“On that slow train rolling/Through the city/The sun is rising/The cornfield’s blurry,” sings Jordan Lee on “Let’s Play/Statue of a Man,” a gorgeous cut from his debut LP as Mutual Benefit, Love’s Crushing Diamond. But Lee’s rise to indie folk prominency has been anything but slow. When Love’s Crushing Diamond was released in October 2013, a mere 250 copies were printed. And tomorrow, only 11 months later, Mutual Benefit will headline the Rock & Roll Hotel. Arts Desk chatted with Lee about the personal turmoil that inspired his breakthrough record, the healing capabilities of water, and how an acid trip inspired him to learn Spanish.
WCP: Take me through, lyrically, where your head was at when you were writing Love’s Crushing Diamond.
Lee: It’s a little bit easier to think about life in terms of it having these psychological seasons. It was a strange time. There was a lot of sickness and mental illness. Close friends and family members seemed to be having a really tough time. I don’t think I’ve ever had another time in my life where the world overwhelmingly felt like a bad place. [During this period,] I was writing in a journal everyday. I had moved to St. Louis for awhile, just to get a change of scenery and to be in a stable environment. The songs started off initially being pretty dark and sad, and as I kept working on them I’d make [them] a little more hopeful. At the end of the whole recording process, I was really happy with the balance I struck that started from a pretty tragic place. You can’t be sad forever, and you gotta convince yourself that it’s worth getting out of bed.
I love how all the songs on Love’s Crushing Diamond seem to start and end with this textural, ambient noise. Was there some philosophy behind this decision, or were you just trying to capture a fleeting feeling?
It wasn’t particularly philosophical. Part of it was aesthetics. I just have trouble starting a song normally. I have trouble thinking a song is good if it’s just chords on a guitar and singing or piano and singing. Often what happens is it will start one way, and then a little sound will be cool and it will go off in a totally different direction. “C.L. Rosarian” is a good example. It starts with a little moment where it fades in, but initially the whole song was that loop and everything was written over it. It’s me just not being able to make up my mind on how a song should sound.
A theme that seems prevalent throughout the album is water. What inspired that motif?
I’m definitely not the first person to be inspired by staring at the ocean or a river, but there is something to it. Growing up in Ohio and then moving to Texas, I just didn’t see the ocean that much. I remember seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time when I was like 22. We stopped the car at this little beach where we were the only people and stared at the water for an hour. It was so meditative and beautiful. Since then, when my head is filled with thoughts and I can’t really put them together right, one of my favorite things to do is to be near [water]. Even if it’s just a pond. Everything about it is nice: the smell, watching the ripples, throwing a rock in there. It’s a nice way to unravel. For Love’s Crushing Diamond, I was living in Jamaica Plain, Mass., and there was this big, beautiful pond next to my house. When I’d work on a song, I’d put it on my iPod and listen to it as I was walking around the pond and see if it felt right.
One of my favorite moments on Love’s Crushing Diamond is this euphoric shout that erupts at the end of “Let’s Play/Statue of a Man.” I was wondering what that was.
A lot of the field recordings on the record weren’t staged or anything. There was a while where I was just carrying a field recorder all the time. For that, I was hanging out with a friend in Boston and there was this little park, and I bought this fancy bottle of beer for us to share but both of us forgot to bring a bottle opener. So we looked like cavemen trying to hit the bottle against this rock. And then my friend was able to finally do after like 20 minutes of trying. It was this totally real moment of us being excited.
Other than music, what artistic things have been a part of your life lately?
Lots of stuff. Learning Spanish has been really awesome. I live in Bushwick, and I had this moment when I was on acid and I was walking home from the practice space and it in the middle of the night. I realized I didn’t understand any conversation that was happening around me, and I was like, “Wow, I think that makes me a gentrifier.” It’s the first time I’ve really tried to learn a second language. Just the way things are phrased, the idioms and all that, are really poetic.
I’ve read a lot of interviews with you where you shout out your music-making friends, likeRicky Eat Acid, or Alex G, or Frankie Cosmos. Is it weird to think that in this moment you’re in a powerful, almost taste-making position with whatever fame you’ve come across so far?
I guess. It’s definitely strange if you think about it too hard. Before this record was rereleased on Other Music, I still was shouting out my friends and people that I thought were cool on my Facebook page. I don’t think too hard about it when I’m doing an interview and someone asks “What are you listening to now?” I’m still going to say the same thing.
Mutual Benefit plays the Rock & Roll Hotel tomorrow night, Sept. 11, at 7:30 p.m. $14.