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Artist of the Month Snail Mail on Teenage Success, Being Pigeonholed, and Self-Awareness

on May 23, 2018, 12:00am

Lindsey Jordan is 18 years old, female, and openly out, coming to prominence among a wave of underrepresented voices stepping forward into the spotlight. And none of that really matters.

At least not to Jordan, the talented young artist who operates under the moniker Snail Mail. After all, the entire point of having a conversation about equal representation is that eventually it no longer becomes an issue. While we’re still a ways away from that reality, Jordan comes from a generation that’s grown up with inclusivity being a mainstream ideal, not an outsider one. For her, Snail Mail is not about the fight — it’s about the music.

As it should be. Jordan writes with a slowcore-indebted indie vulnerability that captures all the awkward dejection and pro tem tragedies of adolescence. Yet, even as we witness her literal maturity from her breakout 2016 EP, Habit, to her forthcoming Matador Records debut full-length, Lush, her fearless insights belie her relative worldly inexperience. She delivers lyrics on crushes and crashes in a voice unashamed of the ragged innocence in its cracks and yowls, all while crafting guitar melodies that would impress even the most accomplished veterans, like her former teacher Mary Timony of Helium.

The astounding thing is realizing she’s just getting started. Talking to Jordan is, yes, like talking to a teenager, prone to sheepish laughter and bursts of excitement. Even so, she seems far more aware than I recall being at that age, both of the world she’s in and the person she is. Where some may internalize the success Snail Mail has seen as vindication for aggrandized self-pride, Jordan sees it as a challenge. Each achievement simply sets a new standard for her art, one which she’ll keenly, happily pursue — anything else would be restlessness.

This is the battle Jordan chooses to fight. Drafting her into any other culture war would minimize the potential of a discerning and gifted musician at the forefront of modern indie rock’s next generation. So listen up.

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On playing her first gig at Baltimore’s Unregistered Nurse Fest

Snail Mail Live Crowd Photo by Natalie SomekhSnail Mail, photo by Natalie Somekh

I’d been going to shows for a long time with no real intention of ever starting a band. But it felt pretty natural. Nobody was really nervous. It was really fun. It felt just like a fun night in Baltimore. I remember being like, “This feels like I’m around all the same people I’m usually around at shows, but now it’s just my band is playing early in the day.” I think one of us actually had a ticket because we were late added to the lineup. I was planning on going anyway because the lineup was great.

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On talking to labels while still in high school

Snail Mail Mirror

I really had to do a lot of logistics coordinating to make sure I was meeting all the requirements at school. I was stepping outside to take calls and things. I was really embarrassed about it. I didn’t want the attention from people at school, so that wasn’t something that made me cocky. It was more about, “This is something that’s happening, and it’s something that I need to make time for and logistically make it work — and also not wash up in school.” I was trying to keep my head down. I didn’t want to brag about it to friends or at parties. So I was just in my own head and being stressed and hanging out at my house a lot at my computer trying to work. That was the least cocky I’ve ever been.

At that point, just knowing I had the resources to make exactly the record that I heard in my head — I could literally make anything with the studio that I wanted and the producer that I wanted and the time that I wanted. The pressure that was there was pressure that I put on myself to make something that was to me listenable and perfect and something I could attach my name to. That wasn’t there when I wrote the first batch of songs. I wasn’t too worried about proving it to other people; I’m just very hard on myself when it comes to songwriting and my work stuff. Then and now, I feel like I’m always just trying to make the best music for myself. That can be really hard, especially because now there’s a progression in place. Now, I feel like I have to work even harder to make music to impress myself.

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On staying level as a teenager entering the music industry

Taking in being in the music industry, to me, it’s been a big maturing process. There’s a lot to learn still, but I’ve learned a lot. I think it’s all about keeping in mind what aspects of it actually matter to me and what are just hoops everyone has to jump through. When things feel hard or bleak, it’s usually just a matter of looking at what do I have and what am I working for? Why am I working for it? What is actually happening here? There’s a lot of tedious tasks and a lot of things that don’t matter to me that I have to do. Songwriting is the important thing, and doing that is a really great way to get yourself away from it. Making yourself vulnerable and doing that thing that actually brought me here is humbling and difficult. I like to remind myself that it’s still something I’m earning at all times. I’m never not trying to earn it. I think it’s all just about not letting yourself be comfortable.

Everyone handles things differently, but I think it’s a zone you have to get yourself in. If I imagine myself 16 or 17, how I was before I was working on this, I was 150% a different person. My personality is very perfectionist, obsessive, work all the time, no breaks, no chill. I don’t like to have downtime. I think my personality is compatible with what I’m doing, very much so. I’ve always needed something really intense. Even so, a lot of maturing had to happen. It was a really difficult thing to learn. I think people rise to the occasion. Nobody’s ready for it. Even if I was 25, I’d have to rise to some kind of occasion.

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On being pigeonholed in the wave of young, female indie guitar artists

Snail Mail Finger Gun Blue

It’s a transitional time [for me], too; a lot is changing otherwise in my life. It’s a crazy time in a lot of ways. The wave — I have a lot of opinions on that. It has to be a manual, unfortunately. It’s so not about the music in so many different settings. I’m just constantly making a lot of attempts to push it back to music. One thing I’ll say is that the wave of bringing people who have underrepresented voices to the top and giving them the mic is something that I’m very much in support of. But I don’t feel like I have a unique contribution, even as a gay young woman. As much as I support it, it has nothing to do with what I’m here for.

I think people assume that if you’re not constantly talking about it, you have some kind of shame about it. I’m perfectly content with myself. No shame. Happy with myself. I just think it has nothing to do with my work. So, I’ll be constantly diverting. I’ll be asked something and just be like, “So anyway, when I was writing…” It’s a manual thing. It’s great that we’re doing this; just for me, it feels like it takes away from the work that I’ve put so much of myself into. And the work is what I think people should be paying attention to. Not the dumb shit I say in interviews. I have lots of dumb shit to say, but I really mean for people to listen to my music and not the dumb shit I say.

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On making awkward teenage emotions lyrically resonant

It’s really self-aware music and lyricism. I like to think it is. Maybe in a couple of years, I’ll be like, “Wow, I was so not self-aware.” (laughs) “Pristine” in particular is very sarcastic and melodramatic in nature. It’s almost like punching Habit in the face and going, “You idiot.” Habit feels bad for itself, and Lush is aware of that. “Pristine” was the first one I wrote for it; it almost could have been on Habit. I jumped immediately from Habit to being too old for Habit.

I have a weird amount of pride in the things I do or say. I don’t feel embarrassed about the things I’ve done in the past or regret. I think it’s important that if people are paying attention to the things you’re doing and saying and putting out that you can just learn from yourself and take things in stride. Move onwards and forwards, because things change. I like having public records of that. I like being able to look back at Habit and demos and just being like, “Well, I’ve changed. It’s true.” It’s like taking your diary and being like, “Here you go, publisher.” I like that. I think it’s kind of cool.

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On Fiona Apple’s influence

I feel like Fiona Apple is the most confident woman and also self-deprecating. She was probably the most important, transformative musician for me growing up, especially as a writer. She’s so blunt and so eloquent in her lyrical style, and then she also gets up on stage and tears herself to pieces. She gives herself away in the music and onstage. She’s such a dramatic, honest performer. She’s still so cool. I think I saw here when I was 14 or 15 with my mom. Even now, it still holds the same level of importance for me. It was a good time in my life to have that. I really look up to her work.

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On sequencing Lush

Snail Mail Lush Album Art Cover Art Red

The B-side is my sweet baby. All the songs on there, it’s just a nice collection of my favorite songs on the record. I was the biggest control freak in the process; my hands were on literally everything. There wasn’t a moment I wasn’t sitting on the chair next to Jake [Aron, producer] at his computer being like, “Wait.” Jake and I and Johnny [Schenke] our engineer worked together on the sequencing.

The slow burners are sort of towards the end because I think it’s dramatic. I feel like all the songs have storylines that I hope the listener can get enveloped in, and by the time you’re in the middle towards the end, I’d hope that you’re fully immersed in the experience, crying and eating ice cream. I don’t think it’s fair to put those early on. I think they deserve their big reflection moment in the middle. You’re halfway through that pint of ice cream and you’re feeling the record. I also think it’s important that things end strong. This is one of the biggest things I hate — when a record starts with all of the singles and then it just tapers off and it gets weak. People put their least favorites towards the end and some incredible banger at the very end. It’s careless. There’s not a single song on the record that I wouldn’t go up to bat for. The sequencing is deliberate but also I think, for me, it could be in three or four different sequences and I’d still back it up. As long as it ended with people thinking about crying into a tub of ice cream.

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On playing bass for the opening band on her upcoming headlining tour

Snail Mail Guitar Red Light Photo by Natalie Somekh

Snail Mail, photo by Natalie Somekh

I bass in my friend’s band Longbeard sometimes, and it’s one of my favorite things ever to just hang back on bass. It’s such a different skill, I don’t think people realize that. Hanging back with the drummer is so different from being up front playing guitar. I just like sharpening that skill. And I love just jamming and chilling. That sounds really stupid, but I just like jamming and chilling. [laughs]

The band is really cool, Bonnie Dune. They needed a bassist on this tour, so I’m really excited to whip the bass out. It’s going to be fun, just less time for dinner. I don’t need [time for relaxing]. I don’t actually have time in the car to learn the songs, so I like the idea of a challenge. I sort of feel like my brain gets a little numb when I’m not actively challenging myself in some way. Sometimes you get so busy with stuff that doesn’t actually challenge you, so you’re busy but you feel like your brain’s melting. So, that’s another reason I really wanna play bass on this tour.

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On why she’s playing hockey in that “Heat Wave” video

Because it’s “Heat Wave”; it’s hot. That was actually just because it was funny. It’s ice and heat. And it was long, so we did a long song with the long, intense video. “Pristine”, we were in a bit of a jam and in a rush, so we did a lyric video. Same with “Full Control”, both were really fast fixes for music videos. But for “Heat Wave”, I was like, “Well, hold on. Let’s make this a big thing.” [I miss hockey] all the time. I’ll wake up in the middle of the night after having some dream like in overtime I will miss the final shot. My stress dreams have reverted back to hockey, which is kind of funny. It’s just Mighty Ducks, but starring me every night.

I played hockey for many years, and there were teams that would have a girl or two on it. But there were teams that didn’t. I definitely went through some shit. I didn’t really have interest in just being one of the guys. I just wanted to sharpen my blade and perfect my sport. Just like everything else in my life, I was really obsessive about being strong and good. I felt more like they were in my way. I felt like I was always expected to force my way to the front and prove myself all the time when other people didn’t have to. There’s a genuine constant lack of respect.

I think [music’s] completely different. I choose who I surround myself with at all times; I do everything my way. With music, I’m really my own boss. I don’t feel like I’m having to pull myself up or having to work twice as hard to prove myself. I just work hard. Hockey, I was just always having to get past something. I feel like I have a lot of say [in my music career], and it’s just my path that I’ve carved. If there’s a path, it’s mine. It’s my path. It’s not someone else’s that I’m trying to carve around. Hockey, I was always working under someone else. If the coach was a jerk, then the coach was a jerk and I was effed. I’d just have to deal with a sexist coach or just a bunch of sexist boys. But if there was a sexist in my midst now, they’d be long gone. If we have problems, they don’t stay around.

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On other pleasures success has provided

V Magazine summer 2018 issue 📸 by: Marcus Man @vmagazine 👒

A post shared by Lindsey Jordan (@snailmailband) on

There are some aspects of doing this that have been so exciting. Everything that I’ve done with fashion has been really fun for me. It’s been great delving into that. I love it. That’s my favorite part right now. I’ve always really loved fashion. I love getting my hair and makeup done. I just love putting on these insane, beautiful outfits. I feel like I’ve gotten really comfortable in front of a camera. It feels really fulfilling to me. Music is fulfilling, but I’ve always just loved fashion. It’s a nice “other” thing. I feel like a multifaceted person. Put a little hockey into the music video, a little bit of fashion on the side, and music in the center.

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