How The Process of Quitting Music Inspired Jordan Lee of Mutual benefit to Come Back to Music Full-Time
By Wilhelmina Hayward on June 16, 2016
Mutual Benefit’s Jordan Lee is gaining well-earned recognition for his music, and his new album Skip a Stepping Stone is due for release this month on Mom+Pop. Before he gears up for touring season, we had a conversation about the ups and downs of his life as a musician.
Tell me about your short-lived attempt at the punk scene.
[laughs] Well, I grew up in the Ohio suburbs, so the idea of punk was like whatever was at the mall. After that, I think I was lucky to grow up in an age where it was pretty easy to home record. So, I just got into writing songs that way, through trial and error.
And did you bring in other people as you started writing music?
The very awful pop-punk band that I was in in high school had lots of people and we played shows in my parents’ basement…it was such a mess. The stuff I made on the computer was more of a solitary thing for the first couple years, because the songs were so bad I didn’t want anyone to hear them [laughs].
Did you just start writing and gradually the idea of doing music full-time became the reality?
Yeah, I definitely never thought that this would be my job. I figured that was like the same odds as like, being a professional athlete. I had pretty realistic expectations, and I just really enjoyed doing it. So, I started having a goal where hopefully I could quit a full-time job and just have a part-time job and just keep trying to do less and less work that I didn’t like [so I could] work on art and creative stuff. I think just over the past ten years or so, it’s gotten a little bit easier each year to tour and put out records and do that instead of being a dishwasher or something.
You’ve spoken about ‘facing reality head on,’ so what does that mean in the context of songwriting and your journey with this new album?
A lot of songs that I hear have the phrase in it, ‘everything’s going to be alright,’ you know? That’s one of my pet peeves, except when Kendrick Lamar does it and then it’s awesome. But, I feel like, oftentimes people are either approaching songwriting like, ‘This is going to be a sad song’ or ‘This is going to be a happy song,’ and I think that obviously life is not a dichotomy like that. And so I guess I try to articulate more complex types of thought, but I don’t know, maybe that sounds pretentious.
[laughs] No, but maybe you can tease out what you mean by these complex thoughts?
I think the core of the project is the idea that the world can be a really scary bad place filled with awful people doing bad things to one another, if you think about it like that. You know, everywhere you look you can see corruption and racism and sexism, and just everything. And when I see people that are really really happy, it’s easy to kind of discount their worldview. Like, ‘Well, they just don’t know what’s happening,’ [laughs] and so, I think, at least for the last couple of albums my focus has been on how to have good mental health and how to still find joy, but also not turning away from all the things that make it pretty hard to be a human being in the United States.
Can you tell me a bit about the collective space that you worked in and how that assisted in your songwriting?
Oh, Silent Barn, yeah. So, Silent Barn existed in Queens, and it got broken into and they couldn’t use it anymore, and they opened up a new space in Bushwick that’s like a music venue and recording studio and apartments, and it’s run collectively. So I lived there for a couple of years because I was really interested in living in a collective space and kind of trying to do things a little differently, rather than just having a landlord and you know, not knowing your neighbors and stuff. T
he recording studio there was really beautiful and I recorded probably the first half of the record there, and I did a lot of the overdubs in my apartment. Then the last half of the record was in New Hampshire and Boston. Silent Barn was really a big part of making the album because the first year I was there, I was mostly touring, and the second year I had to finish the album, so I didn’t leave the city much. That was a very new experience for me to be in this bustling city and like, I couldn’t escape it. There’s a lot of strong personalities there; it was just a really interesting environment to live in.
And what does your songwriting process typically look like?
Normally a song starts with a little spark and it could be a lyric or an image that’s in my head or a keyboard sound, I never really know what it’s going to be. But otherwise, like if I just hear acoustic guitar chords, I’m not inspired to make a song. So, it just has to be a little thing, and from there I put it in to the computer and try to add things or take away things. One of my favorite things to do is to have something foundational, maybe a piano or guitar, build something around it, and then take that foundational thing out.
What does life on the road look like for you?
Mmhmm, yeah, I just got my apartment back yesterday because we’ve been touring with Deer Tick. I guess it’s a little different each tour; sometimes the shows are bigger and we can have a big van, and sometimes like on this opening tour I had to kind of strip it down a little bit. It’s a mix of being extremely boring, just being in a van for hours and hours and eating junk food, but then sometimes it’s totally crazy, you’re in the type of city you’ve never been before, and everything’s confusing.
Do you do any songwriting while on the road?
In the past it hasn’t been a good space because we usually wake up pretty early and then get in the van and then sound check, play, then crash at someone’s house. So, there’s just not a lot of time to be creative or be able to be particularly thoughtful about what’s happening. It’s kind of an interesting headspace because you kind of know what you’re going to do in the day ahead of time, and then there’s so much waiting and then a cathartic release…and then waiting again. I feel like it almost puts me in a meditative space. This last tour I really enjoyed, and since I just got back, I’m now trying to adjust…
Was there ever a point along your journey as a musician where you almost threw in the towel and called it quits?
It’s easy to get discouraged, and it’s easy to look at the ecosystem of trying to put your music out there and just see a lot of cronyism and PR people…I don’t know, it’s pretty gross. And so I actually wrote a blog post saying that I was going to quit. [laughs] It’s around still, I don’t think I ever deleted it. But, you know, it’s just ‘I’m sick of the music industry, I’m just going to make things for my friends make it free, I don’t want to identify as a musician anymore, I want to live a full three-dimensional life and learn new skills,’ and [laughs] then I finished the record and all of a sudden my life became the opposite of what I said I would do. So, I guess I encourage more people to write a blog post saying that they quit, because I guess that’s what helped.
Is there something you can leave with other musicians who have been at it for years and still haven’t seen much for the fruits of their labors – step one: write a blog post?
[laughs] Okay, yeah, to not be facetious, I think everyone’s journey is completely different from one another so it’s kind of hard to try and give advice, but, even the way the question is phrased, that a person has been going a long time and don’t see much in return, that type of headspace is poisonous. I think that making art is a lot like a lightning bug, like it’s light. I think it’s kind of like a mating dance, sending off pheromones and it attracts other lightning bugs to it. I kind of think that everyone has something to say and something to make, and instead of trying to figure out how to find mass appeal, or how to market yourself the best, if you actually just focus on what you’re trying to say and work your whole life to say it in the best possible way, then I think all the connections that come out of that are really organic and beautiful.
So, what are you trying to say on this album?
I guess in my music I try to incorporate both the depression I feel sometimes, but also these moments of complete bliss, and I think those those two things are probably related to one another in some way. I guess, I like the idea too, that everything for better for worse is a season and is going to pass. It’s a calming thing to think about when life gets crazy…
Cool, well, we’ll end on a lighter note…
What’s your favorite piece of gear when you’re on tour?
Probably a trusty synthesizer, the Alesis Micron. I blew it up in Berlin. I plugged it in to the wrong type of power, and then we had to get on the equivalent of the Berlin Craigslist and drive all over trying to find one. So, I’ve become very attached, I really like those.
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Skip a Sinking Stone
Standout Track: “Lost Dreamers”
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