Mipso Lets Go of Expectations for ‘Book of Fools’
From left, Mipso's Wood Robinson, Joseph Terrell, Libby Rodenbough, and Jacob Sharp (photo by Calli Westra)
Just behind the stage at the North Carolina Museum of Art’s amphitheater is a rectangular block of concrete offering a giant inscription to the sky:
TO BE RATHER THAN TO SEEM
It’s North Carolina’s state motto (often rendered in Latin: Esse quam videri), generally attributed to Cicero and adopted by the state in 1893. One hundred and thirty years later, Mipso’s Joseph Terrell takes note of it during a walk through the Raleigh museum’s grounds on a sweltering August day, finding the motto fitting not just for his home state, but for his band’s approach as well.
“I think the only way that making music feels good is to mean what you say and say what you mean,” he says. “There’s all different voices all the time telling you to be strategic for certain purposes and to anticipate what people are going to think and gear yourself towards that, and I’m not interested.”
On the band’s sixth album, Book of Fools, out this Friday, Mipso adds electronic sounds and experimental directions but keeps deeply personal, finely crafted songwriting at the core. After more than a decade of making music and going through life together, these four friends who met as students at the University of North Carolina have more than found their footing: They’ve found the freedom to make the music they want without worrying about genre or expectations.
The Medicine Tree
The album’s title comes from its first song — which is actually the second half of a song in two movements. “Starry Eyes/Book of Fools” explores staying on a path and then straying from it.
The song’s heavy, trippy second part exhorts listeners to “take a page from the book of fools,” a suggestion that conventional wisdom isn’t always something to strive for.
“It’s good to seem foolish in a world where you disagree with the premises of success and rationality,” explains Libby Rodenbough, who wrote the song and plays fiddle and keys for Mipso. “It’s a good thing to resist the pressure to be constantly in movement, constantly moving forward, constantly achieving.”
Terrell places a similar sentiment in the context of music-making in the very next song, “Radio Hell.” Over a bass-and-drum driven beat, he sings:
I don’t want to dance with somebody who doesn’t want to dance with me
I’m busy shaking all the branches on the medicine tree
“We think of art-making as something that’s a category unto itself,” Rodenbough says. “Different from commerce, different from religion, different from preaching or moralizing, different from self-indulgence.” Whether it’s part of furthering a career or just everyday life, making art — music, in Mipso’s case — is both sacred and playful, she says, and both sides are important.
“To me, it’s got to be that meaningful,” Terrell says, thinking of the way he states it in “Radio Hell.” “It’s got to be medicine.”
The branches of that medicine tree can feel out of reach among all the practical concerns of being a professional musician. There are tours to plan, miles to cross, studio time to be scheduled, and a thousand other things to attend to. It can be hard, Terrell and Rodenbough admit, to keep tuned to the pureness they seek in making art.
“I think I only stay in touch with that in fleeting moments,” Rodenbough says. “What the whole experience of doing music professionally feels like to me is grasping to stay in touch with that, and almost losing it all the time.”
“A constant betrayal of the reason that you do this,” Terrell adds. “And a constant conversation, hopefully, about how you can be aware of that and try and limit it.”
In part because of the COVID lockdown and then a slower pace of touring in the years since, Terrell and Rodenbough, along with Mipso mandolin player Jacob Sharp and bassist Wood Robinson, have been on what Rodenbough calls “individual journeys with our relationships to ourselves, and that includes our relationship to making music.”
“In this era of our lives,” she explains, “we’re really chasing possibilities for new revelations. And that includes playing music with lots of different people, trying to make music on our own, trying to read things, writing different types of songs, trying to rethink how we make music with Mipso.”
As part of that pursuit, the band recently booked some studio time without any particular plan for a release that might come out of it. They found that freedom exhilarating, but scary too.
“If you don’t know what your goal is, that produces a lot of anxiety because so much in our culture tells you that that’s a waste of time,” says Rodenbough.
“But I also think it’s the only way to really get at the honest thing that you want to say, is to not bring an agenda to it,” Terrell adds. “So much of what I’ve learned about writing and making music — and this applies to friendship, too, it’s just like a lesson in general — is that you have to listen more than you talk. You have to let something happen more than you force something to happen.”
The meaning Mipso finds in music is something that can’t be measured. But measurement, of course, is a huge part of a musician’s career in 2023. YouTube views, Spotify spins, and social media followers are coveted and tracked by bands and their management teams. Sales, too — of downloads, tickets, merch, and more — are a crucial marker for success. Amid so much data, a lot of information can get lost.
“We often define things in terms of metrics that don’t feel like they reflect the experience of being alive,” Rodenbough reflects.
That disconnect is at the heart of her song “The Numbers,” inspired in part by an interview she heard as part of an election season story in which a voter explained their candidate preference in terms of stock market success. In the song, Rodenbough sings:
And the seers say that the numbers say we’re doing so well
And the papers say that the seers say don’t worry yourselves
Other songs on Book of Fools turn inward, including the gorgeous “Broken Heart/Open Heart,” a rumination on grief and its ability to be a force for positive rebuilding. Tender piano and distorted guitar work together to give the song both a gentleness and an edge, a sonic representation of the complexity of loss that complements Sharp’s heartfelt lyrics.
“Carolina Rolling By” taps into Mipso’s earlier folk sound, but here, too, are layers of meaning. An ode to the open road is sung from the perspective of a pill-dependent truck driver who knows he’s taking “the long way home.”
And now a quick return to some numbers: In 11 years as a quartet, Mipso has released now six albums as well as one EP of remixes and, last year, a handful of fan-favorite covers that reflect the breadth of the band’s tastes and influences. Their take on Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues” started as a setlist staple, while Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend” and Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” caught fire as videos the band shot while goofing off in greenrooms.
From Mipso’s earliest origins playing gatherings at UNC, they’ve steadily built a following far beyond their home state’s borders. But it hasn’t always been easy. Their 2018 album, Edges Run, was a success by any measure, but it was stressful in its making, placing the band at a crossroads both personally and professionally that made them wonder if they should continue (ND story). By the time they recorded Mipso, released in 2020, they’d found a new way forward, renewing their commitment to each other and to making music on their own terms.
Those terms, unwaveringly, have included each other. Mipso is the rare band whose lineup has been unchanged throughout its history, operating without a “frontman” and functioning truly as a team. Or maybe, more accurately, a family.
“I don’t have any friends who have a relationship like this that I have with my bandmates,” Rodenbough muses. “It’s been really interesting to watch them all and myself, and know that they’re watching me, grow up, basically. The closest thing that it reminds me of is having siblings, but it’s in a different stage of life. It’s like taking the sibling experience that you have from zero to 18 and transposing it from 18 to 30. … Most of my experiences as an adult have been with these people.”
The band’s dynamic allows for growth both individually and collectively. Each member has released solo music recently: Good For Nothing Howl from Terrell, Between the Blades by Rodenbough, the single “Other Side” from Sharp, and In the Middle of Everything from Robinson-led instrumental group That Other Band. Those individual musical explorations, and the exposure to other ideas and collaborators they bring, only strengthen the music the band can make together, Rodenbough and Terrell say.
“As the band, the joy of it is the collaboration and the combination of the personalities and the making something that no one would make on their own,” Terrell explains. “I love being in a band, it’s really special. But it’s best when you have had the time and the space to really work on and develop your own thing and feel in touch with your own process.”
In their second decade of making music together, time and experience have given Mipso a confidence that comes from within, and that provides a compass for the way forward.
“I felt much more anxiety when we started about the eyes that were on us, or on me, and wanting to do it right. And wanting to do what we’re supposed to do and do justice to the people who expected something from us,” Terrell says. “And that maps onto my sense of life in my early 20s too. It’s like, ‘We’re doing it, we’re showing up, we’re going to see how big and how exciting it can be!’ And I’m still excited to play music, but I much more have my own reasons for doing it that feel like need to be there first, and then you can feel a little easier about what comes afterwards.”
It’s not that they don’t care what the numbers say, or how fans react, or what their next step is. But those measures of success have never mattered as much as something deeper.
As a band, Mipso has learned to be — not just to seem — exactly who they are.