Track by Track: Mutual Benefit – ‘Growing at the Edges’
Posted: by The Editor
Every Mutual Benefit record feels like its own world, and Growing at the Edges, the fourth album from the Brooklyn-based project, is the most expansive yet. It’s aptly titled, pushing out of the boundaries of the baroque indie folk Jordan Lee’s been honing for over a decade. Growing at the Edges isn’t just a culmination of that process; Lee’s fascination with classical and jazz bleeds into the record, like the saxophone harmonies that waft through single “Wasteland Companions” or the billowing coda of “Season of Flame.” It’s Mutual Benefit’s fullest, most confident release yet, and Lee was kind enough to break down the writing of every track on Growing at the Edges.
“Growing at the Edges”
I like to have the first track on my albums set the stage with the themes and imagery for the rest of the songs so the opening lines are an invitation, to go beyond what is easy or comfortable, and “remember how to dream again” in a society that can make a person too tired to have any sort of political imagination.
Because the album was written over a span of five years most of the lyrics on the album have taken on a multitude of meanings to me, personal and political, internal and external. At some point late in the process, I realized I was also writing a love song, that I was processing the extremely scary yet exciting feelings of realizing my longtime partner was the person I wanted to share the rest of my life with.
“Remembering a Dream”
This instrumental came together during deep lockdown in NYC where I finally learned how to play piano “correctly” and spent hours every day sitting with it and getting lost. Writing music is very visual for me so the plodding piano notes felt like taking a nature walk underneath a dense tree canopy. It was a nice place to spend time when travel ceased being an option for a bit.
“Beginner’s Heart” is about 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. I wrote in the midst of a handful of years where I took on an emergency caretaking role for a family member. After these frequent trips back home, and with so much chaos in the world, I would have to make a conscious effort to not just “switch off” and stay in bed or self-medicate. I wanted to remind myself that it is worth staying present and observant in the world even if it can be painful and overwhelming.
“Prefiguring” is the instrumental intro to “Untying a Knot.” I wanted this song to appear out of nowhere, fully formed and monolithic. I spent a long time on the combination of sounds and went with Nick Jost’s bowed upright bass at the studio in Brooklyn, Gabriel Birnbaum multitracking baritone, tenor, and soprano sax parts in his apartment, and some synthesizers from my Gainesville, FL, recording session. I love mixing fidelities in a single song so after the fanfare of the horns I abruptly switched to an acoustic guitar and Casio keyboard that I shoddily recorded in my bedroom to create a sense of intimacy.
“Untying a Knot”
This song is the process of looking deep into yourself and re-examining your belief systems or to put it more simply… learning to admit you’re wrong sometimes. Gabriel from Wilder Maker co-produced this record with me and he was pushing me to make my voice more expressive which I think really comes through on this song. The outro is a more chaotic and loose version of “Prefiguring” which symbolizes the difficulty between wanting to change and the messy reality of actually changing.
“Season of Flame”
I started writing “Season of Flame” about a horrifying drive near the path of a forest fire on our 2019 tour through California but eventually I became equally interested in how fire can almost be like medicine that can keep forests healthy and make way for new growth. That imagery started to help me recontextualize the loss and changes that were happening in my own life. The final instrumental is sort of the climax of the record where it really feels like the song is being enveloped by a destructive force.
“Wasteland Companions” has some of my favorite musical moments of the record through the interplay of Concetta Abbate’s string arranging and Gabriel’s saxophone parts with Sean Mullin’s tight drum playing.
This song was also inspired by seeing the aftermath of a forest fire. I was thinking about how wastelands are places viewed as having no value, yet our society is often obsessed with superficial forms of worth. When I was on a vista seeing the little plants growing back near charred tress stumps I thought about my friends and I navigating all these broken systems but finding meaning in ways that are more important than capitalistic achievement.
“Winter Sun, Cloudless Sky”
This instrumental came latest in the writing process, just a little before I turned the album in. I felt like there needed to be something between “Wasteland Companions” and “Little Ways” but nothing was working. After a particularly strong bout of winter depression I went outside and the sun peeked from the clouds and changed the sky from grey to blue for the first time in what seemed like ages. I was overtaken with a sense of joy and possibility and hurried home to write something. I ended up just grabbing the closest instrument, my trusty toy Casio keyboard, and wrote “Winter Sun, Cloudless Sky.” I thought about adding other instruments but I like the simplicity of the three Casio parts played at a moment of existential relief.
“Little Ways” is a song about feeling contentment, about taking some time to not stress about possible futures and instead taking a moment to appreciate the little changes happening around and inside of you. I loved the guitar parts that Jonnie Baker and Gabriel added. I visited Jonnie in upstate New York when he was in between Florist tours and we took some psychedelics and added a bunch of guitar parts and internalized the song in a really therapeutic way and then watched Lord of the Rings. I just love the levity of this song after the heaviness and complexity of the rest of the songs on side B.
“Signal to Bloom”
I wanted the beginning of “Signal to Bloom” to have a sort of spiritual jazz feeling as a sonic bed to bring back a reprise of the title track. This album was my companion through some of the most difficult and rewarding periods of my life, it holds so much of my soul, and I wanted this song to be an ecstatic release for me and the listener. The title is a reference to an essay from Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass where she talks about Pecan trees mysteriously fruiting at the same time as one another using a signal that scientists still don’t understand. Similarly, humans are confusing and complex and you never know when we will make something beautiful together.
Growing at the Edges is out October 6th.
Zac Djamoos | @gr8whitebison
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