Libby Rodenbough. Photo by Brett Villena.

Libby Rodenbough: Between the Blades | Sleepy Cat Records  |  Friday, May 12

There’s a quiet moment on Libby Rodenbough’s new song “Easier to Run” when she sings “I’m a sensible engine / I’m a well-tuned machine.” Blanketed in delicacy, it’s easy to overlook the statement’s sneaky self-confidence. From age and experience comes wisdom, Rodenbough intones—and it’s normal to be mystified by such maturity.

“As you get older, things burn a little less intensely,” the Durham musician tells INDY Week over tea at Namu on a sunny Monday afternoon. “You’re a little remote from your own pain. That’s necessary for survival, but it’s also sad to realize.”

That dichotomy permeates all 33 minutes of Between the Blades, Rodenbough’s second solo album. Out May 12 on Sleepy Cat Records, its eight tracks are bathed in creative exaltation and catchy hooks, building a sonorous world free from genre constraints and committed to boundless artistic exploration.

“My music is referential to American folk music, but it causes me such anguish to hear how toothless and incurious most contemporary Americana is,” she says. “It doesn’t take a point of view at all. One of the goals for this album was to take inspiration from folk music that simultaneously makes you feel at home—rooted and connected to tradition—but is simultaneously destabilized, curious, and even confused. The best folk music is familiar and strange at the same time.”

That spirit of intensity pulses on “Another World” and “Sleeping Hard,” which cloak their generational anguish in gentle pop constructs. The former condenses arguments that Rodenbough had with her father in 2016 comparing Bernie Sanders’s idealism and Hillary Clinton’s pragmatism. It also draws from the book The Dawn of Everything: A New Human History by historians David Graeber and David Wengrow.

“I really believe the world can be radically different,” Rodenbough says, “and I’m not satisfied by politicians who are proposing insultingly incremental changes to a very fucked-up world. To me, that’s quite optimistic, actually—not cynical.”

“Sleeping Hard,” though, is admittedly more pessimistic, addressing the “spiritual exhaustion” that Rodenbough says comes from “colonialism and the colonizer mind-set that pervades our systems.” With a lyrical nod to iconoclastic folkie and steamboat pilot John Hartford, Rodenbough turns a languid rock song into a sly send-up of slick investment bankers, dive-bar creeps, and anyone still subscribing to Manifest Destiny scripts.

“This daily low hum of stress is like a slightly unreachable discomfort that overlays even my happiest moments,” she says. “When all those things are swirling around in my head, I wish that I could go back to sleep—and stay asleep for a really long time.”

Yet Rodenbough says those liminal moments—half-awake, driving, or even flying—often yield the most inspiration. Melodies often appear “out of the blue” as she visualizes her violin fingerboard, she says, with vowel and consonant sounds that start as nonsense “and then, somehow, miraculously, begin to correspond to real words” that have a meaning.

“I love that moment when a song is coming to life in my bedroom,” she continues. “But for it to feel complete, I need other people to hear it.”

To make Between the Blades, Rodenbough convened with Alex Bingham, Saman Khoujinian, Joe Westerlund, and Jay Hammond in January 2022 at Bingham’s Bedtown Studios in rural Virginia. The group recorded live in the same room for six days. (Kate Rhudy, Matt Douglas, Will Van Horn, and Anna Jacobson added extra layers of backing vocals and instrumentation later in the process.)

The record’s coziness is exemplified on “Make Light,” which features jagged, off-kilter instrumentation overlaid with Rodenbough’s vocals. Recorded while she was under a blanket, the rest of the band had only subtle auditory cues to follow.

“That was a good team-building experience,” she laughs. “I didn’t want a lot of preciousness in the arrangement of the album.”

Collective grief punctuated the proceedings—Rodenbough’s mother died less than a year before the session, and several other collaborators were grappling with their own personal losses during the recording.

“I encouraged everyone to try to make as many sounds on their instruments as they could without drawing any boundaries,” Rodenbough says. “It cracked me up to call the album Between the Blades, too—that sounds so metal, and it’s such a soft album.”

Such a  fiercely tender contradiction fits with Rodenbough’s professional arc. She’s spent the last decade touring the world and releasing six critically acclaimed records with her indie-folk band Mipso; earlier this year, she joined burgeoning indie pop star Indigo De Souza as a supporting musician. This eclecticism keeps Rodenbough centered.

“Art is part of a gift cycle,” she says. “You receive inspiration, and then it’s your duty to the art to give it out to the world.”

“Astrology” speaks to that cosmology. Originally written about a past lover and their ongoing influence on her, Rodenbough says the song has evolved considerably.

“The metaphor is basically people as stars,” she says, “and since I wrote that song, my mom died. Now when I sing it, I’m singing for her. All the profound things that went into our parent-child relationship are not lessened by her not being alive anymore, which is strange. All the experiences we shared are a constellation that I can read like a horoscope.”

Unlike most horoscopes, Rodenbough’s songs are concise, without an ounce of superfluous fat. That was on reverential display last Wednesday, when she played an intimate show in Durham at Perfect Lovers, swapping instruments before each song and mixing solitary grace with playful backing grooves from Bingham, Westerlund, and Louisa Stancioff.

On “Astrology,” Rodenbough hugged her handheld Yamaha Reface synth so closely to her face that, she joked, “it feels like we’re going to kiss.” She mixed in songs from her first album, 2020’s Spectacle of Love; a piercing new instrumental she contributed to Magic Tubers Stringband’s compilation You Better Mind: Southeastern Songs to Stop Cop City; and a devastating cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy,” before closing the night with the new album’s final song, the swirling sound bath of “Waking World.”

Rodenbough’s next solo gig will come on a much bigger stage: June 22 at Haw River Ballroom, where the cavernous room might just give the new album’s emotional multitudes more room to sprawl.

That’s the space Rodenbough is trying to give herself as her career blossoms.

“I’m not good enough technically to call myself a classical violinist,” she says. “As a kid, nobody would have thought of me as a musical talent. It’s a good reminder that you have no idea what things are going to flourish in you. I don’t think I’ve landed yet as a musician. I’m just feeling around the dark and discovering new things.”

That includes work inside and outside the music industry. Over the last few years, she’s recorded and played with local artists like Joseph O’Connell (Elephant Micah), Phil Moore (Bowerbirds), and Jake Xerxes Fussell. In 2022, she worked as a paid canvasser for rural political organizers Down Home NC. This week, she’s balancing the release of her new solo album with rehearsals for Indigo De Souza’s mostly sold-out national tour.

“I’m really excited about not knowing what the next chapter of my life is going to be like,” Rodenbough says. “I’m 32 and Indigo is 25, but after only playing with her for a month, I’ve met this new group of musicians who have already changed my life.”

She also speaks lovingly of her collaborations with Kate Rhudy and Skylar Gudasz in their one-off Ask Me Anything formation—a trio dispensing relationship advice and songs across the Triangle in 2022.

“We were all egging each other on to be more defiantly confident, fearless, and brazen,” Rodenbough says. “And less afraid of embarrassment. That’s poisonous to making art or doing anything outward.”

That honesty yields powerful dividends on Between the Blades, which is comprised of soothing transmissions from the teetering edge of grief, scathing slices of keen observation, and cockeyed celebrations of sweeping human failure.

“I really believe in my songs,” she says, recalling that self-assured “sensible engine” line. “It helps me articulate the difficulty of being alive and how I contend with all the things I can’t change. This music is a document of that process—and maybe it can be helpful to other people.” 

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