Track by Track is a recurring new music feature that asks an artist to break down each song on their latest record, one by one.
The storm imagery that swirls throughout Thunder Follows the Light isn’t just an invention of metaphor; there’s a real New England storm to thank for jolting Jordan Lee into action on his third studio record as Mutual Benefit.
“I was visiting some friends who live upstate, and there was a big thunderstorm, and for some reason, I was really paying attention to the fact that lightning would strike and later the thunder would happen,” he says. “It was this time of political turmoil in the United States, and I was thinking about all the anxiety that my friends and I were feeling, and that maybe the best way to sum it up was that there are things in motion right now, and we’ll be feeling the effects of them a little bit later. It feels like we’re living in this in-between time.”
Fittingly, the confusion of wind and lightning remains at the heart of the resulting music, which finds the typically cloudless skies of Mutual Benefit’s gossamer indie folk darkened by everything from global climate change (“Waves, Breaking”) to the breakdown of American cultural myths (“Come to Pass”) to the unseen emotional tempests within our own heads (“No Dominion”).
Faced with that kind of all-consuming adversity, most songwriters would falter into cliches or give over to bad-faith nihilism. That’s what makes the lack of actual doom and/or gloom on Thunder Follows the Light so refreshing (and, at times, therapeutic). Over the course of 10 tracks, Lee offers listeners a gentle, forgiving handbook for making it through the trouble times, one that emphasized honesty, adaptability, and the willingness to reforge the tight bonds of community that we may sometimes allow to go slack.
He also delivers some of the most alluring arrangements of his career; on this record, flourishes of prime folk signifiers banjo and harmonica share the same landscape with brooding sax and bass clarinet, which often approximate the mix of fearful awe usually reserved for an approaching thunderhead. It represents a knack for finding beauty in the bleakness, and it makes Thunder Follows the Light a must-listen record and Jordan Lee an increasingly indispensable performer.
For the latest Track by Track, Lee sat down with our own Tyler Clark to discuss the ins-and-outs of Thunder Follows the Light. Above, listen to our full audio interview with the musician for his thoughts on how a five-string guitar sparked the record’s sound, why self-care has its limits, and what trees have to tell us about collective action. A condescend, text-based version is below.
“Written in Lightning”:
I definitely wanted to set the tone and make the listener really clear, what they were getting into. And I was trying to think about all the different effects of thunder and lightning, and I was proud to get down to the nitty-gritty of ions colliding. [Laughs.] But because I was setting the tone for the whole record, I wanted to put a counter-balance to, you know, all of the chaos and uncertainty. So I was having a lot of trouble thinking of a poetic way to talk about the counterbalance.
And so I ended up just going with the most blunt thing I could think of, which is love being an armor against it. And I went back and forth for a long time because it’s a little bit cheesy, just to be like, ‘Okay, things are really scary, but we need to love each other.’ But the more I sat with it, the more I thought, you know, there’s times to obscure what you’re trying to say, but this—I want to risk being a little cheesy to say exactly what I’m thinking right now.
In my opinion, [Johanne Swanson] saved the record. She’s an old friend and a really great solo musician in her own right, and we live in the same neighborhood and go to a lot of the same shows. And I’m always a little nervous to ask someone to collaborate with me if we haven’t collaborated before, because, you know, it’s a pretty intense thing, to—especially with this band, I need it to be exactly the way that I want it to be. And so I don’t want to, like, boss around someone.
But I spent a long time working up the courage, and finally it was like, “I would love if you sang on this record.” And she came over and I was planning on just doing this song, because it seemed like a much more powerful statement if there was more than one voice saying it. But it ended up just going so well, and I really loved the way our voices sound together, so she sings on almost every song on this record. And it was all in the last two weeks before I had to turn it in. And so the whole record was just me until—you know, for like a year, and then at the very end it just got way better.
“Storm Cellar Heart”:
There’s definitely a lot to be gained from taking a break from Twitter or the news cycle and checking in with yourself. I think that’s really important, and it gives you perspective when you come back out and get ready to face the external world. […] But it was important to me, also, I think there’s a conversation about self care that can get a little out of control, where a person can justify any selfish decision they make by saying, “Well, I need to take care of myself,” or something. And so I, when I was writing this song, I was kind of bouncing between those two poles, where it’s important to push yourself sometimes, and you can’t live in a storm cellar. You’ve gotta come out at some point.
On a personal level, I think it’s so important to keep your mind open to the idea that you have destructive behaviors, or that there are assumptions that you have that are deeply held that are actually untrue. I guess I’ve been trying to meditate on that a little bit more and just really open myself up to the idea that I can be different. I think it was really powerful to spend time in forested areas, and when I did see all these cicada shells hanging there, and all these ways in nature that animals not only just change a little bit but literally get rid of their whole bodies, and that’s sort of part of their growth to becoming mature. There’s this tendency as you get older to get more inflexible in your beliefs, and I want to be the opposite. I want to know that I don’t have the answers and that I have to seek them out.
“Come to Pass”:
This was, I think, the first song that got written for the new record, and it got written on my lucky five-string guitar. Normally, when I finish a project, I’m pretty empty of ideas, and so I need some sort of flicker, so I just take this five-string guitar and try out different tunings that don’t make any sense. That’s what happened with this one. I was having trouble thinking what it would be about, and then I heard this interview where this person was interviewing people who were wearing Make America Great Again paraphernalia.
They were asking them, “When was America great? What era are we going back to?” And there wasn’t really any sort of convincing answer that anyone could think of. That really got me thinking of the power of false nostalgia, and how that’s such an easy impulse to fall into. […] I wanted to be able to look clearly in the mirror and interrogate anything that’s imagined to be a golden age.
This one’s pretty openly about climate change. I wanted it to start off very slow and serene, and then you feel the energy pick up, and then it’s just full chaos by the end. I wanted the music to do the talking more than the lyrics. In writing the song, it’s another big topic where there are lots of things to say, and a lot of them are obvious, but I kind of decided that maybe my allegiance is to nature instead of people. […] If we’re so dumb that we can’t figure out how to live with the other billions of living things that live perfectly symbiotically with each other – if we’re the only things that can’t figure out how to do that, then it probably makes sense that the earth is flushing us out.
[“Waves, Breaking” and “No Dominion”] are very spiritually connected. I wanted “Waves, Breaking” to be very external and grandiose, and I wanted “No Dominion” to tell a similar story but all internally. […] “Peace is more than just a season” is my favorite lyric on the album, I think. So much so that I say it twice in two different songs. But I think one of the mistakes I made in my thinking was that a lot of my music before now has said, ‘everything is a season.’ You might have a bad season right now, but don’t worry, it’s going to get better. And in a sense, that’s true. But I don’t think I believe that things just get better on their own anymore. And so peace is a thing that you achieve through action. […] It just takes constant work. And so when I realized that error in my thinking before I just wanted to really emphasize that peace is something that you have to want. And it’s something that you have to work for.
This song just tells the smallest little story. I’m a little manic and so my heart gets really closed up and it feels like I just can’t feel positive about anything. And so I was having one of those moments on tour. And then, for some reason, seeing the mountains, it felt like I was exploding with happiness all of a sudden. And I was thinking about that, and also just the tricks of the light that happen when you’re in mountainous regions, where the sun can just be blocked out. And it almost seems like nighttime when you’re in a valley. And all the sudden you turn the bend and everything absolutely changes. And these changes of perspective, and a mountain maybe being something that is big but you have no control over. And the more I thought about it, the more I just wanted to tell this little story.
This one was kind of a freak accident. Musically, I wanted to try out something in a different time signature than I’m used to. So I was working on doing something in 5/4 time. And I was really stuck on the lyrics. And I went on a trip and had some pretty bad insomnia. I was listening to some [ASMR videos] so I could fall asleep. And it happened to be that this person was whispering an Aesop’s fable about the nightingale. Kind of the funniest part to me is I fell asleep at some point. I only heard the first half of it. I’ve heard actually the moral becomes a lot more muddled by the end.
The music industry at its worst, for me, is when I feel like I’m creating value for some corporation. Or someone seeks me out because I’m representative of some artistic energy that they’re too evil to have. So it just seemed like a very timeless story. When you’re being sought out by those types of people, they oftentimes don’t care at all about the art you’re making. If someone made a robot version of you, or a hologram, they might like that better. And so it was kind of my way of saying, “I’ll do that kind of thing sometimes. But I’d much rather fly back and be with my people.”
I highly recommend [the book The Hidden Life of Trees.] It’s this German botanist who is doing groundbreaking research on how sentient trees are, but only in old growth forests. If you just plant a tree in your yard, it acts one way. But if you have trees and a whole ecosystem where they’ve been around for hundreds of years, there’s all this complex communication happening. Another writer termed it the “wood wide web,” which I really like. […] I was reading it, and even though it was about trees, I was just like, “This might as well be about social theory. This is teaching me about how to be a better member of a community with other people.” Because so much of what it’s saying is to be patient, not think about yourself too hard, and literally think about the forest instead of the trees.