Lindsey Jordan’s Long, Bumpy Road to Creative Control of Snail Mail

“I went from being a teenage indie rocker to a young-adult indie rocker, and that’s kind of weird.” Photo: Snail Mail via YouTube

Lindsey Jordan made her name as a songwriter. The incisively intimate rock music she makes as Snail Mail stands out for its ability to put the most difficult emotions to words in sharp, piercing phrases. Take “Heat Wave,” a single off her 2018 debut album, Lush, when she tells an ex, “I hope whoever it is / Holds their breath around you / ’Cause I know I did.” Or “Stick,” one of the first standouts from her 2016 EP, Habit, which she rerecorded for Lush: “And did things work out for you?” she wails. “Or are you still not sure what that means?” By the time Lush came out in June 2018, Jordan, just shy of 19, was the toast of the indie-singer-songwriter scene, thanks in large part to her pen. In a Best New Music review, Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal wrote that the album “encompasses the once and future sound of indie rock.”

Jordan toured heavily around Lush, playing nearly 200 shows in 2018 and ’19. She was planning a final tour for spring 2020 — then, like everyone, had to go quiet, before emerging a year and a half later with a follow-up Snail Mail album, Valentine, released in November. Jordan had struggled to write songs on the road, and she also struggled to figure out who she wanted to be as an artist after Lush. “I went from being a teenage indie rocker to a young-adult indie rocker, and that’s kind of weird,” she says over the phone. Her canceled 2020 tour gave her time to focus on writing Valentine; she moved back to her family’s home in Ellicott City, Maryland, for a time, before getting an apartment in Manhattan. During that period off the road, Jordan went through a breakup and spent 45 days in rebab. (“I was dealing with a unique set of circumstances and challenges rooted in being so young when I started,” she told Pitchfork in September. “I needed to hit pause. I was not in any kind of shape to continue doing Snail Mail stuff.”) On the second single off Valentine, she sings, “Post-rehab, I’ve been feeling so small.”

If Lush proved Jordan was something of a prodigious singer-songwriter, Valentine confirms her as the complete artistic package. Now 22, she was involved in every step of the album’s genesis, co-producing it alongside Brad Cook, who has worked with both her hero Bon Iver and mentor Katie Crutchfield (a.k.a. Waxahatchee), and workshopping its music videos with director Josh Coll, in addition to writing and performing all of the songs. The sound is fuller and bolder, incorporating synthesizers and strings, but the lyrics still shine: “Fuck being remembered, I think I was made for you,” she proclaims on the colossal title track. It helps that Jordan is a voracious consumer of culture, from music to literature to film — mentally storing things from her media diet throughout her own creative process, often unintentionally. “Whenever I see a movie that inspires me or read something that makes me feel some type of way or listen to something, I’m like, Okay, this is all contributing to something, but I don’t know how or what,” she says. She outlined some of those influences on Valentine, from Paramore and Bon Iver to her “disgusting” taste in film.

Inability to tour

It fucked me up. I never expected to take a break for as long as I did during the pandemic. It scared me a lot, and I think it also kicked into high gear that I needed to work. The way that I was operating, which didn’t work that well for me, was that I was going to tour as much as I wanted and then just write when I felt like it. [Laughs.] I literally can’t think of writing something in a hurry. So it ended up working out really well, because if we hadn’t been forced to stop, I think the album probably would have taken even longer. We would’ve reached a point where we couldn’t have just kept touring the old songs. That was what I wanted to do, ’cause just completely switching gears is so scary. Like, not having another option. And nobody ever pushes me, which is cool, but everyone around me was like, “On your own time, but you should understand that you can’t just take forever.”

People are usually able to write on the road, so it seems, and I just can’t. I need full privacy in order to come up with lyrics, or I have so far. The concept of writing really scares me. So I was just like, How long can we push this off?! I still feel that way about the next one: I don’t know how I’m gonna do this.

‘Real-life shit’

I was like, I guess I need to get off of tour to have a real-life experience to have things to write about. I’m not against people writing about tour, I just don’t wanna do it. I was like, I wanna write about real emotions that aren’t angst. Right after the Lush victory tour, I had time off, and I just went through some real-life shit, then the pandemic — the real-life shit just kept coming.

I had four demos before that I knew were really good, but I wouldn’t have said I was working on an album. I was putting things together, but it wasn’t cohesive; I wasn’t working toward something larger. Then, when the pandemic started, I started writing “Valentine,” and then right after that I wrote “Headlock,” and then right after that I wrote “Automate,” and then “Madonna,” and I was like, Okay, I’m working on an album. It came pretty fast after that.

Before I started writing “Valentine,” I had “c et al,” “Mia,” “Light Blue,” and “Glory,” and that didn’t feel like an album to me. I had a fuck-ton of ballad-type songs — I think one of them, at least, that didn’t come out will come out on a demo album, ’cause I love it. I’m good at writing ballads, and it’s easy for me, but I was very concerned that there weren’t any hits coming. Those are harder for me to write — the bops — so if those aren’t coming, I feel like I’m kind of screwed. [Laughs.] But once they started coming, it was like a waterfall. Those things started making themselves, almost.

After Laughter by Paramore

Any inspiration from that, sonically, was probably innate. I didn’t actually reference it in the studio. But I’ve always been a massive Paramore fan; they’ve been in my top ten forever, since I was, like, 8. And [2017’s] After Laughter, it’s kind of a comeback album, so I wasn’t quick to be like, “Oh my God, let’s check it out.” But then once I heard it, I was like, Oh, that’s crazy. Refined pop songwriting is such a skill, which I think people don’t realize because pop seems like it would be easier to make. You picture, like, a million people in the writers’ room, and I don’t know, that album just seems really organic to me. It seems like they took a long time and worked really hard on it. I don’t know what it is about that album. I just feel really close to it. It’s so good.

Working with Brad Cook, who produced Bon Iver’s 22, a Million and i,i

Brad and I had such a unique dynamic: We would just listen to music all day long and chill and watch movies and play video games and hang out and then when we felt like it, we would go in and start recording. We were listening to so much music but not really trying to sound like anything. Brad worked on the Bon Iver stuff — that’s one of my favorite artists of all time. We had a lot of conversations about that, like, “What guitar was used on ‘Holocene’?” [Laughs.]

God, I wish I could just talk about Bon Iver. Sometimes I’m like, Do the kids like Bon Iver? I remember I saw him play when I was, like, 14 — it was one of the first “alternative” things I ever liked — at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland, with one of my older friends. I have never let go of how important that dude’s music is and continues to be. It has always seemed like the gold standard of songwriting to me.

Brad and I both really love hip-hop and R&B, and that’s kind of what we were listening to all the time, and a lot of jazz. I’ve only recently become a hip-hop listener, like within the past three or four years, basically. My entry point was Drake, and I still am a weirdly big fan? I have Drake vinyls in my apartment — like, more than one. [Laughs.] I almost put on my Certified Lover Boy T-shirt today, but it’s like, I don’t wanna make that my brand, so I had to be very careful. I’m trying to think of what me and Brad have in common in that world. Obvious stuff like Kendrick Lamar. We both have an affinity for Top 40. [Laughs.] Getting to a point where you can be vulnerable enough with each other to just be like, “Okay, fuck it — I love Top 40 music.” My influences are so different; I can’t tell you when the last time was I listened to a record with a guitar on it. It maybe just got so difficult, listening to it so much, every day, for my job.

In “Ben Franklin,” there’s that — it’s actually not that audible, but now you know — there’s a baritone guitar underneath, playing this Death Cab for Cutie–type of riff, which you can only sort of hear, but once you look for it, it’s there. I think when emos get in the room together, it’s just innate. [Laughs.] Even with, Paramore — I think it all starts coming up.

Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee

It’s crazy, I’ve learned everything that I need to know from her. My booking agent and manager are my booking agent and manager ’cause they’re her booking agent and manager. [Laughs.] I was like a little-ass kid, and I took every meeting with every single person who showed interest in the beginning, and that was a lot of people, and a lot of people do not have your best interests in mind. In the music industry — in every industry — people are fucking gross. Katie and I met early, and we weren’t even that close, but she was super-down to take my calls. I was asking her about everything.

They took us on tour, and I think we were pretty poorly behaved. I don’t know if that did much for our friendship. [Laughs.] It was one of our first big tours, and we were really annoying, and not taking our stuff down off the stage, so their people had to take down our guitars. All kinds of nonsense, like letting all of our friends into the green room and being really awful. And then somehow, along the way, me and Katie just got really close, like blood close. I don’t know how to explain it. We started talking on the phone all the time. We talk almost every day, and I ask her about everything: relationship stuff, friend stuff, rent stuff. [Laughs.] She’s one of the only people in my life who I’m like, This bitch has really seen what I’m going through, and she really knows. She’s just a really good, wise advice giver.

She sings on “Ben Franklin.” She’s singing that really high, falsetto harmony in the chorus. Actually, the vocals happened really organically — I flew out to Kansas City to stay with her for a week, just to chill. She and her partner, Kevin Morby, have a studio over there, in that house, and she was like, “We should throw some harmonies on there.” And then it makes the song. She has a voice like an angel; it took, like, an hour.

Sad books like A Little Life and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

I read A Little Life right as things started to get really intense in my life emotionally, which is crazy. I definitely think that comes through. It’s melodramatic in a way that’s kind of terrifying. At that time, I was also listening to a lot of Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie & Lowell, and I just got as sad as I possibly could. I was really rolling in it. And Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, I was reading that right in the thick of stuff, and I felt like that had an intense impact on me. George Saunders’s The Tenth of December, that definitely did. Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Those were all really big ones.

I pay really close attention when a phrase makes me feel anything. I feel well versed in listening to music and hearing things and being like, Oh, man, that really hits right there. But then it’s always shocking to me whenever I’m reading and I’m like, Okay, that’s just words on paper. It seems like such a crazy thing to pull off, making somebody feel something just with words, or just by describing something. I’m only now getting into poetry, but I’m like, Yes, same thing, definitely same kind of process.

Her voice changing

My voice got deeper, which was a surprise. [Laughs.] I feel like a little boy or something. I don’t know where that came from. It’s huskier and deeper in my 20s. But I didn’t know how to deal with it. All the old songs, we had to change the key on tour, so we were actively adjusting all the time. I can kind of see the way that people are reacting when you do certain things into the mic and then you take a note. You’re like, That really had everybody emotional just then, when I did that little whisper, and it all goes into the brain. Live dynamics, you can do whatever you want with the song arrangements, and nobody can really say anything ’til after. [Laughs.] To have that experience, touring all the time and getting to see people’s reactions, I think I got pretty good at bringing the emotion to the people. Maybe, I don’t know. But also, I was just thinking about how it felt natural. It’s funny — in interviews, everything has this intense explanation, but then, at the root of it, I was kind of just instinctively singing, you know?

Being ‘a disgusting film bro’

It’s kind of my secret identity. I just love movies that you wouldn’t want to tell a girl that you like. I wouldn’t wanna be like, “We’ve gotta watch Salo together, baby!” [Laughs.] But I love those unbearable types of movies so much! I based the “Valentine” music-video treatment on Lars von Trier, The House That Jack Built and some of his other movies, which is just, like … I know how that looks. [Laughs.] I know how we feel about him, but the lighting is really captivating for me. I wrote both initial treatments for “Valentine” and “Ben Franklin,” and had a director come in and make everything professional. But for “Valentine,” I was actually making that initial document at my girlfriend’s parents’ house, one of the first times I had met them. They were like, “What is on the —” “Oh, it’s just, like, it’s, uhhh, like I’m murdering …” [Laughs.] Initially, the concept was gonna be regal and Victorian and everything, but it was based in parts, Lars von Trier–style. Like, “Part One: Eternal Love” and then “Part Two: End of Summer (Big Murder Scene).” Yeah, writing that at my girlfriends’ parents’ house, with Google Image references and stuff, it was not that cute. [Laughs.]

And then with “Ben Franklin,” I was like, Okay, I want to get away from the narrative. Let’s just make this look cool. Initially, my first treatment was like Waspy New England, and I wanted it with a bunch of puppies and a snake. Angst and spoiled-brat energy was the vibe. I brought that to Josh Coll, who directed both videos, and we workshopped that. I love working on the music videos; I’ll never go back to not being part of that process. It is hard, but it’s not hard and loaded the way writing a song feels to me or even playing a song. I’m like, If I fuck up in this, what, is my acting career gonna tank? Who cares.

Co-producing her own album

When I worked on Lush, I was so overwhelmed. I just wanted someone else to take the reins all the time. That’s definitely a personality trait that has come with being a little older: Now I want control of everything that’s mine. I want the videos to be mine, I want the production to be mine, and I’m not good at collaboration in that way. My instincts are really different than Jake Aron’s, who produced Lush. So I was just following my heart and surprising myself.

I feel like my way of doing things is ultimately always just grand. Having a strings section, for example, on “Mia,” I spent a lot of time working on that. Actually, Lush I wanted a strings section too, but when it came down to it, the concept of adding strings just to add strings is my biggest nightmare. I was like, “We need to really take our time, and I want to be involved in the arrangement process.” I don’t want to just throw money at the song. The song needs to be good before you start adding bells and whistles. Having all those resources to be able to do something bigger was something that I was excited about but also very cautious about. Because album No. 2, of course, is gonna sound more expensive. But is it gonna be good? [Laughs.] That’s the toss-up.

Knowing when to stop editing is an intuitive feeling. There’s such a sweet spot in the middle, where you have to make sure that the bells and whistles aren’t taking away from the song, and everything that’s on there is actually contributing to elevating the song. Then, with the writing, I know it’s done because the lyrics will give me, personally, chills. And everything fits where it belongs. I think there is a right place for every lyric; taking verse three and making it verse one would never fly. Everything sits where it sits for a reason. I think that’s another reason why I wanna be the producer: I don’t trust anybody else to have the same instincts.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jordan told Pitchfork she went to rehab in November 2020. Crutchfield is the author of Snail Mail’s press biography for Valentine. “Leaving room for a long and storied path, Valentine is somehow a jolt and a lovebuzz all at once,” she wrote. Jordan announced on November 22 that she would be having vocal-cord surgery to treat “massive polyps” and would postpone part of her Valentine tour as a result. “I’ve been struggling with my vocal health more and more each year,” she wrote in a statement. “I lose my voice after a couple days of singing.” The 1975 film directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini follows the pyschosexual torture of 18 teenagers by Italian fascists during the late days of World War II. In the video, set at a period-drama-evoking party, Jordan murders a love interest after seeing her with someone else.
Lindsey Jordan’s Long Road to Creative Control of Snail Mail