Q&A: Mipso on Carolina Bluegrass, Their Forthcoming Album & Show This Sunday at NYC’s Mercury Lounge
Chapel Hill-based string band and gcb favorite Mipso recently wrapped up the recording of their sophomore album – a follow up to their 2013 debut, Dark Holler Pop. While the band is pretty tight-lipped on the timing and details on the new album, I caught up with them this week in advance of their performance at the Mercury Lounge on Sunday with Brooklyn’s Jus Post Bellum to see what I could get out of them. Here’s what I got.
You are the only band that has played my backyard. What has this done for your career?
Libby Rodenbough: Let me put it this way: We’re still driving around in a minivan with a broken DVD player and no interior lighting.
Classy. You’ve had quite a ride since you graduated from UNC and then almost immediately released Dark Holler Pop in the Fall of 2013. What’s been the most exciting or surprising thing from the last year or so?
Libby: The biggest surprise for me personally has been that I got a job, right out of college, without so much as a summer on my parents’ couch. Although, since then I have spent a lot of time on a lot of people’s couches. And it’s a pretty fun job, at that! I don’t want to get too schmaltzy on you, but I think the guys would agree that it is continually surprising and exciting to be doing what we’re doing for a living.
Joseph Terrell: Yes, definitely that. Bringing Libby on full time has helped us keep honing in on what we sound like. Also one especially gratifying moment was playing UNC-Chapel Hill’s 1,400-seat performing arts theater, Memorial Hall, with the Steep Canyon Rangers last fall. We’ve seen people like Bela Fleck and Merle Haggard on that stage while students at UNC, so it was surreal to walk out there ourselves. And actually have people clap for us.
While people rightly hold Carolina bluegrass of yesteryear on a pedestal, you’re a part of a pretty strong community of great modern string musicians around North Carolina’s Research Triangle – many of whom are playing more progressive material. What’s your take on the scene there?
Libby: It feels like a great time to be making music in North Carolina. Actually some of the bands we most look up to live right in our neighborhood. We love Chatham County Line. And Andrew and Emily from Mandolin Orange are close friends—we really look up to them. And they live three blocks from Joseph! There’s one of my favorite songwriters ever, Mike Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger, the Cook brothers of Megafaun fame, the Rangers…that list goes on and on.
Joseph: There’s definitely a sense of collaboration rather than competition. Andrew Marlin is the lynch-pin of the acoustic crew around here. He’s always organizing a jam or a one-off show. And folks respect and admire the early greats like Earl Scruggs, or whoever else, but no one is enforcing an exclusive, preservationist mindset, either. I think it goes back to Doc Watson’s idea of “traditional plus,” which is a pretty good description of what we’re going for.
While I know you can’t dive into the details of the album yet, what can we know about what’s to come? Any details for the good people?
Joseph: Here’s sort of a spoiler. “Dark Holler Pop” was very much us, but it was pretty bluegrassified. It was our main course with a bluegrass garnish, if that makes sense. Guest fiddlers and three-finger banjos. While making this record we talked more about old time as a reference. It’s rhythmically tight. It prioritized simple melodies rather than flashy breaks. Libby’s fiddle playing helped take us in that direction. Andrew Marlin produced the record, and he’s is featured on clawhammer on most tracks. But it doesn’t sound old or stripped down, either. Some of them are just…lush, layered, big pop songs.
Libby: Not exactly Tommy Jarrell meets Prince, though. That would be blasphemous.
You guys have gotten behind a number of causes in the last year with benefit shows. Are there some regular issues you’re getting behind or were those more one offs?
Joseph: We were proud that we did a show against Amendment One, which was the anti gay marriage bill in North Carolina. And we’ve done two big shows to raise money for female cancer patients in western North Carolina. Both things we care a lot about.
What are your set lists like these days? Mostly the old stuff or are you working in the new stuff? What can we expect to see at the Mercury Lounge?
Libby: These days we’re doing all the hits of yesteryear and trying out some new material, too. We have begun to refer to this phase as “guinea pigging.” If people throw tomatoes during one of the new ones, we might reconsider album inclusion. So please do bring your tomatoes Sunday.
You’re on the road a lot. What’s your favorite place to stop on the highway?
All Band Members in Unison: Sheetz.
Libby: The pretzel bun cannot be beat. At least for under $3.
Joseph: Yes, the classic Sheetz vs. Wawa debate. Sheetz wins. Hands down.
Tickets for Sunday’s show at the Mercury Lounge are still available. Here’s a video of the band performing “Louise,” a favorite off their debut, with Mandolin Orange’s Andrew Marlin on banjo.
Fiddler Brittany Haas (Crooked Still, Haas Kowert Tice) and the much-celebrated percussive dancer Nic Gareiss (This is How We Fly) performed two shows in the Boston area over the weekend. One of those shows was at the Old Schwamb Mill in Arlington where photographer Jason Elon Goodman shot a great video (below) before the duo’s stunning performance there to benefit the Mill – the oldest continuously operating mill in the U.S.
The video has been making its way around social media this week, so I caught up with the Brittany & Nic for a quick backstory. Here’s what they shared.
How’d this duo come about? Is this the first time you’ve played together?
Brittany: This was our first time doing a full duo gig in the US. We’ve done little bits in fiddle camp concerts over the years, as well as touring in a band called 4TET for the past couple years, and playing one duo show at a festival in Canada several years ago (at which I made my dancing debut on stage as part of a square dance with the Asham Stompers, a dance troupe of jigging champions from Manitoba. We got to dress in their full costume, which included a garter for me!). Nic is incredible and completely unique in the way that he is extremely involved in the music side of his performance. He learns the tunes too, so that he can dance the exact rhythms instead of just doing steps that look cool along with it. That’s why it feels so dynamic to collaborate with him, and the more we do it, the more we each know what the other might be about to say next in the musical conversation. It’s also fun and challenging for me to be providing all the harmonic content. I’m constantly trying to grab double stops that wouldn’t be necessary for chordal outlining if there were a guitar or cello or some other non-percussive instrument. Nic is also a secretly (but not-so-secretly-anymore) great singer, and so much fun to sing harmony with.
Nic: Britt and I have actually known each other for nearly seven years. We met originally at Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddle School in the Redwoods of California and our travels have facilitated chance meetings and collaborations in other disparate and inspiring cultural milieus. Given the wide variety of the sites of our meetings, it’s no wonder that our music pulls from so many different traditional vocabularies. We’re inspired by music and dance from many locations and feel at the heart that they speak to our own identity, not only as North Americans but as creator+adventurers in THIS time and THIS age.
Will you guys be doing more performances/touring together so more of us can see this damn fine stuff?
Brittany: Yes, we’re certainly planning on it. The next time we’ll be meeting to make music will be in March with 4TET, which also features Cleek Schrey on 5×5 fiddle & pump organ and Jordan Tice on guitar. We’re also excited to schedule more duo performances as soon as possible!
Tell us about this song you chose.
Brittany: We learned this song from The Cantrells, Emily and Al. The song is written by Emily.
Nic: The piece was made during a week of development; Brittany and I went into a dance studio for four days and asked questions, made pieces, composed new music, and created new movement together. The opportunity to collaborate with fiddle, voice, and percussive is dance is something that feels stripped down, yet seems to get to the heart of the questions we were asking during that week together. It’s challenging and invigorating and we’re excited to share it.
Frontman Zach Williams of The Lone Bellow recalls a conversation with the president of one of the major labels about eight years ago when he was asked, “Hey, man, what are you going to do when you don’t have some terrible experience to write about?”
Williams poignantly recalls what the man said next: “He straight up said, ‘I don’t think you can do it.’”
His response? “I said, ‘I don’t like you.’”
Williams, who looks back at the incident with laughter, admits the time has come.
The Lone Bellow’s first album, self-titled, was a moving tribute to the grief Williams endured after his wife was involved in a horseback riding accident that left her a quadriplegic. The album contained notes of self struggle and strife after tragedy and the balance of keeping a healthy marriage. Eventually, Williams’ wife healed and the couple have overcome. The band is hitting its stride — his life on solid ground. Now he faces the beauty of day-to-day life.
“There’s a beautiful challenge in the art and creating out of the mundane,” Williams said.
That’s exactly what the Brooklyn- based Americana band has attempted with its sophomore release Then Came the Morning (Amazon) due out on Jan. 27.
If the name is any indication of direction, the album would make for an optimistic study of life beyond anguish.
“We are these eternal souls,” Williams said. “I think the record is a celebration of that.”
Williams, along with band members Kanene Pipkin and Brian Elmquist have been filling those blank sheets of paper about balancing what can be a spectacular life on the road and the mundane moments of being friends, being family members. Pipkin’s husband Jason rounds out the band as a full-time member.
Williams said it wasn’t just his songs they brought to the table this time around.
“I think it’s important to share the responsibility of creating together,” he said. “Everybody in the band is so talented.”
The churning harmonies of “Watch Over Us,” written by Elmquist, which has been in the band’s live repertoire for more than a year, makes an appearance on the new album.
It’s Williams’ deep friendship and connection to Elmquist, which came about during Williams’ time of healing, that push the three minute heartbreak into an arm wrestle between personal struggle and strife. The song doesn’t just make an appearance, it makes a loud announcement that it’ll be staying awhile.
“I’ve loved singing that with him,” Williams said. “I love to share those moments with him.”
He also points to the songwriting capability of Pipkin, who Williams also considers a dear friend.
“She’s written some real humdingers,” Williams said.
Throw the incredible personal growth with musical thickening along with a new producer in Aaron Dessner, frontman for The National, into a skillet, and it’s become the big sound Williams envisioned moving forward into the second release.
“He has such an eye-opening approach to making sounds,” Williams said. “It was such a life experience.”
The album was recorded at Dreamland Studios in Woodstock, New York, which isn’t exactly the place that provided the vibe Williams was going for.
“I kind of wanted to go for this Vegas- Elvis vibe,” Williams said.
They’ve hit the road to showcase that vibe and while it’s been a challenge preparing for, Williams admits, the band is taking advantage of the opportunity.
“We all learned new instruments. Being able to take that out on the road, we would need way more money,” he joked.
It’s a cup of optimism from a man whose personal sadness led to an incredible triumph in the band’s debut release. It’s steps up a tall mountain that Williams decided to climb, with Elmquist and Pipkin, long ago.
“I’ve experienced some incredible healing,” he said.
That healing has allowed Williams to dig deeper into his life around him to create more story lines for the upcoming album. Such is the case in “Fake Roses,” which paints the picture of his mother-in-law.
“She’s just this incredible human being that raised my wife,” he said. “It’s about her and her sister going through the same thing. They know eachother so well, they know exactly what each other were going through and they didn’t have to talk about it,” Williams said referring to the two being single mothers and the connection of being sisters.
The song book is expanding. Williams said the band wrote 35 songs for the upcoming album. They recorded 19 of those songs and ended up shaving it down to 13.
The band, who often considers themselves a Brooklyn country music band, isn’t sure how the songs will be received in Nashville. With the emergence of acts like Sturgil Simpson and Jason Isbell, Nashville seems to be shifting — and Williams recognizes that. He’s glad to be a part of it.
“To be considered in the same conversation as Sturgil or Jason is an incredible honor,” he said.
Williams points to a show in which The Lone Bellow opened for country legend Dwight Yoakam.
“The response from his crowd was amazing,” Williams said.
It’s that crowd response the band draws so much energy from night to night. The waves of playing content from its first album and new content yet to be released has Williams and company working harder than ever before.
“It’s been a whole smorgasbord of emotion,” Williams admits.
The range of audience has been incredible, according to Williams. One night it can be 10,000 people, the next night 15, the following show can be in a room of 500 people, he said.
“It’s kind of all over the place.”
Being all over the place means playing the likes of the Jimmy Kimmel show and a date at The Hangout Music Fest in Alabama in May.
“We’ve got some fun stuff coming up,” Williams said.
However, Williams makes it clear about what he’s looking most forward to.
“We really just want to finish this cycle of this record.”
Last week, we caught up with 10 String Symphony – the Nashville duo of five-string fiddlers that was one of our favorites at CMJ last fall. Christian Sedelmyer and Rachel Baiman started busking together in Nashville two-and-a-half years ago, put out an album shortly thereafter and have since toured the nation together. The band is currently in the midst of a two week recording session for their sophomore and self-described “coming of age” album, so we bothered them in between sessions to dig into that one a bit.
It’s been a little over two years since you released your debut. What have the last couple years been like?
Rachel: When we created our first record, we were both heavily involved with other musical projects, and while we will always work independently, this new record is born of a mutual decision to really make a go of 10 String Symphony and prioritize it heavily in our careers. The past two years have really been about becoming a band. We’ve toured quite a bit, both in the US and abroad and have worked really hard on our live show. As a duo, it’s a bit harder to create a really compelling live performance that feels energetic and full at all times. We’ve grown a lot in that regard and as a result have started playing some bigger stages such as the Strawberry Music Festival. We’ve had some incredible times–a five week tour in New Zealand, and numerous tours on the West Coast. Throughout that time, we were both kind of experimenting with how much of a role we wanted this band to have in our careers and gradually we both decided that it felt good and that we really wanted to commit to it on a larger scale.
Christian: Arranging has always been a primary focus of this band – the two 5-string fiddle thing can sometimes get in the way if not aligned thoughtfully – but the material for this new record really emphasizes a newer focus on songwriting. We’re really excited to see how it will all turn out – so far, pretty pumped.
Rachel: This new record is sort of a “coming of age” for us. We’ve found a really unique sound, and have had time to explore so many different arrangements. We are much more relaxed and confident as people, and I think that will come across. This record will also be largely original material, while the last was more based on traditional folk songs. As a result, I think listeners will find it more personal, more revealing, and more vulnerable.
Christian: I definitely think we understand how to meld together more instinctively this time around. The content of the songs is a little more timely and relevant to our lives the past couple years as well. It almost feels like the process of recording our first record was learning how to become a band, and this one is more of a concentration of how we create together now – having played that many more gigs, listened to that much more music together, and drunk that many more hundreds of coffees.
Are you writing together or independently? What’s your creative process like?
Rachel: We create the arrangements together…it’s a painstaking and excruciating process. Some of our roommates, who have been victims of such rehearsals would attest to that. One thing that we’ve realized, with such exposed instrumentation, is that usually a song sounds absolutely terrible up until the point where it sounds amazing. There is really no middle ground.
Christian: Rachel wrote most of the lyrical content for this album – and it’s awesome. She’s taking writing very personally now – not just as a reflection of what’s going on in her life, but in analyzing why she likes the songs she likes; and she’s really quick at it. I co-wrote one of the songs with Josh Britt, the mandolin player and one of the songwriters in The Farewell Drifters, the band I used to play with. That was a great experience – I had an idea and a feeling I wanted to create, and working with him to capture what it is I was really trying to say in an accessible way was a great learning process. Some sort of hybrid of emotion and rational thought. Rachel and I have always arranged everything together, and I think our arrangement sensibilities have aligned to a place where even though it can take us a while to arrive at a final arrangement we’re happy with, the depth of those arrangements seem much stronger now.
Rachel: So many! But it’s not a concept album or anything, so it would be hard to answer that question really. I will say that we’ve been listening to a lot of Blake Mills and LAU.
Christian: I’ve found a lot of inspiration in my life experiences over the past couple years – traveling a lot, meeting lots of new people, and hearing lots of different, interesting music. We’ve both dealt with some difficult times, and I think our shared love of making music together has shined through and is sort of subtly pushing this album past our expectations.
Who are you working with on this one?
Christian: Our good friend Mark Sloan is producing. He has a bit of a genius musical mind – very well informed, but doesn’t let it get in the way. I think that quality is also a big part of the music I’ve been listening to lately – I love the new Blake Mills record, I think he’s a ridiculous player.
You’re fundraising for this one on Indiegogo (one week to go). How’d you decide to go that route?
Rachel: In this day and age, it’s hard for me to imagine how bands get off the ground without crowd funding. Even if you work with a record label, the new model is, record the album, THEN present it to a label. Working independently, you maintain complete creative control, and avoid the risk of being locked into a record deal that doesn’t benefit the band financially. On the other hand, we really wanted to invest in this project, make it as good as we possibly can, and we knew we would need some serious money to do that. Crowdfunding is a great model because you not only raise the money, you develop close and personal relationships with your fans, and you also promote the new project. It is hard to ask for money, but I really feel that if it’s done in the right way, it should be about people contributing because they want your music to happen, and they want a copy of the record, not because they feel sorry for you.
Any exciting perks?
Rachel: Yes. Home roasted coffee by Christian. If you enjoy good coffee, you will LOVE Christian’s home roasts. He can tell you more than you’d ever want to know about coffee!
Looks like you’re hitting the road after recording?
Rachel: Yep! We have a great West Coast tour lined up in February, then Folk Alliance and some East Coast dates in March and April. We recently started working with a great booking agency called Prater Day, and it’s looking to be a big year for us!
John Oliver suggests that New Year’s Eve isn’t worth celebrating. This may be true, but regardless this week is primed with some great shows. I’m heading to Nashville this year, so I thought it’d be fun to give shout outs to some of the big events there and back home.
- Michael Daves’ All Star Bluegrass Throwdown – One of the more exciting tickets on this list isn’t even happening on NYE. Tonight, Michael Daves’ sold out All-Star Bluegrass Throwdown at the Bell House will feature the band he’s been recording with for his Twin Albums project at a Park Slope church for the last few days. That lineup includes Noam Pikelny, Sarah Jarosz, Brittany Haas and Mike Bub (ex. Del McCoury Band bassist). The Lonesome Trio will open the night and you can look for a bunch of special guests to make appearances, including Tony Trischka, Jen Larson, Chris Eldridge, Alex Hargreaves, Mike Barnett, Courtney Hartman and more. Should be a grand time.
- Deer Tick Performs’ Elvis Costello’s “My Aim Is True” – Deer Tick continues a 10th anniversary residency at the Brooklyn Bowl this week. Tonight they’ll be playing songs off of Costello’s legendary 1977 debut. Tickets still available.
- Patti Smith – Smith, one of the most poetic songwriters in the world, completes a two-night run at Webster Hall
- Deer Tick Performs Fan Requests – You decide the set at Brooklyn Bowl, which will be opened up by T Hardy Morris.
- Joseph Arthur & Chuck Prophet – the 5th Annual Bash at City Winery features these great songwriters.
- Old Crow Medicine Show and Carolina Chocolate Drops – catch these two legendary crews at Ryman Auditorium on back-to-back sold out performances.
- Cale Tyson and Friends – Our friend Cale Tyson has gained a lot of steam with the release of his latest EP, which you can get a taste of tonight at one of Nashville’s best new restaurants, Acme Feed & Seed.
- Paul and the Broken Bones w/The Black Cadillacs & Through The Sparks – We’ve been screaming about these guys for almost a year now. As expected, they’ve gotten a lot of hype and I expect that will only continue. What other guy can dance on Bob Boilen’s desk and get away with it than Paul Janeway? The gorgeous Marathon Music Works will hold this awesome show.
- Off the Wagon w/John Tomlin and Company - You can bring in the New Year with these locals playing John Hartford’s 1987 classic Gum Tree Canoe from and start-to-finish. What better place to do that than The Station Inn, Nashville’s iconic bluegrass home which has been hanging on while the neighborhood surrounding it morphs.
- Marty Stuart – Ring in 2015 with the finest head of hair in Nashville. Country legend and picture-taker plays two shows at City Winery.
- Old Crow Medicine Show and Carolina Chocolate Drops – again, at the Ryman.
City Winery’s New Year’s Day Extravaganza with Langhorne Slim & Cory Chisel – Not sure that I’ll be able to handle so much soul on a day that could involve a hangover, but I’m heading to City Winery for this fine event (even while my alma mater crushes the Buckeyes). Slim and Chisel will host Jonny Fritz, Joshua Hedley, Ruby Amanfu, The Watson Twins and more.
Another Christmas is here, so we’ve updated “a very grassy Christmas” for 2014. The list that began in 2011 and has grown every year since, didn’t get many additions this year. But it got every track from my favorite new Christmas album by Sun Kil Moon frontman Mark Kozelek (Amazon & Spotify), which is just as Kozelek fans would hope for – stripped down and somber renditions of traditional tunes centered around that haunting voice. On the other end of the spectrum, gospel legends The Blind Boys of Alabama teamed up with blues legend Taj Mahal for Talkin’ Christmas (Amazon & Spotify) for a nice soulful record of traditionals and originals featuring Mahal on guitar, banjo, ukulele and harmonica.
One of the better compilations of the year is An Americana Christmas (Amazon & Spotify), which includes a few great old time tracks like Emmylou’s “The First Noel” and Cash’s “The Gifts They Gave,” but of note are renditions of “Pretty Paper” by Robert Ellis and my favorite original of the year “FaLaLaLaLove Ya” by Nikki Lane.
A good folks at Amazon have cooked up a sweet Christmas playlist of traditional covers and originals exclusively available for Prime members on Prime Music. All is Bright spans genres and it’s not all gcb-fan-friendly, but Beth Orton’s cover of “River” is amazing. I’m also a big fan of other classics like Lucinda Williams’ rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Brandi Carlisle performing “O Holy Night” and PHOX covering “The Christmas Song.”
And lastly, folk pop trio The National Parks is supporting the United Way’s “Sub for Santa” efforts with a great original “It’s Christmas, And I Like You.” Great cause with a cool video below.
Merry Christmas, y’all.
DISCLOSURE NOTE: Amazon is my client at Weber Shandwick, but this post is my own and was not sponsored.
This morning, the Newport Folk Festival launched one of the best Throwback Thursday’s we’ve seen in awhile: a reel of some of the best numbers from the 2014 event. Props to Ryan Mastro who does a great job with these every year. Check it out below.