Mipso Keep Time on Their Side As a String Band on the Run (interview + premiere)
Mipso present a new music video that shows signs of perseverance and determination that they possess as versatile and accomplished musicians ready to release the fifth album in their nine-year career.
16 October 2020
Much like life, time is precious for the North Carolina-based string-band quartet known as Mipso, especially in the age of a deadly virus that has left much of the world feeling helpless and hopeless.
Maybe that's why, instead of exploring other options at this stage of their careers, the four singer-songwriters — fiddler Libby Rodenbough, mandolinist Jacob Sharp, guitarist Joseph Terrell and bassist Wood Robinson — have decided to stick together during the worst of times for residents of a 21st century planet fighting mightily for survival.
So while honoring that commitment to carry on as a unified force, Mipso will keep running a race that's a marathon not a sprint, as exhibited in the music video of their lively new song "Hourglass" that premieres exclusively today at PopMatters. Here's the opening verse to get you going: "Does it make your heart beat fast / Turning over hourglass after hourglass til they're gone? / Staring at a faded map / Never stopped to clear a path, now you're walking alone."
Take a look now at the music video — shot in Durham, North Carolina, by their frequent collaborator, co-director-cinematographer Joseph Blankinship (aka "Blank") — to see who reaches the finish line during a run in the sweltering midsummer heat. Then read on to learn more about the video, the song, a new album and Mipso's decision to push through the stress and strain to remain all four for one and one for all four.
A Song Is Born
The "little Frankenstein" of a song began as a verse and a howl by Sharp and a chorus by Rodenbough for one of 12 tracks on the eponymous album that Mipso will release on 16October. The group, whose birth as a trio of male graduates from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill was stamped in 2013 with the delivery of Dark Holler Pop, made three more albums before working on this upcoming self-titled debut for Rounder Records, the prestigious roots label that signed them in 2019.
The creation of "Hourglass" from those snippets "had to do with running out of time, or realizing a traditional conception of a 'good use of time' was not congruent with the times we're living in," writes Rodenbough, who participated in a joint email interview with Sharp for this article accompanying the premiere.
"The efficiency mindset we grew up with, as well as the 'five-year plan' or whatever, becomes increasingly ludicrous when the planet is headed toward non-livability, or when the economic conditions favor only a tiny elite, for that matter. I think we were both trying to express the frustration of that without getting melodramatic, because it's not just a depressing realm of thought; it's also very funny and also just strange and interesting when you look at it like a historian or a sociologist," she reasons.
"No doubt," adds Sharp, who also wrote "Just Want to Be Loved" for the album. "With Mipso, every song is born differently. We had much more time to write this record than we've ever had before and were intentional about trying to share ideas more freely earlier on. I had these two little threads that I shared, and when Libby heard them she really quickly remembered a chorus idea that had been floating."
While rehearsing at a friend's barn in the country, the two tried to "stitch the ideas together," Sharp says. "It was as obvious a fit and co-write as we've had. The band grooved on it later that afternoon and Joseph lent some writing and editing thoughts, too. It found a home in the batch pretty readily because it was just immediately fun."
Hot Fun in the Summertime?
So was the music video, though it had some inherent hazards, especially taking a physical toll in Durham's summer sun when "you start sweating the moment you lift your pinky finger," according to Rodenbough, a native of Greensboro, North Carolina, who became the group's most recent full-time member in 2014.
"And we had decided to make a video that primarily consists of frantic running through the streets," she clamors. "So that was the most visceral challenge. We did it over the course of a couple days, and another challenge was trying to get the timeline (and therefore the daylight) to make sense in this narrative we were forming as we went along. Where some music videos are more impressionistic, this one was a story, albeit a loose one, and that is a lot harder to execute in certain ways. Continuity and all that jazz — was my jacket on or off in the last scene?"
Acknowledging that "you learn a lot about how awkward you look when you see dozens of outtakes of yourself trying to run in unison in high-def slow motion," Sharp still enjoyed making the video, from conception to completion.
"For a long time our creative center as a collective has been focused on touring," he continues. "As a young band, it's kind of what you have to do — hit the road and get out there in front of people. Obviously, COVID-19 and 2020 has basically eliminated our ability to do that. We miss performing. And we miss creating with each other.
"So we decided to try and channel that missing energy into making a batch of music videos for this release (see below) that really captured our personality and the voice of the record, and tried to make it as free and collaborative as possible. This was one of the first ideas we batted around with 'Blank.' The song is of a tempo and energy we've previously captured on stage better than on record, and it's a little anxious in its messaging. Am I going to get where I've been going? Do I even want to be there? So we were trying to capture that with these little characters and the search for something else."
For anyone who has already viewed the video, there's no need for a spoiler alert ahead of Rodenbough's remark when asked who proved to be the best runner: "I will say Wood had the most commitment to the intensity of his running."
At Full Speed
Rodenbough showed some speedy moves, too, at least on one of four other songs she wrote for the album. "Big Star", which includes her on banjo and wistful lead vocals, "came out of me fastest, in that classic lightning-rod way," she says of the song about "looking for love and hope and purpose" during a beach trip with one of her best friends. "I think I had the whole thing, with a few lyrical adjustments yet to be made, within 15 minutes or so."
She also contributes keyboards or piano on four songs, including "Your Body", a writing experience on the opposite end of the spectrum for her.
The mid-tempo number she wrote that addresses her struggles with a sense of self became "a huge ordeal lyrically" compared to standard studio procedures with Mipso that require "just some little tweaks" to the lyrics, Rodenbough explains. "With this one, maybe because it was becoming such a pop song in its production, [producer] Sandro [Perri] and various other people in the room really wanted to refine it in terms of both meaning and the way it sang, so I mean we were debating syllables and breaths and verb tense, to the point that I couldn't quite remember what I had meant the song to say.
"We nearly cut it from the record. But then we missed it, and so we came back with the lyrics pretty similar to how they'd begun, and we deemed it good."
Photo: D. L. Anderson / Courtesy of Rounder Records
Developing a Lighter Touch
Mipso was recorded primarily at Echo Mountain in Asheville, North Carolina, in the summer of 2019 with some overdubs at the Rubber Room in Chapel Hill and at the studio of their engineer Mark Goodell in Brooklyn, New York. It's perhaps "a little lighter, a little quirkier than Edges Run," Rodenbough notes about their previous release that premiered with a full-length album stream and profile at PopMatters in 2018.
"That's not to say that it's lighthearted, though — the songs are still concerned with sadness and worry and heartbreak; they just get at those things more obliquely," she contends. "We wrapped up heavy ideas in playful packaging."
With all but mixing the album completed before "things started to get nuts" when the pandemic hit, Rodenbough had other things to occupy her time, but looked back fondly on the recording of Mipso.
"I mean it all feels a little silly and ineffectual when I'm in a bad state of mind," she states. "On the other hand, I'm glad to have somewhere to direct my attention and energy. Luckily, the recording of this album was all pre-COVID. … So in a way it's a thread that connects us to the time before, and I think that's a good thread to maintain, without denying anything that's happening.
"I want to remember the things that were good then and know that they're still good now — babies, animals, blue-sky days, a gut-punch line in a song — and also to remember what was already bad that's only being revealed by the extreme circumstances. I guess I'm saying I'm trying to stay grounded, not just in a self-care way but in a way of making contact with the marrow of everything. When we made this album, there was striving and tension and affirmation and love that I hope all flow through it and into people's lives."
Making a 'Spectacle' for Herself
Rodenbough also doubled down on her music-making by going solo for the first time and releasing Spectacle of Love (Sleepy Cat Records) on 29 May.
Showing instrumental skills beyond her fiddle playing to include acoustic and electric guitars, piano and synth among others, Rodenbough says it has been in the works for a couple of years, with the song-gathering process beginning even earlier.
"Being in a band rules, and actually I don't like standing up on stage alone much, but it can be hard on your understanding of yourself," she confesses. "You're always reminding yourself to put the mission of the group ahead of your nitpicky quibbles, which is good practice for being a person in general also. But I guess I was curious what it would be like to honor all my nitpicky quibbles, and I had a reserve of songs that hadn't worked for Mipso, so I started recording them in the intervals between our tours."
Utilizing home studios and also handling much of the production/engineering duties on the 13-track album made with other North Carolina musicians, Rodenbough discovered "there were a lot of exhilaratingly clumsy workarounds in the process (though I'll add I had a cast of invaluable collaborators and mentors)."
Compared to her experience with Mipso, the process of gradually writing, then recording, a song — and "thinking about the construction of a track from a much more overdubby perspective" — was more methodical, though fewer hands were influencing her decisions.
Despite recent differences within Mipso, Rodenbough assures, "I think I'd like to keep doing both solo and band stuff forever, or however long I'm doing this, because it feels like that balance is the best chance I have at continuing to love making music."
Rough Around the Edges
Whether working together or apart, life spent in quarantine through most of 2020 has turned into "an evolving journey for all of us," according to Sharp, who has lived in Brooklyn for a little over four years. Robinson recently moved to Salt Lake City, leaving only the band's principal songwriters physically attached to North Carolina via Durham — Rodenbough and Terrell, who was born in High Point.
"Creating community while being home is the most precious thing for a touring musician. But so is leaving to play shows again! So it's been interesting to have that balance shattered," believes Sharp, who spent time with his family in the North Carolina mountains when the pandemic first hit before he returned to New York this summer.
"We holed up in our family lake cabin and tried to help each other understand what was going on and how our worlds were shifting. I think my bandmates all had similar experiences. And frankly our band is its own family, too — we are in pretty constant communication and the shared mission that the band has become was an important structure of support during all of this."
That familial-type bond, though, nearly splintered a couple of years ago like a burnt bird's wishbone left for bickering relatives to grab at a Thanksgiving reunion. Breaking up was on the table after the release of Edges Run, an album that signaled the band's exquisite musical growth and versatility while being recorded in Eugene, Oregon, on the opposite end of their country's familiar, safer environs.
"Well, that wasn't an easy record to make," Sharp admits, comparing their relationship since forming in 2011 to a challenging marriage.
"We pushed through a lot of tension without addressing it," he adds. "That session was like the family vacation where the parents almost split up, like it felt awful, but still get some amazing photos that everyone likes on Instagram, and when you get home and talk it out, you eventually look back at those pictures and are like, 'Damn, we look fucking great!' …
"It takes a lot of continued commitment and willingness to sacrifice some of your sense of self to keep a band together. It was the right time for us to pull back and assess what the cost of doing that was. And at least for me, I had to see that before I could recognize the cost of not doing it. You know? We've built this precious thing that I can't imagine doing again or with anyone else. It's worth shifting the balance to keep that rolling."
Following up, Rodenbough candidly points out, "That is really a great analogy. To be clear, I have beautiful memories from the Edges Run recording process, but there were infuriating days, too. We weren't on the same page in a larger way that no one was willing to talk about while we were paying for studio hours.
"Luckily, we made a record I love anyway, and maybe that tension even heightened the emotional force of some of our performances, but once we got out of the studio, it was time to reckon with ourselves a little bit. We tested our own appetites for the idea of going our separate ways, like you do in relationships sometimes, and it felt like that would be a real loss."
Making the Reconnection
So this gang of four recovered and regrouped, eventually signing with Rounder Records in September 2019.
"Mipso is a wildly creative, boundary-pushing band that is somehow also completely consistent with Rounder's deep string band tradition," stated John Strohm, the label's president, in a press release announcing the band's addition. "Their ensemble playing, singing, and songwriting set them apart from the pack of rising acts in today's roots music scene."
Mipso's Terrell said at the time, "We think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." Just a little more than a year later, the quartet is ready to share the restored beauty of Mipso with the rest of the world.
Yet, even during these unpredictable, unprecedented times, the anticipation continued to build as early as April with the launching of a Patreon Fanclub that reconnects band members with their fans online. Membership levels are priced from $1 to $20 a month.
For loyal patrons, it's a small price to pay to see their favorite group back in action. Traveling — and sometimes living — together in vans throughout their 20s on the road to gigs had become a normal way of life that was sometimes fulfilling, sometimes grueling. Now they're missing most aspects of it.
Regarding Mipso's next possible live show, Sharp responds like many of today's sidelined musicians: "Who knows."
Without a tour stop for their longest stretch since 2013, he can only speculate what 2021 might look like.
"I'm sure we'll play some shows — but it's still hard to imagine a fully fledged nationwide or international tour," he surmises. "Would be easier to imagine with any sense of true leadership and progressive action from our government!"
For now, fans can at least follow Mipso's lead and applaud their creative attempts to stay afloat. Band members not only are releasing archival live shows they remixed and sharing songs that didn't make the cut for earlier albums, but also writing blog posts, telling "Mipsong Stories," sending postcards and other merchandise or simply hanging out during live chats from their virtual playground.
"I love wine and did a live wine-tasting with the band where our fans got to see us get a little tipsy," Sharp reveals about one of their recent Mipso University sessions. "Libby kicked my ass in a workout video she led. It's been surprisingly fun. And also meaningful to have those interactions with these music lovers. I took for granted how much the post-show merchandise table conversations mean to me. This isn't a full replacement, but it's close."
Even if the halcyon days don't last forever, Rodenbough, Sharp, Terrell and Robinson still have plenty of reasons to go the distance. Mipso seems like a band that will never run out of ideas.
ENCORE: THREE MORE FOR MIPSO'S LIBBY RODENBOUGH AND JACOB SHARP
What was behind the decision to work with producer Sandro Perri and add outside musicians for the album?
Jacob Sharp: At our first writing session for what became this album, we didn't write at all. We just shared songs from our favorite records, letting each other know what we were intrigued and inspired by. The music of Sandro Perri was at the center of the Venn diagram. So eventually we were like, "Should we email him?!" He was a great part of the process from that moment on as producer — and performed on the record as well. We also had our longtime touring drummer and collaborator Yan Westerlund on the session. Yan is just the best.
Libby Rodenbough: Our engineer and mixer was Mark Goodell, who also does live sound for us when we can snag him, though his main gig is with Julian Lage. Mark is obsessive and perceptive, and he knows us all very well at this point, so there's a level of personal care and understanding that I think permeates even technical decisions like which mic to use for the fiddle — that's special. In the later stages of overdubs we also called up our great friend Shane Leonard, who agreed to come help us finish these songs in exchange for a Moog Grandmother, which you can hear on the record. Shane is a percussionist and banjo player and producer and sort of generalized musical force, a fountain of ideas from little bitty accents to arrangement overhauls. When we made the decision to work with Sandro, we kicked off a chain reaction in the universe of the record that led us to more folks with his kind of sensitivity and playfulness, the way he slowly chips away at a song trying to get at the heart without damaging any of its beauty in the process.
What does signing with Rounder Records mean for Mipso's career, and how did it affect your creative process as a group?
Rodenbough: It was affirming to hear from a label whose releases have been a big part of our lives, and then we met the people who run it and were over the moon that we were going to get to work with them, because their vision of why you make music and how you try to get it out to people really aligns with ours. We've been wary of signing record deals, not because there aren't good people out there, but because we weren't really sure what a record label does for you in the music business today, and we needed to be convinced. They convinced us!
Creatively, it was absolutely freeing to have an advance for recording, which we'd never experienced before, and to know that there was a master plan and ongoing support from people who believed in our music and had no agenda other than helping it succeed. We're touchy about creative control, as musicians should be, and they never attempted to infringe on that for a second. And they just have a lot of resources we didn't have before, like a video editing team — who were willing to take on six music videos we shot over a two-week period and incorporate sometimes conflicting feedback from four needy band members. So, in short, we're very proud to have a release in the Rounder catalog.
How have you spent your time in quarantine? Where have you gone and what activities have you enjoyed since the lockdown?
Sharp: I wish my quarantine had been more productive, though I'm happy to be easy on myself during the most psychologically trying chapter of my life. Certainly I've appreciated the stillness and the realizations that have been forced upon me by the discomfort I've often felt within it. As far as activities, I've started to love co-writing songs on FaceTime. I'll always thank this year for forcing that on me.
Rodenbough: I think this is a common experience, but I've been in better touch with my family than I was before, even though they were always just a FaceTime away when we were off touring on the opposite coast or something. And I'll echo Jacob that I've been disappointed with myself for not making more with all this time at home, but I've been happy falling deep into domestic rituals and watching the seasons change, going on long runs and watching very, very many movies.