If one were to chart North Carolina string band Mipso’s career over the past decade on a line graph, you’d see a steadily rising, ever-growing musical output and an ever-burgeoning audience for their brand of grounded-yet-dreamy folk pop. This journey through roots music has paralleled their peers – bands and artists like Watchhouse, Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle, and Della Mae – but they’ve outlasted more than a few similar ensembles that have fallen to the wayside over those years. Strikingly, even while enjoying near constant growth since they coalesced in 2012, the band has eschewed higher echelons of the Americana star-scape, choosing instead to scale their business and their art intentionally and deliberately.
Theirs is a sound and musical aesthetic ready for the “big time” – they’ve garnered hundreds of millions of streams – but Mipso (made up of Wood Robinson, Libby Rodenbough, Jacob Sharp, and Joseph Terrell) seem very happy with where they’ve landed since their consecutive popular and critically-acclaimed releases Coming Down the Mountain (2017), Edges Run (2018), and 2020’s Mipso. Each album saw the group gain traction, gain fans, and gain notoriety. Still, they aren’t defined by their ambitions; and their ambitions don’t seem to ever be conflated with conquering anything. Instead, this is a band building something.
Mipso’s sixth studio album, Book of Fools (due out August 25), certainly speaks to this phenomenon. The group feels perfectly at home with one another; they’re a chosen-family band – together, they’ve been through their college days, their road-dogging era, their “I think this might not just be a pipe dream…” successes, landing with a crystalline point of view that’s expansive, complicated, and rich, but doesn’t feel like it has anything to prove. There’s no desperation here – to claw back pre-COVID reality, to tour arenas, to brand and merchandise their way to an empire. As songwriter, guitarist, and singer Joseph Terrell puts it in a press release, “Book of Fools feels more relaxed, more confident, more us – like we’re wearing our favorite clothes and telling our favorite story and it feels exciting again.”
“The Numbers,” the second single from Book of Fools, winks to this measured, black-and-white view of their own jobs and careers – versus “real jobs,” let’s say – and the economic access that’s never been a hallmark of either roots music or the generation to which Mipso’s members belong. By prioritizing building art and community over bottom line, Mipso demonstrate a class consciousness that places themselves and their music in alignment with workers, laborers, and the every-person, making the message behind “The Numbers” palpably genuine.
“I looked around at this cruel place where we live,” Libby Rodenbough explained via press release, describing the U.S. and the stock market, “And I felt forlorn that the NASDAQ offers anybody any kind of comfort. How do I know things are bad? Because I feel it, and I see it.”
Who are “The Numbers” supposed to comfort? And what exactly are they supposed to indicate? Mipso utilize their post-modern string band trappings – in a similar fashion to Nickel Creek or Crooked Still – to explore these ideas in ways that the forebears of bluegrass and old-time did as well, in their own time and within the social and political issues of their own days.
Genre-wise, Mipso may have traveled a great distance from their bluegrassy early days as a string band quartet dripping with North Carolinian roots music traditions, but again their journey, in this regard especially, does not feel overtly aspirational. These are not sounds and production values adopted in order to sell out bigger rooms or fill bigger stages. The music of Book of Fools (and really any LP in their catalog since Dark Holler Pop) is as intentional as the messages within it, so one can feel and enjoy the old-timey touches that underpin these fully-realized sonic landscapes.
Mipso hasn’t lost touch. They haven’t lost sight of how real the stakes are outside of their own experiences – and within them. While they may not be building a business model reliant on “sheds” and arenas and radio hits and dynamic ticket pricing to be “successful,” you can feel the gratitude they have for their own daily lives and careers, even while they apply critical lenses through which to talk about the social and political issues they and their community face.
It’s exciting, encouraging, and energizing, to appreciate an album that isn’t merely a rung on a career ladder, but is meant to be its own constituent journey – both for Mipso and their listeners. Book of Fools speaks to a trajectory that is neither predictable nor totally quantifiable and isn’t merely about consumption or facilitating an ever-deepening appetite for consumption. That this could be said about almost any release by this prolific foursome speaks to exactly why we’re so pleased to name Mipso our August Artist of the Month.
Watch for our Artist of the Month feature to come later in August and for now, enjoy our Essential Mipso Playlist.
Photo Credit: Calli Westra