The rise of Snail Mail, a teen talent worth believing in

The rise of Snail Mail, a teen talent worth believing in
Indie prodigy — After making an acclaimed EP at just 16, Lindsey Jordan's talent generated a wave of hype. Now that her debut album is about to justify that excitement, she’s focused on a slow-burning success – even if it feels like life is throwing everything at her all at once.

Lindsey Jordan is having a beach day. It doesn’t matter if there are no actual beaches between San Antonio, Texas and Tucson, Arizona – tour dates number 33 and 34, respectively, of 90 scheduled shows in 2018.

It’s a figurative thing: part of a wider routine geared around self-care. And given the steady rise of Snail Mail, the 18-year-old’s musical project, that seems like a smart move.

Lindsey is conscious of the anticipation surrounding her debut album, Lush, and has concocted measures to stay grounded without burning out.

She runs every day, eats well and values alone time: unplugging from her phone in the car or at hotels, snuggling up with a book and slipping on a pair of headphones. She also makes a point of having as many outfit options with her as possible, just to feel like she’s still at home.

To say Lindsey is wise beyond her years would be doing her a disservice. She’s smart for any age. That became clear when she made an intimate yet urgent EP of indie rock called Habit while still in school. Those six songs – emotionally astute takes on a life in flux – resonated far wider than anyone could have reasonably expected.

Overtures from a dozen record labels, a New York Times round-table on women in punk and appearances at Coachella represent just a few of the highlights that followed.

Meanwhile all the regular things that teenagers have to grapple with – questions of identity, sexuality and adulthood – kept coming. In the year-and-a-half it took to make Lush, it felt like every single song represented a different stage of her existence. That just motivated her to take a cinematic snapshot of something that won’t sit still, kickstarting a new beginning in the process.

What have you learned about yourself since the EP that you weren’t so clear on before?
I mean, like, everything! It’s such a crazy time in my life and just generally in the development of a human being. It all just comes at you really fast. When I was working on Habit, I really wasn’t sure of a lot of things about myself, my music and what mattered to me.

I was just excited and immature; I didn’t have that much understanding of how everything worked. In a year from now I’m sure I’ll be in a completely different zone but everything just feels clearer to me.

I’m uncovering so much about the craft and also myself. I’m quicker to know what works and what doesn’t work, when to push myself and when not to. I want to be the best songwriter I can be and everything else is so unimportant.

I imagine that if I wrote songs when I was 15, I might hate them or be embarrassed by them at 18. How do you feel about that transition?
I could see how there might be some embarrassment or wanting to hide your past self, but I just think of it as a moment in time.

I’m glad I was able to capture that in a permanent way and I love revisiting or channeling that melodramatic feeling when we play live… and just being able to laugh at myself.

So yeah, I don’t feel they represent me as a songwriter – which is a big ask when you’re working in such a transitional time in your life – but I still like playing those songs every night.

What if you wrote a song about a crush and then later thought, ‘Oh my god, I feel nothing for that person now. They don’t deserve a song!’ Does that happen?
Totally. It so happens! None of them are solely about one person or experience, but some are about topics inspired by certain people that, looking back, felt like the end of the world and the most significant thing that I’ll ever experience.

Now it seems like the smallest blip in my life. I always question why certain things make it into the final songwriting process and why other things don’t. I also think that’s what makes the process special.

You’ve said that you feel more motivated to be honest with yourself. In what way?
I think a good part of it is not caring about how people will accept or not accept what you do. There’s a lot of weird hoops you have to jump through in this field and it can get in your head.

I think the way you can be most honest with yourself is just isolating that side of things, learning to be alone and vulnerable again in doing what it is you do: playing songs every night without feeling like you’re doing it for someone else. I was really unclear on that when I started.

I remember you saying that it’s like being two different people: the public and the private you. How are they different?
I try to keep some distance between how I act online and in real life, how I am with people at shows and how I am with my friends. I mean I am being honest and completely myself, but I prefer to not give everything away. [laughs] I think I’m way more of a hothead than I let on. I’ll read a message on Instagram and be like, ‘I could totally blow up at this person… or I could be civil and quiet.’

It’s the same at the merch table and in interviews. I also feel like people want you to give off this really fun persona; I value that a lot in my personal life but there’s something that feels really fake about portraying it. Like being on stage like, ‘What’s the deal with airline food?’ [laughs] I try to keep that shit to a minimum and prefer to think that if someone actually got to know me, then they’d be able to see the difference.

You moved to New York for a while and it wasn’t for you. How come?
Yeah, for two-and-a-half months. Then I left to go on tour and decided that I was just gonna pack up and move home afterwards. The place I was living in was pretty gross and very expensive. I had no alone time and the kitchen was disgusting. Something would always wake me up for hours in the middle of the night.

It was so far from where my friends lived that I had to take a 40-minute subway just to get to anyone, so I just stopped going out. Then I realised I was paying $800 a month only to constantly bail on everyone and wake up with roaches in my bed. It started getting depressing.

I just wanted a little bit of nature, maybe one full night of sleep and the ability to cook quinoa. Now I’m in the middle of figuring out where I want to be next, whether it be in Baltimore, North Carolina or maybe somewhere on the West Coast. It feels like the world is my oyster.

What was it like growing up in Maryland?
Maryland is awesome. I never really felt like I needed to escape. I think people often move to Baltimore because they’re creative types that want to be close to other cities but don’t want the chaos or the pressure of having to  work seven days a week just to pay rent. It’s a [comparatively] tame city.

I’m from the suburbs, Ellicott City, and I’d go to shows in Baltimore all the time. Friends who could drive would drop me off and, once I was a little older, I’d go up by myself and stay there. But apart from wanting to go to shows, I really enjoyed suburban living.

I don’t want it for myself now so much, and I don’t want to die in the suburbs, but when you’re taking life one week at a time there, it’s kind of amazing. I feel like I thrived a little bit in high school. I did well in class, I played hockey and had a really awesome group of girlfriends. This sounds so stupid but there was always a party to go to or a place to go hang out. There was never really a lull.

You attended a rock camp for a few summers as a kid. How long did it take you to realise, ‘Hey, I’m actually pretty good’? I’ve been playing guitar since I was five – as long as I can remember, pretty much – and I was always in the highest class bracket, so I had a little bit of a superiority complex over the boys at camp. [laughs]

But as I got older and sort of grew into the self-doubt that’s given to you by other people, I started to feel like, ‘Oh, maybe I’m not as good as these guys. Maybe I should just hang back and play rhythm guitar.’

I wasn’t singing at that point and I think I lost that superiority complex as the camp progressed. Even though it was kind of a kick in the shins, being shaped by that feeling just made me work even harder.

What is the biggest misconception you come up against from older people, whether it’s about your gender, your sexuality or your age?
It’s really, really annoying to be singled out for being a woman or being gay… It’s as if people think you’re at a disadvantage. In a way, I do see the truth in that because a lot of women aren’t encouraged to pick up guitars from a young age; they aren’t necessarily encouraged in alt scenes in the DIY world. But that’s not my experience.

I was always treated equally in the scene I grew up in. I don’t know how to say this without sounding ungrateful because in a lot of ways things are getting better for people – it’s awesome that we’re highlighting different voices – but I hate being put in that ‘girl power’ category.

The fact that we’re separating female guitarists and vocalists from everyone else seems counterintuitive. Sometimes I’ll read the word ‘front-woman’ and just shudder. It barely has anything to do with my work. It feels like I’m getting a pat on the back for no reason and I just don’t want it.

In general terms, to go from a 15-year-old recording in your bedroom to playing Coachella and being on Matador within a few years… you’ve almost made it look easy. What would you say is the biggest challenge or surprise in pulling this off?
It’s actually insane how difficult everything is behind the curtain. [laughs] Like, our car broke down in Orlando the other day and it cost $5,000 to fix; we had to rush the job so that we could drive 19 hours overnight to play our set in Austin. That, to me, is a perfect example.

Then there’s paying your taxes and getting the business part straight and making the record and picking the agent and picking the producer and, you know, having to not be an idiot all the time.

It’s so hard. You have to become this business person that you’re just not qualified to be, trying to navigate this insanely confusing world and make all these crazy decisions. I think that’s the toughest part: being thrown headfirst into it all and keeping on top of things you have no context of understanding.

In terms of the future, do you have any dreams or plans beyond what you’re doing now?
The dreams and plans are not concrete at the moment, but I hope to take my time and just keep making records that I truly care about; to just keep touring and have longevity for myself beyond the hype wave that we’re riding on.

It feels like you’re riding a hype wave?
I mean… it does but, at the same time, people do genuinely care about Snail Mail. There is something very real about the way people are psyched for music about suburban unrest and a high-school teen just trying to have a good time. [laughs] But I’m hoping that when we’re 26 and not cute teens anymore, we can put out songs that people still care about – and not because there’s hype behind them

This article appears in Huck 65 – The Coming of Age Issue. Buy it in the Huck Shop or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

Lush is out 8 June via Matador

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