“We got our ass kicked.”
In June 2022, more than a decade after forming Mipso, the North Carolina quartet was touring through Europe to support their adventurous self-titled album when, according to mandolin player Jacob Sharp, the aforementioned kicking began. Lost instruments, missing merchandise, food poisoning, bed bugs, and stolen personal belongings were just some of the woes that piled on during the COVID-stricken tour, which led to some frank mid-tour talks.
“There were some real reckoning chats in the moment of like, ‘Does this make sense?’” says Sharp, remembering one socially distanced conversation in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark, during a week that some of the group was dealing with COVID. “Not even just this tour but let’s zoom out— ‘Do we do it again?’”
The domestic tour for 2020’s Mipso had already shown the band the elements of the touring model that were effectively broken, as they navigated an industry wreaked by the pandemic. Barely breaking even on tours, despite high attendance—including sold-out shows—has been particularly disheartening.
“My worst moments while on tour have been when everything else has made it so I can’t be purely in the moment playing music with my friends,” adds bassist Wood Robinson, commenting on that European tour.
Spurred by those conversations, Mipso took a fresh approach to their sixth album, Book of Fools, released in late August of this year. The band took full advantage of a nearly three-year gap since the release of their last album—the longest thus far between Mipso records—and finally allowed themselves time to stretch out both the development of new material and the recording process.
“Before we knew what the songs would be and where we’d go sonically, we knew we wanted to change the process to be slower and to have more time—and specifically more time away from the road—that was involved with the writing and recording,” Sharp says of the album approach. Over a year and a half, the band’s deliberate process included a writing retreat in the North Carolina mountains, workshopping songs in Wisconsin, and—for the first time—tracking directly to tape with producer Shane Leonard in California.
Fiddler Libby Rodenbough recalls that the band has always lamented a lack of time to experiment on previous records, although she says that, once they started, they could’ve continued tinkering with Book of Fools’ 10 tracks for weeks longer.
“I think that ‘wasting time,’ by the standards of our world, is probably where some of the best art is made,” she says. “It’s a real shame to think about how much isn’t getting made because of those parameters [of time and money].”
Many of the songs on Book of Fools went through dramatically different iterations before reaching their final form.
“I’m less surprised by which songs made the album and more by which version of a song made the album,” says Sharp, offering up, as an example, the moody and atmospheric “Break It to You Anyhow,” which evolved from stripped-down beginnings.
Lead single “Carolina Rolling By” wouldn’t sound too out of place on the quartet’s earlier records, though lap steel adds a decidedly cosmic touch. Despite the track evoking shades of previous material, Mipso’s members struggle to define their sound, as it has changed over the years—as Robinson sees it, they share no preconceived notion about how Mipso should sound. The synth-laden “Radio Hell”—which thumbs its nose at the exploitative nature of the music industry—stands in sharp contrast to what longtime listeners may have come to expect from the band.
“I think there’s less of a Mipso sound and more of a Mipso process,” offers guitarist Joseph Terrell, who swaps his acoustic for an electric far more often than on previous albums. “What we’ve found is that we like making records together, and the more we’ve done it, the better we’ve figured out the best version of combining these four voices. That might be a different formula and a different sound every time if we’re changing and growing as people.”
“Part of our story is that we were this happy accident,” adds Sharp of the group’s origins at UNC-Chapel Hill, where the four met as students. “We didn’t have a band that we conceptualized as fully formed, we just wanted to play music and wanted to do it with each other.”
This intentionality—choosing to make music together, as they’ve gone separate ways after college—is a defining aspect of the band’s music. That doesn’t mean they plan to leave their past behind either, though, as they’ve batted around a return to acoustic string band instrumentation on a future album. (This past summer, they also recorded two songs at Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn’s studio, Betty’s, in Chapel Hill.)
With Sharp releasing his first solo single—“Other Side,” a gentle piece of folk-pop featuring harmonies from Aoife O’Donovan—and Terrell his debut album this year, all four members of the band also now have their own personal musical endeavors. Rodenbough’s second solo record, Between the Blades, was released in May, while Robinson leads experimental outfit The Other Band and the jazzy New Formal.
As Mipso operates in a democratic fashion, those outlets provide a home for songs that don’t end up resonating with the entire group. After being recorded and later cut for Coming Down the Mountain, “Colors” was transformed into a bright pop ditty on Rodenbough’s solo debut years later.
Those solo explorations, too, mean that each member has broader horizons when collaborating. At the suggestion of Leonard, the band revisited “East”—a song Rodenbough originally wrote for the podcast Song Confessional—for the album.
“At the risk of sounding overly earnest, this record-making process was kind of revelatory,” Terrell says. “We just let ourselves do stuff that we’ve never done before.”
Playing some of the biggest shows of their career on this tour—including favorite rooms they’ve never before headlined like Chicago’s Thalia Hall and San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall—the band seems reinvigorated with the new album in tow. They’ve also added pre-show acoustic performances to their routine, both in an effort to address the economic realities of touring in 2023 and in hopes of forging deeper personal connections with fans.
Rodenbough also says that the live tracking done while recording Book of Fools means that translating those songs to the stage will be more fun and exciting for them, as it keeps them on their toes.
“This new batch necessitates that we are very focused on exactly what’s happening at the time, which makes it a lot easier for everything else that’s going on to not end up clouding the moment,” agrees Robinson, alluding to the complexity of arrangements that requires the band to be aware of one another. “All of the kvetching that we do about the reality of touring and the fact that capitalism is sucking the ability to live when this is your livelihood—all of that just evaporates for me on the downbeat.”
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