Felix Walworth is a Brooklyn based songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer. Their songwriting project, called Told Slant, has been described as “very sad” and “like church.”
Jordan Lee is the singer-songwriter behind the NYC-based recording project Mutual Benefit; Felix Walworth is an also-NYC-based songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who performs as Told Slant, and with the band Florist. Mutual Benefit’s new record, Growing at the Edges, is out now on Transgressive, so to celebrate, the two friends got together to chat about it, and more.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Jordan Lee: Alright, I’m here with Felix. We’re playing a game of chess and chatting. This will be our third match — and I don’t think that I remember the results of the first two.
Felix Walworth: Yeah, I can’t remember them either. But, you know, we’re doing a sort of best of five right now.
Jordan: I’m here to redeem myself. So, I want to get this tweet right, but I believe maybe a year ago you wrote something on Twitter along the lines of, “The Brooklyn music scene is fun now that no one is famous.” [Laughs.] I think about that almost every day, because although it’s a bit of a hyperbole, I think that might be true — that when there’s less of a music industry pressure happening around you, then a music scene can just feel natural. It can be groups of friends just playing together in small rooms. But do you remember making that tweet?
Felix: Yeah, I do. I’m trying to remember — I was at a show, I was enjoying myself a lot, and I was thinking about New York in the 2010s and being at a show and looking around like, Oh, that’s the person from that band, and that’s the person from that band. It felt like a lot of people in New York maybe felt it was possible to have a successful career in music as, like, a star. Now — I don’t want to say that no one feels that way, because I actually still feel some frustration sometimes when I see smaller indie bands trying to be extremely marketable and define their success by whether or not they are selling out huge rooms. But at least no one is succeeding at that right now, as far as I can tell, in New York.
Jordan: [Laughs.] Yeah. Well, what I wanted this interview to be about partially was both of us being old geezers in New York. So maybe the bands that are becoming very popular and are populating some sort of New York scene — maybe we just don’t know who they are.
Felix: I think that’s absolutely right. I do sometimes stumble across a band on Instagram and they’ll have 70,000 followers or something, and they’re, you know, 22. And I’m just like, OK. I never heard of you before, but you’re doing great. Yeah, I am a geezer, so a lot of what I’m going to say is going to be quite out of touch and relevant to a very specific niche in underground music.
Jordan: Well, I think there was some sort of Jack Antonoff quote last week, and he said something about New York not having a scene anymore the way that it did during the era of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. People were weighing in on it, and mostly I avoid those discussions, but he said something about how New York indie music doesn’t have a cultural export anymore. I got really stuck on those words because, does a scene need to have an export?
Felix: And export to where? When I imagine Jack Antonoff saying that, I’m like, export to him? When we think of exports in terms of art and culture, I think we’re thinking of that kind of industry model of success where you want to export your music out of your small community and into an industry, and maybe into Jack Antonoff’s recording studio or something. Not to say that he’s like, “Damn, I wish that there were some New York bands that I could produce.” I’m sure he’s got enough work. I’m sure he’s doing fine. But yeah, what is the value of exporting something is a good question.
Jordan: Yeah. So post-lockdown, I’ve not toured the way that I have toured for the last 10 years; I’m mostly at home, which is very new to me, and I worked on this last record. My co-producer was Gabriel Birnbaum — who is another person who’s lived in New York forever, and he’s played in everyone’s band and been a session guy and a PR guy — and he introduced me to kind of a scene of people who are my age, in their 30s, who just through a mix of teaching music and maybe playing once a month — I feel like I started finally finding New York scenes that are realistic about what they’re doing. Like, I‘m making music because I like to make it, and the people who come are mostly my friends, and then a small amount of people will discover it, and we’ll be in this room that holds a hundred people and have a really great night. And we’re not like, wondering if a booking agent is going to show up and scout us out or anything like that. Maybe this sounds naive, but because my band got, quote-unquote, “discovered” early on, I kind of missed out on the feeling of just being a regular band in a regular scene. And I’ve been really enjoying it.
Felix: Yeah, that is interesting. You’ve done things backwards.
Jordan: [Laughs.] Yeah, I’m shrinking.
Felix: Yeah, but I think what’s remarkable about your journey through industries and DIY scenes that’s different from a lot of people is that I think oftentimes a band will — well, I should preface this actually with something else, which is that I feel like you did spend a lot of time in the underground music world before your music became, you know, low-level commercially viable, which it became at a certain point.
Jordan: That’s true. There were some years of basements. It’s funny, I didn’t even think to include that because that was like, fully anti-capitalist. No money was made by anyone. It was just like, “There’s nothing else going on, let’s just make a loop around the United States and play to 15 people a day.”
Felix: Right. And come home with hopefully not negative-$500.
Felix: Hopefully like, positive-$80.
Jordan: That would be a huge success.
Felix: Yes. I remember the first time — it was maybe like, four tours in for me. I think the first couple, I was like, Damn, I’m down a hundred bucks. But we would be sleeping on floors, and we would buy groceries and cook them in people’s houses where we were playing. Everything was so cheap and we were so frugal that we made it work that way. But those are the skills that I think are really important to have as any kind of musician. There are some that you honed before Love’s Crushing Diamond came out — which was, what, 2013?
Felix: And that you are continuing to hone now, as your music is also less commercially viable than it was then.
Felix: [Laughs.] Which is pretty similar for me, although I would say my music was never commercially viable. But there was a point where it might almost be. And I think that a lot of people will get to a point where they’re succeeding at paying their rent by making music — you know, they can buy some nice gear, their life is pretty fun, but they’re really working a lot at their music. And then once they lose their industry support — which happens to 95% of bands — when you’re spit out of that, do you still do you have any of the tools to survive as a musician?
Jordan: Yeah. I mean, that was a real moment where [I was] like, “It’s time to make my fourth album!” I was talking to places and, “Well, are your numbers going up?” “Not always, you know, sometimes they plateau, sometimes they go down…” And they were like, “Oh, we mostly want to work with people whose numbers go up.”
Jordan: That was a real soul searching moment. I did coding boot camp because I was like, Well, I guess I’m back to being a hobbyist. But then I quit halfway through — actually, I quit halfway through because my current label, Transgressive, sent me an email out of the blue. I was out of contract with them, and my self-esteem was so low that I actually didn’t even ask them to start a new relationship because I was like, There’s no way they want to do another album with me. [Laughs.] Because I have terrible social media, I don’t know how to write music that will make the numbers go high up. But they actually reached out to me, and it was right when I was hating coding more than ever. I was like, “OK, yeah, I’ll make you guys an album!”
But it was a moment of like, Damn, I guess my identity is not a musician anymore. Whereas up until the lockdown, I was just in the cycle of: release an album, tour as much as I can for a year, write the next one, put it out, tour as much as I can. You can feel the churn of it, but the goal is to always to tour as long as you can, but then make the album in as short of a time as you can, so you can get back on the road and stay in people’s minds. And what I realized is, that cycle just sped up where you don’t even have two years to make an album anymore, or people totally have forgotten about you.
Felix: Right. Wasn’t there some horrifying Spotify exec quote about this maybe a year ago or something?
Jordan: Yeah, the CEO. Because someone was like, “Well, if you put out an album every two years, you can’t survive off of what Spotify pays you.” And he was like, “Well, just make more albums.”
Felix: Right, make an album every day. [Laughs.] And is that the kind of life that we want to live as artists like? Is that even making art anymore? I know that’s a little dramatic, but like you mentioned your relationship to music — you’re like, “Am I not a musician anymore?” And I think you’re probably more of a musician not doing those things and not caring about that. I think that kind of questioning also does a disservice to all of the basement shows, super anti-capitalist commercial failure of your pre-commercial success era — you were a musician then and you probably never thought of yourself as not a musician.
Felix: But once you enter that system, and then the system regurgitates you, you’re like, “Am I a musician anymore?” Well, maybe not according to the numbers or certain record labels or Spotify or whatever, but you’re so much more of a musician.
Jordan: And I guess that brings me back to really enjoying the shows in Brooklyn that I’ve been going to recently. My favorite venue now is Owl Music Parlor, because it seats maybe 40 people and the curationist, I believe, is just one very strange but great guy. It’s this mix of singer-songwriter and jazz and just all sorts of stuff. There’s a piano there, and it really just feels like you walk in, you hear three groups play, and then they kind of kick you out. It’s perfect. The shows start early. I think about my basement show phase in my 20s, and most of the people doing that — myself included — were in a bit of a manic state. It was like, “I actually don’t have anything else going on, I need to be on the road. I’m going to go back home to a coffee shop” — or in my case, being a telemarketer — “and I’m going to try to figure out how to go back on tour as fast as possible.”
Jordan: And I’m not going to lie and say I wasn’t hoping that something would come out of this effort, you know? But I didn’t even know what the music industry was like; it was all very abstract to me. And I kind of contrast that against a music scene where it’s rooted in locality. A lot of the shows I see now, there’s not a touring band on it. Or if it is, it’s like a touring band being brought in through an existing community. And I mean, maybe it’s just that I was on tour for 10 years and now I feel like I actually live in Brooklyn — so it might just be that I’m experiencing what it’s like to live somewhere. [Laughs.] But it’s been extremely meaningful to me to literally think of music as a scene, as something that can’t be exported.
Felix: Can you elaborate on the “can’t be exported” part?
Jordan: Yeah — to think about a scene of people making music where the aspiration generally is just for the people in that small room to enjoy it. A lot of the smaller shows I’ve been going to, it feels like it’s musicians making music for each other, and after it’s over there’s not any sort of like, “Can you sign my record?” Or, “Oh, my god, I can’t believe I’m meeting you!” It’s sort of like, “It’s so cool the chord change you did in the third song.” More of it’s just like peers together.
Felix: Totally. Sometimes I feel like the kinds of connections you can make with people in those spaces are so much more meaningful than the kinds you can [otherwise]. Like, you may be able to reach thousands of people playing in big spaces, but that dynamic that of, “Oh, I can’t believe I’m meeting you” — you know, the stage is really high, there’s security in between you and the audience. There’s a politics to it that. Having had a foot in each of those worlds for most of my life, I’m pretty averse to how it feels to be on those big stages. Like, they sound amazing; it’s really cool if you want to shock people with the power of your music. That’s amazing, and that does feel good. But it’s not inspiring, at least in ways that I have found to be useful. I don’t go to a show like that and see those musicians and go, Man, I gotta go home and get a band together. I actually look at them and go, I can never do that. [Laughs.] It’s like disempowering, in a way.
But if you go see a show at the Owl, or any of the DIY spots that we’ve grown up in, you look on the stage and you’re like, OK, they’re using one of those pedals. And you can hang out a little bit after the show and talk about the music and the process. It’s like Beat Happening, how they’re just like, “We’re going to be so bad at music that when you come see us, you will be forced to realize that if you started a band right now, you would actually be better than us.”
Jordan: Totally. That really cracks me up, because once in a while, if it’s a band I love, [it’s exciting to go to] one of those big shows. It’s exciting to — my partner calls it, “participate in fandom.” [Laughs.] But to me, it is disempowering. And even yesterday, it was the record release show for me at Rough Trade, and even though it was an in-store — so there were maybe 50 people there or something — I signed records and they set up this line with velvet ropes and stuff. It was so silly. I appreciated the people who were there so much, but… I try to figure out how to break down the hierarchical structure as fast as possible. But I don’t know, maybe there’s people with a different personality than us who love participating in fandom.
Felix: Yeah. I feel like I have also had this exact experience at shows, where say I’m opening for a bigger band on a tour and I’ll go behind my merch table at the end of the show, and maybe someone will come up and be like, “I love your music, I’ve been listening to it for X amount of years, it’s so meaningful to like to meet you.” I’ll immediately want to dispel the that dynamic and be like, “I am so lame, actually.” But I think it comes from a place of discomfort, holding power over someone in a dynamic like that. And I find that sometimes when I try to close that gap, that people are actually deeply uncomfortable and it’s not what they signed up for. They’re like, “Actually, it was really nice to think of you as other and now that you’re asking me about myself, this bums me out.” So it’s important to know when and where these kinds of flattening of hierarchies is possible, and whether you’re doing it really for someone else or for you.
Jordan: Yeah. I very much come from the school of thought where everyone has something to say, whether it’s writing or music or painting. I think the world would be better if everyone had some form of expression. I mean, that could even be show booking — I think curation is expression as well. And it seems like there was an era where it was just a lot more normal. Like for instance, sometimes I tour in other countries, and it’s so common for everyone just to sing together at a bar or something. And I think about in America, it’s so common for somebody to like, “Oh, I can’t sing, I can’t carry a tune.” Singing has become a specialized skill, or it’s become professionalized. It’s kind of a confusing double thing that’s happened where people are scared to call themselves an artist or a singer or something, unless they believe they’re really good at it.
Jordan: But then also through social media, we’re all expected to be creative entrepreneurs. And so in some ways, more people are creatively expressing themselves than I remember in the past, but then in other ways, it seems like there’s still an expectation that it’s perfect. Especially on social media, you have those metrics immediately whether people liked it or didn’t like it, and there’s an urge to tweak what you do so that the numbers are higher next time. What I would love to see is a folk tradition where people just sing together and people sound bad sometimes and it’s OK. But instead, we have almost the exact opposite where people are expressing themselves, but they all want to sound like pop stars.
Felix: I totally agree with that. If your music, by that same token, remains in the underground because it does not have commercial appeal, you have hard data to show you that. Like, not even just the fact of your life that you don’t have a lot of money, but you can go on the computer and see what choices you’ve made are more or less lucrative. It’s so appealing to so many people, I think, to go on Spotify and look at a song of yours and be like, OK, everyone likes this song, everyone hates this song. I’m going to make a new album, and maybe I should make it sound like the song that everybody liked. Having access to those metrics, I agree, funnels people towards commercial ambition.
Jordan: Yeah, absolutely. I think the scariest thing about platforms like Spotify is that it gives the logic of major label pop-oriented artists to everyone, no matter what genre you are. And even though that’s something I think about deeply, this was my album release week and for the week your album comes out, Spotify shows you how many people are listening, like, every second. You could just watch the number go up and down.
Felix: Should we pull that up right now?
Jordan: [Laughs.] I actually deleted it from my phone because it was making me psycho. But I can still see it on my computer, and I’m tempted to look at it, because I’m only human and there’s some temptation in being like, Ooh, the number just went up!
Felix: Right, yeah.
Jordan: I met someone at the the signing table yesterday, and she mentioned that my music was meaningful to her, and I always appreciate to hear that. But she mentioned that she wants to make music, but she’s too afraid and she can’t find people to collaborate with. I did what I always do generally, which is, “Well, here’s my email, and when you ever make a demo, send it to me because I’m excited to hear it.” And it was just really cool to see how meaningful that was to someone, where someone is expressing support and belief in what they can do. I’m a big proponent of the book The Artist’s Way. Did you ever read that?
Jordan: It’s a 12 week program that’s like, “Recover your inner artist.” It’s pretty woo-woo, but it’s a big part of how I started identifying as an “artist,” in quotes. But its big thing is: everyone is an artist, and the reason — especially in America — that so many people are embarrassed to say that or refuse to say that is they have an amalgamation of critics in their head. It could be a parent, it could be an art teacher that they had in fifth grade, it could be the one time they sang in a recital and their sibling told them it sucked or whatever. But all those voices stay in your head and become this thing that this book calls “the censor,” and most people will never make a piece of art because the censor in their head is too powerful. And so I think a big part of my mission on this earth is to just tell people that they should make something anyway, even if it sucks.
Felix: Yeah. That’s honestly really beautiful, Jordan.
Jordan: I’m a good person.
Felix: [Laughs.] I think that that’s one of the most meaningful things that you can do when you’re an artist, to just communicate. You have people’s ears and if there’s anything to propagandize, it’s that you should value a deep mining of the human spirit, and introspection and empathy and willingness try to understand the world around you, the people around you. And if you can impart that onto someone, or give them the confidence to even pick up the tools to begin doing that, that’s another person in the army.
Jordan: Totally. And now they can upload their song and see how many people listen to it, and then tweak it accordingly. [Laughs.]
(Photo Credit: right, Amalia Soto)