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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You can discover more about the band and their most recent release, Dark Holler Pop, via their website mipsomusic.com