Mipso, a quartet of North Carolina natives that formed while students at UNC-Chapel Hill, kicked off Duke's Music in the Gardens series June 3 to a sold-out crowd. The group, which will release their second album this September with back-to-back appearances at Cat's Cradle in Carrboro, is known for their inventive take on bluegrass and Americana and their fine-tuned three-part harmonies. The Chronicle's Georgia Parke talked to mandolin player Jacob Sharp and fiddle player Libby Rodenbough before their set at Sarah P. Duke Gardens about where they've been (Duke Coffeehouse and Japan, to name a couple), where they are this summer and where their sound is going.
The Chronicle: One thing I wondered about is your mixture of modern and traditional music. When you’re in the South, in [your home state of] North Carolina, do you feel like there’s an expectation that people want to hear more traditional stuff? Especially compared to the rest of the world?
Libby Rodenbough: Generally, people are appreciative of the blending of traditional and modern elements, and it doesn’t seem to really offend very many people. But I also think that we might have more of an expectation from audiences about our traditional southerness from outside of the South because we represent something different to those people.
I think people from the Triangle areas are really used to people blending tradition and contemporary style, because there’s so much of that going on here. A good portion of the local scene is like that, and we feel like we really fit in here... Usually, there’s not too much of a demand for us to go more traditional or modern stuff. People like to hear your sound, and usually they’re pretty into it, the way that we blend things.
Jacob Sharp: We are fortunate that the ingredients we use to make our music—a blend of string and Americana music—whatever you want to call it, a lot of people use it to make different things. It’s a pretty unique time to make your own statement with it.
TC: I heard your new single and I love it, and I was so excited to see there’s something new. Do you feel like that was stepping away from what you’ve been doing, that you're exploring something different? Is that a direction you want to be going?
JS: That's a cool question. That project was largely a fun one for us. We wanted to kind of explore, not push the boundaries of our sound, but try some new things and work with new people especially. Plus the first recording project we’ve done with Libby as a full member of the band, so it’s kind of important for us to learn a new dynamic collectively.
As far as direction, [our first album] Dark Holler Pop is more of a string band rooted in bluegrass and this next one is going to be more old time than bluegrass, more in the style of Americana. I don’t really think it’s a departure, but we are just naturally becoming more of our own with what we are involved with.
TC: I’d love to hear what you are in the middle of right now. You said the next couple of weeks you are pretty busy. Is that part of a bigger tour?
JS: We’ve already planned 31 dates. We were out for the first 10 weeks of the year, on two separate tours that were kind of strung together. Since then we’ve been doing the week out or out for the weekend, which is what these couple of weeks are. We are gone most of July, we’re going down to Virginia, New Orleans and then Illinois and back, then Colorado for eight days. There are some pauses in it but it feels pretty consistent. And then we have a new album coming out the first week of September.
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TC: Your new album that’s coming out—have you recorded everything?
LR: Yeah, it’s all finished. The part now, it’s hard in it's own way. We are trying to figure out what to call it, how to package it and how to get it out to people. It’s a lot of business and marketing decisions now.
TC: It there stuff that you learned from last time that are affecting these decisions?
JS: The last project largely was us learning for the first time how to do any of it. Not that we made any rookie mistakes per se, we just didn’t have a lot of knowledge. Now we have knowledge of two years of watching people, and we built relationships with people who we really respect and trust…. But that was definitely our freshman album.
LR: We are also doing a bunch of stuff in Raleigh, so we’ll be around the Triangle a fair bit. We are trying to kind of with the new album basically go to all the places we’ve performed before, refreshing people’s memories.
TC: [Libby], you came on more recently, so what’s been the process of joining?
LR: I’ve been in the process of joining Mipso since Mipso started. When the guys formed the band I was just friends with them, and I was in Chicago and they made their first EP in a friend’s living room, and I recorded the violin part for the first EP. So literally since the inception of Mipso as a real live band... I was always kind of an auxiliary, like an extra of the band, and that was just an arrangement that we maintained for a really long time even though I played with them a lot.
I think it was a little bit scary for me to think about joining the band full time, but they graduated a year before me, and when I was approaching graduation and hearing how much fun they were having, and realizing how much I was enjoying playing with them on my weekends off, I just kind of realized that it was too good an opportunity to pass up. Now I can't imagine having done something different. It's pretty fun. It was pretty incredible that something like this just fell onto my plate. It’s hard work too, but it’s a lot of just good fortune that we're able to do it full time and make a living off of it. And it has a lot to do with the Triangle being a good place to start out as a band.
TC: I know that you guys were at Chapel Hill together. How did you originally find each other?
JS: We just met in like any friend groups in school. I met [guitarist Joseph Terrell] right before school—we were visiting Carolina... And we kind of just met in different ways, and all played instruments. One of the first thing we ever did was recording some videos on Duke’s Campus for Small Town Records. You could find them online. They're terrible. We were really young.... We kind of had no idea what we were doing, but it was pretty awesome….
Duke Coffeehouse was one of our first shows outside of Chapel Hill that had good attendance. It was one of the first guaranteed payments we had where we were like, maybe you could make music to make a living.