“It’s a relief just to say what’s on your mind.”
Lindsey Jordan knows the value of being an open book. The Maryland musician, better known by her moniker Snail Mail, has a well-documented history of confessional songwriting; an emblem for vulnerability and heartbreak. As she asks on 2018 breakout single ‘Pristine’, half-earnest, half-sardonic: “Is there any better feeling than coming clean?”
Considering the emotional intensity necessary to spill your guts in the recording studio and then do it all again onstage, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it might translate into a general malaise, but it’s quite the opposite: Snail Mail in the flesh is a live wire. “I’m a happy person!” she insists, with a deep chuckle, before pausing to order a Diet Coke in her surfer drawl.
We’re in a trendy East London hotel before Jordan heads to a pre-release party for her upcoming second album, ‘Valentine’ (“I heard they’ve got me a crown”). The 10-track LP has considerably big shoes to fill: the release of Snail Mail’s debut LP ‘Lush’ back in 2018 took the indie world by storm, a confessional, yearning throwback that worshipped at the altar of Liz Phair and Fiona Apple, with a healthy dash of Paramore thrown in. The kind of self-aware, melodramatic genius only an 18-year-old can produce. But Jordan had never considered dialling back her honesty: “Nobody ever gave a fuck! I was talking about crushes and what I thought love was, but I didn’t have anything to lose by saying everything.”
Now at 22 – older, wiser, and a few more heartbreaks down – things are different. For one, Jordan’s lyrics are even more deeply considered and she scatters female pronouns throughout ‘Valentine’ (“she kissed like she meant it”), now unafraid of people knowing she’s gay, but the bigger platform also presents fresh challenges: “There’s always a fear that people will know; that the person you’re singing about is going to be like, ‘hold up!’ Sometimes you have to weigh up: is it the art or the personal life?”
“It’s kind of unfair to everyone else because I get the final say! Sometimes having the final say isn’t even appropriate. Sometimes it’s not warranted or necessary or cute. I want to be respectful to my subjects and keep people in my life so songwriting is always a decision-making process.” With increased scrutiny comes increased responsibility.
For Jordan, the difference between the two albums is one of emotional maturity as well as musical maturity – a metaphorical and literal leap from kid to adult, documented in the public eye. It’s become a choice of when not to confess.
“As a person, it’s really hard for me to not put it all out there all the time. Obviously, that’s great – sincerity is cool, you know – but I also think my perspective on love has changed so much. It’s much less romantic now that I’m experiencing healthy love in my life. It’d be weird if I was 30 and still singing, ‘I’ll never love anyone else,’ but at the same time, I still have a good amount of that inside.”
When committed to music, that good amount of unabashed romanticism still hits like before – “The first time I met you I knew then / That afterwards there’d be no in between,” Jordan croons on the delicately plucked acoustic track ‘Light Blue’, written for an ex-girlfriend who broke up with her the next day. “It’s okay,” she says, abiding by the cardinal rule of queerness. “We’re still friends.”
Since we last checked in with Jordan on ‘Lush’, she’s confronted some deep emotional pain. On a record full of confession and reflection, born out of comprehensive soul searching, she makes her most vulnerable disclosure in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it line on ‘Ben Franklin’: “Post rehab I’ve been feeling so small” – a reference to her brief stay at a rehab facility in 2020. Did she ever have second thoughts about broadcasting that to the world?
“Me now!” she says with a self-deprecating laugh. “I’ve got a big fucking mouth so I knew I would say something eventually and it’s better to be on my own terms than someone else’s. Rehab was an extreme way for me to get from point A to point B so then to disclose it – Capital R Rehab – it sounds a lot worse than it is. But it was such an intense experience that shaped the context of the record that it felt wrong not to include it.”
Her decision to go to rehab was, in part, down to becoming famous so young; an abrupt change few are equipped for, let alone as a teenager. “It’s an insanely formative time to be at the centre of anything,” Jordan says of the transition. “I can just see my errors recorded in a timeline. Looking back at your own lyrics… that mindset actually fucks you up sometimes.”
Snail Mail certainly isn’t alone in grappling with the peculiar sensation of young fame through her music. Three of 2021’s biggest albums – ‘Happier Than Ever’, ‘Sling’ and ‘Solar Power’ – explore the darker side of fame from the perspective of artists, barely in their twenties, who already feel like veterans. ‘Valentine’ rightly takes its place among them. “I love how outspoken everyone’s being. Those three [Billie Eilish, Clairo and Lorde] are on such a level of fame that I’m not, but the nuances of being young and famous are always so interesting. It’s weird to be a child artist and then an adult artist.”
“Even people having an opinion on happy Lorde versus sad Lorde, it’s like …don’t y’all want her to be happy Lorde though? That scares me because what if I want to be happy in a couple of years!”
During the pandemic, outside the bubble of touring with the same five people, Jordan took the opportunity to rediscover what real life felt like. Alongside the practical things like learning to cook, came the more difficult and nebulous life lessons: “I learned so much about myself because there weren’t people just adoring me and saying ‘good job, angel.’ It was a lot of my friends being like, ‘you’re a little asshole’. Like, yes! Straight up. I’m sorry! It’s about realising that you’re not always the star and letting others shine.”
Jordan isn’t sure what a more robust music industry that better protects kids vulnerable to the trapping of fame looks like and wonders if learning to fend for yourself is paramount. “But I also think everybody needs a Katie.”
Katie Crutchfield from Waxahatchee is one of her closest friends, as much a mentor as she is a sister. Jordan admits she blows her phone up with questions, ranging from the trivial – “how much do you spend on a suitcase?” – to the therapeutic – “what should I say to my ex?” – and she’s keen to soak up as much knowledge from an older friend who’s been around the musical block.
“She’s one of the best people I know. She’s been there since the very beginning of Snail Mail so she understands how hard it is at every turn. It means a lot to have somebody fully see you. Katie has helped me through really hard times.”
It was the encouraging environment created by Crutchfield that inspired Jordan to collaborate with Brad Cook – longtime Justin Vernon collaborator, multi-instrumentalist, and producer. ‘My king!’ Jordan exclaims at the mention of Brad. “I was in a bad emotional state and Katie was like, ‘he’s a gentle dude and if you want to produce, he’ll encourage you.’ And he did. Brad was super comfortable with the backseat; I don’t know a lot of people like that in music. His way of working is so pro-woman in a way I’ve never really seen in someone that works in a studio. I’m never working with anyone else!”
Her most challenging moments in the producer’s seat came on ‘Forever (Sailing)’, a yacht rock track that’s easily the most dramatic musical departure from her previous work. When we call it our favourite on the record, it earns a fist pump from Jordan – “taste!” It was “a bitch to make”, with Brad letting her take the reins after he cut a sample of an old disco track, ‘You and I’, which was suitably also “a bitch to get cleared”. After some claustrophobic moments battling with melodies and time signatures, she finished the song alone in her Manhattan apartment. She’s not sure where the instincts to make yacht rock came from but she revels in the comparisons: “Papa music! It’s a fatherly riff,” she pauses to imitate a guitar groove. “It’s like ‘Lady in Red’.”
Elsewhere, Jordan rode that wave of initiative through to her music videos, channelling her love of horror and queer cinema to the visual concept for lead single ‘Valentine’. From casting to costuming, Jordan found another collaborative partnership with director Josh Coll. The video begins with a blossoming queer love between a lady and chambermaid and ends with a scorned lover’s murderous rampage, stopping only to gorge on a decadent cake. In her very own Gone Girl moment, Jordan finds herself drenched in corn-syrup blood that her stylist had to scrub off with an exfoliation glove between scenes, but the two-day shoot for ‘Valentine’ wasn’t all blood, sweat and tears.
“It was really important to me that the video was queer without the point of it being queer.” Jordan, a bonafide Carol (2015) stan, yearns for queer representation that isn’t solely situated in trauma. “I lose my shit when it just exists. Can’t we revel in the gay love and have them end up together?”
Though ‘Valentine’ doesn’t have a happy ending, there was a deliberate point to its period theme: “Even if it’s not realistic, it’s cool to pretend we’re in a different universe for a second. Also, wearing that little outfit felt empowering. I really, really like being a prince.” She might be a regency prince opting for Snail Mail rather than chain mail in music videos, but her queerness isn’t a costume that’s quite so easily shed.
“There’s no way to say this that doesn’t sound fucked, but there’s a weird atmosphere in the entertainment industry of people kind of putting on queerness. That makes me not even want to be involved in the same way. Not that I think I’m above it or anything; it’s just that my queer life is hard and it’s hard because it’s not a performance.”
“I feel defensive as shit because I’m always trying to protect myself. I’m a small, queer woman so a lot of my work life has been about learning to demand respect, and being the ‘girl boss’,” she laughs. “It takes a lot of anger and pain, having to be righteous, and it doesn’t really translate to real life. I’m grateful that I had that time during the pandemic to be a normal person because it really benefited my character. I’m just trying to be a good person.”
‘Valentine’ is out via Matador on November 5.