Snail Mail, the main project of singer/songwriter Lindsey Jordan, is releasing their debut album Lush this Friday (the band is also playing a record release show at Music Hall Of Williamsburg tonight). But Stereogum has already named it their third favorite album of the year thus far. It's one of many things about the group that seems unlikely—like the fact that Jordan was only 18 when she wrote and recorded this batch of songs—until you hear the music.
Snail Mail's music is an addictive blend of '90s indie rock featuring unspooling, instantly unforgettable guitar melodies—as she puts it, she spent a lot of time in the studio getting into the "tone zone" for Lush in order to nail her sound. Coupled with Jordan's wise-beyond-her-years lyricism and voice, and you get one of the most exciting debuts in years.
We spoke to Jordan about making the jump from the DIY scene to a major indie label (Matador Records), why playing a Tiny Desk Concert was a huge deal, the term "slowcore," her songwriting process, and her love for everyone from Liz Phair to Nick Drake. She also explained why she was skipping college for now: "My main thing here is, I'm gonna just take my time and write music how I want to, and when I want to and tour as much as I can, and hopefully that provides some kind of longevity so that I can keep doing this, but do it on my own terms," she told Gothamist. "And not necessarily ride the hype wave onto the hype beach and wash up."
But first, Matador made sure to preemptively get the repetitive, obvious questions out of the way by distributing this FAQ to reporters:
This is your first big album on a major indie, so how has the press tour been? Have you been annoyed that people keep asking about your origin story? Yeah. [Laughs] The press has been extremely intense. I've actually been really enjoying the ones closer to the record release though, because I get so excited talking about the record coming out in a couple days that it feels really fun.
But it's energy and time and emotion consuming, which is something that I never would have expected from this. You think you answer some questions, you're not really putting yourself out there, but it's when those questions get asked that feel kind of personal, it takes a lot out of you to have to answer sometimes. All the questions about being a woman, it's been a huge exhale every time, and I'm like, "Well, being a woman..." Here we go.
I did enjoy how Matador sent out a "commonly asked questions sheet." Yes, that was a personal touch. I don't know a lot of people that have those, but I think it's just there are so many annoying questions that I get repeatedly asked about. They were getting asked so much to the point where I cannot bring myself to answer them right now. So those are the ones that we blacked out.
You wanted to get that out of the way. Did you actually write the response to the woman question, the "it sucks ass" part? I did. Yeah, that's my work. [Laughs]
That makes sense. It's a boring, cliched question. The best twist on it is when people will be like, "Doesn't it suck being asked about being a woman, tell us about that." And I'm like, "Okay." [Laughs] Because they still have to get that answer, and they'll avoid the way that it's asked in the email.
I think there are more interesting questions to be asked and I just think the answers are not that profound, like I'm really answering the question of what it's like to be a woman. There are so many people who I think could probably answer that question better than me.
So has it been surreal how fast things have moved in the last year? If you look back on where you were a year ago, is this where you envisioned things going? It has been totally surreal. There are times when I think it's looked like it's moving faster than it is, from my perspective, but now it always feels like the jumps are really significant. I close my eyes one day and it feels like we were playing for 10 people, and then I open them and we are selling out places that we haven't been.
It hasn't even sunk in yet, because I've been in a whirlwind just traveling and doing press and getting ready for this record and emailing and doing all this stuff, so I haven't really gotten to like sit down and think about it. But there have been a couple things where I am like, "How did I get here?" I actually didn't have high expectations for Snail Mail starting out because I think there are so many bands and I didn't start to make it, I just wanted to play shows. I think I just worked really hard and I feel really lucky that people connected with the music the way that they did.
Did you always want to be a musician? Did you want that to be your career, or did you see that as a side thing that then became a main thing? Yeah, I hopelessly wanted to be a musician for my entire life. It started when I was five, and I think it was sort of always written off as being really wistful and unrealistic. And I think that started getting to me when I was like 12. I'd held onto it for so long, I was like, "There's no way I'll make it. The only people that happens to are people that are internet sensation superstars." And I started going to DIY shows and I wanted to be part of that world. I separated myself so far from the idea of doing it as a job that I didn't decide not to go to college until about a week before the response was due. I wanted to major in English and I wanted to be writer, but that was before I was 100% sure this wouldn't be a job I could do. So I'm pretty much over the moon right now, and having a really good time.
So you had planned to go to St. Joseph's College in Brooklyn, right? Are you putting that on hold or are you not going? That's right, I'm not going. It was sort of like, I am going to make more than one record, for sure, it's something that I can't not do. I want to make sure that if I have to take time on songwriting in that free space, I want to make sure that I'm hearing and making myself ready to do it again. It's a big thing to indefinitely put music on hold, which you can do with college. You don't know if people are going to care once you get back.
My main thing here is, I'm gonna just take my time and write music how I want to, and when I want to and tour as much as I can, and hopefully that provides some kind of longevity so that I can keep doing this, but do it on my own terms. And not necessarily ride the hype wave onto the hype beach and wash up.
Was your family supportive of this from early on? I know not every family gets it immediately. Totally. I'm really lucky that my parents have always been cool and understanding. When I started playing guitar I was so obsessed with being a perfectionist and I was classically trained and practicing for hours on end every day on my own, and wanted to do music so badly that I think once it started happening, they really weren't that surprised. I think they were like, "that makes sense."
So that was really nice. I didn't have to ever battle them. And my mom used to take me to shows when I was too young to drive or have friends drive me. And she would stand in the back, try not to embarrass me, or just drop me off and come pick me up. So she's always been super supportive. They put me in guitar lessons really young and just always were overwhelmingly supportive. I think they probably didn't have a really great understanding of it, until there was an NPR context, and then they were like, "Oh yeah." It's always that one thing that [makes sense] to parents. I was really psyched when we finally got some NPR stuff happening, I was excited to tell my dad.
You did a Tiny Desk Concert didn't you? I heard the desk isn't as tiny as they claim. I'm gonna go ahead and say it's pretty tiny. It was really hard for us as a three-piece to fit back there. I kept running into our bassist, stepping on him. Not only was it small, I was also the most nervous to date than I've ever been to do a music thing. I don't usually have too crazy nerves, but that one was...the volume in the actual studio is really low, that made everything really intimate. And we didn't make any special arrangements and I don't think I realized at the time that bands rearrange [songs] to match the Tiny Desk vibe.
So we just came in sounding like always, but had the guitars down low. I was so nervous and people were standing so close to me. I think [because] I've watched so many of them, I was so shook walking into the room and seeing how it looks on YouTube vs. real life. It was something I was desperately afraid of messing up. I don't think I've ever put that much pressure on myself in a live setting.
Right, if you play a normal gig, any mistakes kind of get massaged out because of the volume levels. Oh yeah, don't I know it! Tiny Desk, if you make a mistake it's there. With that pressure you're like, "Well was that my best, or is it just going to get worse?"
What were some of the albums and artists that really inspired you and got you obsessed with music? I remember finding Pink Moon by Nick Drake pretty young. I was already pretty interested in discovering music for myself and trying to listen to whatever my parents were listening to, or my sister or friends or whatever. I was sort of versed in the alt world, but when I heard that record it blew me away. The way he plays guitar is so unmatched, he plays with an open tuning that made me interested in that. The melodies are so gorgeous. That really got me excited about guitar playing again.
I saw Fiona Apple on the backend of the Idler Wheel tour cycle, when she was playing with Blake Mills, which is an insane duo. I went because I knew a couple of her songs and I thought it would be cool, but once I really submerged myself into her discography, I was changed. And then of course Liz Phair.
Are you an Exile In Guyville fan? It's interesting that you ask that. When I was little, I heard "Why Can't I" and I was like, "this is insane!" And when I was maybe 13, I heard the Girly-Sound tapes. That was the first formal risque thing that I heard. And then when I was like 16, I was in a Weezer cover band and I heard Exile in Guyville. And I remember on the way back from one of those rehearsals, I put it on in my car, and I just had tears in both my eyes, like what is this? Which is always kind of in the back of my mind when I'm writing songs, because her style is so unique and the chord playing is so much more confusing than it seems. It's all over the place on the neck, and there's also weird tunings on there.
Loaded by The Velvet Underground. That one stuck with me beyond all the other ones. I actually just got it recently on vinyl. I was at the record store, I was like, "This is at every record store I'll ever go to, but now feels like the time to treat myself."
I'm trying to think, there's just so much! Right now I've been listening to a ton of Princess Nokia, just like freaking out, she's so amazing. And I've seen her a couple times, we've played some showcases together. I'm really just now starting to get into electronic music.
I've seen a lot of people referring to your music as "slowcore," focusing on the melancholy aspects of it. Do you like that term, do you think it's a reasonable descriptor of your music? Slowcore is actually kind of a new phrase for me. I've been reading it forever in headlines with Snail Mail, and at some point, like two months ago, I had to look up [what it meant]. That says a lot I think.
But, it's pretty funny, it's a pretty good indicator—like on Lush, almost all of the songs were the exact same tempo before we got into the studio and we had to try to vary things. Not digitally, we started using click tracks just so not every song on it was in 6/8 or whatever. I also really like songs that are fast, I don't know, but I do feel sort of drawn to exploring that darker side, that sadder side. But my goal lately has been to write a song that's not like that. I haven't really had much quiet alone time. Sometimes when you get back from tour, you're home for three days, and it's like, "I don't really wanna write this really sad song!" Like sit in my room and soak up all the drama. It would probably be really cathartic to write a super happy song. That's the goal.
While you've been on tour and traveling a lot, has it been hard to maintain your personal life? Like you've left your friends and they don't really know what's going on with you? Yes. Yeah! That is like hitting the nail on the head, what it's been lately. I think in senior year of high school, when things kind of took off, I didn't really want to talk about it to friends, because it felt really like [presumptuous] and I wasn't sure if it was gonna be a success. It felt boasty and unrelatable and sort of like, my friends don't have context for this, so I don't wanna talk at them.
I started to be less open with sharing information and stuff. Now that we tour all the time and I've been really busy with press stuff, I feel like I've just let go of a lot of relationships. Because it's just like if you're not FaceTiming everyday and calling when you're home for a week or less, if that friend isn't the person that you're going to see, then it's just not happening.
It's sad but, sometimes I feel like I'm cutting out the excess and figuring out who the true blue lifers are. The hardest is having to blow off your real close friends. I've learned a lot in the process just sort of taking care of myself and not saying yes to everything. I mean, it's great to have friends along the way on tour so your friend group isn't just confined to people that you never see.
Some of my best friends are musicians now. I think it's important to be able to talk to people and know people who know what you are going through, and I think there are some really great people out there in the music world. It's been a lot of learning, being surrounded by people who make art and people who run these weird, unconventional businesses. And there's a lot of really intelligent, bright, awesome, driven people around. So that's neat too. There's lots of upsides, I feel like I'm talking about the downsides a lot, but, yeah.
So when you are home and writing music, do you feel like it's a faucet or a well? Whoa.
Yeah, right? Sorry, I was trying to think of the right way of phrasing that. Do the songs come out naturally, or is it more of a painful experience where you really have to work to get each one how you want? I was just talking about this and I actually had a friend use the analogy of a river. She said that, "You shouldn't be worried about writing songs because your creativity is a river, a deep river," and she actually said, "not a well." But I actually think when a wave of inspiration hits I'm not generally always able to pick up a guitar, at least not anytime in the foreseeable future. It's hard for me speak on this because I haven't really made that much progress on the next record.
But I think it starts off sort of fulfilling and natural, and getting yourself to finish that song and make it work and make it exactly how you want it—spend time on it, give it care and attention—is more of a faucet type thing. Because it's so hard to find and commit time and space to do it when you're trying to focus on touring so much. Being in the studio, after cutting the songs open and performing surgery on them [as we did with Lush], I kind of get into my head now overthinking the themes of the songs in a way I didn't before, it kind of was a much more simple process writing last time. I guess it's always changing but I hope it won't become a well again.
When you were looking to make the jump from the DIY scene to a label, was Matador always on the top of your list? No. We had kind of a freakish amount of attention at that point where I was making the decision to move forward onto an indie label. And matador, I hadn't really communicated with them that much.
I didn't know much about any of the labels, and I didn't have a manager yet, but I had an agent. I was asking everybody's opinion on what to do, and then when I hired my manager, they work with a couple of bands on Matador and she spoke highly of working with them. I took a look at their roster and I was like, "Wow, this is the most incredible group of bands right now." I met with them and they were all so incredible, i could tell that they genuinely believed in the music I was making, and they wanted to hear the new songs, and I knew then that it was right.
But definitely not right off the bat, it was such a hard decision. I think if I were doing it alone, I may have been lost, but I had a great team. I'm super happy with my decision, they aren't controlling with my content and they've been really helpful and resourceful, and I'm excited to make another record.
I was reading an interview with your labelmate Stephen Malkmus, and someone played him your single "Pristine," and he said "she's playing the tone on the guitar" which I thought was interesting, because I immediately understood what he meant. Do you spend a lot of time working on finding and playing with those tones or do you prefer a more natural guitar sound? That's really cool, I actually haven't seen that interview. Getting into the "tone zone" was something that took a ton of time on the record. Jake [Aron] the producer and I were like really wrapped up in it.
I have a really small pedal board when I play live, I only use maybe four at a time, and one of those is a tuner. But I am really, really conscious of the tone that comes forth, and when we were at the studio, there was an insane amount of resources, all these old amps and guitars. We spent a ton of time getting those tones right and starting over and redoing. I'm thrilled with the way that they came out and now I feel like my live sound is trying really hard to emulate how we brought those tones out, but keeping it simple.
You have an album release show at Music Hall Of Williamsburg Thursday. Liz Phair is also playing that night! Yeah, she's playing down the street [at National Sawdust] so it's going to be a wild night. We're all trying t make it to both. Well, obviously [we'll play], but we're going to try to make it to the Liz Phair show too, because I haven't seen her play live. I'm going to get a good spot to watch that show if I can.
Wow. What was it like doing that interview with her? Was that nerve racking, were you super excited to meet someone so important to you? It was incredible. I think that there's no way for me to even describe how excited I was about it. I feel like I'm so 5 out of 10 excitement about so many things, but with that we were halfway through our tour, I was exhausted...and I was going to have brunch with the person who pretty much defined how and why I started songwriting. It was just so cool, and she was so nice and smart and humble. I wasn't screaming in her face or anything, but I was really happy to be there.