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Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States | Established. Jan 01, 2011 | SELF

Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States | SELF
Established on Jan, 2011
Band Americana Bluegrass




"Listening to bluegrass, pop, and local music with Mipso"

Mipso is not a college band anymore.

Mipso Trio began four years ago on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill. The sweet and simple acoustic act found quick favor among their peers. Guitarist Joseph Terrell, bassist Wood Robinson and mandolin player Jacob Sharp made for a green, particularly earnest addition to North Carolina's coterie of folk musicians, qualities that could sometimes make their music listlessly pleasant.

But things have changed: They dropped the "Trio," and Libby Rodenbough joined the group full-time after she graduated from UNC last year. In the interim, Mipso have trekked across the country for weeks at a time, steadily upping their gusto and strengthening their chops. Their harmonies have gotten richer, their writing better.

Their new LP, Old Time Reverie, is another push forward, boasting the dark surrealist ballad of "Bad Penny" alongside more tender tunes like "Down in the Water" and "Stranger." It's a confident but measured step for the still-young outfit.

After a short nine-day run to Ohio, Terrell, Rodenbough and Robinson met at Terrell's Chapel Hill home to discuss bluegrass, pop songs and the next generation of great American bands—and how they're taking cues from all of the above.


(Kristin Andreassen will open Mipso's Friday night release show. Her new record, February's Gondolier, features beautiful folk songs surrounded by unexpected ornamentation.)

JOSEPH TERRELL: I love her because she comes from an old-time background, and she's a great clogger and dancer and does body percussion, which is awesome and unique. She plays fiddle. But she plays with an interesting lineup always, and she often plays with a bass clarinetist, a guy named Alec Spiegelman, who lives in New York, who adds a really amazing element to the more folky stuff. It's a texture you're not used to hearing with anything remotely folky.

LIBBY RODENBOUGH: But then, it's perfect. Sometimes throwing in an element that's a little off somehow makes it a whole sonic landscape. It's a weird, counterintuitive thing.


(Mipso tapped their longtime pal Andrew Marlin, half of the duo Mandolin Orange, to produce Old Time Reverie. This song comes from Mandolin Orange's latest LP, May's Such Jubilee.)

JT: Andrew has been a friend of ours for a long time and was a friend of ours before we were in the band. A couple of our first shows, we played with Mandolin Orange. Though they're definitely older and wiser and farther along, we've benefitted a lot from learning from them.

LR: This album is a really, really cohesive album. There were fewer moments where I thought, "Single! Single!" on this one, but I thought the whole album was a perfect work in its entirety.

JT: Andrew's a great songwriter. Andrew and Emily have a special chemistry that's really rare. They're a great duo that, to me, has entered the Mount Rushmore of great man-woman duets in American music. This record is a great example of how they're a great trio, too. Josh Oliver is, in some ways, part of the band. He has some moments on this record, as he did on This Side of Jordan, where the harmony and his third instrument fills it out and makes it awesome.


(Megafaun's Brad Cook produced a version of "Down In The Water," a song written by Rodenbough that first appeared on the band's Faces EP. A more traditional acoustic arrangement appears on Old Time Reverie.)

LR: The song he produced was one I wrote and the first song of mine that we did any recording for. It was really crazy and special to me to hear my song become a real, recorded thing. I hope that we'll work with Brad again some time. He has the best, happiest energy. That band, they really do total genuineness in a really great way. They're having fun and being really interesting musically, but it's nothing ironic or cool or snide.

JT: We've talked about this as a band, but they're carrying the torch of classic American rock 'n' roll in a way that not a lot of people are—Hiss Golden Messenger, too. I would just put them in the category of "Great American Rock Band."

click to enlarge
Photo by D.L. Anderson

(During the past two years, Simpson has been hailed as one of the best new voices in Americana, using outlaw country aesthetics to new ends on last May's Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.)

JT: He's great. He has that completely classic Waylon, Hank Jr. outlaw country voice. But he's a guy whose time had come, and he had the perfect media story at the right time. Everyone turned and looked at him at the same time and was like, "Yep! Believably classic. He's in the party."

WOOD ROBINSON: It's the modern take on the Merle Haggard thing.

LR: It's the meta-modern take, I think.

WR: This actually almost reminds me of a Ween record, without the crazy—the production element, with kind of the phasing effect throughout the whole thing.


(The members of Mipso agree that Simon's 1986 hit record is a masterpiece. Its sparkling title track is an easy choice.)

JT: One of the stories of recording this song was Paul Simon went down there to take some of the South African influence, but this guy Ray [Phiri] said when he was playing the song, he was imitating what a Nashville guitar player would have done on a country record. So, Paul Simon was imitating a South African sound, while the South African guitarist was imitating what he imagined would have been a country sound. It wasn't so much straight-ahead theft or assimilation; it was this weird mixing and melding of awesome musicians.

LR: It's another great example of some unexpected instrumental elements being so important. The sound of this record is incredibly distinctive, but not off-putting. It's very, very listenable.

WR: He could have easily just stuck with the Simon & Garfunkel thing, wrote really great songs and sang with a guitar. But he was like, "Screw that, I'm going to make fucking awesome pop records."


(From Simon, we jump to another pop song master. This short tune offers a poignant perspective on the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.)

LR: This is one of the best examples of a story song. It's a perfect narrative. It's pretty bare-bones. It's only three verses, and they're pretty short, but he perfectly lays out this complex historical event and the aftermath. And it's such a simple chorus, but it hits you in the gut.

JT: Ninety-five percent of pop songs are about love, and Randy Newman is an example of someone who writes songs about really different stuff—historical events and ideas, funny songs. It's inventive.


(This 1981 cover of Eric Clapton's classic sparks an extended discussion of old-school and newer styles of bluegrass.)

JT: A lot of modern bluegrass is really sterile and boring and formulaic. But Bill Monroe was a renegade to the highest degree. He's screaming. It was basically rock 'n' roll before rock 'n' roll. And then the banjo came in—it was like a modern racecar. That was before the electric guitar was a thing. It was a loud, brash, metallic, modern sound. They weren't going for something traditional and pristine. It was just raw and cool young-person energy.

LR: The rawness is what I'm attracted to with early old-time stuff—these weird, funky voices, strange modalities, very strange harmonizing. I like the old, weird America. - Indy Week

"Mipso to release "Old Time Reverie" and embark on a national tour"

Acclaimed Americana string band Mipso will be releasing its third album, Old Time Reverie, via Robust Records on October 2. Currently, the self-professed “road dogs” are out touring through November, promoting their music and stunning audiences around the country with their unique twangy Appalachian-influenced Americana dazzle.

“This year, I think we have just over 170 shows in 39 states,” Jacob Sharp, Mipso’s mandolin player, told The Rowdy in a recent interview. “We’re moving around a lot and we’re happy about that. We are happy for the growth and maturation of our band and the sound that’s coming from performing so frequently.”

Jacob expressed that the band’s understanding of how you build a following on a national level is by taking a “really grassroots approach of just connecting with people. You have to put the time in and be there.” And to do that, “You have to be in a band with people you enjoy being with because there’s not a lot of separation on the road. You’ll be sleeping in a van, sharing a hotel room, and crashing on floors. You don’t really have a lot of individual space. I think a lot of promising and talented bands don’t get beyond their first big tour because there can be so many clash points on the road.”

If Mipso’s music is any indication, Jacob, Joseph Terrell (guitar), Wood Robinson (double bass), and Libby Rodenbough (fiddle) get along beautifully. The delicate, interlocking rhythms unite to create a soul-settling peace that serves as a gently churning world where the band’s miraculously rich harmonies rise like the sun on a glorious dew-kissed country morning. Although each track has its own individual texture and flair, the album holds together as a strong musical amalgam of one vision depicted with a variety of colors.

“Going into this album, the songs were coming from a wider breadth of places and personalities than they had come from before and we were wondering if we were going to be able to find a cohesion in the recording,” Jacob informed. “I think that we did, so I am happy to hear you say the same.”

“Having been together for four years, this is the only band that any of us have ever been in, so, for better or for worse, we only understand creating music on a professional level through this group,” he continued. “I think that even though there is an element where individually we all come from different places, we are writing towards this well-known entity that is the band. We understand what it is that we are collectively working towards, so we tailor the songs to that.”

Jacob went on to note that the songwriting approach for Mipso is a democratic process. “Generally, a song comes into the band pretty much fully formed, either lyrically or structurally, from the individual writer or the co-writers. Then, the arrangement and the more intricate parts are fleshed out collectively. So, we have two stages to our songwriting process, the first is that private, individual experience, and the second is when the song moves to the group to be refined.”

When it comes to choosing material for the album, Mipso picks about 20 or 25 songs to take into the studio so the band can create fairly finished recordings of those songs. The band’s producer listens to all of the tracks and chooses the best songs for the final list. “Andrew Marlin is the producer and he’s also a great friend of ours, both within and outside of music. He’s somebody we trust.”

“This album is important for us because it feels like our most solidified sound, yet,” Jacob added. “We went into this process for the first time with full knowledge of who we are as a band -- not that we don’t have more to grow and certainly not that we know everything! Our first album was us figuring out how to be in a band and how to write songs. The second album was us trying to figure out how to make a record -- we had played enough to learn that we each had roles and objectives. On this third one, we just went in more naturally with a certain confidence of having found our sound.”

Though the band has grown and matured sonically over the years that the members have been together, a great deal of who Mipso is comes from the addition of Libby as a full-time member. “She was always a member on the side, but never a full-time touring member. This last year, she has become a full-time member and I think that has really changed how we understand our sound and also how we understand what it is that we are saying. This album solidifies what Mipso is. It is the music that we want to make and how we want to make it. We are excited to share it and we are excited to keep doing it via live shows. Hopefully, people find it, listen to it, love it, and buy it. We understand that the main way people discover us is at our shows, so we’ll be out there. Wherever people are, we’ll be there.” - The Rowdy

"About to Break: Mipso"

Mipso is a word you won’t find in any dictionary. But it is the name of an emerging musical trio hailing from North Carolina. Their name and their sound defies typical definition, yet their harmonies and lyrics are synonymous with many bluegrass acts of the past. With their second album, Dark Holler Pop, reaching the 8th spot on the Billboard Bluegrass charts, it is clear that gentlemen of Mipso are already finding themselves a deserving spot amongst their contemporary bluegrass brethren.

The Sitch's Jessica Keough sat down with Jacob Sharp, Joseph Terrell and Wood Robinson to discuss how they (the band and the name) came to be, their excellent recently-released second album Dark Holler Pop, and what it is that makes their sound and live performance even more unique than their name.

Where did you guys meet? And how did you realize that you worked really well together musically-speaking?

JACOB: Joseph and I met at a college visit when we were high school seniors, we were both 18 and we had our instruments with us and we happened to play a little bit.

JOSEPH: Serendipity.

JACOB: We took alternating years off of school, but we kept in touch, trading mix tapes of who we were into and lyrics of stuff we were writing independently. Kind of at that point we were realizing that playing music together was in our future, but didn’t meet under the assumption that we would form a band. While I was gone, Joseph and Wood met.

WOOD: Yeah, Joseph and I met through a mutual friend to form a funk-rock cover band called Funkasaurus Rex.

Awesome name.

WOOD: We’re still waiting for that reunion tour. But, we met through that. Meanwhile I was involved in the jazz program and I knew that he was a great songwriter and so it made sense that, through Joseph, that we would collaborate. We decided to get together to form a bit of a bluegrass band to play for a couple of charity events on campus.

So when was all this happening in relation to your college careers?

UNISON: Our sophomore years.

JOSEPH: Took us a couple years after we met to all be in the same place at the same time. As soon as we were, we started practicing together.

JACOB: The first event was fundraiser, a charity fundraiser for the Eve Carson Scholarship, and it was a BBQ and Bluegrass fundraiser so they asked us if we could put together a bluegrass band and we didn’t know we were going to play more than that one show. We thought after that weekend it would be over.

But the local paper called us and asked us what our name was and we didn’t have one and so we asked how long they had to print and they said a half an hour or something so initially we came up with Mipso Trio.

And Mipso?

JOSEPH: It was just us. We decided we wanted a unique name. We just came up with it. Originally we were Mipso Trio, and we liked the ring and rhythm of those words together. There's nothing else called Mipso, so now it only means us. If you Google it we're the only thing that comes up, which is nice.

When did you decide you were going to stick together and make a full-on album? Did that come much later?

JACOB: Well, the first full-length album came after we formed and had about 2 months of smaller shows and we released an EP, we self-recorded and self-produced a 6 song EP. We recorded it in a friend’s apartment, in a closet actually. And we released that at the Local 506 (venue in Chapel Hill, NC), that was our first kind of real gig, and that sold out.

After the show, we were approached by someone who owned a local record label that said they liked what we were doing and how we were doing it and they wanted to help us do it on a bigger scale. Once we started working with them, we decided a full-length record was in our future. We then took some time off during a summer—we were all doing different jobs—came back to school and got ready to record a full-length album.

The first full-length album we recorded, it’s called Long, Long Gone, was recorded at ElectroMagnetic Radiation Recorders (EMR) in Winston-Salem. This guy Doug produced it, alongside us, and it was our first time in a real studio. We rode that album for a little over a year, year and a half before we released the new one, Dark Holler Pop. It was about 6 months after Long, Long Gone came out though that we decided we were going to pursue music full-time after school.

So in that year and a half, between Long, Long Gone and Dark Holler Pop, what major lessons did you learn?

JOSEPH: I think the biggest thing is that we played about a hundred shows between finishing our first album and starting to record our second one. We all got better at our instruments, we got better at songwriting and we got better as a trio. We learned from the first album that it sometime takes a while to figure out what you sound like, to kind of nail down what your distinctive sound is. So we got a lot better at sounding like ourselves, if that makes sense.

It makes perfect sense. So sounding like yourselves…how would you describe yourselves? Are you a bluegrass band?

WOOD: We have trouble classifying ourselves as strictly bluegrass because with bluegrass comes this distinct image of rip-roaring solos, flat-picking solos, and crazy fast instrumentation, which we don’t have the skill to implement. So it’s hard for us to describe us as that, especially for promotional purposes, because if people hear bluegrass and expect a Tony Rice solo, well I’m definitely not going to deliver.

JOSEPH: I love bluegrass and I know enough about bluegrass to understand that we’re not a strict bluegrass band. If someone wants to use it to describe us, I think that’s fine because it does describe some of the stuff that we do, but it’s not all that we do.

JACOB: I think we all have come to terms with our own understanding of music and music we like in an age where genres are less important than they were. They are still really important terms for publicity before a show or how you talk about a new band that you’re liking to your friends and certainly. We can fit the image and instrumentation of a bluegrass band. We use a lot of parts of bluegrass and bluegrass is the key informant musically, especially for Joe and I, of how we approach songwriting initially and the structure of songs.

If people think we’re a bluegrass band, and we fit in with their understanding of bluegrass, that’s great. It is something we’re happy with. We don’t think we’re only bluegrass. We just hope it’s good music and it’s music we really care about and it’s really reflective of who we are as individuals, both musically and outside of it.

WOOD: But also most bands that label themselves as bluegrass, in a similar way that we do, don’t only take influences from bluegrass. We’re about to play with Steep Canyon Rangers—they are a bluegrass band—but you can tell in each individual’s songwriting that they come from a plethora of different influences.

So, speaking of influences, who are your musical influences, individually and as a group?

WOOD: I come from a jazz background. I grew up listening to jazz, my dad is a jazz saxophone player, and I studied jazz at UNC. So I kind of came not so far in some directions but pretty far in other directions in order to arrive at our bluegrass-y sound. What I like about jazz is, often times, the complexity of the harmony and the complexity of the melody that goes along with it. So I try my best to translate that into my bass lines in our music and I’m learning, still very new to songwriting, but it’s fun to take those influences into this genre as well.

I think there is a lot of opportunity to play with the bass. I feel like a lot of times it becomes the backbone so much that the musician can’t play around.

WOOD: Backbones can bend sometimes.

Exactly. Great way to put it!

JOSEPH: You can hear it a lot on our new record that Wood can do something a lot more diverse and groovy than a lot of bluegrass bass players.

WOOD: But, almost everything I play isn’t terribly difficult to play—it’s a style thing, definitely not a skill thing.

So humble.

JOSEPH: Humble Wood Robinson.

JACOB: So Wood is Jazz. Joe…

JOSEPH: My grandma taught me guitar first when I was in middle school on a lot of old bluegrass and country songs. I remember the first song I learned was “Tom Dooley”, the great, old North Carolina song popularized by Doc Watson. There was a lot of bluegrass in my family—I have uncles that play bluegrass—so it was a deep, early influence for me. But I fell in love with music, I think, listening to a lot of the great songwriters and bands from the 70s like Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, and I’m a huge Stevie Wonder fan. I think there is a lot of be learned from songwriting and just in general from a lot of those classics and it’s still what I think about a lot.

I can definitely see those varying influences, especially in the variation of the content of your songs: from heartbreak to wanting to run away and cross the border and then, also, having religious intonations in some of your songs. It really is broad spectrum in terms of lyrics and it’s refreshing that it’s not all one note when it comes to the content. Jacob, did you have a similar upbringing with music?

JACOB: I didn’t have a very musical family. I first got into music because of how it connected people and that’s still my favorite part. So, initially it was jam bands for me and connecting through the live experience that you share. Then I went more to folk and some of the classic songwriters and found my way to bluegrass much later. I had a mandolin for two years before I knew about bluegrass really. It was not my foundation.

So building off of these influences, what is your songwriting process like? How do you arrive at a song?

JOSEPH: Some of the songs I’ll write and then bring to the band to kind of see how it becomes a Mipso song and we’ll arrange it all together, which is an important part of the process. And then a lot of them will start with the seed of an idea and we’ll flush it out together and write it together.

JACOB: Joseph is definitely a more consistent writer, lyrically, than Wood and I are. He has books upon books, where as we write a little more sporadically and when we get hit by something let it flush out. It’s a shared thing, now especially as we’ve written enough songs and played enough songs together that even when we’re writing a song as an individual we are writing it to each other.

WOOD: Especially the love songs.

Ha. Especially those, I’m sure.

JACOB: The confidence that we can write as individuals, but also the knowledge that even if it’s totally born in Joseph’s mind, it can come to life with the three of us is really cool. And also through playing with Libby Rodenbough (featured fiddle player on their album) and Chris Roszell (banjo player and member of Big Fat Gap) and other musicians we get a lot of feedback, especially with the structure of the song, so we’ve benefitted a lot from our community.

WOOD: Particularly in the studio, it was really nice to have Andrew Marlin (of Mandolin Orange) who produced Dark Holler Pop. His input was extremely instrumental. (Pun intended.) He was really instrumental in making the songs sound as they do—from an arrangement perspective and just from a final external perspective on all of the songs that we made.

JACOB: It was the first time we had worked with that type of producer that had a total command over the recording process and the tools of the studio, but also is a musician that we all look up to. He’s a close friend too so it was a nice and easygoing but a really productive and trusting time.

Well, it seems like Andrew really brought out your strengths. What do you think your greatest strength is as a band? What do you think you’re bringing to the music scene that is unique and great about Mipso?

JACOB: As music lovers, with so many people that we look up to, it’s hard to say that this is what we’re doing better or different than anyone else out. I think we struggle with that idea. I think we’re giving a fresh, new take on a lot of the ingredients that people are using and have been used for a long time. I think we’re putting a pretty fresh spin on how they can be mixed up.

JOSEPH: I think that there was an awesome boom in bluegrass-related music in the early 70s and I think it’s a great time to be making bluegrass-influenced acoustic music right now. I think we’re undergoing another great boom in the scene right now and hopefully I think what our strengths are in that scene are songwriting and harmony and a strong live show.

The harmonies are solid and probably my most favorite part of your sound. It sounds so natural.

WOOD: I had never sung before this band so it’s been nice to sort of fall into it.

Wow. Well, you’re all doing a great job. Lastly, what are you most looking forward to in the upcoming months, especially coming off this second album’s release?

JACOB: It’s exciting to be taking the album and our music to new places and to be using it as a way to connect with some of our heroes. Last week we were with David Holt for two shows and this week with Steep Canyon Rangers. That’s been really exciting. We are working and learning from people that have a lot more experience than we do. And going to California will be our first time as a band on the west coast—two shows in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles and it will be fun to see new places.

JOSEPH: We are really proud of this new record and it’s had a great reception in North Carolina so far which makes us happy so hopefully we’ll have excited fans other places sometime soon too. - The Bluegrass Situation


Dark Holler Pop - 2013
Old time Reverie - 2015


Feeling a bit camera shy


When Mipso’s 2013 debut, Dark Holler Pop, rose to #8 on Billboard’s Bluegrass charts, the success surprised a lot of people – Mipso’s four members included. “Well, we didn’t know so many people would buy it,” laughs mandolin player Jacob Sharp, “and we definitely didn’t know we were a bluegrass band.”

Since then, Mipso has performed over 300 shows and welcomed frequent collaborator Libby Rodenbough’s voice and fiddle to the fold – and has continued to grow as musicians and songwriters, while drawing continual inspiration from their rich North Carolina roots. Their new album, Old Time Reverie – produced by Mandolin Orange’s Andrew Marlin – is a reflection of that musical and personal growth: a gripping, mature sophomore release that finds the quartet expanding their sonic resources while doubling down on their experimentation with string band tradition.

While the instrumentation on the acclaimed Dark Holler Pop embraced North Carolina’s bluegrass heritage head-on, Old Time Reverie finds Mipso shifting their focus away from bluegrass, introducing new instruments and textures to create a distinctly different sound. Clawhammer banjo out of 1920s early country music meets atmospheric electric organ (played by Josh Oliver of The Everybodyfields) more native to 1970s pop. Add imaginative songwriting and a group cohesion gained from two years of near-constant touring, and the resulting sound is powerfully rhythmic, lyrically sharp, and woven with beautiful four-part harmonies.

Before forming Mipso, Jacob Sharp (mandolin), Joseph Terrell (guitar), Wood Robinson (bass), and Libby Rodenbough (fiddle) were just classmates at UNC-Chapel Hill, where the experience of singing together in harmony drew them together. The sound of their blended voices remains one of the band’s hallmarks. Since those college jam sessions, the four have entered a new phase of life, one where the work of making music – and the work of living – has become a more complicated affair. Many of the songs on Old Time Reverie grapple with the moral ambiguity that comes with keeping hope in a difficult world and making sense of its contradictions.

These songs, after all, were born in the South and reflect its modern day complexity. “Our progressive college town shares a county with lots of old tobacco barns and farms and churches from the eighteenth century," guitarist Joseph Terrell said. "We've chosen to stick around in this place where we're rooted, to reckon with and learn from its contradictions.”

At times, the task seems doomed: “Everyone Knows” grapples with a world that is essentially “cold and dark,” “Mama” explores the enduring scars of loss; “Marianne” follows an interracial couple’s struggle to love one another against their community’s disapproval. But if Old Time Reverie conjures a dark vision of the world, it also meditates on points of radiance. Even the wary narrator in “Father’s House” can see “a light on the porch.” The album closer “Four Train,” too, is a crinkled smile at the end of a weary day, describing love as “like a stain that won’t come out” or “like a flame that won’t burn out” – or perhaps as both.

In both theme and temperament, the album finds an interplay between the sunrise and the twilight – a tug-of-war that’s itself an old-time tradition. From “Eliza,” a lively waltz-time romp, to  “Bad Penny,” a surrealist dream sequence with an Abe Lincoln cameo, the album revels in the seesaw spectrum of experience and memory, where technicolor carnival hues blend with grown-up sadness and the whispers of ghosts. Mipso’s color palette, like its soundscape, is radically inclusive.

“We come from a place where traditional music is a living, changing thing,” fiddle player Libby Rodenbough said. “So we feel like having an ear for all kinds of stuff is not only true to ourselves, it’s a nod to the tradition.” Call it what you will – to listen is to understand: it’s either unlike anything you’ve heard before or effortlessly familiar. By digging deeper and expanding further, Mipso have created their own dark daydream of Southern Americana: Their Old Time Reverie.

Band Members