Jordan Lee, aka Mutual Benefit, plays Soda Bar on Jan. 26.
If you’ve ever seen a Wes Anderson film, you’ll be familiar with the way Jordan Lee puts his records together. They’re quaint, quirky, calm -- and highly organized -- exercises in catharsis.
Lee, who records under the moniker Mutual Benefit, released last year’s excellent album, Love’s Crushing Diamond, to some high very high praise. Mutual Benefit were eventually named as one of Stereogum’s Bands to Watch and landed a Best New Music nod from Pitchfork in the process.
It wasn’t always that way: Lee self-released five other albums since 2009; let’s just say the guy wasn’t always living it up in green rooms across the country before shows, eating from bowls of brown M&Ms. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.
"I think I’ve been really lucky to come out of this the way I have," Lee said in a phone interview with SoundDiego. "Maybe 100 more people are at our shows now. But I’m used to playing to a room of small people, having a good time and staying with them while I’m on the road -- that’s real. Having some blog give you an arbitrary title seems like more of a thing that just happens on the Internet, and it’s difficult to relate to, on a personal level.”
Make no mistake though, Love’s Crushing Diamond is remarkable. It has more than a slight thematic feel to it, possibly due to the use of "found sounds" -- everyday snippets of recordings that Lee made of him and his friends, or the world around him -- but it could also stem from the use of orchestral flourishes on nearly every song, accompanying banjo, piano, synths, choirs of angelic backing vocalists, hand claps and various clattering percussion sprinkled throughout the acoustic-based album.
Lee’s voice, soft and charming, does the heavy lifting on the record with its lilting, tender tone, which reminds me more than slightly of Ron Foutenberry’s vocals on the Incredible Moses Leroy’s album Become the Soft Lightes (which I’ve adored for more than a decade now). Love’s Crushing Diamond is a very dense, painstakingly assembled, treasure trove of songs that only grow more endearing, and mesmerizing, with each listen. I had a chance to speak with Lee about his writing process and how he pieced together one of the best albums I've heard in awhile.
Dustin Lothspeich: You’ve released six albums and an EP since 2009. Are you just a writing madman?
Jordan Lee: It’s funny. Different musicians have way different output levels. Thee Oh Sees, for example, put out three or four different LPs a year. There’s generally four to five songs on an EP, so to record a few songs and do an EP once or twice a year isn’t really that big of a deal. A teacher goes to work every day, grades homework, etc. I think, as a musician, if you’re not writing songs all the time, you’re not really doing a good job.
DL: How would you say Love’s Crushing Diamond came together? There’s a lot happening in every song.
JL: My own process is approaching every song as a little experiment. Sometimes it starts as a technical thing, or a simple little loop that I’ll build something on top of, or maybe a melody I try to turn into something bigger. That was really my idea for this record. I really feel like guitar-playing mixed with string arrangements go well together. They’re both intrinsically acoustic things. But I also really like ambient music and tweaking synths. So my goal was to combine those two elements -- to make them be cohesive -- and it took a while to make it not sound cheesy. But I write songs quickly and then I spend a really long time deconstructing them, and that’s how this one came about.
DL: The album almost sounds like a film score. Have you ever heard that?
JL: You’re totally right. It’s funny -- I get emailed a lot, people asking me if they can include the songs on short films. I haven’t said yes to anyone yet. I would feel weird not seeing the film and letting them use one of my songs, and then watching it and going, "Whoa." Certain sounds do invoke imagery. One of my favorite things to do when I'm feeling stressed is to just go to a body of water and just stare at it for a while. I feel like some of the ambient parts of the record remind me of that.
DL: Have you always been interested in "found sounds" or adding that element to your music?
JL: No, that was a new thing. It’s funny -- people really seem to relate to it, which I like. Honestly, I was really afraid to do it at first. I thought it was really selfish.
DL: Selfish? How so?
JL: Well, it was just like, "I'm going to include this 10-second recording of this moment that I think is really special to me and my friends!" You second-guess yourself if you work on something for a long time, and I'd always think, "I should just delete all these parts and release normal songs." Those parts almost make it more immersive though, more personable. Other pop records have a ton of autotune, the rhythms are quantatized and programmed on computers. On my record, there’s a ton of mistakes [laughs]. It sounds human.
DL: When you recorded the album, you didn’t have a concrete lineup. Did that spontaneity contribute to the direction of a record?
JL: I guess it’s the result of always having a recorder with me. If something cool is happening around me, I can capture it. If I’m hanging out with a musician friend, I can record whatever. Just by being on tour, you run into very talented people. I just wanted to collect a lot of sounds and then to go to a recording space and cut them all up. The longer I worked on the record, the more I got sick of my own voice. It seemed like it would add so much if a lot of other voices joined in. A lot of parts happened just because it'd end up sounding bad to me and I wanted to fix it. It made [the record] take a really long time, but it all helped it sound a lot closer to what I imagined it sounding like in my brain.
DL: Do you plan on repeating the same kind of style on the next record?
JL: Well, the album was recorded during a time of catharsis, and I haven't really been inspired to make a dramatic statement just yet. I’m hoping something horrible happens so I’ll have something to write about … like my car breaking down or something.
Dustin Lothspeich plays in Old Tiger, Diamond Lakes, Chess Wars and Boy King. Follow his updates on Twitter or contact him directly.