I was ready for my interview with Jordan Lee, the main man behind Mutual Benefit, at 11:30 sharp. I dialed his number, only to be greeted by a pre-recorded Lee’s whimsical-sounding voicemail and full inbox.
A few casual texts later, we postponed the interview until 12:00. Though this would agitate some interviewers, I felt perfectly fine, even at ease. Because that’s the energy Lee projects, the very essence of Mutual Benefit—music that soothes and calms, but is strangely powerful, otherworldly and demanding of your attention because you’ve never heard anything quite like it before.
A half-hour later, a sweetly apologetic Lee called me back to reminisce about concerts past, chat about the re-release of 2011’s The Cowboy’s Prayer and pin down the perfect word to describe his seemingly genre-less music.
Hey! Sorry for all the trouble.
No problem, just want to make sure you’re all ready and all good.
Totally, I got a cup of coffee in me, I’m ready to go.
Alright, awesome. Well I’m Alana, and how are you?
I’m doing well. I’ve got a couple more days before the tour starts, so I’m just doing laundry and buying snacks and stuff.
That’s pretty cool. The last time I saw you you were actually playing at The Black Cat [music venue in D.C.] and WMUC [University of Maryland’s radio station] in February. Do you have more than one suitcase since then? Because you were complaining about that the last time.
(Laughs) Oh, yes. It’s a little bit of a better situation.
That’s pretty awesome. So now, you’ve played some pretty big festivals here [Pitchfork Music Festival, etc.] and overseas [Green Man, Way Out West]. What’s that been like?
Um, it’s…I guess I thought it would be way different, but for the most part, it’s the same as playing a show. You normally have less amount of time to play and less time to set up, so that part’s a little bit stressful, but you like, set up backstage and they like, put all your stuff on these risers that they can just roll out. And the most surreal moment is that backstage, you’re completely shielded from what the crowd looks like, and you’re like, hearing a band play right in front of you….and then when they roll the riser past the curtain, then you see the people for the first time, and I don’t know, it reminds me of like, in a movie, when the curtains open, so it’s like, “Ahhhh! (Laughs) This is really scary!”
So especially at Green Man Fest in Wales—that was the most people we ever played in front of—but I think since it’s outside usually, and people are having fun whether you’re good or not, you know, sitting out in the park, it makes it doable.
Did you notice anything different between your American audience and your European audience? Was there a different reception or what?
Yeah, I think for some reason people like us a lot more in the UK. I’m not totally sure what it is, but like over there, it feels like we’re like a semi-notable band and then over in America, it kind of just goes like we’re any other indie band, you know, playing at a bar. So it’s kind of funny, I try not to let it get to my head, but it’s like, “OK, we’re in some alternate universe where people get really excited when you play music!” (Laughs) It’s not real!
So you’re re-releasing The Cowboy’s Prayer in September. I was wondering, why this EP over something like Drifting or I Saw The Sea?
Um, I guess it’s the most recent thing and those other EPs, I like them a lot, but there’s still moments that are a little embarrassing and you know, I was still kind of figuring out myself and I think The Cowboy’s Prayer is the first EP where I was completely happy with it. And I play a lot of those songs on my set, so Josh [Madell] from [my label] Other Music was you know, listening to some of the songs, and was like, “Hey, you know, do you mind if we put this on a vinyl disk?” and I was like, “Yeah, totally.”
And what were some of those embarrassing little things?
I mean, not embarrassing like unbearable to listen to, but just stuff that I would do differently, little production things. Not knowing—like, I mixed all of those songs myself—and going back to I Saw The Sea or something, it’s like, aw man, I had no idea how to make a song sound good yet (laughs).
OK! Moving on to the actual songs on The Cowboy’s Prayer, I wanted to talk about “Auburn Epitaphs.” What inspired the lyrics behind that song?
It was a couple of things, the first which was visiting the actual [Mount] Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass. I had just moved to Boston, was kind of making new friends and, so a couple of them took me out there. I think it’s the oldest cemetery in America, or at least western-style burial site. And it’s really beautiful. There’s lots of poets that have their families’ gravestones set up there and I’d been really struggling with writer’s block. It had been maybe a year and a half since I had written a song that I liked. And there was something kind of inspiring and daunting about reading the epitaphs that famous poets [wrote]…you know, like their whole job is like condensing words into…into these beautiful ideas, so it’s like your last chance to have a poem that is on your gravestone (laughs).
I was thinking about the finality of that, so the song is about writing words into a stone to represent you.
Were there any specific poets that really inspired you?
At that time, I was reading a lot of E.E. Cummings. His work is really amazing. But, since then, I guess not as much. I’ve been reading a lot of prose.
I also wanted to ask you about the last song on TheCowboy’s Prayer, because I don’t even know how to pronounce that! What is it?
(Laughs) Oh yeah, well I believe it translates to “invoking the spirits of the dead.”
How does that title correspond with that song?
Well, so the first song on the album starts off as a pretty, breezy pop song, and then I feel like each song disintegrates a little bit more, and then the last song is just bells and this off-kilter vocal loop. And since the first song was about a cemetery, and kind of like the finality of death, I thought it would be cool if the last song was about, like invoking the spirits, making it cyclical.
But I’d been listening to a lot of classical Chinese music when I was working on my record. And it’s funny, when I’m making songs, I sometimes forget that they’re products of what I’ve been putting into my brain. So it wasn’t until after “Backwards Fireworks” and that other song where I could see this, like, “Oh, these really sound like Chinese songs.” (Laughs) But anyway…
So, is that your personal favorite off of the EP or is there a different one? Or what’s your favorite song even in general from all of your EPs?
Oh wow…I think my favorite one would be “Strong Swimmer” because I’d always wanted to have that kind of rolling string arrangement in songs, but I had never had an opportunity to do that.
So, if you’ve listened to my older songs, a lot of them are under four minutes. I used to have this idea in my head where I’m not sure where a song ends and people wish that it had gone on longer than for it to go on for a long time and be like, “Geez, this chorus is happening like 10 times!” Because I get pretty bored with four-minute songs a lot of the time, but I kind of got over that a little bit, so this, I don’t know, something about songs somewhere, like, I don’t know, it’s different and I feel better about it than the other songs.
Do you feel like between The Cowboy’s Prayer and Love’s Crushing Diamond, do you feel like you’ve grown or changed as a musician? Or how much have you grown?
I think…well, I hope so! (Laughs) I think that The Cowboy’s Prayer was a very solitary effort. There were a couple parts here and there that I got helped with, but for the most part, it was just me alone in a room. And Love’s Crushing Diamond was definitely a product of lots of people helping and lots of field recordings and jams. So I probably have grown as a musician, but I think more so that help made me so much better because there’s just so many more people playing on it.
So, I don’t know. This might be contrived, but maybe I learned how to accept help from others (laughs).
So I also want to ask you about your sound, because your music can be very experimental sometimes, and it ranges from acoustic to very synthy, and you’ve got some strings, too. How do develop your instrumentation when you’re composing?
I think a lot of the songs just start on guitar, you know? And a song in its most basic form is just chords, and a melody, and…when it’s at that stage I normally don’t like it. Like, when you play some chords on a piano and try to sing, it just sounds like any song ever, and so, normally I just start adding a lot of things and seeing what sounds good, and then my favorite thing to do is to just add stuff and make it sound like it’s a pop song and then start taking away things, especially the foundational elements of the song. So songs like “Careless Lover” [“C.L. Rosarian”] and “Strong River,” those all started a lot more straightforward and I just started taking away things and making it more ambient and, I don’t know, mix it, sounds a little bit more interesting than just a regular pop song for me.
Is it sometimes based on musician availability? Because I noticed that you have an ever-changing lineup between the Black Cat and WMUC shows. Or is it like, “I’m feeling acoustic today!” Does that affect it all?
Yeah, definitely! There’s all sorts of factors. You know, if we’re playing a bunch of small shows, it might need to be a small band, but if it’s a couple of festival gigs or, you know, they’re actually paying us then it can be a bigger band. And then almost everyone that I play with has their own solo projects and so we kind of have a deal amongst each other where it’s like, “Your band takes precedence.” If they have a gig and like, their own art is doing well, then like, they should definitely follow. Follow their dreams.
So yeah, I guess it’s a lot of logistical stuff. I think sometimes, like I’m really lucky to play with a lot of musicians that, like play guitar or drums or keyboard or sing or just do whatever. So, it’s fun to—like when we have a more low-key show—to just try out new stuff and it’s either a total failure or, you know, it’s a lot of fun, or both.
Is there a word that you would use to describe your sound to somebody who has never heard it before?
It’s hyphenated, so it’s one word, but I like the phrase “laser-folk.”
That seems accurate! Last question: What’s in store for Mutual Benefit once the tour is over? Is there some more studio time or a break or what?
Well, we’ve been on the road for almost three quarters of this year. Well, we will have been on the road for almost three quarters after this upcoming tour. And so, I think we definitely all need a break and I’m not particularly excited about jumping into a really serious recording process again, because I’d like to produce some palate-cleansing things and some silly pop songs with my friends and maybe make something really abrasive and then go back to try to write a Mutual Benefit album.
A remastered version of The Cowboy’s Prayer was released on Sept. 2. You can catch Mutual Benefit Sept. 12 at Boot & Saddle in Philly and Sept. 13 at the Bowery Ballroom in NYC. Lee will also perform at Brooklyn’s Glasslands Gallery on Halloween. For more information, go to facebook.com/mutualbenefit.