Jordan Lee, the mastermind behind indie band Mutual Benefit, doesn’t try to hide much from his fans. Currently on tour in support of his first full-length album Love’s Crushing Diamond, Lee’s calm and melodic tunes are laced with personal stories directly from his life and adventures on the road. Emertainment Monthly was lucky enough to talk to him about what’s going on with Mutual Benefit, where he gets his inspiration from, and plenty more.
Emertainment Monthly: You’ve talked a lot about how your breakout album, Love’s Crushing Diamond, details some really personal moments. Can you explain what exactly what exactly you were going through when you were writing those songs?
Jordan Lee: Absolutely not [laughs]. I guess in broad terms, the album’s title is open-ended as is and that’s something I tried to be. It’s about the idea of when you care for a person or people and you feel love towards them, that same connection that you have towards each other, the opposite can happen where if they’re struggling or in pain or they drop out of your life, it’s replaced by this negativity that you have to write an album about to work through.
EM: Since the album was so personal for you, have you thought at all about your next release and how that might compare, both musically and story-wise?
JL: I’ve definitely given it some passing thought. It seems like a lot of the releases I do are very specific to my feelings at the time. The EP before this one, The Cowboy’s Prayer, was written when my friend and I were living in Boston together and barely just scraping enough money to get by. But we saved up enough money to drive back to Ohio for our friend’s wedding and it was a pretty intense drive. Hurricane Irene had just happened so we were driving through Pennsylvania and New York and some of these areas were totally devastated and we got delayed because all the roads were shut down for a while. It was super weird, but the biggest thing was that our tire broke and we went into a Walmart to try to fix it and there was this family in there that was huddled and crying because they had just lost everything; their house had been destroyed.
So we ended up making it to the wedding on time and it was the first time I had seen one of my friends get married and it seemed like a good idea. I’m 25 so I’m just starting to get to that age. When I got home, I was like, “Wow, I just watched a whole town get destroyed and I saw my friend get married so I guess I need to write songs about this.”
With the next release, I’m not rushing it or anything. I just keep a notebook with me and when something happens that I feel like I need to use music to process, then that will probably be the next record. Hopefully it’ll be a happy feeling instead of a horrible feeling.
EM: Pitchfork recently named your album one of the top 50 albums of 2013. How did you react when you found out?
JL: I try to be pretty emotionally divorced from critical reviews. It’s easy when blogs or the media is saying nice things about you, but if you buy into that, you’ll totally be devastated when they hate your sophomore album. I’m a pretty harsh critic on myself, so I just try to make things that I’m into.
Especially with the national media, there’s so much that’s out of your control. Like maybe for some reason this record I made fit the ascetic people were looking for in that moment. So to put too much power into secondary reception just seems like a bad idea to me.
EM: What’s it like to know that you have so many fans connecting with your personal stories through your music?
JL: It’s definitely not something I was expecting and it’s been interesting. I try to keep myself pretty available – I keep my email pretty public and stuff like that, so especially when the record first came out, people were emailing and saying that the record helped them through a tough time. Or people would email and list all of the horrible things going on in their lives and then be like, “but your album helped me know that this is just a temporary thing.” I have mixed feelings about it. I’m really, really happy that someone can relate to the art that I’m making and it’s a positive thing in their life, but also I guess I’m really uncomfortable with the idea of someone looking up to me because I mess up all the time so the last thing I want is a group of people to think I’m doing something important. I’m just a dude at my mom’s house right now!
EM: You’ve talked before about how you travelled a lot leading up to the making of Love’s Crushing Diamond. So in all of your travels, what’s something that’s stuck out to you most as a crazy experience, whether it was good, bad, or in between?
JL: I guess the thing that sticks out to me the most is that most of my traveling is through touring. Even if you’re just playing house shows, if a couple dozen people just come to the show and buy your CD, you can get around pretty easily. But the thing that sticks out to me the most is the innate generosity that people have. I guess the best way to put it is when you play a show at a bar, there’s a promoter and there’s a booking person and there’s a sound person. Everyone is getting paid for what they do and maybe they like your music, but maybe they just want to fill a room with people so the venue makes money. But when you play the house show circuit, almost 100% of the time, people are having you there and letting you stay at their house and maybe they’ll even cook you dinner, and they won’t keep any of the money. So it’s a very un-capitalistic and beautiful interaction.
EM: With your actual recording process, there seem to be a lot of subtle layers to your songs. How do you go about deciding what sounds you want to use and then crafting those sounds into a complete song?
JL: I guess my process often is putting tons and tons of tracks on each song. On every song on Love’s Crushing Diamond except the first one, there’s at least 100 separate sounds. And I go from that chaos and just start deleting certain parts. Or there’s this thing called automation where you can make sounds softer or louder throughout the song. I think it’s too harsh to have sounds go from zero to ten, so I like things to always be fading.
EM: What do you think is your most unexpected influence? Is there anything you think your fans might be surprised to find you draw inspiration from?
JL: Well, my favorite shows to go to a lot of the time are noise shows because I think it’s very hard for me to enjoy someone with an acoustic guitar singing folk music. Even though that’s kind of what my music sounds like. I think it’s a lot more spiritual to be in a room where the music is so loud and there are so many textures happening, but none of them relate back to pop music.
Lee and his traveling support band are bringing Mutual Benefit’s show to Boston next Monday when they stop by Great Scott in Allston. Tickets are still available and nothing sounds better right now than escaping the bitter Boston cold with the sweet warmth of Mutual Benefit’s drifting melodies.