My Firsts: Mutual Benefit | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Friday, May 24th, 2024  

My Firsts: Mutual Benefit

Ease Past Yourself

Jan 18, 2024 Web Exclusive Photography by Annalie Bouchard Bookmark and Share

My Firsts is our email interview series where we ask musicians to tell us about their first life experiences, be it early childhood ones (first word, first concert, etc.) or their first tastes of being a musician (first band, first tour, etc.). For this My Firsts we talk to New York-based singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Mutual Benefit (aka Jordan Lee).

Lee grew up in Ohio in the 1990s. Mutual Benefit released a new album, Growing at the Edges, last October via Transgressive. It was one of our Top 100 Albums of 2023. Growing at the Edges was co-produced with Gabriel Birnbaum and features violinist Concetta Abatte. Other collaborators include guitarist Jonnie Baker (Florist), vocalist Eva Goodman (Nighttime), bassist Nick Jost (Wilder Maker, Baroness), and drummer Sean Mullins (Wilder Maker, Sam Evian). Mutual Benefit’s previous studio album was 2018’s Thunder Follows the Heart.

“I became interested in the unruly first signs of growth after a disaster, and the beautiful ways lives start to blur into each other through relationships,” Lee says of the title of Growing at the Edges. “Edges are where spaces are negotiated.”

Read on as Lee talks about his religious upbringing and Christian Rock childhood, being scared by The X-Files, the three CDs that never left the family’s CD player, getting kicked off a political campaign, and an amusing bad review he once received.

First best friend?

That would be my pal George. He was my next-door neighbor in Columbus, Ohio from age four onward. We ran around making up games, playing music, and dreaming up weird schemes like trying to build a shack in the backyard (which tragically ended with a breached sewage pipe.) As adults my life veered into the semi-bohemian music hustler lifestyle and he went to college for a pragmatic degree and life but to this day when our lives cross there is that soul connection.

First person you kissed?

That would probably be Lana from Louisiana. I did one of those Habitat for Humanity sorts of things with my church as a teen. I think we went from my Ohio hometown down to Tupelo, Mississippi to help people in low income areas patch up their roofs or fix up a porch while spreading the good word. I’m not sure why we couldn’t just do that in our community but that is beside the point. I experienced some high school puppy love, I thought I had missed my chance for a smooch but our church vans stopped at the same gas station on the way out of town and I got my dramatic first peck on the cheek as anything more would have been a sin.

First movie you saw in the movie theater?

I probably saw kids movies that I don’t remember but I have a strong first memory of seeing The X-Files movie in 1998 as a 10 year old and being so terrified by the suspenseful first scene that I made my friend and his family leave the movie. I was really affected, and still sometimes am, by what happens in movies so I tend to not watch them unless I know there is artistic value in me having my feelings yanked around and feeling vicarious emotions.

First record your parents played for you?

I grew up with a CD player that held five CDs and switched between them. For the first decade of my life those CDs were Nilsson Schmilsson by Harry Nilsson, The Eagles’ Greatest Hits, James Taylor’s Greatest Hits, and generally two contemporary Christian albums like DC Talk or Jars of Clay. I’m pretty sure for the full 18 years I lived at home those three CD’s never changed.

First album you bought?

Speaking of Christian Rock, that is what I grew up willingly listening to until my punk/grunge older sister corrupted me. My dad played in the church band, which tried to sound “current” with electric guitar solos and synthesizers, and somehow he would get these samplers of contemporary Christian music that I would pore over. One of these samplers had a band called All Star United and I couldn’t get enough of it. I begged my parents to get their self-titled CD from our town’s religious book and music shop called Moments With Majesty. I’m listening to it right now for the first time in a decade and it still rips.

First favorite band?

The Beatles (I know, boring!) But seriously, they were all I wanted to listen to for most of elementary school. I was this little Beatles evangelist who would try to get my friends into them. I also noticed that mentioning them was a fast-track to getting adults to be nice and respect me. I remember telling my neighbor who drank light beers in his garage by himself every night about how I was getting into them and he dubbed me all their albums on each side of 90-minute cassette tapes.

First time you got drunk?

I have a memory of my sister, who had just finished college, having a karaoke party at her apartment around the time I finished high school. She emptied out a Coke can and poured some wine into it, which gave me enough courage to sing, in my head, a legendary rendition of “Love Shack.”

First job you had?

If you are from Ohio you know about Skyline Chili. It is a fast-food restaurant that specializes in the 3-Way which consists of 25% spaghetti, 25% oddly sweet chili, and 50% weirdly tasteless shredded cheese. I grew up eating this and they had a reputation for hiring any high schooler so working there was my first job. Only one manager was nice to me but she got fired for storing a beer in the mini fridge of the break room.

First time you got fired?

Because of touring, I’ve rarely stayed at a job long enough to get fired but when I was a political telemarketer in Boston I got kicked off the Obama campaign for being overheard agreeing with a caller that Occupy Wall Street was a more effective use of political power. If you’ve seen the documentary on HBO right now called Telemarketers, that was what my job was like.

First car you owned?

I have a huge fear of driving so I’ve never had a personal car but when Love’s Crushing Diamond got picked up by a label I used the money to buy a used Ford Econoline 250 from an extremely shady dealer on Craigslist who had messed with the odometer to lie about the miles. We spent many years touring in it and at some point it became known as The God Dream, named after a pre-cancelled Kanye song. It was used as a hotel shuttle before we had it so inside there was a big sign that said “Please Fasten Your Seat Belt.” At one point during a 12_hour drive I realized with a little whiteout and a permanent marker it could be changed to “Ease Past Your sel f.” A helpful mantra.

First email address?

.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) was my first email address and, to be honest, my current address where all my other accounts funnel into. Yes, the haphazard decision I made in middle school haunts me to this day. Although I may seem quiet and thoughtful from the outside, there is a part of me that really relates to the word and idea of “dawg.” Like eventually I would like to have that poster of anthropomorphic dogs (dawgs?) smoking cigars and playing poker prominently hanging up.

First book you read outside of one assigned for school?

Around the time I made the jordawg email address I was likely reading every book in the Star Wars expanded universe cannon. I loved those characters to the point that my friends and I would make up our own stories and I would host a sci-fi book club in my parent’s basement with a lending library. It was before the prequels came out so it wasn’t cool or culturally relevant yet, it was just super nerdy and off-putting to my schoolmates.

First instrument?

I grew up with some familial pressure to play the piano since I come from a pretty long line of semi-professional musicians. I, of course, rebelled from my strict teacher and had stints on trumpet (seemed like it would be easy but I was wrong), then guitar (because it was cool), and found my way back to piano through Radiohead. Over the lockdown I restarted piano lessons, which has brought immense joy into my life.

First band you were in?

I started a band called Our Friend Canada in high school that over four years slowly morphed from a Christian Blink-182 to an agnostic Godspeed You! Black Emperor as we started smoking pot and reading the Tao Te Ching. It was very Midwestern and pure.

First time you performed in public?

Like I said earlier, my dad played synthesizer in the church band and I grew up going to the practices because I was fascinated by music and by the mechanics of people playing together. When I was older I started filling in on the piano and then leading a youth band on guitar. It was a forgiving situation to learn because it isn’t about you, instead the music is meant for a collective feeling. I think growing up in that type of environment was critical to how I think about music now.

First bad review?

One of my first out of town live shows as Mutual Benefit was in San Francisco opening up for my internet friends Holy Spirits. I was definitely still figuring myself out and a music reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle came to review the show and was pretty scathing. I remember the writer saying something like “forget Vampire Weekend, this band sounds like Vampire Weekday.” It was a blow to the ego then but now it makes me laugh without fail.

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