The members of Americana outfit Mipso have come a long way from playing campus parties in Chapel Hill. Comprising UNC alums Jacob Sharp (mandolin, vocals), Joseph Terrell (guitar, vocals), Libby Rodenbough (fiddle, vocals) and Wood Robinson (bass, vocals), the band plays Brooklyn Arts Center Friday night as part of a 10-city tour promoting its critically-acclaimed 2018 album, “Edges Run.” The shows follow 2019’s extensive European tour, and the surprise single, “People Change,” racking up over 54 million streams on Spotify. But, as is the case for most bands, success wasn’t always so.
Founding members Sharp and Terrell met as high school seniors, while playing hooky from a tour of the UNC campus. “We were both similarly disinterested,” Sharp jokes. After discovering they had a shared love of music, they ended up jamming that very afternoon. “Our entire college experience was defined by that relationship,” Sharp says.
Both Sharp and Terrell ended up taking a gap year before starting school. While away, they would send each other songs. “We were like musical pen pals,” Sharp says. When they returned, they began playing campus open-mic nights as an acoustic duo. Not content to be just another college band, they approached bassist Wood Robinson, with whom Terrell had previously played in the band Funkasorus Rex. As Mipso trio, they soon began selling out the 750-seat Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro. In 2013, they embarked upon a tour of Japan. The next year, they added Rodenbough on fiddle, and the current lineup was set.
Sharp credits fellow Triangle-based acts, such as Mandolin Orange and Megafaun, for helping bring them along. “The scene felt pretty robust,” he says. Those bands did more than welcome them into the fold: Mandolin Orange’s Andrew Marlin produced Mipso’s first two alums, and Megafaun’s Brad Cook produced the band’s third album, “Coming Down the Mountain.” According to Sharp, it was initially intimidating to work with musicians they had admired for so long, but, ultimately, the collaborations made them feel they belonged.
“There was a learning curve on how to feel confident and comfortable with [these people],” Sharp tells. “I think the fact we were able to—in large part because of how gracious and open the scene is—is a big part of why we stuck around.”
Eventually, though, the band had to spread its wings. In 2017, feeling the need for a change, they left the relative comfort of North Carolina to record with producer Todd Sickafoose (Ani DiFranco, Anaïs Mitchell) in Eugene, Oregon. Whereas Mipso’s earlier records were more or less fully formed when entering the studio, the band arrived in Eugene with only rough outlines of what they hoped to accomplish. Sickafoose—an accomplished bass player and keyboardist in his own right—helped with arrangements and pushed the band out of their comfort zone.
“Those early experiences working with Brad [Cook] and Andrew [Marlin] were awesome and definitely big milestones for us,” Sharp says. “But I think we felt like it would be nice to hole away somewhere with somebody who was somewhat foreign to us, and see how that could challenge us to grow in a different way.”
The single “People Change” is a good example of that growth. On its face, the wistful, acoustic ballad is an unorthodox choice for a single—so much so Sharp, who wrote it, wasn’t even sure it was strong enough to be on the record. Even after the song was selected to appear in the trailer for the film “The Tomorrow Man,” starring John Lithgow and Blythe Danner, Sharp continues to be surprised by its success. “It’s not exactly a pumped-up singalong, so I was like, I don’t know if we’ll play it every night.” As fans have begun sharing what the song means to them over email and after shows, it’s taken on an important role in the band’s set. “It’s been really meaningful alongside the Spotify numbers and success to see that that’s one of the tunes that really consistently has a big impact on people.”
The band is excited to perform new material, too, thanks in large part to several different North Carolina writing retreats: at a friend’s farm outside Chapel Hill, at Sharp’s family’s home on Lake James, and on Ocracoke Island and at various band members houses around the Triangle. They have whittled down 30 new songs to a more manageable 14, due for release later in the year. While the band is mum about details, the single “Get Out While You Can,” released in 2018, may offer some hint of what to expect. A rerecording of “Get Out,” from Mipso’s 2013 album, “Dark Holler Pop,” it features the quartet’s trademark harmonies, while expanding its palette by adding driving percussion and electric guitar.
“We have those musical tools at our fingertips now,” Sharp tells. “We didn’t when we wrote it. [Plus,] the era we’re in necessitated a more aggressive reinterpretation.”
He is speaking of life under President Trump. Mipso wrote and recorded much of “Edges Run” in the shadow of the 2016 election and finished on Inauguration Day. “[The new album is] about how it is that you breathe from that shadow, and what it feels like to see your life take some turns,” Sharp says. That means continuing to find a way to inspire, even if the material itself takes on a darker sheen. “If part of the existential struggle is to find joy within the shadows, we want to find that in the music as well.”
Opening for Mipso at BAC is the duo of Bridget Kearney and Benjamin Lazar Davis. Kearney should be familiar to Wilmington audiences; as the bass player for Lake Street Dive, she visited a sold-out Greenfield Lake Amphitheater last October. Kearney and Davis’ story is similar to that of the members of Mipso: They have been friends and collaborators since meeting at the New England Conservatory in 2004 and released an EP together in 2015. A full-length album is expected later this year.
“I’m definitely hoping that some of the Lake Street Dive fans get to see [Bridget] in a different light through this show,” Sharp says.