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.”
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.”