Striking the right chord: Chapel Hill band Mipso reaches new levels of success

Story by Molly Weybright
Video by Alma Washington
Graphic by Alexandra Hehlen

RALEIGH, North Carolina—Joseph Terrell strums the final chord of his song “Louise” to the cheers of 2,300 people. Terrell squints his eyes against the bright lights, trying to see the size of the crowd that he is hearing, but he can’t. Though he can’t see the fans, they’re there, and their pervasive cheers of “Mipso! Mipso! Mipso!” are proof.

It’s May 6, 2017, and he and his band mates—Libby Rodenbough, Jacob Sharp and Wood Robinson—are debuting their new album, “Coming Down the Mountain,” at the N.C. Museum of Art.

“It wasn’t the size of the crowd, even though it was huge,” Terrell says. “It was this whole idea of ‘I can’t believe this many people care about what we do.’ It’s really humbling and I’m super grateful.”

And now, seven months later, the band is standing in the green room of the Lincoln Theatre debating the set list for the night’s show—20 minutes before they take the stage.

Though it seems hectic—Terrell writing the song “Down in the Water” on a piece of torn cardboard and Rodenbough scribbling it out—Robinson says it’s par for the course for the band.

“Every night it’s just kind of like ‘what do you want to play tonight?’” he says. “We’ve got to keep it fresh for ourselves.”

The Lincoln Theatre in Raleigh is the 29th stop for indie-Americana band Mipso on a cross-country, 30-show tour. The North Carolina quartet has traveled as far as Seattle with two other bands, The Lil Smokies and The Brothers Comatose, during the Campfire Caravan tour.

On the heels of their fourth album release, which featured darker and more complex sounds, Mipso was recognized by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of the top 10 new country artists people should know.

Mipso has already recorded their fifth album, which members say is on track to be released in Spring 2018, and will begin touring as early as February next year. So even though they’re at the end of a long tour, they’ll soon start another.

The Campfire Caravan tour has been exhausting, grueling and a whole lot of fun, says Rodenbough, the fiddle player and vocalist.

“It’s like a big party,” she says.

Nine-hundred people are packed into the Lincoln Theatre. The air is heavy and smoky, tinted blue and green by the stage lights. The crowd inches closer to the stage, everyone keen to get the best view before the band takes the stage, and the name ‘Mipso’ seems to be coming from every direction.

Kira Gurganus, a 2016 UNC graduate, has seen Mipso multiple times. She says she loves the nostalgia of the band’s lyrics.

“I grew up going to the mountains of North Carolina as a kid,” she says. “Their bluegrassy sound reminds me of my childhood.”

Despite their small-town Chapel Hill origins and their offbeat sound, there is something for everyone in Mipso. They take traditional Appalachian sounds and mix them with new ideas to create something new and innovative.

When the band takes the stage, the crowd’s chatter diminishes, eventually falling to silence. The lights are low as the four members pick up their instruments. But then the lights come up and Terrell says, “Hey everybody, we’re Mipso,” and the crowd’s cheers drown out the first notes of Rodenbough’s fiddle.

***

One of Mipso’s first venue performances was in 2011 at Local 506 in Chapel Hill. Then they were called Mipso Trio and were made up of three UNC students: Terrell on the guitar, Robinson on the upright bass and Sharp on the mandolin.

They got on stage and performed to a packed room of fellow students, friends and family. It’s moments like those, Sharp says, that were instrumental in establishing confidence and belief in themselves in the beginning, and they haven’t looked back.

The band members were in the right place at the right time.

“There was something in the air on campus,” Terrell says. “But also in Chapel Hill, that really cradled us and encouraged us to keep doing what we did.” With that backing Mipso Trio released their first album, “Long, Long Gone” in 2012.

A year later, the newly truncated Mipso released their second album, “Dark Holler Pop,” which climbed the Billboard Bluegrass charts.

Rodenbough played with the band frequently in the beginning, being featured on both early albums, but wasn’t a full member until the band’s third album, “Old Time Reverie,” was released in 2015, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard Bluegrass charts.

Long-time fan Carson Cashwell has seen Mipso 39 times and counting. He remembers seeing them at their early Local 506 show and thinking that it was pretty cool that Terrell, his friend from pre-school, had found a fun hobby.

But now, he says, the coolest thing is seeing how far the band has come and how much they’ve all grown.

“You can tell that over the years they’ve really put in the time and the effort into really honing their craft,” he says. “It’s been a pretty cool journey to see them evolve from pretty basic venues and songs to where they are today.”

***

Mipso’s sound has evolved significantly over the last six years, as well as the depth of their lyrics. Robinson says that the band tries focuses on “what best serves the songs and what best serves the performance” in a way that is wholly themselves.

This has been especially true with the release of “Coming Down the Mountain,” which included, for the first time in Mipso’s history, the addition of drums and electric guitar.

The new album, says Terrell, is a reflection of the four members’ personalities as well as the growth of the band as a whole.

“It never was the point to only be a string band,” he says. “We want to combine our musical ideas in a way that seems exciting to us now. But it still feels like us. It still feels like—whatever Mipso is—that’s what it feels like.”

Sharp reiterates this idea. If they focus too heavily on appealing to an audience, then the music might lose the heart and passion that is central to Mipso’s music.

“It has to stay interesting and compelling for us first,” he says. “If we’re not fully bought in emotionally every night it’s hard to believe that we can get a whole crowd of people on our side as well.”

That emotional connection is essential to all four members of Mipso. If they feel like they can connect with the audience emotionally, then they are doing their jobs as musicians.

One way that the band does that, Rodenbough says, is by staying true to their social and political views and not shying away from potentially controversial lyrics or stories.

“I would say politics figures a lot into our work just because it figures a lot into our minds and the way that we go through the world these days,” she says. “And it seems to me like it would be hard not to.”

Sharp says that it would feel superficial if the band was to actively avoid those controversial topics.

“I think the complexities of [those topics] that are becoming apparent in our society are what deem them worthy of talking about and, if you’re in the audience, worthy of hearing,” he says. “Almost especially if you disagree.”

During the concert in Raleigh, Sharp walks up to the microphone. The crowd quiets, but not much; they’re excited to hear more of the fun banter that’s been occurring between the band members.

Instead, Sharp introduces the song “Halleluiah,” which he wrote in response to the 2016 Pulse shootings in Orlando, Florida. Since the shootings in Las Vegas, Mipso has been playing the song at every concert.

“We want something different to be done,” he says to the hushed crowd, “and we think we can probably do it.”

Sharp says it’s disconcerting how desensitized the nation is becoming to these tragedies, which is one of the reasons he wrote the song with the opening lyrics, “When I heard the news, I had trouble feeling anything.” That is something that he says everyone can relate to.

“Feeling lost amongst a tragedy is widely shared,” he says.

The audience is silent, the emotion hangs in the air between the members of Mipso and the crowd. When Sharp the last note dies away, the cheers are louder than ever.

***

Making music and touring with some of your closest friends is what Sharp calls a “beautiful existence.” But, like many things in life, the things that bring the most joy often bring the most challenges as well.

Rodenbough says the biggest challenge for her is an inability to feel grounded no matter where she is. The constant switch between touring and being home is unsettling, she says.

“I just have a sense of low-level unease all the time like I don’t quite belong in either setting because I can’t get used to it,” she says.

But, Robinson says, coming back to North Carolina after a long tour away always feels like coming home, no matter where in the state the band is playing.

“You’re getting the warmest welcome you can get,” he says. “People know your songs and are singing along.”

When the band plays their hit song, “Louise,” which has almost 6 million plays on Spotify, it feels as if the entire audience is singing along.

For Rodenbough, North Carolina is “warm” and “familiar.” She says that every time the band plays in the state there are people in the crowd she recognizes.

“When you come back to North Carolina, it’s like a meal your mom made,” she says.

Molly Weybright
Molly Weybright

Reporter

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed