Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mutual Benefit’s Jordan Lee on honest songwriting and unexpected success

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Photo by Jessica Lehrman | via facebook.com/mutualbenefit
Photo by Jessica Lehrman | via facebook.com/mutualbenefit

Jordan Lee hopes Philadelphians aren’t big fans of fog machines.

The subject comes up almost immediately on the phone with the indie folk artist behind breakout band Mutual Benefit as he travels to St. Paul from Chicago, where he had just played a show at Lincoln Hall.

“There was a fog machine that was just going the whole time. That was a new experience for us, I think,” he says of the set, not letting on at first whether that new experience was good or bad. “Visually, it was pretty cool. I felt like a wizard of some sort. But also, it’s kind of poisonous, I think. It made my throat hurt by the end.”

Lee and the band of musicians he assembled to fill out Mutual Benefit’s live show will play a hopefully fog-less set at 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Boot & Saddle with local acts Lewis & Clarke and The Interest Group. Just like his aversion to gimmicks like this on stage, Lee’s brand of soulful, whimsical electro-tinged pop folk is also straightforward, without smoke and mirrors. It’s helped bring him acclaim for the band’s first LP, Love’s Crushing Diamond, which came out this past October.

Speaking to The Key from the tour van, Lee brings up a record review published in London that describes him as “an understated king of folk music.” New to such widespread praise for his music, he views quotes like this as more of an embarrassment than a compliment.

“It’s definitely not bad to hear that kind of stuff,” Lee says. “But I guess, if you get wrapped up too much in what you think about a thing that you made and how it’s received, then you’re kind of giving that same power to people to make you feel bad about something you made.”

Lee didn’t create Love’s Crushing Diamond with the idea that this many people would hear it. Originally meant to be put out as a small cassette pressing, the album garnered enough buzz for Fat Possum Records to pick it up and re-release it on CD and vinyl.

Inspiration for the seven songs that make up the short album (just over 30 minutes) were derived from field recordings Lee made over the span of a few years. He recorded the resulting songs in three separate stages and in three different cities: St. Louis, Austin and Boston. Known for moving around a lot to explore different musical and artistic opportunities, Lee laughs at the label he’s been given as a “vagabond.”

“I definitely think that that narrative of me being, like, a whimsical vagabond is pretty hilarious,” he says. “Another one that gets used sometimes is semi-nomadic.”

The song “Let’s Play/ Statue of a Man” on Love’s Crushing Diamond hits on themes of restlessness and the need for exploration, which Lee says propel him to travel. But the main emotional fabric of the record was woven as a way for Lee to process some of his personal hardships, and those he witnessed in family and friends. Putting his emotions out there has helped fans not only appreciate Lee’s music, but relate to it.

“I guess everyone has times when they feel pretty hopeless, and everyone kind of has their own coping mechanism,” Lee says. “So, it was really strange when the record started to get nationally talked about, I would get emails almost every day from people that are like ‘This person died’ or ‘I’m in jail and your lyrics helped me through this time,” or something like that. Almost every day, people would write me the saddest emails, but then sometimes say that the record was helpful to them in some way.”

Though raw and emotional, the sheer orchestral beauty exhibited on Love’s Crushing Diamond can’t help but make one feel flourishes of hope and positivity along with those of strings and female harmonies. It was hearing Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left that inspired Lee to explore meshing orchestral arrangements, folk picking and melancholy lyrics with his love of loops and surprising sounds.

“Conceptually, I guess I was thinking I like folk music with strings and I also like synthesizers,” he says. “So, I was hoping to kind of combine the two.”

Lee plays several instruments “poorly” he says jokingly, including piano, some guitar and some banjo. He even cites his ability to do a scream-o like growl. But to help him recreate Love’s Crushing Diamond in a live setting, Jordan enlisted the help of five other musicians who deliver the music without using all of the same instruments.

“It’s cool, because in the past I would use samples and a loop pedal to make it sound like a bigger band,” Lee says. “But now since there are six of us, we can all play at the same time and play off of each other and just have more dynamic. So this tour especially has been really fun.”

And while playing to some of the biggest audiences of his musical career on this tour, Lee has enjoyed both feeding off of the energy of 100-person crowds but also perpetrating the intimate feeling his music calls for.

“There are some really quiet parts of our set,” Lee says. “I’ve been surprised, you know, because we’ve definitely played shows in the past where we get to a quiet part and I realize half the room is just yelling at each other and drinking and stuff. It’s just like, oh man, what are we doing up here.”

Thinking about his music as a career is still strange for Lee. He’s considering registering the band as an LLC once they get back from tour so he can refer to the band as a Mutual Benefit corporation.

“I’ve always wanted to be a corporation,” Lee adds. “My band can be my employees and I can give them raises if they’re good. We can have evaluations and stuff.”

He wants to continue to deliver for new fans, though Lee says he won’t be able to pump out new material any time soon.

“I’m definitely very experiential, if that’s a word,” Lee says. “I just need either really good stuff to happen or really bad stuff to happen. But things have been pretty, just like, cool lately, so I haven’t been able to write songs.”

Who knows, a few more run-ins with poisonous fog machines may spark a new song or two.

Mutual Benefit performs Thursday, February 6th at Boot and Saddle, 1131 South Broad Street. Tickets and more information on the 21+ show can be found here.

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