The project of Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Jordan Lee, Mutual Benefit consists of various musicians, depending on the period of time. The band has released Love’s Crushing Diamond (2013) and Skip a Sinking Stone (2016), alongside a number of digital albums.
Mutual Benefit, Jordan Lee’s project featuring a fluid cast of musicians, follows 2013’s gorgeous Love’s Crushing Diamond with Skip a Sinking Stone. The album is an exercise in accepting impermanence—a landscape glimpsed from the window of a train, a good dream, lost love. The Boston-based Lee is still clearly influenced by Texas, where Mutual Benefit began, but his sound is really that of a man on the move, enjoying every mile of the journey. Recorded during Lee’s residency at the Silent Barn in Brooklyn, Skip a Sinking Stone was penned between touring his Love’s Crushing Diamond and settling down in New York, at least for a bit. From the slow-building orchestral opening—reminiscent of windchimes foretelling a storm—Lee uses sustained piano, woodwinds, horns, finger-picked guitars and vibraphones to wrap his falsetto in atmospheric bliss. It all works wonderfully. For the duration of the album, Lee shows us the world through his eyes, and it’s a pretty view indeed.
Mutual Benefit perform for us in Hollywood, and Lee answers a few questions.
Where are you from?
I am from a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. We had a festival once a year to celebrate the blooming violets. In most other ways, it was outwardly unremarkable.
When did you start making music?
For as long as I can remember, my family had instruments around. My dad sang and played piano for a church. He helped start services on guitar and piano, and eventually I joined in helping him until I slowly changed into a suburban mall punk (with an awesomely angsty transition period).
Who did you listen to growing up and who is your music influenced by today?
My older sister Whitney was in college during my formative music years, and she made sure I knew about the ‘Indie Canon’: Neutral Milk Hotel, Radiohead, Joanna Newsom, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Sufjan Stevens, Godspeed, Antony & The Johnsons, Le Tigre, etc. In fact, one year for Christmas when burning CD’s started to become a thing, Whitney gave me a spindle of 50 or 60 CDs that set me on the musical path that I’m on today. I am very grateful for that.
How would you describe your musical genre/style?
I make experimental human pop music. I try to take disparate things that I enjoy and amalgamate them—old field-recorded folk music from mountain communities; ’70s AM pop radio; noodling on a synth—until a sound ghost comes out.
How and when did you decide that this is what you were going to do?
I never thought I would be a musician for a living. My goal was to spend more time doing things that fulfill me and figure out how to do less of jobs that drain my soul. It was a slow process over 10 years or so of working and quitting side jobs, collaborating with anyone who I respected, moving all the time and hopping on any tour that would have me until it became a full-time job.
“My goal was to spend more time
doing things that fulfill me and figure out how
to do less of jobs that drain my soul.”
— Jordan Lee
How does it feel to have finished your album? What was the process like?
Mutual Benefit releases are usually highly collaborative, with Skip a Sinking Stone being no exception. I often use the album format to process difficult feelings that build up every year or two, so finishing an album is an extremely cathartic experience. It makes me feel like I can move on and start a new chapter.
What cities or venues are your favorite to perform at. Which are you most excited for in upcoming tour?
For many years, the only shows we played were DIY house or gallery shows. Now we try and sneak in as many of those as possible so we’re not just in some dank bar every night for a month straight. Otherwise that lifestyle can really lead to some dark mental spaces. On this tour we played a beautiful show set up by the Breakfast All Day Collective who are doing great things in Arcata, California, and we also played a really magical backyard show in Olympia, Washington. I don’t make it to the West very often, so having those types of nights has been a huge highlight of this tour.
What’s your favorite album right now?
At this very second, it has to be the new Chance The Rapper album [Coloring Book]. We listen to it every day in the van. It is so jubilant! “I don’t believe in kings / I believe in kingdoms.” That sentiment is so sick.
What are your interests and passions outside of music?
I’ve been becoming increasingly interested in radical social and political theory. I like daydreaming about finding more human ways to organize and interact that aren’t so abstracted and distorted by dominant power structures and toxic societal norms. Living in Brooklyn, I also enjoy taking any chance I can get to sit in a quiet forest and hang with the birds and listen to the bullfrogs sing with the cicadas. When I’m stuck in the city, I’ll try to get my fix by watching nature documentaries.
How do you feel about the rising creative scene in LA?
I feel great about all the interesting audio and visual work that seems to be flowing out of LA. But it’s shitty that they are trying to shut down The Smell!
After we finish this US tour, we are commissioned to cover a full, yet-to-be-named album in its entirety, which will be a fun and challenging project. Then it’s back to the normal cycle of recording, performing, being a human, repeat.