Interview: Two sides to every coin: Mutual Benefit

Two sides to every coin: Mutual Benefit

On his new album ‘Skip a Sinking Stone’, Jordan Lee is both vulnerable and introspective. He talks conquering writer’s block in an interview with Dave Beech.

With his debut album ‘Love’s Crushing Diamond’, Mutual Benefit’s Jordan Lee proved himself to be a deeply personal lyricist. Dripping with DIY sensibilities, it was a record both vulnerable and warm-hearted. Though his circumstances have changed  significantly since then, the vulnerability that went in to that first record can still be found now, three years later on its follow-up, ‘Skip A Sinking Stone’.

A record of split personalities, it’s the slower and more introspective second half in which Lee’s state of mind is brought to the fore. “I’m not sure if anyone else will notice but I took it really seriously,” he says. Unsurprising, given that this side of the album depicts Jordan in New York; the city heavy with an atmosphere of anger and unrest following the Eric Garner verdict, Jordan himself racked with a growing depression following downturn in a relationship. Its first half however is somewhat different. Recounting a year spent on the road, it’s awash in warm string sections and lush instrumentation, reflecting both the freedom that constant touring brings and a blossoming relationship, the breakdown of which colours Side B.

Looking to Jordan himself, you can pin-point the individual personalities of each side of the record. “You can lose yourself on the infinite highway surrounded by strangers or you can lose yourself alone in a room with spiralling thoughts” he says of himself. “I think part of the reason this record took so long is that being thrust into the spotlight made me lose touch with myself for a while.”

We caught up with Jordan ahead of the record’s release.

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‘Skip A Sinking Stone’ is a record of two almost-independent halves. Was was something you’d intended prior to recording, or was it something more natural than that?

‘Skip a Sinking Stone’ came about almost backwards.  After a year of touring I knew it was time to make a record but I had no idea what it should be about. I hadn’t even come close to fully processing one of the most roller-coaster years of my life because there is almost no time for introspection when you are in a van with your friends or playing music in a bar every day. I felt spiritually empty and was having a hard time adjusting back to “real life”. When I started to feel to normal and write again I realized both of those years were mirror images of each other. That realization is what finally gave me the confidence to make an album about those experiences and what provided the context to write about those two stories as the two sides of the record. 

What do you think it is in particular that makes each half feel different?

It was my intention to make the two sides encompass different sonic universes. I wanted Side A to feel upbeat with these soaring moments that remind me of times where I’m so excited I can’t even sit still. On Side B I tried introducing more dissonance within the notes and use less instruments recorded close up to make it feel a little more claustrophobic.

It’s your first album on Transgressive. What have they been able to bring to the table that other labels couldn’t? What’s the response been like in the UK overall?

They’ve worked with a lot of bands I like and seem okay taking creative risks. Most importantly, they seemed like human beings and not lizards in disguise but you never know, maybe my radar is off… The response in the UK has been amazing so far. London has consistently been my favourite place to play. At our show a couple weeks ago it took me a while to get through the crowd and back to the merch table so one of our fans took it upon herself to sell our LP’s for us as a thank you for enjoying the show. Those little moments of generosity seem to happen a lot when we visit England. Also the super dry humour absolutely kills me.

‘Not For Nothing’

Presumably you had a lot more at your disposal for the recording of ‘…Sinking Stone’, a studio for one. Was this something you found strange given  ‘Love’s Crushing Diamond’ was recorded on the road?

The biggest resource that was different from the last record was time. I was able to work on the record full time which made a huge difference on the scale and thoughtfulness of the songs. Other than a couple weeks at our friend’s studio for piano and drums we made this record very similarly to ‘Love’s Crushing Diamond’. I was afraid people would think I “sold out” so I wanted ‘SASS’ to still have lo-fi elements and be mostly self-recorded with the band. We were able to get it mixed by Brian Deck which was a huge honor. I’d gladly never try and mix one of my own records ever again!

Between your EP and ‘…Diamond’, you suffered quite extensively from writer’s block. Was this something you struggled with this time around and if so how did you go about dealing with it?

I think the hard part is figuring out what is worth saying. I try to be careful about what work I put into the world. I’d rather it take a long time and be completely intentional and thought out. The best way I’ve found to write lyrics is to write in a journal first thing in the morning every single day. It is amazing the phrases and images that hide out in your subconscious and just have to be coaxed out.

I’ve always been under the assumption that people write better when they feel at their worst – and one of your quotes from a while back seems to back this up – would you say that’s a fair assumption, and if so, how has that played out on ‘Skip A Sinking Stone’?

I think that is only half-right and somewhat of a dangerous myth. I believe good writing comes from paying close attention to other people, to your surroundings, and to yourself. Pain and heartache are definitely good at getting you to pay close attention and think poetically but I think some of the most profound art stems from closely observing the mundane and not just recounting the dramatic.

Your lyrics have always felt deeply personal, has that changed any now you’ve got a wider audience?

For better or worse I still only write for myself. My lyrics are still just me trying to figure out how to be a human being in a topsy turvy world.

Mutual Benefit’s new album ‘Skip a Sinking Stone’ is out now via Transgressive.