Mipso Talks Touring, Songwriting, and More

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Mipso promo photo: left to right: Joseph Terrell, Jacob Sharp, Libby Rodenbough, and Wood Robinson; Photo Credit: DL AndersonMipso members Jacob Sharp and Joseph Terrell took some time to answer some questions about songwriting and touring, and revealed that they're heading back into the studio to work on a new CD in the new year! 

1) What are some of the biggest surprises you've encountered in all of your touring? Best experiences? Experiences you hope you never have to relive?

Joseph: Oh, man, we’ve run into some pretty funny circumstances at shows. We had a sound guy on the West Coast last month who was a little too dedicated to California recreation, so to speak, to be good at his job. I think he found a way to make bluegrass sound really trippy.

Jacob: Haha, yeah that was a definitely a vibey moment. And there are so many like that. One of the things I love about our life of touring is that when it's at its best and we do our work effectively we connect with people and communities. For a moment or a whole night our worlds coincide - and that often allows people to be really open with you. Sometimes too open. I think the biggest surprise is how familiar unfamiliar crowds can feel. In Seattle a few nights ago, that felt just like home, and it was our first night playing in the city. As far as experiences to not relive... We once planned a setlist in China around who would be able to leave stage when because of some food poisoning the whole band got after having eaten some rather sketchy street food at 4 am the night before. I'm happy we did that then, but I definitely wouldn't do it again!

2) We appreciate your songwriting and distinctive use of language - was that something that came naturally to all of you, or something you learned? Do you still get that "a-ha" in your head when lyrics take shape or fall into place?

Joseph: This is something I probably spend too much time thinking about, if that’s possible. I try not to get too mystical about the songwriting process, since the main ingredients are time, effort, and a willingness to edit and re-edit until a tune feels right. But there is a sort of ‘a-ha’ element to it, too. I’ve heard it described as a radio frequency. Sometimes you feel like you spend hours just twisting the dial. Other days you feel totally tuned in to a signal, like you’re listening to something rather than creating it from scratch. As far as the lyrics go, I’m sure it goes back to having parents that love language. My dad made sure I knew the words to Dylan deep cuts when I was still in the car seat. My mom was always reciting poetry at the dinner table. I’m not saying I’ve attained either Dylan- or poetry-status, but I am grateful for all the word games on long car rides. That’s what it still feels like, like I get the chance to play with words all the time. When a phrase feels good, makes me chuckle, makes me wonder about something, it tends to end up in a song.

3) How about arranging the music for your songs - instrumental parts, harmonies, etc - what is that process like? I noticed that "Down in the Water" changed from the EP to the CD to the last time I heard you perform it during World of Bluegrass, for example, so how do you as a group decide which songs you want to try something different with, or is it a constantly ongoing process with all your music?

Joseph: Our arrangements are a huge part of what makes us sound like us. The ingredients that the songwriter brings to the table could be printed on sheet music. But if my grandmother sat down to recreate that on piano, it would sound completely different.

Jacob: I’m imagining all our songs sounding like “Leaning On The Everlasting Arms" (YouTube link added by PineCone).

Joseph: Exactly. That's the difference the arrangement makes.

Jacob: Yeah we work on the arrangement of our tunes all of the time. It probably is the place where the differences in our individual personalities are most obvious, on the arrangement sketch board, but at its best those differences create a sonic profile that we think is unique to us. That particular tune is an interesting example of the mark of a good producer. On the EP we worked with Brad Cook and for the album we were with Andrew Marlin. We brought the same ingredients to the table both times and they flexed the tune to their particular strengths. It was a good experience for us to allow that to happen, and possible because we trust those dudes so much.

4) There are also a lot of farming/gardening motifs in some of the songs ("Honeybee," "Couple Acres Greener") - did you spend a lot of time in those environments growing up? I think I've seen that you're all from NC originally - is that the case? How has living in NC influenced your music, and what influence do you see NC music having in other areas you've traveled to?

Joseph: I wish I had a green thumb. I had a Chinese Evergreen last year that the feed & seed guy told me was “unkillable.” He was wrong, but he also wouldn’t have known I’d leave it high and dry during a five week Midwestern tour. I think I’m attracted to natural metaphors for the same reason I cringe a little when I hear a song on the radio that mentions texting. I give those songs some credit for honesty and for grappling with modern issues, but I can’t help wondering when they’ll feel silly and dated.

I grew up in High Point and went to public schools, ran cross country, went to movies at the mall, etc. But I did a lot of my important growing up on my grandparents’ cattle farm in Randolph County. We would go down there most weekends and my parents would let my brother and me run around and get lost in the woods. My grandma also started me out on guitar, and the first song she taught me was a Doc Watson song, “Tom Dooley,” which is about North Carolina. I feel a little self-conscious telling the story now, although it’s completely true, because I realize it sounds like the most hilariously authentic origin story for a North Carolina guitarist. In reality, at the time I thought those old songs were boring. I thought they were for old people. I spent a lot of years playing in garage bands as if to prove the point. I met Jacob, Wood, and Libby in college when I was starting to get back into bluegrass and old time music. Around that time I became a big Chatham County Line fan, met Andrew and Emily when they were forming Mandolin Orange, and started taking creative writing classes from Bland Simpson, a member of the Red Clay Ramblers. In hindsight I feel like the forces of the universe were conspiring to get me back into the great tradition of North Carolina music. Radio hosts across the country often say something like, “I love so much stuff that’s coming out of North Carolina these days!” I definitely agree, and we’re proud to be associated with the tradition, and with so many other great bands from here.

5) You had already been to more than half the states in the U.S. before the year was even 1/4 of the way done; what does 2016 look like for you?

Jacob: Yeah 2015 was certainly defined by the intensity and frequency of our touring. Moving that much creates an odd world to live in. We will be doing much of the same in 2016. We're excited for a lot of festival debuts around the country, some touring with bands we love, wearing these now familiar touring paths out again. And we're also eager to be settled a little more. Specifically we will be taking time early in the year to flesh out new tunes and get back to the studio to work on the next record.

(Photo credit: DL Anderson)

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Mipso’s upcoming Raleigh concert on Jan. 29 is sold out - call PineCone's box office at 919-664-8302 today to add your name to the waiting list! Learn more about your ticket buying options for PineCone concerts

The renegade traditionalists of Mipso - Jacob Sharp on mandolin, Joseph Terrell on guitar, Libby Rodenbough on fiddle, and Wood Robinson on double bass - are doing their part to take four-part harmony and Appalachian influences into new territory. Their newest album, Old Time Reverie, debuted at number 1 on Billboard’s bluegrass chart, and this past Thanksgiving, they performed in the Macy's Day Parade.

Since coming together as a band in Chapel Hill in 2010, these four North Carolina songwriters have wandered off the path blazed by Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson to find a new clearing for their southern string band sound. In 2014, Terrell won Merlefest’s prestigious Chris Austin Songwriting Contest with his original tune “Angelina Jane is Long Gone,” and Rodenbough joined the band full-time after graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill. Earlier in 2015, the band released a two-song EP, Faces, which features a song written by Rodenbough and one co-written by Terrell and Sharp.