'I like to catch myself off-guard': In Conversation with Snail Mail


by Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

Who said that being older is a prerequisite for being wiser? At nineteen, songwriter Lindsey Jordan, who performs under the name Snail Mail, is in the thick of a typical calamitous youth – yet she possesses a clear-sightedness usually reserved for hindsight. Jordan’s insightful lyricism invites listeners into her world – one that is still forming and changing just as she is.

Growing up in Baltimore, Jordan began learning classical guitar at five years old and decided she wanted to front a band when her sister took her to see Paramore in concert at eight. In her teens, she became involved with the local underground scene, receiving guitar lessons from Ex Hex’s Mary Timony, and in 2016, at the age of fifteen, she released her debut EP, Habit, a fuzzy slice of indie pop brimming with big feelings and even bigger hooks.

Now joined by bassist Alex Bass and drummer Ray Brown, Jordan will release her debut album, Lush, this month. Picking up where Habit left off, Lush is an intimate portrait of a sardonic, clear-sighted teenager on the precipice of becoming. Jordan’s songs encapsulate the acute honesty of adolescence, running the gamut of emotions – from breakups to breakdowns, and the strange spaces in between.

Lush sounds at once crisp and raw – it’s meticulously produced, yet retains a distinctly DIY feeling. It brings to mind the first Cloud Nothings record, also released when singer Dylan Baldi was around Jordan’s current age – short, sharp and incisive songs that marry a slew of influences, but stand firmly in their own niche. Jordan’s classical training is also evident on the record, like on the Kurt Vile-esque “Let’s Find an Out”, where she puts her glimmering fingerpicking chops on display.

Speaking to Gusher on the phone, Jordan is self-assured, intelligent and articulate, whether musing on how crushes are “where all the poetry comes from”, enthusing about the music that inspires her (Fiona Apple, Alvvays, The Velvet Underground, SZA, Princess Nokia, James Taylor), or sharing her insights on growing up in the spotlight, and the contradictions of being a queer young woman in music. Read our conversation below.

It’s been two years since your EP, and you change a lot in those mid-teenage years – it’s not a long time, but at the same time, it is.

Yeah, it totally is. I’d like to think my songwriting is as organic as I can keep it, but pretty much everything in my life has changed. I’m not at school anymore, so there’s sort of a pressure to make my own nine-to-five schedule. Writing with as much freedom as possible can sometimes be even harder, and I put a lot of pressure on myself because I feel like I can come up with any idea I want and have the materials and resources around me to make those ideas come true, exactly how I imagine them. And even though that’s such a great thing, it can also make things a lot more tense, because I have the freedom to make something terrible or something incredible. I’m just making something that feels true to what I’m hoping to do, and feels like a record I would want to come back to and keep listening to.

Putting things out into the world in high school, when you’re writing about things like crushes and your feelings, seems kind of like growing up in a public way.

That pretty much sums it up. It is sort of weird to develop as a songwriter and as a person in front of other people. I think people have an expectation of how that development is gonna go, and I feel like my development has been pretty untraditional because of the circumstances. It is sort of weird to make music under that microscope lens. It’s been a really transformative time for me and everything’s interesting, so all the music I’m making feels really important to me, and ever-changing. I like having those records, those actual recorded moments to look back on.
"All the music I'm making feels really important to me, and ever-changing. I like having those records, those actual recorded moments to look back on."
You’ve become more outspoken since Habit about your queer identity. Has that changed the way you write about relationships?

I never wanted to align my sexuality with the music, but I always want it to be as honest as possible in songwriting. Even little things, like being able to use “she” when I’m writing a love song, is sick. It’s just the things that I wish I didn’t have to think about when I was writing Habit, but I wasn’t really outspoken about it and didn’t want to out myself. I was putting out this music I was really proud of, so it felt like a double event. After Habit came out, it was common knowledge among my friends and family, so not having to out myself in the lyrics, and just having people know and use whatever pronouns I want and writing about whoever I want without being worried, was a big deal for me.

How does your classical training inform the way you make music?

Sometimes I feel like I’ve been working with the neck of a guitar since before I could do anything else, and everything can feel like an equation, which can mess with the creative aspects of songwriting. That’s actually the reason why I wrote Habit entirely in open tuning – I was trying to pursue the idea of playing guitar as a beginner. I’m really keen on tuning my guitar to unrecognisable tuning because it puts me in a state of confusion. I like to catch myself off-guard and try to look at things from different perspectives. After playing in open tuning religiously for so long during Habit, tuning back to standard for Lush almost felt like its own open tuning. I’m always trying to approach things in new ways, and the music theory knowledge really helped with arranging French horn on the record and doing harmonies and stuff. I’m really thankful for that, but sometimes I feel like it’s working against me.

You’ve been mentioned a lot in articles about “women in indie rock”, which seems like a double-edged sword – it’s great for representation, but you’re also being lumped into a group due to your gender.

I think a double-edged sword is the best possible way to describe it. I’m more than psyched to be one of the faces of this new movement, and giving more marginalised voices the mic – I couldn’t be more supportive of that. At the same time, it sucks to have to speak out and be the voice of representation and be put into categories, when I don’t feel like people are really listening to the music. They’re putting me in categories of women in bands that don’t sound like mine, just because we’re all women, or playing with other gay people… It’s irrelevant to the music, and there are guitarists I sound more like who I’ll never be compared to because I’m a woman. I love that women in music and people of all genders and races are getting to talk now, finally, but sometimes it feels like being in a category because of how you were born is not conducive to making music. ■

Lush is out now via Matador / Remote Control Records.
Stream / purchase: https://snailmail.lnk.to/lushwe