Interview – Mipso

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Sometimes first impressions are meant to be thrown out the window. This is because, in fact, impressions aren’t formed in a vacuum. Rather, they are often influenced by external and internal factors–weather, mood, people around you, time of year, personal conflicts, perceived reality–the list is endless.

The first time I saw Mipso (then Mipso Trio) perform was at their sold-out show at Cat’s Cradle last year–a Carrboro music staple on the outskirts of the pristine campus of UNC-Chapel Hill where band members, Jacob Sharp, Wood Robinson, and Joseph Terrell studied. Life was good, they were making music together, and they had sold-out one of the area’s most recognized venues. To top it off, Mipso was being supported by some of the state’s best songwriters that night, openers Jim Avett and The Overmountain Men. What more could these young, talented men ask for?

Onstage they appeared starstruck and in awe that so many people came out to see them–as they were still in their infancy as a band–but they proved to have some veteran tendencies. Their harmonies were tight, crisp, and clear. They smiled out into the bright lights beaming back at them, and had a natural stage presence. When David Childers joined them on stage, they appeared humbled and honored. Whatever kinks were worked out on stage were hardly, if at all, noticeable to the audience, because of well, the audience. Here is where first impressions get influenced if we aren’t careful. Drunk college co-eds who would rather be seen and heard than to listen to well-crafted music were wall to wall that night. They were successful in putting a blemish on my first impression of Mipso. It was sort of that ‘guilt by association’ rule. If this audience was made up mainly by friends of the band, well how serious were they about making a mark on the North Carolina music scene and beyond? I left disappointed, but thankfully not completely despaired.

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You see, occasionally I forget that there was a time when I was not a polite concert-goer–when I, too, was a drunk co-ed. So, with that in the forefront of my mind, I set out to form a new first impression of Mipso, one based on the important elements of a band–the music and the people. I caught up with Sharp, Robinson, and Terrell last month at Peasant’s Pub in Greenville, NC for a little chat about the past year, growing as a band, songwriting, recording their upcoming second LP, and surprisingly, the bluegrass movement in Japan.

As we nestled into our seats on the patio, I quickly learned that these young men possess a depth and maturity that is rarely found in recent college graduates. Sharp, on vocals and mandolin, picked up the instrument in the eighth grade off a bet with his Dad. “I picked it up and hit it with various things, but don’t think I really started playing it until I was sixteen or seventeen,” Sharp recalled. Robinson, on stand-up bass, has been playing music in some capacity since he was three or four years old. With a strong foundation in jazz theory, he picked up the electric bass in 8th grade and transitioned to the stand-up by the time he was mid-way through high school (June 22nd to be exact–he joked). Terrell, on guitar and vocals, learned to pick from his grandmother while in middle school, and started playing in bands and taking his craft seriously by age sixteen.

Collectively, they each bring a different type of songwriting prowess to the table. On their first full album, Long, Long Gone, Terrell was the primary songwriter, but the responsibility has shifted on their upcoming untitled album as Sharp and Robinson throw a few songs into the mix.

“I think [the melody and lyrics] inform each other. I don’t often have lyrics sitting around. Often times I have a lyrical idea with a melody. They tend to come together. Some songs come quickly and then I’ve got a notebook that’s got some stuff that’s half-finished and they will be half-finished for six months. It’s a labor of love that you always have to pay attention to because you never know which idea will fit,” shared Terrell.

If songwriting for Mipso were to be compared to the Deadliest Catch, Robinson would be the eager greenhorn of the band. He casually admitted, “I’m learning how to song write. Being involved with [Sharp and Terrell], who are very much more accomplished and better songwriters than I am, they have taught me that the role of the songwriter is to communicate an emotion that would make the listener think that [he/she] already thought of that, or think, ‘that’s me’. I’m learning that the purpose of the song is to communicate to the listener, not to express necessarily something that is intensely personal. You want another person to relate it it…A song that I am in the process of writing right now is a direct response to a song by Dawes called A Little Bit of Everything. It’s an incredible song, and it really had quite a profound effect on me. It’s been surfacing for a while now.”

Terrell added, “It’s funny, I’m not interested in strictly personal writing. I think of it more as a challenge to tell a cool story, and I like to do that. There’s a big difference between the way Jacob and I write. Jacob writes more personally, I think it’s fair to say. It’s cool to have that mixture and that variety. Wood is more of a mixture of the two.”

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It is obvious that this next album will be more of a collaborative effort among the band. This approach not only challenges them personally, but also pushes them to learn how to work together to produce a sound that is ultimately unique–a sound that is Mipso.

“I think with collaborative writing, someone brings an idea and you flush it out together. Or sometimes Joe or myself will bring a finished song that doesn’t need too much beyond working out the parts. But we are still learning how to write together,” said Sharp.

Terrell added, “One thing we’ve learned is that the song that’s on the page–the lyrics and the music–is not the whole picture. What we do together is the biggest picture of what makes the song sound like a Mipso song–the harmony that Jake picks out and the baseline in particular, because Wood is not a bluegrass bassist. He really has a cool jazz background.”

While Mipso wouldn’t categorize themselves as a strictly bluegrass band, they certainly pull inspiration from the traditional genre, and do so with the utmost respect.

“So, bluegrass players are really good, like virtuosos. There is a distinct level of virtuosity in that genre of music that would not be fair to claim as our own,” pointed out Robinson.

“I think we are influenced and inspired by bluegrass. So I think we are bluegrassy in the same way we are folksy,” added Sharp.

When you sit down to listen to Mipso’s previous work, it is clear that their influences run the spectrum, from Paul Simon to Doc Watson. As they continue to define their own signature sound, much of that fine tuning has been taking place in the recording studio. On their upcoming album, they are working with producer Andrew Marlin at the Rubber Room Studio in Chapel Hill. Marlin, who is best known as half of folk-bluegrass duo Mandolin Orange, has signed on to guide the recording process. With Marlin behind the boards, Mipso has gained a mighty mentor who is proficient in all areas of production.

“Working with [Marlin] has been really enlightening,” said Sharp. “It’s almost like we have an apprenticeship, because he’s a great friend but also one of our favorite, most respected musicians, and really talented songwriter, and mandolin and guitar player. So everyday we went in and learned something new individually, but we also saw a different side or perspective in the recording and writing process.”

“It’s very cool to have an external source, to have a very deliberate and apparent hand in the process of writing these songs. We bring these songs with an idea of where we are going with them, and having another person outside of the band say, ‘Hey, this should be slowed down a bit. Maybe it could use a little snare in it.’ Is amazing how those little things can bring out the character of the song in such a beautiful way,” said Robinson.

Also joining the guys in the studio will be their fourth band member, fiddler and singer Libby Rodenbough. When Mipso first started two and a half years ago, they were known as Mipso Trio–catchy right? About a year ago, they decided to drop the ‘Trio’ which happened to fall in line with the addition of Libby. Libby had already contributed to all recordings, so it seemed like a logical move.

“We’ve always felt like she added a lot,” Terrell shared. “We formed the band when she was taking a year off school, and she actually collaborated remotely from Chicago on the six song EP that we put out. We wanted to shorten the [band] name anyway, and that coincided with Libby joining so it made a lot of sense. She’s still going to be in school next year, so she’s going to be playing with us, but there will be lots of shows where she won’t be playing with us. So, we are a three-piece with a close musical collaborator.”

Sharp added, “Libby has taught us a lot about how we can benefit from having a fourth piece. As we grew more comfortable in playing with her and also recognizing it was a consistent thing, it was fun to start writing for a fourth piece, but it’s nice to know that we can still be a pretty tight three-piece.”

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So what can fans expect from their upcoming second LP, slated to be released in late October/early November? Based on the album’s first single, Carolina Calling, themes of state pride and family roots rise to the surface. However, the band shared that thematically the album will expand from the epicenter that is the only home they’ve ever known–North Carolina.

“I started thinking about graduating in November [’12]. I’m used to this place–North Carolina and Chapel Hill–but it would be cool to capture what this place is to me and all of us at this moment in time. I took the project on of writing the song that I felt was the senior spring song. It’s Chapel Hill-centric, but also about North Carolina. There’s something special about being in North Carolina that you don’t get in other places. That’s the idea I had [for the song],” explained Terrell.

In terms of the feel of the entire album, they believe that it will have an elevated sound–even more ‘Mipso’ than before.

“I think we’ve grown into our shoes a little more since the first album. I think it’s easier than on the first album for people to say, ‘Oh that’s kind of a bluegrass song.’ Now they sound more like Mipso songs,” Terrell proudly stated.

Sharp added, “It’s better blended.”

“You can see very direct themes in the last album–home, leaving home, coming back home, loves and lost loves, and certain other things–but it is kind of cool to be pushing our comfort zone for thematic writing [on our new album],” added Robinson.

While quality songwriting and recording are necessities for any band to be successful, so too is becoming integrated into a local music scene. Luckily, the North Carolina music scene is welcoming, even as it busts at the seams with talent. While Mipso carves away a place in the music scene, the band also pulls inspiration from those who have paved the way.

“It’s so important to be a part of a music scene, and North Carolina music scene is awesome. Two of my favorite bands are Chatham County Line and Mandolin Orange. They are awesome and right around the corner from us,” said Terrell.

Sharp chimed in, “Also, Andrew [Marlin] embodies the Carrboro music scene and is definitely at the top of it. He’s just always out playing. Whenever he’s not on tour, he’s anywhere where there’s music–always has his guitar and jamming with someone in a variety of styles, and he can play for like five hours straight if he wants. He’s never happier than when he’s performing. If it’s like one person in a bar or a packed Cat’s Cradle, he doesn’t care. That’s his craft and where he finds his joy. So that for me–it’s not just about practicing in a room or playing a big show–it’s about playing all of the time.”

In addition to their local music scene, Mipso is making a concerted effort to establish roots first throughout North Carolina, and then beyond. Since graduation in May, the band has been able to look forward with a new sense of direction and intent.

“For us it’s exciting because this whole year will be very focused and intentional. It was always something we just did on Fridays and Saturdays. It’s cool that it feels much more embodied and fully a part of our lives,” explained Terrell.

“As far as getting further afloat from North Carolina, it’s really a big goal of ours to first be really rooted here, to cover the state pretty thoroughly, because we keep learning about all of these cool communities. So, it’s fun for us to explore. Lots of them are places we’ve been as kids or something but never knew there’s this great music scene. That’s really exciting for us, and it also makes more sense to move out in smaller circles and just keep widening the radius,” added Sharp.

Robinson rounded it off, “It’s really cool to ground yourself as a North Carolina band by making sure that everyone in North Carolina–well not everyone–hopefully has a chance to hear you. We are really proud to be from this state, so we might as well make other people proud, too.”

Establishing their musical roots in North Carolina means playing local venues–anywhere from general stores to house show living rooms.

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On the subject of house shows, which seem to be a very popular option among smaller indie acts, Sharp explained the appeal, “We’re seeing a much wider variety of venues and shows now, and it’s fun because you learn how with each one you have to tackle it a bit differently. House shows are especially cool because you’re taking this place and changing the space that it’s creating. It’s especially cool to watch people see how their living room turns into a venue. It’s a different type of community that comes to a house concert.”

Terrell added, “You’re pretty much guaranteed to talk to people a little bit more personally, play a little bit more intimately. Might happen at other shows too, but at a house show it’s kind of like what you expect, which is pretty sweet.”

Mipso plays a Charlotte house show, sponsored by Common Chord Concerts, this Friday (7/12), and has plans to continue touring throughout North Carolina, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Connecticut. When I asked them if they had plans to tour out West, I was quite surprised by their response.

“Well we’ve got an idea about going East,” said Terrell with a laugh. I was perplexed. Out East?

“We are going to Japan and China in August. We are doing fourteen days in Japan. Last Summer I was in Japan. I wrote my honor’s thesis on the geography of music and it was about how bluegrass spread into Japan, specifically. So, I spent all Summer in Japan doing research, and just really listening to people who have for a long time been listening, and just gathered their world histories,” explained Sharp. “I was there for eight weeks and played a couple of concerts. More importantly I was seeing concerts and many festivals so we have strong ties to this small community of bluegrass musicians and bands who have an incredibly rich tradition of playing since WWII. So, we kind of just plugged into that network. We are playing the Takarazuka Bluegrass Festival. It is in its forty-third year. It’s a four-day festival, with about one hundred people. It looks like we will be playing five concerts outside of that, four of which are paired with Japanese bands.”

Mipso certainly has an exciting tail-end of the year ahead, including an overseas tour and putting the finishing touches on their second LP. Despite their steady growth as a band, Sharp, Robinson, and Terrell know that they still have mountains to climb, and they are very comfortable with that. Mipso doesn’t seem to carry the sense of urgency that would be expected from a group of recent graduates. They all possess a realistic level of patience that seems to be lacking in our world of instant gratification–which in itself is quite gratifying. As they move forward together, they pay special attention to the lessons put forth by their mentors, including one of North Carolina’s favorites, David Holt.

As the interview came to a close, Terrell shared a bit of the wisdom that has been imparted on him by Holt. “The other night I thought a little bit about this, but hearing it from [David] meant a lot. He said, ‘You guys have some really cool songs. I want to hear about why you wrote them–what the story is about.’ It reinforced to me that people want to hear the songs, but they also want to get to know you on stage, and the space between the songs is really important, too.”

That evening those at Peasant’s Pub were treated to an excellent two-set show. They were engaging and filled space between the songs with witty banter that held the audience’s attention. This time around I was able to appreciate Mipso’s set from a better vantage point. On stage, their awestruck quality was replaced by an ease, as they appeared much more comfortable and at home in their songs. The songwriting had matured, which was evident in the new songs they played. They even threw in a crowd-pleasing cover of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, which showed not only their sense of humor, but also their ability to cross genres and make a throwback song their own.

I was pleased to leave that evening with a new, shiny and fair impression of the band and their music. Mipso is moving in the right direction, at a smart and steady pace that exudes a quiet confidence. Armed with patience, talent, and big dreams, these young men will continue to gain fans as they travel the globe and share their songs and stories.

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