brothers-meets-Buddy Holly stringband. They released an EP, and then in 2012 the LP Long, Long Gone. Rodenbough was a frequent guest. She became a full member in 2013 and the band dropped the “Trio,” becoming simply Mipso. With each successive album — Dark Holler Pop, Old Time Reverie, Coming Down the Mountain, Edges Run — Mipso mutated, evolving away from the bluegrass-adjacent approach of its early years and toward a progressive folk-pop sound with precise four-way harmonies, whip-smart arrangements, and an ever-broadening set of timbres. And while that growth has continued on Mipso, out Friday, there’s a new flavor: patience. For the first time, the songs were written in total collaboration. And for the first time, Mipso went into the studio with the intention of giving the listener the space to zone out, to get into the song world and check out the scenery.
“I think the kind of growing we needed to do with each other and to relearn to be honest with each other and to share with each other was the kind of thing we would need to do with any loved ones that we had carried through these life phases,” says Sharp.
What Mipso shares is especially rare in 2020, says Rodenbough, in that its members are effectively still with their college partners. These musicians were 18, 19 years old at the band’s onset and didn’t know at the time how long what they had started would last — just like a relationship, she says. “At a certain point you start to get self-conscious about the things that you’ve been doing for a long time when you sense yourself changing and you sense the other people in the partnership changing,” Rodenbough continues. “If you can hold on, I think that’s a really beautiful thing to make it through together.”
Mipso is a band with no dominant personality — no “leader” — which translates into a project with four voices creating a single coherent sonic entity, as Sharp describes it. This isn’t achieved through compromise, Mipso learned, but by allowing the individual personalities to flourish and to come toward each other, he continues.
There was also the question of why — of “Is what we do important?” This is a constant internal conversation for Robinson. He wonders if his individual contributions to music have value, but also whether music itself is important. Robinson mulls these questions of artistic and personal worth during a full-band video call with a calm, philosophical presence that has been his hallmark since college at least. When he declares that his music does have value, though, there’s something new in his voice and expression. Robinson has always had the questing air of the son of a jazz musician and yoga instructor, and that remains, but now he’s also possessed of firm-footed confidence.
“It’s really freeing to allow yourself to just create and know that what that creation is going to be is going to be of value to the world,” he says.
The conversation about self-titling the most recent Mipso album took five minutes — if that. The members didn’t overthink it. No other titles were considered. It just made sense, so they went with it.
For the songwriting sessions, however, Mipso took its time. Previously, writing and recording sessions were crammed into two-week breaks between tours. The songs got fleshed out during these sessions, sure, but didn’t especially mutate. The band had never given itself the time or creative space to work on songs collectively and with no clear goal for how the end product would sound: such explorations take time. That all changed for Mipso, which was recorded at Asheville’s Echo Mountain Recording.
“We all brought songs with the expectation that they would change,” says Robinson. “No one was precious about the song that they had written.”
Terrell, for instance, brought “Let a Little Light In,” which at the outset seemed like it would end up in a bluesy zone, Rodenbough says. But instead they let it wander. Percussion comes and goes, while wordless vocal harmonies establish the song’s structure rather than bolster it as background texture. “We kept it in a weirder zone,” she says. “It also lyrically and thematically doesn’t try to commit to one emotional territory exclusively.”
“Like You Never” is one of Sharp’s favorite transformations from the Mipso sessions. The band was more involved in the mixing of this album, and he’s very pleased with the sonic textures of the oblique, angular song it became. Terrell was nervous about “Hey Coyote,” since he felt like its lyrics were in a different ballpark from songs he had brought to the band before. One experiment met another as Mipso created a loose, floating sound world for “Hey Coyote,” and Terrell wound up satisfied with a song that he wasn’t initially sure would even see the light of day. Robinson appreciates the “long, meandering presence” of “Big Star,” which rather than guiding the listener’s attention allows them to zone out and back in as it progresses. “Libby brought a beautiful, simple song — a well-honed, distilled kind of song,” Terrell says of “Big Star.” “And we allowed it to become something it never would have been.”
And this is especially exciting territory to Mipso. Its members still love tight little pop songs without a wasted measure, but nowadays they have given themselves permission to wander. If songs from previous records were defined by a straight-ahead gaze, Rodenbough says, Mipso is about turning your head in lots of different directions. It’s about an expansive view with threads of intimacy.
“I think on some of these we’ve got the medium-distance vista with someone whispering in your ear,” Terrell explains.
And Mipso, newly healed and confident in its approach, did not rush the self-titled album. The release date was moved twice, but there was no in-band stress about it. Mipso simply wasn’t ready, so they gave it time.
“We’ve learned to understand what types of things are worth being strategic about and what types of things aren’t worth it,” says Rodenbough. “Now, especially because of coronavirus, it’s like, who cares?”
It was liberating to not worry about reception and marketing during the recording process. It was liberating to be deliberate and only release Mipso when it was ready. And it was liberating to work with Rounder Records, Rodenbough says, who supported the band in ignoring what both parties felt were outdated record industry conventions. There was no worry about when was the most strategic season to release Mipso, for example, nor was there any discussion of the songs in anything but emotional and personal terms, which the band credits to producer Sandro Perri.
“My main anxiety from the career perspective is are we ever going to play a show again?” says Robinson. “That’s a lot more of an acute anxiety than is the record going to do [well]?”
“And if we play shows again, are they going to be at all Live Nation-owned venues that are like really impersonal and have nothing to do with the local communities we’ve come to know and love?” Rodenbough adds. Besides, she says, what’s one LP compared to the potential collapse of American democracy and violence and oppression toward Black people in the US? Next to that, Rodenbough says, an album release feels like small potatoes.
There’s plenty to stress about — and no one on the call denies that — but the new album isn’t one of those things. For Mipso, there’s almost an air of ease, of relief as they discuss releasing Mipso, even during one of the strangest and most intense moments in recent American history. It’s been liberating to make a record without feeling beholden to the business and strategy side of the music business, Robinson says.
“It isn’t like we’ve released ourselves from hopes and expectations for how something performs,” he says, turning the thought over in his head for a quick second before saying, “but we kind of have. … At a certain point, you learn that you make a record, and you put it out. And then you make another record, and you put it out. And then you make another record.”