“This is a highly guarded secret,” Mipso guitarist Joseph Terrell begins when asked about the meaning of the band’s name. But there’s something about a hometown show, perhaps, like the two the Carrboro-based band played to sold-out crowds last month at Cat’s Cradle, that invites letting your guard down. So he continues.
“There’s a phrase in Japan,” he explains, “it means something familiar, but there’s something a little bit off. And it roughly translates, or at least we were told, to ‘a little pee in the miso.’ And so we put a little P in the miso: Mipso.”
It’s a fittingly quirky, winsome story from a band whose members could be described with similar terms. They joke around onstage between songs that tell stories of love and heartbreak, struggle and joy, all set to sounds that weave in threads from bluegrass, old time, country, pop and beyond.
Though they branched out in Japan early on – their first tour was a world tour, of sorts, tapping into connections mandolin player Jacob Sharp had made while writing a thesis on bluegrass in Japan as a UNC-Chapel Hill undergraduate – their roots are firmly planted in North Carolina. Sharp, from Morganton; Terrell, from High Point; and bass player Wood Robinson and fiddle player Libby Rodenbough from Greensboro met as students at UNC, playing music together for fun before ever dreaming a band might be their career path.
These days, the young quartet is based in and around Carrboro, but they don’t spend much time there amid a busy touring schedule. And life is only getting busier as they release their new album, “Old Time Reverie,” on Chapel Hill-based Robust Records on Friday. Despite the dreamy title, the album’s 11 songs reflect band members in sharp focus, sure of themselves and their talents with instruments, rich harmonies and songwriting.
Their first album, “Long, Long Gone,” was “us learning how to write songs and play together,” Sharp says. He describes the follow-up, “Dark Holler Pop,” as a lesson on what it takes to make a record their own way, with their own musical peers, including members of North Carolina bands Chatham County Line, Mandolin Orange and Town Mountain.
“This one,” Sharp says, “felt like it was the first time we made really a Mipso record, because in two years of touring we found what is our natural, home sound.”
Terrell adds: “We’ve learned – better – how to sound like us.”
Part of their sound, of course, is fiddle playing and vocals from Rodenbough, who only officially joined the band last year, after graduating from UNC.
“We’re all lovers of bluegrass and fans of bluegrass,” says Terrell, “but one difference this record showcases is that Libby’s more a student of old time music. She’s studied old time around here in North Carolina, and she actually took a semester off school to study Celtic fiddle in Ireland. And so rather than bringing the flavor of a bluegrass fiddle player to the band, she’s really helped us rethink the way that an old time fiddle fits into a stringband context. I think this record showcases that.”
Mandolin Orange’s Andrew Marlin produced “Old Time Reverie,” a reprise of his role on “Dark Holler Pop,” and contributed clawhammer banjo, percussion and other sounds to the album.
“Making ‘Old Time Reverie’ was a rare opportunity for me as a producer,” says Marlin, whom the band describes in the album’s liner notes as “the Quincy Jones of our stringband-pop experiment.” “It isn’t often that I get to work with four super capable musicians who work together so closely and so fluidly.”
Not strictly bluegrass
Though Mipso has performed during World of Bluegrass week every year it’s been in Raleigh, are they bluegrass?
“We love bluegrass, and we’re informed by bluegrass, but we know enough about bluegrass to know that we’re not strictly a bluegrass band,” says Terrell.
In addition to their bluegrass forebears, the band also listens to Norman Blake, the Carter Family, North Carolina’s Red Clay Ramblers and other artists who shaped an early country sound. And sometimes they listen to … George Michael.
George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” was one of Mipso’s first songs played publicly. In live shows, they’ve also covered Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight,” the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” and “White Flag” by Dido.
The ’80s pop superstar’s “Careless Whisper” was one of Mipso’s first songs they played publicly. In live shows, they’ve also covered Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight,” the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” and “White Flag” by Dido.
Great musicians they have known tend to “listen widely,” Terrell points out.
“We feel like good songs are everywhere, and genre labels can kind of distract you from what the song is,” he says. “But really there’s great melodies that we have fun playing in all kind of places, from all kinds of decades.”
While a cover or two may well find their way into Mipso’s World of Bluegrass shows, the spotlight will be firmly on the songs of “Old Time Reverie,” as well as of the band’s homeland.
“It’s a nice showcase of North Carolina,” Sharp says of World of Bluegrass. “So many people come to Raleigh for the first time, or the Triangle, and say, ‘This is a great place, I didn’t realize there were so many amazing musicians here and great venues’ – and for us that’s a big pride point.”
The International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual conference week is a great chance for the band to reflect, too, on where it came from and where it’s going.
“The first year was kind of where we met so many of the musicians from different parts of the country that now we see around a lot when we’re passing though towns at the same time,” Sharp says. “That was kind of the first time we were able to interact with some of our hero figures, people we look up to. And then last year, after a year of touring, it felt like a comfortable home.”
This year, it might feel like more of a victory lap. Even longtime fans of Mipso will find something familiar, but with a little something new: a quartet of musicians who aren’t big on boundaries, reaching instead for a flavor that’s all their own.
Stacy Chandler: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you go
Where you can see Mipso:
Late Thursday/early Friday: 1 a.m. at Vintage Church in downtown Raleigh.
Friday: Local record store appearances, plus Mipso Album & Beer Release Party at Steel String Brewery in Carrboro at 8 p.m. Featuring Mipso-inspired beers.
Saturday: 5 p.m. at City Plaza Stage in Raleigh.