As Jordan Lee sets off for a month of intimate Mutual Benefit dates, we burrow into his serene songwriting and creative wanderings.
You're currently writing and recording a new record. How have these processes changed since the beginning of Mutual Benefit?
I think the process has changed as much as it has stayed the same. At the core, I’ve always tried to use my songs to explore questions I haven’t learned to deal with in any other way. In other technical ways, my music has changed as I’ve become marginally proficient at recording and songwriting. I still try to leave lots of room in my songs to experiment with sounds and capture that sense of “play” which makes music so fun to work on.
Your last record Skip A Sinking Stone seemed like a pretty big step for the project. For you, what made that record so special? What did you do songwriting or recording wise that expanded the Mutual Benefit aesthetic and sound?
I suppose Skip A Sinking Stone was different because it almost felt like a commissioned piece. Like, I was making it for something. From it’s very conception, it was intended for an audience when I had been able to avoid that situation for my whole career up until that point. Honestly, I’m still working on ways of disconnecting the writing process from the eventual circus that ensues when a record comes out.
I guess the other change was the subject matter, falling out of love. It is a thing that most people have gone through and made cringey art about, but since I’m from outer space it was my first time processing such things. Even though I tried to make the album about more than just that emotional journey I think it colored the feeling of the whole piece.
Your music is so tranquil and pleasant. Are the songs a reflection of your personal mood and demeanor?
Honestly, I’m not sure I could say yes to that. I’m definitely interested in the idea of peace in the abstract but I think I may be gifted (or cursed) with often seeing the inconvenient complexities in most ways of being. Lately I’ve been suspicious of any semi-holistic language surrounding mindfulness; I feel like it is getting co-opted by some tech bros selling a smart-watch that keeps score of how well you meditate. That being said, I try to use music to explore the subjects where words fail me. To find a tranquil place that doesn’t leave the inescapable darkness of life unacknowledged. Anyone will tell you, I’m an asshole in real life; the bad boy of pastoral baroque folk-pop.
What type of things have motivated and inspired you lately to create more Mutual Benefit stuff?
For the current record-in-progress, it is impossible to not be influenced by the feeling that all four horseman of the apocalypse are running wild trampling normalcy all around the world. The problem with this type of thinking is so many people have been feeling this way for generations. I’ve been trying to change my sense of political hopelessness and redirect it into researching history told by the groups who are oftentimes given the smallest historical platform. I’ve been incredibly inspired by the classics from Angela Davis and James Baldwin but also trying to research more about the mass incarceration crisis from books like The New Jim Crow and Captive Genders. I recently finished a collection of essays written by incarcerated folks who had gone though solitary confinement which was very difficult to get through. I guess it feels like an “all hands on deck” moment of history and I want to feel like my output is infused with voices who should be raised instead of just my dumb thoughts.
Is your creativity mainly channeled through Mutual Benefit or do you have other means of artistic release and cultivation musically or otherwise?
I try to be creative for as much of the day as possible; when I am cooking, making small talk, or taking notes on a long walk. It seems like there are a lot of subtle attitudes in our culture that try and make adults feel like they shouldn’t be creative or can only be so in certain approved contexts. Definitely my main public way of showing work is through Mutual Benefit though.
How did the project start? Did you ever imagine it would reach the level you're at now with millions of listeners of your records?
Mutual Benefit started in 2009 with a hilariously misguided psychedelic cassette I recorded on a karaoke machine. Up until that point I was making straight forward pop music and before that I was making Christian pop-punk songs. Maybe the present version of the band is the distillation of those past three lives? I definitely didn’t expect anyone to give a shit, that was a huge surprise. I don’t think anyone should expect people to listen to their music.
I remember discovering your music on some blog back in 2010 and being really blown away with the intimacy and calming nature of the songs. The same appeal still exists in your music today even with the higher budget (I assume) production. Do you still craft your songs to keep the intimate and stripped away ambiance that was present for your first releases? Will the new record be a bigger production deal and a bigger sound or will it be undeniably Mutual Benefit? (Or both)
Ah, 2010 “the golden age of music blogging” as me and my friends jokingly call it. I think that the biggest difference with Skip A Sinking Stone was that we had a real engineer mix it instead of doing it ourselves. Otherwise, the recording process has stayed mostly the same over the years with the new one not being an exception. I try and take a couple years to gather my thoughts and record in lots of formal and informal spaces to give a feeling of the songs being lived in. Sure, you can put a really nice microphone close to the singing and not use any reverb to make something seem intimate but you can also choose to record at an emotionally volatile moment with whatever gear is around and get the perfect take. I think part of our journey is learning how to balance those elements into the exact statement we want in the world.