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Libby Rodenbough of Mipso Talks “Down in the Water” (INTERVIEW)

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The first time I heard Libby Rodenbough sing “Down in the Water” was in a Mexican restaurant in Davidson, North Carolina, in August of 2014. As the fiddle player for Mipso, a rising young bluegrass-influenced band out of Chapel Hill, she sometimes sings lead on songs with the band, but, as far as I could remember, only on covers. So after the show, I made my way through the crowd to the small corner where they had been performing and asked her about the song. It had a haunting melody that affixed itself directly onto my brain and intriguing, poetic lyrics. If it was a cover I wanted to know who had written it so that I could find more like it.

She told me that she had written it, and that it was actually the first song she had written, or at least the first one that she wrote for the band. Since then I’ve heard Mipso play this song several times at shows, and I’ve also listened to the version they released as a single in April, 2015.

Later in April, Mipso played at Merlefest, the esteemed “traditional plus” music festival in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, gaining new fans with two well-received performances.

While at Merlefest I finally got a chance to ask Libby to tell me about “Down in the Water,” starting with the metaphoric nature of “water” in the lyrics.

Keep my mind
Down in the water where I bathe and let it
Steep my mind
Down in the water

I have been a fool for shame
Like a sunburnt lover of the far-away
But when you come home waving all your tourist claims
The gate falls where you would go

Keep my mind
Down in the ocean where I played and keep it
Down deep in time
Down in the water

Draw my eye to center stage
To the little ghost who wears my name
And keep it there until the white lights fade
To blue and red and back again

Like a coward, like a fool
I’ve been washing away
Every scar, every bruise on my face
Down to, down to the bottom

Keep my mind
Down in the water where I bathe and let it
Steep my mind
Down in the water

“The song came to me in the way a lot of songs since then have come to me too,” Libby says. “When I’m driving in my car, my mind’s just sort of doing the half-engaged thing, where little figments of things are floating in and out, and a lot of times they’re meaningless and they’re nothing. But sometimes it’ll be a melody or a piece of a lyric. And that’s where I came up with that initial melody and lyrics ‘Keep my mind down in the water where I bathe.’ And as is the case pretty often, I didn’t really know what that meant. It wasn’t like I had the sentiment and then I was searching for a metaphor. The metaphor came first. And then when I got back home and had a guitar and could go over the melody in my mind a few times I started trying to think about what it meant.

“So I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Sometimes I think maybe I should start with the intended meaning and then construct something around it. But that’s what came to me first. And then once I had that in my mind it actually seemed to fit my world view pretty well. I think I meant the song to be about being comfortable with all of one’s selves. I do sort of object to a notion that’s increasingly prevalent because of the ‘brand culture’ that we’re in, where you’re encouraged to think of your own personality as a brand. And so it needs to be kind of clear and cohesive, and cultivated too. I sort of object to that.

“So this song was about water being fluid and containing all sorts of suspended particulates. And I was thinking of all your selves kind of mixing around and surrounding you. I like the idea of sort of sitting in your own filth. That’s the metaphor that I meant. Like sitting down in there with all the people you’ve been, and all the things that you’ve done, and trying to be comfortable with it, and be comfortable with contradictions and mistakes and everything else that goes along with just being a person and living a life.”

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I point out that the bridge does what a lot of good bridges do. It tightens the lyrical focus of the song, saying more directly what the verses and chorus have hinted at.

Like a coward, like a fool
I’ve been washing away
Every scar, every bruise on my face
Down to, down to the bottom

“That could sort of be a thesis statement,” Libby agrees. “That sort of boils it down a little bit. I guess it makes sense too, with the energy of the bridge, it’s building up to some kind of a climax. So it makes sense. You’ve kind of danced around on what you’re trying to say, and then when you get to this peak of energy it’s sort of just an explosion: here’s what I’m trying to say.”

The next question I ask is unanswerable, and I know it, but I ask anyway. There’s something about the melody of the bridge, especially around the phrase “like a fool,” that is so powerful and moving that it affects me every time I hear it. What is she doing there?

“Well I’ll say that the melody for this song really came to me pretty easily, which I think is always a good sign. It’s not something that I worked at. It got in my head. A lot of times with the songs that work best with me I feel like they already existed somewhere in the universe and they just kind of got crystallized in my brain.”

In fact, that section wasn’t even a bridge until she got some help from Joseph Terrell, the most prolific songwriter in Mipso. At Merlefest in 2014, his song “Angelina Jane is Long Gone” won the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest’s “General Song” category.

“I didn’t really think about this song as having verse-chorus-bridge, I just had all these sections, I didn’t have names for them. There were actually more sections than ended up in the finished song. So it was kind of this nebulous, watery thing itself, and Joseph helped me to shape them into sections. You know Joseph’s songwriting. It’s very clean, it’s precise, it’s just perfectly constructed. I’m not the same kind of songwriter, but I think it’s good for us to learn from one another.”

I agree, but point out that her writing brings a kind of rawness to the Mipso mix, which is so effective for expressing emotion.

“I like messiness,” Libby says. “I think you can tell that in the song.”

One unusual thing about “Down in the Water” is that the first section of the song has just one chord for its entire eight measures, but there’s nothing monotonous about it. It creates a feeling of restraint and seriousness as the melody soars and dives, leading into the second section, which loosens up and has a lighter feel. The reason for the one-chord verse has everything to do with the process Libby used to write the song and the fact that she’s a fiddle player.

“I’m not really a guitar player. I kind of get a melody in my head. But then I give it some form, usually on the guitar, sometimes on the piano, but because I play a melody instrument, I don’t usually think in chords as much. I think about melodies before I think about chords. So that song, when I got it in my head, I didn’t have any idea what the chords were going to be, I just had the melody. And if you listen, the whole–I don’t know if it’s a verse or a chorus–but that whole first section, it’s one chord. It never changes. And it was just because maybe I don’t hear as many chords. That’s another difference between Joseph and me in songwriting. I’ve gotten better now. Certain songs are a little more chord-heavy, but I think it’s a cool thing to write from a melodic perspective. And that’s what that song is. It’s really not about the chords, it’s about the melody.”

This makes me think about the first songwriter I interviewed, Langhorne Slim, who told me that he wrote the songs from the album, The Way We Move, on piano, an instrument that he didn’t really know how to play. He said that it opened up his creativity because he didn’t know the rules. So maybe there’s value in writing on an unfamiliar instrument.

“I think there is, yeah,” Libby says. “Because you want to be able to surprise yourself. And if you’re on your instrument, as much as you try to be super-fresh and engaged and everything, you’re gonna fall back into your pattern. You can’t stop your muscle memory. Your hand knows the way you play. Even if your brain tries to get outside your hand’s gonna keep you there.”

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The single version of the song, released in April, is a lot different than the way the band plays the song live. The single features drums, a first for Mipso, and it’s more upbeat. One nice touch is a few little riffs that start showing up in the second chorus. They sound like electric guitar but different.

“That was cool because it’s a baritone electric guitar, a little deeper,” Libby says. “I really liked it too. It has a pretty unique sound, it’s super-warm. I did want the whole thing to sound really warm, which I think comes across live too.”

I ask her if the sound of the single is indicative of how the album, due out in the fall, will sound.

“No, that single is totally separate from the album. We recorded a different version for the album. The new version of it is a whole other beast. We’ve done so many different iterations of it. The new version, I’ll be interested to see what you think of it. Initially I was skeptical about it but I’ve kind of come around to it. Our producer, Andrew Marlin, from Mandolin Orange, wanted to turn it into almost a fiddle tune, to be very, very acoustic. It’s a little faster and there’s a fiddle playing the melody, and there’s claw hammer banjo on it. It’s pretty different.”

When they play the song live, they keep it simple. The melody is so strong that, with the exception of the harmonies supplied by band-mates Joseph Terrell, Jacob Sharp and Wood Robinson, the song seems to need little else. The understated bass, guitar and mandolin set the stage for Libby’s voice and fiddle to shine. I confess to Libby that I’m pretty attached to the way they play it live.

“I kind of hope that one day we’ll record it that way. That’s the funny thing. You record all these songs one way, obviously, and they become that version in a certain sense, in a certain formalized official sense. But then the way we play it most is the way we play it live. We’ve played that song maybe a hundred times live in a totally different way from either of the ways we recorded it. So it has at least three lives. And I agree with you. The way that we perform it live feels most natural to me because that’s the way it is in my head.”

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