—David Menconi, Down on Copperline
In the decade since forming as a bluegrass-adjacent folk group at UNC-Chapel Hill, Mipso has become a local institution as well as a reliable quality signifier wherever they turn up. Whether it’s another band’s show or a recording, if you see Mipso members Joseph Terrell, Jacob Sharp, Wood Robinson or Libby Rodenbough’s names involved, it’s guaranteed to be good.
Individually and collectively, Mipso’s members are so prolific that they’re to the point of putting out a steady stream of solo projects on top of group albums. This year brings Mipso’s sixth and newest album, “Book of Fools,” to be released in August. Already out in the world are full-length solo albums by Rodenbough (“Between the Blades”) and Terrell (“Good For Nohing Howl”) and a solo single by Sharp (“Other Side”), all of which came out in May; plus Wood’s 2022 side project That Other Band’s “In The Middle of Everything.” And even though “Book of Fools” isn’t out yet, Mipso is already working on the next record.
“We have a bad habit of doing that, but it’s something energizing that we need,” says Rodenbough. “There’s so much baloney you have to do when it comes to releasing an album, and looking forward to the next thing that feels like music is a helpful antidote – even though it can be confusing and bring on divided headspace.”
Tuning out the business side of music is an ongoing battle, and Rodenbough makes a point of trying not to think about whether a song will be for Mipso or a solo project while writing. Being fully present at the moment of creation was also the mindset for “Book of Fools,” which the group recorded on old-school analog tape instead of digitally at the urging of their producer Shane Leonard.
“I’ll leave it to others to talk about the sound of tape versus digital because I don’t use my ears that way,” says Rodenbough. “I’d rather focus on the forest than the trees. But Shane wanted to use tape to put a different energy in the room. You do listen more intently. With digital takes, you come to have this awful feeling: ‘We can do this infinitely.’ But watching (engineer) Maryam (Qudus) load up a reel of tape, it was, ‘Okay, that’s what we’ve got. Be here now and let’s do this.’ We’ve done quite a few albums by now and we’re all a lot less precious about it. We don’t expect a record to be a pinnacle, just a beautifully anachronistic document tied to a moment and set of feelings. Over the passage of time, those markers are useful.”
Consequently, different albums conjure up different memories. From 2018, “Edges Run” came at a difficult time when Mipso actually considered breaking up. Part of the downcast feelings came from being in Oregon in January during a cold wet winter working on an introspective set of songs. By contrast, 2020’s self-titled “Mipso” was made in Asheville during the summer; Rodenbough remembers sitting on a porch late at night listening to cicadas while drinking wine at the end of each day of recording.
That eponymous album remains a bittersweet memory, as it was a fine record that deserved a better commercial fate. It was Mipso’s first for a big record company, the legendary folk label Rounder Records, longtime recording home of Alison Krauss. But “Mipso” was released during the depths of the pandemic and quickly sank, leading to the group’s departure from the label.
“Leaving Rounder was a sad thing, but it made sense,” Rodenbough says. “It was great on the front end. They seemed so into our music and contrary to the stereotype of label executives. They were partners in our vision, which was energizing even though they eventually ghosted us. But in fairness, nobody had any idea how the pandemic was going to go. On the other side of it, it just feels like there’s no concern for anything but profit in the music industry. I try not to be naïve and recognize that it’s always been like that. But it feels less magical than ever.”
Three years past Rounder, Mipso is releasing “Book of Fools” independently, and taking the do-it-yourself route seems to have been a freeing experience. “Book of Fools” is a vastly different-sounding record, with lush pop tones and an ambience far removed from Mipso’s scruffier early days. In large part that’s due to Terrell’s distinctive electric guitar.
“His guitar tone seems very contrary to that very reverby, beautiful, swelly sound that’s been trending in Americana,” says Rodenbough. “It’s drier and quirkier. I kept thinking about George Harrison when we were chasing guitar tones, because some of the songs have a sort of Beatles vibe. Joseph’s been on a real journey with electric guitar the last five years or so. He played a ton of it as a teenager, way into classic rock, then went full-tilt into acoustic for many years. A few years ago he got back into electric and really developed his own adult vocabulary. I think he’s come into himself.”`
Mipso will be busy this fall and into 2024 with live dates, touring far and wide to introduce “Book of Fools” to audiences. There are a few local dates to catch, including Sept. 21 at Cat’s Cradle. Live-show tours are about the most time Mipso’s four members spend together anymore, since Sharp and Woods now live in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, respectively.
“Joseph and I are probably local lifers at this point,” says Rodenbough. “I used to be adamant when I was younger that I’d live a lot of different places. Maybe I would if my career didn’t involve visiting so many other places. But there are benefits to staying in one place that you can only conceptualize after staying there. Millenia of human experience has evolved us to do well with communities that watch us grow and change.”