Jordan Lee, the singer / songwriter behind Brooklyn's Mutual Benefit, is an artist prone to contradictions. He plays gentle, beautifully arranged indie folk, yet tends to follow more of a DIY punk ethos. He speaks positively about the "innate goodness and generosity of people" but turns highly skeptical when discussing music-industry machinations. He's not one to make a hasty decision when it comes to his music, but he has a history of being a nomad, quick to pack up his belongings and high-tail it to new surroundings when his own have gone stale.
A native of Columbus, Ohio, Lee moved to Texas after high school, which is where he began making home-recorded music under the name Mutual Benefit. He then launched his own label, Kassette Klub, in 2009, when he relocated to Boston. But it wasn't until Lee finally settled in Brooklyn and released the group's first proper full-length album, Love's Crushing Diamond, that Mutual Benefit gained more widespread attention.
Lee tells CityBeat that moving to a new city is his way of reconnecting with his muse.
"If I'm in a town and I feel really stuck, and I'm just having trouble finding that spark, the easiest way to find it again is to find myself in a totally new situation," he says. "In the past, I think that's been the reason to pack my suitcases, get on the Amtrak and meet up with a high-school friend for a few months."
Love's Crushing Diamond, which followed six other cassettes and EPs, sees Lee and a revolving group of collaborators entering the next phase of a career built one homemade release at a time, in three different cities. Though relatively brief at only 32 minutes long, the album is Mutual Benefit's most cohesive release, a mesmerizing set of seven chamber-pop songs with instrumentation that includes acoustic guitar, banjo, violin, piano, harmonium, electronic drums, found sounds and Lee's own soft vocals. There's a slow, dreamy, almost-shoegaze effect to "That Light that's Blinding," while the sweetly sincere "Advanced Falconry" recalls acclaimed mid-'00s releases by Devendra Banhart and Sufjan Stevens. Pretty much everything on the record is made to sound as mellifluous as possible.
Mutual Benefit—who'll play Soda Bar on Sunday, Jan. 26—initially self-released their new album in October but soon caught the attention of Other Music, which reissued Love's Crushing Diamond two months later in a much wider release. Lee says he was contacted by several labels that were interested in releasing the album, but he was careful to choose one that didn't pigeonhole the project too easily.
"One of the main things that was important to me was not putting it out on a label that had a distinct sound," Lee says, "especially because when it first came out, there were a lot of comparisons to Sufjan Stevens and Americana music and stuff like that. There were a couple labels that, like, if I signed with them, I'd have to play with banjo bands for the rest of my career."
Prior to finding a semi-permanent home in Brooklyn, Lee spent several years playing basements, churches and schools on the DIY tour circuit. But with the Other Music signing came a change in procedure. He not only has a label, but also a publicist and a booking agent. And, more importantly, he's making some tangible income from his music—something a lot of musicians can't say.
And while Lee talks about this upward mobility in a positive light, he admits that he's still getting used to it all.
"All of a sudden, there's a lot more certainty with what I'm doing now, where there's—you know, venues offer a minimum guarantee, so you know you won't run out of gas," he says. "But there's also a strange feeling where every person in that chain wants you to succeed, in part because they get a part of your proceeds. And I'm still getting used to that feeling.
"It is really fascinating to at least be able to talk about it from experience instead of some ideological, hypothetical situation," he adds. "I think every musician at some point has been posed the question, If Nike gave you a million dollars to use one of your songs, would you do it?' Not that that's happened, but, all of a sudden, these questions are real instead of things you ask each other when you're stoned."
Lee's wanderlust and search for inspiration could very well find him pulling up stakes again before long. For now, he seems ready to be comfortable in his current surroundings.
"I really like balance, and it's hard to maintain balance in New York," Lee says. "But it helps that most of the United States between the cities is the opposite of New York, and when you're touring in a band, you're mostly looking at cornfields.
"If I'm touring a lot of the year, then New York is a perfect place to come back to."