Jordaan Mason: Talking Formless & Free

Sasha Geffen

In the middle of the first week of January, Jordaan Mason finished raising just over 12,000 Canadian dollars on Indiegogo to press an album called The Decline of Stupid Fucking Western Civilization. Their first full-length work of original music since 2009, the record is also the most personal they’ve ever put out into the world. Divorce Lawyers I Shaved My Head, released six years ago with Mason’s old band the Horse Museum, was a knotty concept piece about a couple surviving wartime in 1990. Decline is just about Mason, and the worst three winters of their life.

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I call Mason at their home in Toronto. We end up talking a lot about language, because the record is studded with beautiful and confounding turns of phrase. “All you are is pharmacy,” they sing on the first line of the album’s second song. The last two lines are “sleeping all the sun out / facing the door of your house.” The 12-minute title track contains a passage that goes like: “I curated this disease, I architect the suddenlys / and sell them now as packaged meats / in diners for the dogs like me.”

What does a “suddenly” look like when it’s killed, ground, and eaten? It’s not something you can parse grammatically but it’s something you can grab hold of somewhere in your bones. Mason wrote the album about their experience surviving sexual violence, abuse, and the post-traumatic stress disorder that followed. They sing about gender dysphoria, hospitalization, and frightening episodes related to bipolar disorder. There are a lot of suddenlys in this history, many of them bloody and pink.

The album is a huge one that winds through anxiety and release, torture and healing, terror and love. By the end, it yearns for new worlds where trauma is less likely, or at least better understood, better able to be cared for. Mason imagines brighter, queerer spaces with the album’s last song, “I’ve been tasting roads my whole life,” asking questions as simple and powerful as, “what if we could name ourselves?”

Mason and I talked about talking, and the ways that we might be able to grow better worlds with our words.

Your last album with the Horse Museum addresses some similar themes, but it’s set in a particular time and follows particular characters. It’s much more of a work of fiction. For this album, you transitioned to writing entirely in your own voice. What enabled you to make that change?

I don’t feel as much like I need to use fiction to talk about what happened. When you’re describing intimate details about what has happened with other people, you don’t want to exploit those people. The whole writing process for Divorce Lawyers was me writing songs and then taking them to the people I had written them about and getting their permission to use the songs, and then reworking them until they were okay with them. I didn’t want to exploit my relationships with people to make art. This new record is not about other people quite as much, and the other people who are on this record are people I don’t care to protect. So I just went for it.

You also put out a novel in between these two albums. Does your writing process for prose intersect with your lyric writing?

Often it does, but I tend to be working on a fiction project at the same time that I’m working on an album. All of my work has similar themes, so the beginning and the end of one thing is not always clear for me. There’s just different forms to say things in. There are things that you can say in a book that you can’t say in a song, and there are things that you can say in a film that you can’t say in a book. I tend to work in different mediums a lot to try and figure out how to say what I’m saying.

What could you say with this new record that you hadn’t said before?

This new record is almost embarrassingly personal. It’s the kind of record that I’m nervous for people like my mom to hear. And I always feel that way with every project. Everything I do makes me feel very vulnerable, but this one in particular, we did an IndieGoGo campaign and I had to give an artist’s statement and talk about why I think my work is important. That was very challenging for me. That made me feel very, very vulnerable. I felt like I had to explain what the album was about and what the songs were about in a way that I hadn’t really had to do before. It’s all on the table now.

How has that felt? It’s got to be terrifying on one level, but it also seems to resonate with people.

I think the thing that gave me a lot of courage is that I have very supportive people in my life. I have a very, very strong support system who have made me feel comfortable to be open about things that make me feel vulnerable. But also, I like art that does those things. As much as I’ll second-guess myself, ultimately I think art should ask those kinds of questions and should talk about those issues, even if they’re hard, even if they’re way too personal.

I want to talk about the idea of illiteracy, which surfaces throughout your work. You’re using language to tell stories and to build worlds, but there’s this mistrust in the structure of language, or a desire to subvert the structure of language. You’ll use words in ways that they’re not intended to be used. To what degree do you see the structures of language as overlapping with some of the other structures that you address on this album, like gender and sexuality and mental health and mental illness?

Language is very powerful, but also very scary. I constantly refer to my own writing as illiterate because I feel like there’s so much that words cannot express, but I’m still trying to use words. All the mediums that I work in are word-based. I’m constantly having this struggle where I’m trying to articulate what things sound like in my head. If you’re looking at the world from a queer perspective, and from a perspective that has been skewed by something like mental illness, things don’t quite make sense all the time. Or they don’t feel like they make sense. Part of the way that I write is trying to articulate that not-knowing. The way that words grab onto each other and have all these meanings—you can arrange them in various ways and you can go to the dictionary over and over and over again, but the dictionary ultimately doesn’t have all the answers.

You have some really interesting moments with language, like turning nouns into verbs or spinning the syntax of different words. By the time you had finished assembling this language into an album, did it change the way you looked at things just by having described them differently?

Yeah. Even just starting with the title, the title of the album is incredibly inarticulate. It’s basically teen-speak. “The decline of stupid fucking Western civilization.” I chose that title for a few reasons. One, it’s a reference to a film that I really like and that I think aesthetically matches the work that I’m making. But also…I don’t know how much you know about borderline personality disorder, but one of the largest misconceptions of it, or one of the more derogatory things that’s said about it often is that it’s like you’re caught in a state of being a teenager. That you continue to feel and act and behave like a teenager into your adult life. And what better way to try to say how apocalyptic that can feel than to say it through complete teen-speak? To say it through something offensive and strange and ultimately queer?

Language is very powerful, but also very scary.

I feel like it’s a sentiment that a lot of people can read and laugh at, maybe, but also grasp, because it does feels like a lot of things that were previously held up as pillars of Western civilization are in decline, in both good and bad ways.

Right. The record is a political record, as much as it’s awkward for me to talk about politics sometimes. I find myself feeling very inarticulate when I talk about politics because I tend to do one of two things: I either feel like I say nothing about them, or I go into theory mode, and all of my academia leaks out of me and nothing that I’m saying comes across in normal language. It’s all just jargon. That’s not incredibly useful. It has its place, obviously, but it makes it very difficult to have conversations at Christmas dinner about politics.

I think just making political discussion concrete is both challenging and necessary, especially when you’re talking about queer politics. There’s a quote from Mykki Blanco about how the trans kids on the street don’t give a shit about Judith Butler. You can theorize gender all you want, but at the end of the day, what’s more important is just figuring out how to make the world less harmful for people who don’t fit the molds as they’re set by Western civilization.

Right, exactly. That’s a constant struggle for me with language, trying to figure out how to speak about my experiences in a way that isn’t just through theory. Basically all I read is theory and poetry. I have a very skewed way of thinking about the world that is not always super translatable. I’m constantly trying to get better at being more direct. I think this album has moments that are very abstract, but it also has moments where I’m very direct. That’s the biggest difference about this album as opposed to the last one. The last record was abstract to the point where I felt safe. This record doesn’t feel safe to me anymore.

Does the fact that it’s music helps? It’s not just text on a page. Even if the language is abstract, you’re still singing it. You can imbue it with meaning that wouldn’t appear in the words themselves on the page.

I think that music in particular allows a space where you can use words in a very particular way. I spend way more time on the lyrics to a song than I do on a poem, because in a poem, you’re thinking about the way text looks entirely on a page. When you’re writing lyrics, you have to think about, how is this coming out of my body? What is my body going to be doing while I say these words? You’re involving your entire body in the process. It has a different way of reaching people.

What was that like to translate these songs into something that could be recorded with other people?

It took a really long time. The Horse Museum, my old band, used to play these songs. That was a group of people I felt very comfortable with. We didn’t have to speak a lot about what the songs were about. They just did their thing, and it was what the songs needed. It took me a long time to find another group of people who I felt that comfortable with, but the group of people who I made this record with, we started jamming together and the songs changed a lot. They got heavier and heavier and slower and longer. Some of the songs that were once five minutes ended up stretching out into 12. Which at first really freaked me out, but I think the songs needed a lot of space to breathe. Again, I just trusted them and let them do their thing. I didn’t have to explain to them what I wanted. I tend to work with people who get what I’m doing and then we can just work. Then I don’t have to fret too much.

The long songs contribute to the idea of subverting structure, too. Having all these eight, nine, 12-minute songs changes what you expect from music that’s made out of drums, guitar, and voice.

Yeah. I received a lot of encouragement from friends because I kept feeling like, this is too much, what am I doing? “Evidence” in particular, the longest song, I spent a very long time on. I kept second-guessing it and cutting it down because I was like, a song shouldn’t be this long. I shouldn’t say this much stuff in one song, even though all of this stuff belongs here together. It was very hard for me to feel like 13 minutes is an appropriate length for a song, even though I like really long songs. It seems self-indulgent if you go on too long.

That’s a constant struggle for me with language, trying to figure out how to speak about my experiences in a way that isn’t just through theory … I think this album has moments that are very abstract, but it also has moments where I’m very direct.

You mentioned in your statement that the last song in particular leans towards a queer utopia. How does that tie into the rest of the record? How did you get there from all these other songs?

It took me a really long time to figure out how to arrange the songs. Ultimately, they ended up coming out basically chronologically. Since the record is about me and what I went through, it made more sense to go through the parts one by one. It’s a dark album. I’m talking very openly about abuse and being hospitalized and things that I am still very uncomfortable talking about, but ultimately it made the most sense to me to end the record with something that looks out and away from the violence of the rest of the record. It’s a very, very violent record. For my own health, I think I had to write a song that was about, what can we do now? How do we look beyond this violence? Or not even necessarily beyond it. You don’t want to look beyond it. But how do we look at this violence and deal with it?

Has writing this album and having people hear it changed the way that those memories sit with you?

Not a ton. It feels really good to have it off my chest, but at the same time, I am doing my best not to think about the fact that other people are listening to it. It freaks me out a lot, still. I think my biggest concern about it is honestly that a lot of people are not going to make it to the last song. It’s a long record and it’s heavy. It’s not the most casual listen. It’s something for people to listen to when they’re in a particular headspace, when winter is maybe at its worst. I’m not sure that everyone’s even getting all the way through it. But I think that we need to start having conversations about what a queer utopia would look like. There’s so much theory about it. We have to put that theory into practice somehow. It can’t just be theory. We can’t just sit around and use jargon and quote Judith Butler. There’s real things that we need to do. I am not even 100% sure that I know what those things are, but I think we can start with taking control of language. If language is the thing that defines us and controls us in a lot of ways, then we can start using it as a tool to build something better.

I think we’ve started to see the seeds of that just in terms of how many new words there are for people as opposed to 10 years ago. There are all these online communities forming and using different permutations of words, changing the meanings of words in order to fit more comfortably into the world. And that’s been really powerful, but it’s definitely not anywhere close to done. It’s something that’s so much a part of my world, but then I remember that most of the country has never seen any of these words before.

Right. It’s the kind of thing where I’m still trying to explain to my mom what the word “queer” means. That’s an ongoing thing that’s still very real. I know what you mean. I get lost in this bubble that I’m in where I’m like, well, everyone I know understands what a “they” pronoun is. And then I am confronted with reality. I’ve been trying to be much more direct with people lately about my pronouns and it has been terrifying. It has been absolutely terrifying. As much as sometimes you feel safe in certain spaces to use certain kinds of language, you are reminded constantly of the many spaces in which that kind of language is not safe to use. But that being said, we need to continue to work on making places where that language is safe, and keep trying to make that language safe. Language is never really going to be safe. It’s always going to be a little scary. But you want to not let the words speak for you too much. You want to speak to the words, too.

It’s hard to figure out where the line is between yourself and the language you use.

When I refer to my lyrics as illiterate. I’m re-appropriating that word to celebrate the illiteracy of the language, to celebrate the not-knowing. A lot of the language that I use in reference to myself comes across as very self-hating. My preferred sexual identity is “human mess,” which a lot of people see as self-hating. But I am trying to celebrate that. I’m trying to be open and honest about the fact that I don’t know who I am or what I’m doing or what’s going on, but I’m fine with that. I’m okay with the fact that who I am and what I am doesn’t make any sense.

There’s kind of a freedom in that.

It’s very freeing. That’s what ultimately a queer utopia would be, a more formless, free place where language doesn’t control us but where we control language. And again, that’s very theoretical and maybe not possible, but there are little things that you can do to try to work towards that. We immediately gender people. I try my best to not do that, to just use neutral pronouns around people until they correct me to do otherwise, if necessary. I don’t like to make assumptions about gender. And that’s something that you have to work to do because the world as it is is pounding that into you, that you’re supposed to make those assumptions, so you have to be very, very conscious of it. It’s not always easy. I have a nephew, for example, and he’s almost 10 now. Watching him grow up and be gendered his whole life has been a very strange experience. I don’t have a lot of relationships with children, so I don’t see it as immediately often, but it’s intense how quickly people gender a child. I don’t fully understand the repercussions of that. I still find it to be terrifying. But I’m doing what I can do. I think talking about it is the best place to start. But again, talking about it means you have to use language. You get caught in that paradox.

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