In her 1968 essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion wrote that we are “well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” It’s a sentiment Lindsey Jordan, a.k.a. Snail Mail, embraces wholeheartedly.
“I feel pretty at peace with having a record of my former self be public,” Jordan says. “I think no matter how embarrassing your past self is and your writing is, that—for me, at least—is always gonna be a part of me and I like to acknowledge it.”
For Jordan, this “record” would be the songs she wrote at fifteen that lend themselves to 2016’s Habit, her breakthrough EP. Written and recorded in her childhood home in the suburbs of Baltimore, its songs—introspective, sonic documentations of that overwhelming period of change when you sit on the cusp of adulthood—reminded audiences of the infinite, complex emotions adolescent kids experience. Coupled with her prodigious guitar talent and deadpan delivery, Habit unexpectedly made Jordan an indie darling who often evoked critical comparisons to her hero Liz Phair.
With the release of her first full-length, Lush, Jordan takes her music a step forward. In the two years since Habit, she’s come out as gay, graduated high school, and signed to Matador Records. Lush reflects both the realizations and the confusions that come with growing up, deftly straddling the line between youthful vulnerability and adult self-assuredness.
If her emotional candor makes her appear far older than she is (before interviews, she sends a list of frequently asked questions to avoid, like the tired “What’s it like being a woman in a band?”), as soon as she speaks, Jordan reminds you that she’s just nineteen years old. Excitement courses through her rapid, breathless, “like”-peppered sentences. She’s still figuring this all out, a little overwhelmed at the attention she’s received so quickly. If Lush is any indication, though, she’s heading in the right direction. Jordan spoke with us about artistic growth, vulnerability, and both the difficulty and importance of keeping in touch with the person she used to be.
You’ve talked a bit about delving into sequencing on Lush, which is a detail that’s kind of been lost to our generation since we listen to so much music digitally. Was that a conscious choice from the beginning—to make this a product that you have to listen to from start to finish?
Yeah, totally. It’s interesting, because writing these songs and making lyrical choices and making arrangements, I was never trying to insert any overarching themes. I did think a lot about making it kind of circular, at the very least, musically. When I wrote Habit, all the songs were sort of thrown together because I had been writing forever and they were just in my songwriting bank. The studio experience was really a humble one, because it was just a basement. I’m kind of a control freak and a detail freak and Habit didn’t really fulfill that for me. I like to think that Lush is very beginning-to-end cohesive and there’s a real sense of closure when you’re done with it.
You started out studying classical guitar—how did you get into rock? What pulled you toward that?
“I like to think that Lush is very beginning-to-end cohesive and there’s a real sense of closure when you’re done with it.”
I started taking lessons as soon as I got a guitar, which was a couple years under the age limit, I think, at the Guitar Center. My guitar teacher was really intense and awesome. Looking back, I’m so thankful that he was like, “You gotta learn how to read notes and know what’s what,” but then he was like, “OK, on the side, we can throw in some music that you like.”
I still love learning to play other people’s records. I love building my technique and being alone in my room and learning how to play other people’s guitar solos. I like to think that I’m still really working toward being a better guitar player all the time and not just becoming complacent with what I have.
What’s your favorite album to play?
Marquee Moon. It’s the reason that I’m a guitar freak—I don’t like calling myself a guitar freak, but it’s like… I will always revisit all of those songs and make sure I’m up to par with how I used to play them, because I think those songs are the epitome of what it means to be a shredder. It’s an album that, if I haven’t played the songs for a long time, I’ll make it a point to reteach myself.
When we’re young, we change so much and so quickly without realizing we’re changing, until we look back and say, “Oh wow, I’m different now.” You have these songs you wrote at fifteen that you revisit night after night. What do you feel when you look back or perform songs from Habit? What have you learned since writing them?
It’s exciting to see myself growing and changing. Certainly, a lot of songs on Habit I maybe wouldn’t sing the same way or write the same way. I think that Lush is a step forward from Habit in a way that is very obvious.
It just feels right to be able to keep on improving and changing and moving onward. Sometimes it feels like muscle memory to play the songs from Habit, but I still really channel that person that I was. I still find myself getting lost in the mood when we play them live. Not every night, but definitely if I can conjure some of that emotion, it feels like a good night.
You quite suddenly went from being under the radar to now being seemingly everywhere. What has been the most difficult growing pain with all of that change?
There’s been quite a few. One is just learning how to conduct myself as a leader and as someone who’s responsible for a lot of other people’s work. I started off being really timid and I didn’t want to be pushy and I didn’t want people to be mad at me. I think one of the most difficult things to teach yourself is that you’re your own boss in this world, that you have to know for yourself when you have to speak up. You kind of just grow really fast, and it’s sort of unnatural. I’ve definitely learned a lot about being assertive and being a boss about things and knowing a certain way to go about things that I want, and to be a control freak with my work and not just be somebody who lets whatever float to the surface.
What’s one thing you’ve learned or know now that you wish you knew when you started making Lush?
“I started off being really timid and I didn’t want to be pushy and I didn’t want people to be mad at me. I think one of the most difficult things to teach yourself is that you’re your own boss in this world.”
I think I would have just taken it a little easier on myself. I know now that writing is really a natural thing and it’s cathartic for me and it’s a hobby—not something I have to do at any point. When I was writing Lush, it was hard to get into that mindset because I had written a bunch of the songs before I knew we were gonna put it out. It took me a very long time to even want to delve into writing for it, because I really wanted to prove to myself that I could write these songs that matter to me. I was just really, really hard on myself and really intense. I value that and I think that is one of the reasons that the record is good, but maybe I would take it a little slower and take it a little easy on myself and not turn everything into this huge, big deal. Songwriting flows naturally.
What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about you, and what’s something you wish people knew about you that isn’t said often?
A big misconception is that we came out of nowhere. I guess it was kind of fast, but there was so much hard work and it was a real independent thing that I started from scratch. I didn’t have a ton of resources behind it or anything. It was just me and my songs.
I feel like I’ve been on the record complaining more than once about all of the difficulties and hoops you have to jump through and stuff, but I want people to know that I love doing this. I don’t get the opportunity to say how much I really love doing Snail Mail that often. I’m very thankful for all the support that it’s gotten and that we can play shows to people every night and that I can make music. FL