Five (or more) questions with Mutual Benefit

Photo by Tonje Thilesen

Mutual Benefit is an ironic name for a band that’s singular rather than plural. Singer-songwriter Jordan Lee is the project’s sole permanent member. Then again, the benefit in question might be shared with Lee’s many collaborators — he assembles a group for each album he puts out. The most recent release, the dreamy and transcendent Love’s Crushing Diamond, earned Mutual Benefit mentions as Stereogum‘s Band to Watch and Pitchfork‘s best new music.

Mutual Benefit performs at The Mothlight on Friday, Sept. 5, at 9:30 p.m. Dent May and Soft Cat share the bill. $10 advance/$12 day or show.

Mountain Xpress: With a rotating cast of bandmates, does that mean your live show is very different from your recorded material? Or do you tour with the same people with whom you make an album?

Jordan Lee: For this record, I’ve been lucky to tour with most of the same people who recorded the parts on the record, so the spirit of the songs has stayed mostly the same.

Do you let the availability of musicians steer an album’s sound, or do you have a firm concept in mind and then build your band based on those needs?

Very much the former, I like to work with the people and instruments that are around me, rather than forcing a specific thing to happen. If Jake Falby hadn’t been visiting his cousins in Missouri for a week, there likely wouldn’t have been any violin on Love’s Crushing Diamond. Kinda weird to think about.

I was checking out the photo gallery on Pitchfork that your sister took, in which you learn about relatives who were also musicians. Do you believe that’s something that can be inherited?

I’m sure some of it has to do with genes passed down, but the big difference I notice between people who identify as musicians and others who don’t is whether or not they’ve received encouragement and have had a supportive environment to learn and experiment. I really like the book The Artist’s Way, which talks about how anyone can be creative. I think about that a lot when I meet someone who says they can’t do any artsy stuff.

The photos of your tour through Ohio seemed somehow evocative of your sound — nature, space, a kind of charged aloneness. Are there any ways in which the place you came from influenced and/or continues to influence you?

Definitely. I think growing up in the Midwest and often visiting the towns bordering West Virginia informed a lot of the landscapes that make me feel most at peace.  Having been on tour for most of the year, it’s hard to identify with any specific place and more [about] feeling normal with the act of moving itself. Ha, maybe I’m thinking about this too hard.

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You’re touring in support of the re-release of your 2011 EP, The Cowboy’s Prayer. What’s the experience like to revisit that set of songs — do you have a different relationship to them now than when you first recorded or released them?

It is interesting to have a chance to take a small step backwards and tour on old work. Especially because that EP scratches the surface of some of the thematic and musical ideas that became more developed in Love’s Crushing Diamond. I think sometimes revisiting past ideas can be inspiring too, though. Today I was cleaning out our rehearsal space and stumbled across years of old journals I wrote to myself, so I’m equal parts excited and horrified to go through those this week.

This has been a crazy and disheartening few weeks: Gaza, Michael Brown, Robin Williams… as a creative person who makes beautiful and sensitive music, how do you respond to the ugliness in the world?

I’ve written and erased a lot of answers for this question now. Honestly, the unrelenting bad news of the last couple weeks have made me want to crawl into a hole and hide. Since so many of these events feel related and systemic, the best thing I feel like I can do is to seek out and read the experiences from those affected and be slow to bring my own white male perspective into the fray. In many ways, I feel more radicalized in how I spend my time or where my money goes. I wonder how much of my own existence directly or indirectly empowers these same tragic situations into repeating. I guess a lot of the words I write are battling my own sense of hopelessness, but without being a better listener, I’m afraid the words remain purely selfish.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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