“This is cliche,” Jordan Lee says, and indeed it is, but that doesn’t make it less important to understanding him and his musical project, Mutual Benefit. “I’m very rarely pleased with what I make, so if I make an EP and I like it, that’s about all the validation or reward I need.”
And Lee has a multitude of EPs, split cassettes, solo recordings to his name, the fact that he has continued to record despite making little impact on any measurable level standing as proof that he is not full of shit. It was a complete surprise when people took notice to his fall full-length, Love’s Crushing Diamond.
“I’ve never felt like I was shorted or anything,” he says. “I’ve always felt like things that are good, get heard.”
And with the success of the Mutual Benefit album, an EP recorded a couple years earlier is getting rereleased, titled The Cowboy Prayer, to which he amends his statement, saying “I’m not saying these are good, but I like them.”
As someone with a wealth of previously recorded material, Lee has mixed feelings about any renewed interest that might be seen.
“I’m pretty proud of The Cowboy Prayer and there aren’t many moments on there I am embarrassed by,” he says. “But if you go back further in the discography, the more moments are that I am embarrassed by. Originally, this was a split cassette I made with my friend Noah. We made 100 copies of it and it sold out within a week or two. And at that point, I was so sick of mailing cassettes that I never redid it.”
Rereleasing a part recording, which will come out on one sided 12-inch with an etching on the backside, is a long way from where he was a year ago.
“My friend Mark used his tax return money for the initial pressing of Love’s Crushing Diamond,” he recalls, “and we were all freaked out that no one would buy it and Mark would be out a couple thousand dollars.”
Lee is not what you’d expect when thinking of the DIY scene. But listening to him talk about his influences and his early recordings, it fits why he identifies with the culture and why the scene, in return, has accepted him and Mutual Benefit, despite the lack of an edge to his sound, the lack of politics in his presence, or the lack of contemporaries to lump it into a “sound” with.
“My early recordings were Elliot Smith-style, low-key pop songs with harmonies,” he says, recalling his musical beginnings in Austin. “It wasn’t until I got older that things changed, when I started to listen to drone, and especially the Finish experimental scene, which I found at this store called Waterloo in this section just called ‘Weird.’ In the ‘Weird’ section they’d have staff recommendations and for a year or so all of my music was coming from there. That inspired me to explore “found sounds” and not be afraid to have a long lazy track. When you’re young you need someone to show you this stuff or you’d just stick with pop songs forever.
“And I found this broken karaoke machine at a thrift shop,” he continues, “I don’t know exactly what was wrong with it but it would make the most amazing sounds. It would have this echo that would feedback onto itself and it had a compressor that would only work for a second. The first two Mutual Benefit EPs we both recorded onto cassette onto this karaoke machine, and from there I got excited about pop music again. From there I’ve been influenced by people like Nick Drake or Joanna Newsom.”
Lee’s music may not sound strikingly different to what other singer-songwriters have done, but the separation can be found in the equipment and the process.
“Some people have a really specific writing technique, whether it starts with the lyrics or with a hook,” Lee says “For the first couple years of making music as Mutual Benefit, every song felt like a fluke. Like, if I sat with an acoustic guitar, it would be like here are chords and here is a melody, but there are a million songs out there, where should I make any more? So for me, it has been using the karaoke machine or recording a piano part on a loop, almost tricking a melody out of a thing.”
Lee doesn’t just credit himself for his success. He works with a rotating cast of friends and collaborators, and it extends even beyond that.
“I feel like I’m part of a musical community,” Lee says. “We’ve played a lot of basements and living rooms. And there has been a lot of good music blogging over the past five years, on Blogspot and Tumblr, and a lot of those people, I would count them as my friends. I think that is a big part of the reason it kind of grew legs of its own, is there were a lot of people that were excited for it to come out, in a very organic way.”
Still, Lee isn’t under the illusion that this is part of some bigger success story. He remains grounded.
“I’ve been following music long enough on a cultural level to know that anyone that gets blown up really quickly, there is an equal chance that they will get panned on their next record,” he says.
After their scheduled fall tour, Mutual Benefit will leave the visible music scene, saying no to all offers until there is new music to share. Unless, they get offered to tour Japan. I joke with Lee that if someone like U2 offered them a touring slot, he’d have to say yes.
“That would still be a no,” Lee deadpans.