Perhaps the hardest musical career to upkeep is one that starts with a bang so loud that its prolonged ringing lasts more than several months. When your music not only affects others, but get passed around rapidly, so does your importance to the music world in the now. It’s a rise of compliments and fandom, but the tricky part is what follows: the need to out-do yourself.
That’s what Jordan Lee, the brain behind Mutual Benefit, found himself dealing with after the release of his debut LP, Love’s Crushing Diamond, in 2013. The Boston musician found his work being consumed beyond Jamaica Plain and eventually moved to New York City. With this year’s follow-up, Skip a Sinking Stone, he found himself stressed about what to do. There’s pressure to stay as lush and intimate as before when people want nothing to change. They want the same chord progressions, the same string sections, the same miniature details that people fuse themselves too, like an old memory that’s not theirs but they identify with too much to not find themselves in Lee’s shoes.
Skip a Sinking Stone is full of comfortable, tiny instances of this, of the old Mutual Benefit seen through a cleaner lens. The album opens with piano notes, but those looking closer will notice it technically begins with the creaking of a seat, with an intimate moment of Lee entering the listener’s world gently as if he’s an audience member himself. When we talk on the phone, he suggests that’s true.
“That can be a distracting element to making things, thinking about a whole range of people that are in the world where some will like it and some will not like it. I hate to sound so selfish, but I try to approach a record with ‘What do I want to exist in the world?’” he says. “At the time, I wanted something that had side A as something really triumphant, songs that would cheer me up a bit, and side B that was more dreamy and where everything connected, that it was softer.”
All the pressure that surrounded him in making Skip a Sinking Stone had nothing to do with audience expectations and everything to do with his own expectations as an audience member. He’s taking in what already exists in the world and trying to interact with it – without trying to replace anything statuesque in the process.
“Love’s Crushing Diamond had a lot of people around me who were struggling and I couldn’t help them. I was seeing downward spirals in people close to me. Since I couldn’t help, I wrote about it,” he says. “This one isn’t as external because my life got super weird for a couple years and confusing and complex. Because it got manic in a sense, this record was trying to get back to normal and find balance. I had to figure out what things to run away from.”
In a literal sense, moving to New York City (and then moving once again while there, this time only to a new neighborhood) was his first time running. The move to Brooklyn took a while to adjust to for Lee. Fixing his musical style into a world of noise, however, only made that harder. “Home is wherever your friends are and wherever you find your community, but it took a long time to get used to the bustle,” he says. “I used to live in JP, so the biggest change was not having a pond to walk around whenever I needed a break. I still try to take the Chinatown bus back to Boston whenever I can since it’s such a beautiful place.”
“It’s so strange, the subtle things,” he adds. “Whether the room you’re working in has a window or not, whether there’s natural light – it’ hard to say exactly what it does. I could never write a record in one space.”
Which brings up “Fire Escape”, a hushed number on the album that provides arguably the record’s most serene moment, complete with layered, looped hums. Lee says it came about when he lived on Bushwick Avenue. For those unfamiliar, calling it hectic is an understatement. “When I first moved to Brooklyn, I noticed I was a lot more distracted and having trouble keeping my thoughts productive,” Lee explains. “I’d get into a weird loop in my head, but there was this moment where I felt really peaceful walking down Bushwick Avenue for the first time. I was trying to meditate while walking—it was either really late at night or very early in the morning—and it worked. I couldn’t sleep and got out of bed to walk around. I tried to have the music stay minimal so you feel like you’re walking around and no one is outside yet. I want to go back to that headspace when things start to get overwhelming.”
A quarter of the new record took shape in Jamaica Plain. Another extension was recorded in Austin with his sister (who contributed vocals and lyrics), another in a recording studio beneath DIY Brooklyn venue Silent Barn, another in New Hampshire, another above Silent Barn in his first apartment, and another in Bed Stuy in his next apartment. “When I really started to freak out, that spot in New Hampshire really helped,” he recalls. “That was a huge turning point. We started to collaborate on the string parts. There was a little pond with fish swimming around that we could ride our bikes to. All of a sudden going from these tiny apartments to this huge rural area had a major impact on everything becoming cohesive.”
Though Lee has since figured out how to improve his personal life and narrate it sonically after the fact, he still has moments of hesitation, worries that he’s made the wrong choice. “There’s always a grass is greener mentality wherever you live,” he laughs. “For a long time, I would visit a city and think I wanted to move there, like Ashville or a tiny town in upstate New York. You get enamored, normally because it’s opposite of the place you’re living, and you became enchanted by what your life could be instead. At this point, I’ve gotten old enough to realize those are just reactionary moments. I think I could live in Boston and be happy because there’s so many people there I love, and there’s such an incredible music and arts scene, but New York has more work.”
There’s a moment on the album’s almost title-track, “Skipping Stones”, where Lee seems to confront his stress going into this album, the stress of confronting a faded love, the stress of adjusting to a city as manic as New York City. “If I try to sink a skipping stone/ Maybe it’ll be the one that goes forever/ As it starts its fight towards the horizon line,” he sings. It’s wishful thinking about effort and effect, but above all else, it’s still complex with airiness – the exact sound that fans wanted. Turns out that’s what Lee wants himself. He took time blending songs transitions, opting for a listening experience that gives the illusion of the album being one continuous song. He roped in unusual string instruments. He highlights the natural familiarity of background sounds. Mutual Benefit headed into its sophomore album with plenty of weight on its shoulders, but Lee and the rest of his band shook that pressure off. What’s left is a record of genuine warmth, proving his musical career won’t bend anytime soon.
MUTUAL BENEFIT, FLORIST, BRITTLE BRIAN. FRI 6.24. GREAT SCOTT, 1222 COMM. AVE., ALLSTON. 10PM/21+/$12. GREATSCOTTBOSTON.COM.