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For singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jordan Lee, who has recorded as Mutual Benefit since 2009, the title of his expansive fourth studio album, Growing at the Edges, is many-layered. “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. “Edges are where spaces are negotiated.”
The title took on another dimension as Lee actualized his desire to grow his range as a songwriter, pianist, and collaborator. Written over the span of five years, the seeds of Growing at the Edges took root with two artist residencies completed in 2019: one at a former watchtower in Northern Ireland, where he was commissioned to compose a soundtrack, and another in Gainesville, Florida. Both allowed Lee time and space to experiment, to spontaneously explore, and to live inside his emergent songs.
Stuck at home in 2020, Lee found comfort in New York’s many jazz and classical radio stations, which moved him to investigate wider musical possibilities, slowly developing his ear towards new phrasings, harmonies, and ensemble textures, and inspiring exploratory nightly piano sessions of his own. These new rituals of listening and playing helped recontextualize the fragments of songs he’d begun in 2019, recalibrating his feel for space and structure. “In songs that before would maybe resolve in a predictable place, I started doing these what if’s,” he says. “What if it went somewhere unexpected instead?” The inertia of the pandemic had stoked his interest in how songs could become places to visit;. The album’s second track, the instrumental “Remembering a Dream,” “really started to feel like a nature walk,” Lee says. “The piano notes were like footsteps. The spaces between the chords started to feel really important. I was thinking about breathing.” Note by note, these musical places offered respite. “I’d visit the song ‘Little Ways’ to cheer myself up during times of uncertainty.”
Animated by these inquiries, Growing at the Edges envisions an arc of transformation that begins within and ripples outward. It invites the listener to go beyond prescribed paths, through songs about interior change (“Beginner’s Heart,” “Untying the Knot”) onto reckonings with how to live in a volatile world (“Season of Flame,” “Wasteland Companions”) and find meaning (“Little Ways,” “Signal to Bloom”). A theme of collective dreaming recurs. The title song offers a thesis of sorts, a set of criteria for hope amid devastation—a bid to dream new pathways, guided by moonlight into the unknown—“past the path that was laid/Growing at the edges/Peeking from a seed/Where there was a wasteland/Something new.”
Later, in sessions in both studios and tiny Brooklyn apartments, Lee brought in two crucial collaborators: his first-ever co-producer in multi-instrumentalist Gabriel Birnbaum, of Brooklyn’s Wilder Maker, and violinist Concetta Abbate, who contributed string arrangements. The interplay of Birnbaum’s jazz and country riffs and Abbate’s chamber folk arrangements leant Growing at the Edges an ensemble feel and an aliveness. With their vast musical vocabularies, Lee could express abstract ideas (like strings that evoke “people taking breaths at about, but not quite, the same time”) and they would be made concrete. Other collaborators included guitarist Jonnie Baker (Florist), vocalist Eva Goodman (Nighttime), standup bassist Nick Jost (Wilder Maker, Baroness), and drummer Sean Mullins (Wilder Maker, Sam Evian). Working with them, “It was less like practicing, and more like going somewhere together.”
The collaboration with Birnbaum added new dimensions to Lee’s dreamscapes, like the march and flurry on “Season of Flame.” “Gabriel would say, ‘Let’s make it harsher right here, let’s change the rhythm here, let’s cut everything out right here,’ and he helped nudge me towards a more dynamic album,” Lee says. Birnbaum, also a former member of the Boston-based Ethio-jazz ensemble Debo Band, notably added resonant saxophone harmonies to “Wasteland Companions” and contributed levity-bringing organ and guitar vamping to “Little Ways.” Lee admits some of these decisions initially felt “outside my comfort zone,” but he welcomed that feeling, embracing an ethos of discomfiting change that the lyrics voice.
As the songs crystallized, so, too, did the convictions of his lyrics. Growing at the Edges contains a political tow that, though never didactic, is unmistakable. “There’s still quite a bit of searching,” he says. “In fact, a central theme of this album is that it’s okay, at any age, to search your core beliefs and figure out if you might be fundamentally wrong about something. A lot of the lyrics in my previous albums were questions, and I think I ventured out and made a couple more statements on this one.” Books like Anna Tsing’s Mushroom at the End of the World, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, and Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment were among his influences.
These threads cohere beautifully on “Prefiguring” and “Untying the Knot,” which use the same chords to contrasting ends. The instrumental “Prefiguring” presents a clear, realized melodic passage, before “Untying the Knot,” a song about interrogating one’s values, eventually unravels it, to illustrate the essential chaos of growth. “I love the contrast of showing an idealized thing, fully formed, easy to understand,” Lee says, “and then showing the idea in practice, falling apart. That contrast of messiness and idealized togetherness was important to me.”
“If love could move through me, would its chaos make a symphony?” Lee sings on “Beginner’s Heart,” an examination of how “even at age 35, I am still learning how to be a sensitive person without the world forcing me to harden my heart and go numb,” Lee says. That sensitivity is felt in every note of Mutual Benefit’s music, but he wrote “Beginner’s Heart” as it was amplified, during a period when he was traveling home to Ohio to serve as an emergency caretaker for a family member, “watching the healthcare system and the housing system fail a person,” Lee says. “Everyday, people are asked to accept an unacceptable reality,” but maintaining one’s sensitivity is a part of not complying. “Sensitivity is like a compass that’s really acute,” Lee observes. “It can be really painful. But it’s worth it for the moments you can trust it to point you in the right direction.” Growing at the Edges honors those moments, too—and nowhere more arrestingly than on “Wasteland Companions,” an elegant, bittersweet ode to the beauty of friendship as a buoy in a world undone, about the overwhelming light of loved ones finding ways to cope through darkness together.
Lee began writing Growing at the Edges at a creative crossroads, but it led to his most intentional, adventurous, and realized album, a world to enter into. In writing, Lee was thinking about areas of life that capitalism deems to be valueless, how the reality of relentless extraction creates what are perceived to be wastelands. “We’re at this point in time where there are so many ‘wastelands’ because value has been taken from so many places, so many art forms,” Lee adds. “I was thinking about the growth that’s happening right on the edge of that wasteland, and how that, to me, is the most beautiful and interesting area. That’s where important things are going to happen.”
- Jenn Pelly.