Snail Mail: “It’s awesome seeing lots of women and queer people in music”

How Lindsey Jordan found solace in a like-minded music community and, with new album ‘Valentine’, penned a love letter to living on your own terms

In Snail Mail’s epic music video for ‘Valentine’, Lindsey Jordan – who has long been an artist with an unrivalled knack for bottling the pain of all-consuming infatuation – takes the idea of romantic obsession to her most dramatic heights yet. Sadly smearing her face with chocolate cake, Jordan plays a handmaiden consumed by jealousy, and attempts to save the lady of the house from one of her potential suitors by murdering him in cold, ketchupy blood.

Drawing on a collage of queer references, ranging from The Favourite and Fingersmith to Portrait Of A Lady On Fire and Ammonite, it’s a fitting introduction to the world of Snail Mail’s second album, also named ‘Valentine’, which digs even deeper into the messy guts of love, and recasts the musician as a lovelorn Victorian heroine in the visuals.

NME Cover 2021 Snail Mail
Credit: Matthew Salacuse for NME

“I will watch anything with lesbians in it,” announces Jordan, who – as you might expect, given the reference points in her latest video – has been revelling in the latest wave of period dramas centered around queer woman. “Lesbians are starved for content at all times. I was a massive Carol fan. I pretty much came out to my parents by asking for Carol on DVD. That film is so instrumental to my life at this point. I used to wear this little mini-shirt that my sister got me for christmas – it says, ‘Carol, 2015, directed by Todd Haynes’”. She bursts into laughter and adds: “I’m there holding my Carol DVD, like, ‘Did y’all not suspect?’”

On the cover of ‘Valentine,’ 22-year-old Jordan stares down the camera lens with a steely stare, her neck surrounded by a stiffened ruff held up by a tight bow – and musically, too, her second album is a vivid progression from the spare precision that defined her 2018 debut album ‘Lush’. Instead, this draws on an increasingly complex blend of string arrangements (many of which Jordan wrote alone on a synthesiser during the pandemic) and yet more of the exacting, emotionally eviscerating lyrics that made ‘Lush’ one of the stand-outs of the last decade.

NME Cover 2021 Snail Mail
Credit: Matthew Salacuse for NME

Jordan grew up in the Baltimore suburb of Ellicott City – supposedly one of the most haunted towns on the East Coast. Growing up, the musician and her friend Alex Bass (who would later become Snail Mail’s appropriately-named live bassist) would watch the ghost tours pass by with amusement. Once, Jordan plucked up the nerve to go into a former girls boarding school which has become overrun by paranormal activity. Though Jordan was mostly unbothered by ghostly whisperings, she still won’t touch anything for sale in the local antique shops.

“I don’t want that shit in my house,” she laughs. “But I don’t think it scared me, because it was always the case. I kinda just assumed everyone’s little town was haunted.”

Growing up, Jordan was a “precocious” kid set on mastering classical guitar. “I wanted to have something that was mine, that nobody could copy me on,” she says. As well as playing in the pit band for Christian musical Godspell, one of her earliest gigs saw her shredding on a knock-off Les Paul with her family friends’ band The Eight Balls. After noodling through a few renditions of ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, Jordan began performing her own sets at the local pub next door to her mum’s underwear store Bra-La-La, and writing her own songs. By the time she was 15, she’d formed Snail Mail, and started playing shows on the local DIY scene. While Jordan was still in high school, she released Snail Mail’s official debut EP.

“[With this album], people get an intimate version of me, which is hard to give away”

It feels reductive to call the young musician’s release ‘wise beyond its years’, because ‘Habit’ was not about some genius sage holding all the answers. Instead, it was a release about reaching out for a magical instruction manual for life that doesn’t really exist, and confronting the idea that we learn only through living and hurting. “Baby, when I’m 30 I’ll laugh about how dumb it felt,” Jordan sang on ‘Dirt’. “Baby when I’m 30 I’ll laugh it out.”

Two years later, Snail Mail’s debut album ‘Lush’ harnessed this same combination even more intensely, pairing raw, heart-wrenching honesty with a liberal sprinkle of self-deprecating melodrama. “And I know myself and I’ll never love anyone else,” she declared on ‘Pristine’, “I won’t love anyone else, I’ll never love anyone else.” Elsewhere, it’s a record hell-bent on escaping from a present where every party and every weekend feels the same as the last, drawing on the boredom and stagnation of late-teens suburban life.

Ultimately, it changed Jordan’s life, too. Aged just 17, Snail Mail was immediately crowned indie-rock royalty. Along with the likes of Soccer Mommy, Japanese Breakfast, Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Mitski, it felt like Snail Mail was spearheading an exciting new wave of young musicians taking indie rock in a new direction. Hefty words like ‘prodigy’ began to be bandied around in her presence, with only one album to her name, and just as her career was getting started. The huge accolades, Jordan says, piled on pressure and made her feel like she had “something to prove”.

NME Cover 2021 Snail Mail
Snail Mail on the cover of NME

This pressure still weighs on her sometimes – when we speak, Jordan has just arrived back from shooting live sessions in Upstate New York. “That’s a time when I’m like, ‘Oh, shit – I have to prove myself to a certain degree,” she admits. “It takes away a lot of the joy and passion. I was feeling a lot of that, and I wasn’t writing for years – the reason there wasn’t an album for years is ‘cause I was on tour, and I was like, ‘Fuck it – I’m not going to write until I feel I can’.”

By the time the musician wrapped up touring for ‘Lush’, she had effectively become an adult on the road – a surreal place detached from the usual rites-of-passage you’d associate with growing up. While friends at home were starting college, Jordan was soundchecking in a different city every night, and once she had arrived back in her old shared apartment in New York – where she had lived since she was 19 – she had little to write about.

“I didn’t have strong enough emotions about [touring] to write about it,” she says today. “I can’t write from a place of pissiness or angstyness. I only feel comfortable writing when there’s strong emotions, and that comes from living and losing, and gaining and losing, and living and losing, and learning. A lot of that happened when I wasn’t doing music stuff, it happened when I was back in real life again.”

NME Cover 2021 Snail Mail
Credit: Matthew Salacuse for NME

In December last year, Lindsey Jordan moved into her own place in New York’s East Village – behind her, a handful of posters pepper the walls, and guitars line the path to the kitchen. When ‘Valentine’ comes out in November, the musician is treating herself to a new rug, and has been learning to cook – lately, she’s mastered steak, gnocchi, and a series of air-fried goods. And for a good chunk of last year, she was in her childhood home, spending lockdown at her parents’ back in Baltimore. While there, she enjoyed the relative anonymity of her hometown.

“People in Ellicott City leave me alone more than any place,” she says, “I don’t feel like there are a lot of indie rock listeners around. I’m good, I’m chill. I feel like it’s a lot more hectic in New York.”

“I love Paramore. I have full trust in Hayley Williams”

This specific kind of indie rock fame flickers at the fringes of ‘Valentine’ – on the tenderly-picked ‘C. Et .Al’, Jordan sings of endless nights getting wasted and crashing on couches. “Even with a job that keeps me moving, most days I just wanna lie down,” she admits. On the title track, a yearning slow-burner that erupts into a desperate cry of devotion, an unsteady new relationship seems to squirm under her audience’s microscope. “Let’s go be alone where no one can see us, honey,” Jordan sings, “careful in that room / Those parasitic cameras / Don’t they stop to stare at you?”

Though they occupy different sonic worlds to Snail Mail, it’s interesting that both Billie Eilish and Lorde – two other artists who became famous in their teens – have also dealt with the darker side of celebrity in similar ways on their respective recent albums ‘Happier Than Ever’ and ‘Solar Power’. “What’s interesting to me is that Billie Eilish and Lorde talk about fame as something that is oppressive and dark – I think Clairo touches on it on her latest album, too, and I think that’s cool,” Jordan says. “I like that kind of brutal honesty.”

A similar honestly also rears its head on Snail Mail’s forthcoming single ‘Ben Franklin’, a slinking, synth-laden pop track that sees sarcastic bravado (“Got money,” she boasts “I don’t care about sex”) make way for lyrics so revealing that Jordan hesitated to put them on record. “Post-rehab I’ve been feeling so small,” goes the searing couplet “I miss your attention I wish I could call”. It’s a direct reference to the musician checking into a rehabilitation facility in Arizona at the end of last year – she previously told Pitchfork: “I was dealing with a unique set of circumstances and challenges rooted in being so young when I started.”

NME Cover 2021 Snail Mail
Credit: Matthew Salacuse for NME

“When I left rehab, I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m going to talk about this, and there’s no way I’m going to write about it, ’cause it’s nobody’s business,” Jordan says today, “but when I was writing that song… I was like, I don’t really want to write about crushing sadness in a melodramatic way like I usually do. I want to talk about things in a way that’s almost casually throwing some crazy shit out into the mix. I was sitting there with my notebook, and I was like, ‘I’m going to do it.’ At the time, I still didn’t have most of the album so I was like: ‘That’s future me’s problem’.”

Present-day Jordan, she admits, has been struggling with talking about that lyric in particular as she values keeping healthy boundaries: “My life got really complicated and hard within the last year or two, and being like ‘Here it all is for everyone to have an opinion on’ became less of an option for me. ‘Here it all is’ means something different for me now. It means, ‘Here’s what I’m willing to give, and the rest is for me and my personal life. Otherwise I’m gonna feel like a performing clown who’s naked. I want to come home to stuff that other people don’t have access to.

“When I left rehab, I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m going to talk about this…’”

“It’s hard. A lot of people in my life are like, ‘Oh, you did that – you put that in the song, huh?’ It’s not necessarily something I want to advertise about myself, but I kind of just… couldn’t really help it. It was such a monumental thing for me, and such a monumental switch-around. My personality is different now, for better in a lot of ways, but also… that kind of thing is its own trauma, you know? It’s really life-altering and I couldn’t ignore how that affected my music and me, and how I think about things.”

When Jordan needed to take some time to focus on her mental health, her team took it “really seriously”, and she backs the idea of labels actively pointing artists towards the specific resources and organisations out there who can help.

“There are a lot of unique circumstances around being a musician: the culture is very go-go-go and very party-party-party,” she says. “It’s emotionally really intense in a lot of ways; it’s a unique circumstance to put a human in. As awesome as it is, people around you might not necessarily understand or be able to provide ways to help you, which makes it isolating. Being able to have those resources on deck is a really cool thing. There are people out there who know how to help.”

NME Cover 2021 Snail Mail
Credit: Matthew Salacuse for NME

Jordan doesn’t remember seeing many indie musicians she related to in childhood or adolescence. She was a huge fan of Warped Tour staples and pop-punk bands like All Time Low, but the genre also seemed dominated by “straight white men”. But seeing Paramore live, fronted by Hayley Williams, was a lightbulb moment.

“I distinctly remember thinking: that’s so cool!” she enthuses. “After that I was like, I love Paramore, and I still love Paramore that much,” she adds. “I went through a really big phase with ‘After Laughter’ when that came out – I have full trust in that woman. I remember discovering [2009 album] ‘Actor’ by St. Vincent, and being like, this is fucking cool. I also remember being 13 or 14 when [Lana Del Rey’s] ‘Born To Die’ came out, and I was obsessed.” Jordan laughs: “I was like, ‘Have you guys heard this woman invented music?’”

Another of Jordan’s idols is Chicago legend Liz Phair, whose 1993 debut album ‘Exile In Guyville’ thrust her into the spotlight overnight following its release. Though they only rehearsed together a couple of times, Jordan was once in a tribute band called Lizard Phair, and the pair finally met for the first time three years ago. When I spoke with Phair earlier this year, shortly before she released her first album in a decade, she told me that her return was directly inspired by witnessing a new generation of inventive indie-rock largely led by women and queer musicians.

“There’s a sense of community [in music now]. I’m happy for the younger generation”

“I would go so far as to say they pulled me out of retirement,” Phair said. “This group of young women just made it feel like the music business should’ve been when I was coming up. To have supportive, understanding, like-minded people would’ve made a huge difference. I feel like I’ve lived my entire career on the defensive – all the time.”

In Jordan’s experience, “there’s a sense of community [now]. Soccer Mommy are our best friends on the road, we saw them in Baltimore just the other day – we played a house show with them in Nashville, originally, as one of our first shows. It’s serendipitous as fuck that we came out at the same time, in the same DIY type of way, found each other and blasted onto the scene at the same time. It’s awesome seeing lots of women and queer people. I’m really happy for the younger generation of musicians that are coming because that would’ve meant a lot to me to have. I’m like, if I can’t go back in time and experience it for myself, I’m really happy that other people can now.”

Jordan has also found a close friend and mentor in Katie Crutchfield – aka indie-folker Waxahatchee – for whom Snail Mail opened shows early in her career. “I just trust her,” Jordan explains. “We met early on and became friends. She’s one of my best friends in the world, and helps me with everything. I ask her a question every day. I’m so grateful for her.”

NME Cover 2021 Snail Mail
Credit: Matthew Salacuse for NME

And just as Snail Mail has found a community of musicians she can connect with, ‘Valentine’ continues the tradition of Lindsey Jordan painting vivid pictures of love and obsession with such accuracy that you can’t help but see yourself in her stories. “People are getting an intimate version of myself, which is sometimes hard to give away,” she says, then laughs with a faux sigh. “People are already like, ‘Yes, this is me’ or ‘No, it’s about my breakup’. I like that people bring their own context to it, but it is really strange to navigate.

“I’m really grateful people can connect and it can help them in a way, and that’s always been something that has been flooring to me. I don’t know how it keeps happening, but it does.”

Snail Mail’s ‘Valentine’ is out November 5.

CREDITS

Hair and makeup by Brenna Drury at Exclusive Artists using Danessa Myricks