Photo: Michael Lavine / Courtesy of Matador Records

Snail Mail Makes Her Indelible Mark As an Indie Rock Wunderkind

With her mesmerizing debut, Lush, Snail Mail lives up to her promise and talks to us about the story behind the album, her songwriting, and the attention that she's been getting.

Snail Mail
8 June 2018

On an early June evening, the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn New York was extremely packed inside, as Snail Mail, the moniker of Baltimore-based singer-songwriter Lindsey Jordan, was headlining a sold-out show. Leading up to that particular gig and the release of her first full-length album Lush, much has been written about Snail Mail as a fast-rising indie rock star (Jordan has been mentioned in major outlets like The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and The New Yorker)—and she’s only 18 years old. While her peers from high school are probably preparing for college and the real world, Jordan already has major professional experience under her belt: she recorded her EP, Habit, around the time she was 16 years old; toured with acts such as Girlpool and Belle and Sebastian; and performed at this year’s edition of Coachella.

Given all the attention she had received lately, that was a lot electricity and buzz on that particular night inside the Music Hall. But if there were any nervousness that Jordan possibly felt when she and her band mates hit the stage, it wasn’t apparent as Snail Mail led off with the buoyant rocker “Heat Wave”. One of the recent singles off of Lush, “Heat Wave” showcased all the qualities that defined Jordan the artist: her plaintive yet compelling vocals, ringing guitar playing, and her solemn and yearning lyrics. And while her performance onstage exuded a sense of confidence and experience one would expect from a longtime veteran artist, Jordan also conveyed a gregarious personality and charm that are reminders that she is still a kid at heart.

All of the accolades that Jordan has been receiving in the press and fans are well deserved when one hears Lush. It’s a collection of personal songs by a young person dealing with universal coming-of-age subjects from relationships to growing up—and yet one doesn’t have to be a teenager to be able to relate to those experiences. Sonically, the raw-sounding and melodic tracks have an anthemic quality (“Pristine”, “Stick”); while others are very dreamy and reflective (“Speaking Terms”, “Let’s Find an Out”, “Anytime”); her lyrics have a poetic and diarist quality that evoke a maturity beyond her years (Another night’s impatience in an endless, perfect world / When morning bleeds into the golden dream just like before,Jordan sings on “Golden Dream”).

Jordan’s arrival comes during a period of a growing number of critically-acclaimed female indie rockers who making their mark as well, such as Japanese Breakfast, Jay Som, Soccer Mommy, Vagabon, Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker, and Frankie Cosmos. As of this writing, Snail Mail is the midst of a tour of North America and Europe; next year, she’ll be performing at New York City’s famed Madison Square Garden, opening for Interpol. Just prior to the release of Lush, Jordan talked to PopMatters about the story behind album, her songwriting, and the attention that she’s been getting.

How does it feel to finally have your first proper LP after recording on your own and performing for a while now?

It’s incredible. I’ve been sitting on those songs for what feels like an eternity now. The recording process is really lengthy. A lot of emotion and planning went in. There was a lot of time between writing the songs and putting them out. I’m like over the moon, I’m so excited.

You’re 18 years old and your music has certainly got a lot of attention leading up to the release of Lush. How are you taking all of this, or are you indifferent to it?

I’m a little bit indifferent to it on purpose. I feel like I don’t really benefit from the validation, but I also have a really hard time working under people’s strong criticisms. I like to create space between myself and how people view the music in order to make the most organic songwriting process and environment for myself possible. But the actual touring and the way things have been lately [are] totally incredible, and a huge honor and a great learning experience. I really haven’t gotten the opportunity to absorb everything that’s been happening. Things have been really amazing.

Can you talk about recording Lush?

The record was recorded by producer Jake Aron. He worked with Grizzly Bear and on a lot of awesome electronic and pop stuff. I could tell he was really interested in making something amazing. We made the record in a couple of steps: by making a really rough demo version of the record. A couple weeks later, we did a true rough draft where we worked out a lot of the really big kinks and made everything sort of ready. And then we did the real thing at this place called the Outlier Inn in upstate New York. We were trying to keep it as relaxing and far away from distraction as possible. Jake and I really put our brains together to make something that didn’t stray far from what I went into the studio intending to do.

Is there a sort of a thematic thread that runs through the songs on the record?

I wrote it over the span of about a year and a half. And it was such a transitional time for me. All the songs were written in times I felt like I was in different places emotionally. There’s a lot of self-preservation on the record, and it has a lot of songs on personal growth. A lot of it was about how my life was changing and how my opinions on things were growing and developing; the way I dealt with relationships was changing. It all ties up in a neat bow with “Anytime” ending the record being about creating space between yourself and a relationship that isn’t conducive to personal growth. There wasn’t any intention on making a record about that. But I think it’s what naturally happened, writing songs along that span of time and just growing as a person.

The most recent single off the album is “Heat Wave.” Can you riff about that?

“Heat Wave” was supposed to describe the juxtaposition between experiencing something really personal and sad, and the summertime when everyone is enjoying themselves and being lighthearted. That was true to what I was going through at the time. The song is very wishful and I think it’s a true expression of trying to try to reach out to someone and [tell] them how you feel. It’s a genuine heartbreak piece.

Another standout track of many on the album is “Let’s Find an Out”, which really showcases your wonderful guitar playing. It has a romantic feeling to it.

That one is very much a personal reflection, as if it was being written to someone else in a weirdly romantic way. As much as I love touring, it definitely ages you and it forces you to be in this mature situation. At times, you sort of have to learn how to carry and take care of yourself. The song is like a love song/love letter to someone else experiencing the same thing. Don’t get me wrong: touring is probably my favorite part of it. The song is a little love note about it, an acknowledgement of how difficult it could be.

Do you consider yourself a prolific songwriter?

I cannot identify prolific at this point in time. I do believe people who are writing all the time and are able to write under different settings and circumstances deserve the p-word. At least for me, I can’t just sit down and write. I have to be on that wave of inspiration, and I have to be in the right place at the right time. I think rushing it for me doesn’t work. If there’s going to be some kind of a hard deadline for the next record, then I think I would just have to push it. But I love songwriting. Whenever I’m not touring, I find myself at least wanting to write or just writing down little things on the guitar.

You’ve been doing this for a while now since the age of five. Did you know you wanted to pursue seriously then, or did that come later?

I took it extremely seriously when I was little. I practiced two hours a day and I wanted to perfect the craft. I was so obsessed–“this was going to be my life.” By the time I was a teenager, I was still obsessively practicing and perfecting it, and playing guitar all the time has always been my main outlet. [But] I had very much let go of the idea that it was to be something that I would pursue as a job. I was sort of writing again when I was 13. I wasn’t going to pursue it, but I liked doing it as adding to my diary entry-type of feeling. And then I was 15 when I was really starting to write songs.

After South by Southwest, I had a booking agent and all of these tours coming up. I really didn’t like the idea of half-assing music or school. I didn’t really think it would end up being a career. Now I’m doing it as my full-time job, which has been totally exciting and fulfilling and incredible. But I really didn’t think it would happen until a couple of months ago.

If I read correctly from a New York Times article about women in rock, you initially recorded your songs on Garageband. That was probably the starting point for you to get your music out?

I was going to a lot of DIY shows in Baltimore and D.C. I really liked the idea of playing house shows. Those songs [on Garageband] I didn’t end up really doing anything with. I just wanted to be able to play house shows and have [an online] link to my songs. I had a really good time learning how to do that, make this recording stuff that I had no experience in. That’s why Snail Mail played the first-ever show, so I had those Garageband songs under the name of Jordan. I had two friends playing with me. I decided to form a band for just that one show, and I guess it just stuck.

The esteemed indie label Matador Records signed you. Were you aware of its history?

Not before I did my calculated research on them. To me, everything was an equal playing field. I was going to all of the meetings, meeting all the people, and looking at all the websites. Nothing really had any real influence on me I was able to get some sway from friends and get other people’s opinions. Luckily, I started working with my manager whom I really trust. It was really overwhelming. And so I was pretty glad to have support from friends. I really didn’t know anything about Matador until I looked into it. I was like, “Oh, this is cool.”

Certainly one of those artists from that label is Liz Phair, whom you recently chatted with for a Pitchfork story. What was it like meeting her and how much of an influence she was on you?

It was invigorating. She is really, really down-to-earth and an incredible force. She says really smart things and then doesn’t go back on them at all. Everything she does seems so eloquent. She’s a genius, definitely one of my favorite songwriters of all time. I really got into alternate [guitar] tunings because of the Girly Sound tapes,which I was exposed to before Exile in Guyville. It had this big impact on my life, sort of this blunt lyricism, and the way she carries herself. Obviously, I love Whip-Smart and Exile in Guyville. I love a lot of her pop hits, too. Her songwriting has done a lot for me. It was a really cool experience–we both ordered oatmeal, without knowing that the other got oatmeal. It was a cosmic experience.

Is it still a learning adjustment for you as you’re navigating through the business?

Yeah, absolutely. There’s so much coming at me from all of the different aspects of doing this, that I feel like every single day I learn just a whole plethora of new things. There’s never a time when I feel like I have everything figured out. It’s always a learning curve. Navigating it has been a really intense learning experience. And luckily, there are a lot of people in my life who know what they’re talking about, and who I trust and I talk to. Everyone goes about things differently, and there’s not always a right or wrong answer.

I think one of the big differences between who I was when I was writing Habit, and who I was when I was writing Lush, is that I was so humbled by the entire experience working with all these resources and under all these different demands and factors that I realized that I don’t know anything about the world. I think that that has provided me is the ability to be more open to learning new things. I’m thankful that I have had those experiences. It’s easy to feel like you know everything until you realize you know nothing. I think that’s really important to acknowledge.