A FEW MINUTES WITH… Jacob Sharp of Mipso
Interview and story by Don Wilcock
On Monday night in Montreal the band Mipso covered “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” from Paul Simon’s Graceland album. This from a band whose instrumentation is led by acoustic mandolin, guitar and violin… and whose latest album Old Time Reverie debuted at Number One on Billboard’s Bluegrass Chart last fall. From Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the band makes their upstate New York debut on Friday night (February 19) at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs. And to say that this acoustic southern string band is eclectic doesn’t begin to tell the story.
A musician friend of the band’s from New Zealand calls Mipso “a pop band from the south dressed up as a string band.” They’ve been known to cover “Careless Whisper” by ’80s pop superstar George Michael, Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight” and the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.” I thought mandolin player Jacob Sharp would laugh at me when I admitted that after listening to the new album I heard the influences of Simon & Garfunkel with Appalachian instruments on “Marianne”; Loretta Lynn at 13 on daddy’s farm in “Down in the Water”; Ricky Skaggs after his crossover on “Eliza”; and The Band unplugged on “Father’s House.” To the contrary, Sharp told me, “You just tagged a lot of names of most of my favorite albums. So, you’re right on.”
Imagine an old embroidered sampler with the alphabet stitched in, a couple of old mottoes and then there’s a Volvo sewn right in the center. That’s what Mipso “sounds” like. And just as Graceland gave a new spin to South African music, Old Time Reverie takes Bill Monroe’s bluegrass into the 21st century and explodes its sound in all directions.
Mipso guitarist Joseph Terrell told Bryan C. Reed of Chapel Hill’s Indy Week, “I don’t see why bluegrass shouldn’t work a little more like the term ‘jazz.’ It’s a big tent. Straight ahead bebop from the ’40s can have a home in jazz. New artists like Snarky Puppy can have a home in jazz. I like to remember that back in the day Bill Monroe was yelling at the top of his lungs and playing rip-roaring tunes with a loud, metallic mandolin before there was such a thing as rock’n’roll or an electric guitar. It was modern and shocking and pretty anti-traditional at the time. A lot of young players genuinely want to honor the early bluegrass heroes without being too rigid or exclusive about who’s invited to the party.”
Jacob Sharp agrees, saying that many folks tend to look “at bluegrass as being more traditional than it was. It was radical in the late ’40s and early ’50s. As far as creative spaces go, six decades isn’t a long span of time. What those guys were doing was fully radical in the moment. I always think it’s funny that we look to some of the last generation of bluegrass musicians as having been set in stone within a tradition because a lot of it comes from them being pretty bold in what directions they were leading and what they were pulling from.
“For me, I feel comfortable with how many young musicians we encounter who are so fully steeped and then choosing to do otherwise, but then are aware of and able to replicate and authenticate and keep some of those folk traditions moving along. There’s almost no worry either in the electric scene or individually with how it is that we mature hoping to mix things up a little bit differently.”
Mipso – which also features bassist Wood Robinson and their latest recruit, fiddler Libby Rodenbough – is one of those rare animals that fell together quite by chance but is simply too good to die. “We formed the band basically by accident. Somebody asked us if we would play a gig as a fundraiser. ‘We’re looking for a bluegrass band. Will you form one?’ And 10 days later, we played an hour-long set, and it was awful.
“We had no idea what we were doing, but we got such an encouraging response from our local community, we said, ‘Let’s see if can figure this out.’ So, we spent a year and a half while we were full-time students (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). When we graduated and decided to really solidify, the first part of that for us was that we had to record an album. And so Dark Holler Pop (their 2013 debut) was kind of a study for us.”
Their name is an accident, too. When they agreed to do that first gig, “The local paper called us and said, ‘Oh, you’re the band playing this thing. What’s your name?’ And we didn’t realize we were a band,” Sharp explains. “We thought we were playing a little bit of music, and so we asked them how long we had until they actually printed, and they said they had 20 minutes. So we had a quick brainstorming session of what it would be that people would know us as. And we came up with Mipso Trio. We were just three at the time, and since then have realized that Mipso sticks out especially in the musical world.
“That often has been the first question of every interview that we’ve had. There comes a point where we say, ‘We should spend the next four months drawing straws for who has to answer it,’ and the only rule is whoever draws the short straw has to make something up and be fully supported by the rest of the band as they launch into the rest of the story.
“So that was a humorous time for us, but that has resulted now in multiple fabricated stories that we have answered in different ways. At the time, all we knew was we didn’t want to be the Something Mountain Boys or the Yatta Yatta Brothers. So, at this point – 500 concerts in – you would be just as tired of any name as any other. So Mipso works just fine for me.”
On “Bad Penny” they sing, “Maybe the rock of ages is just another stone.” I have a feeling this stone will come to be viewed as a rock of ages, and this band is well on its way to developing a sound unique enough to generate a new moniker that defines their style apart from bluegrass or even Americana.
“Personally, I have not attempted any in-depth study or replicating of any of my heroes on mandolin or on guitar,” says Sharp. “And I wouldn’t say any of the other band members have specifically targeted one particular player’s style. We come more from the folklore perspective, trying to take a little from a lot of varying influences without honing in on any one specifically.
“Maybe that’s why we feel so comfortable moving between genres, and also so free – not needing to be tied to any particular one because it isn’t that any of us at 14 were either obsessed or identified with the next hot picking scene. We came later in life to playing this type of string band-oriented music because it just was the set of resources we had at our hands with these instruments.”