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Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan wants to make feelings cool

Should people tell their crushes how they feel? “Yeah! Come on! Yeah.”

“I’m really Red Bull-ed up!” Lindsey Jordan tells me. “This is so like... a million words a minute.” We’re meeting at Oslo, a club and restaurant in Hackney, just before she takes to the stage upstairs. It is her first gig in London with her band Snail Mail, as she tours her debut album, Lush. But she has more than just the gig on her mind – over the course of our conversation, she jumps between talking about Goofy memes, the embarrassment of writing songs about getting wasted, nature writing, and the business side of being the music industry. 

There’s a lot to talk about. Jordan first gained prominence in 2016 for Habit, a scratchy but self-assured EP of six confessional, direct songs, released when Jordan was just 17. Since then, she’s toured, signed to a major label, Matador, come out as gay, and written and recorded her full debut album, Lush. She’s had to learn how to be a fully-fledged adult and a professional recording artist in a little more than a year. “Every month, I feel like I’m a totally different person.”

Jordan grew up in Ellicott City, a suburb of Baltimore, and discovered the city’s thriving DIY scene at a young age, going to her first shows at just 12. “My mom would come and stand in the back,” she says, smiling. “It was really sweet.” When she saw a Post Pink show, her eyes were opened to a world of punk bands; she started making her own music soon after: including Snail Male, a project between her and Snail Mail’s bassist, Alex, that she describes as “these little stupid drum machines synth pop songs”. “Oh, they were like far off this earth,” she laughs. “They were like terrible.”

She reused the name with the more conventional spelling when she started uploading her solo music to Bandcamp when she was 15. She eventually released Habit, which received much more attention than Jordan could have anticipated: despite her youth and the lo-fi quality of the recordings, critics took note. The record was recently re-released and given a warm review in Pitchfork.

Reflecting on the earlier record, Jordan pauses. “There’s like a wistful... youthful... optimistic....... dumb innocence to Habit,” she laughs. “When I wrote Habit, I truly felt like I had the entire world figured out. I was like: Wow. I really know everything. But now that I've had to mature so much during this process, I can acknowledge that I know even less. Habit is like: I know everything! I'm an ADULT! I feel a lot less like that now.”

After months of touring Habit, including a buzzy show at South By South West (“At SXSW 2017, Everyone’s Talking About Snail Mail”, one reviewer wrote), Jordan slowed right down to write Lush. “I took my time to get inspired,” she says, “because I knew I had the resources and the time to make something that could be truly special and timeless for me.”

She moved to New York, and made a effort to spend as much time alone as possible, despite being in a new city, surrounded by her friends, with constant invites to parties. Instead, she stayed in the studio, or at home, reading - discovering the poetry of Eileen Myles, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows: all big influences on Lush. “I definitely stopped going out,” she explains. “For, like, a year. I just became a very isolated cave person.” (Now on tour again, she insists she tries to claw back time to herself whenever she can, to stop things becoming overwhelming. “The dark club every night can be like a swift slap in the face: sad.”)

It was a deliberate choice to throw all her energy at the record. “I wanted to represent myself in the strongest way possible, since I had the time and the opportunity to go into a nice studio with all these musicians at my disposal, with resources and instruments. It was daunting, because I had the opportunity to make the greatest record in the world or the worst.”

The resulting record is a series of aching, dreamy songs that contain a forensic exploration of longing. Two perfect love songs, “Pristine” and “Heat Wave”, stand out from the crowd while blending in. Her aloneness rubs off on the record: though Jordan explores relationships – not just unrequited crushes, on Lush – their perspective is at a remove from immediate experience. Her songs seem to take place an infinite, vacant suburbia that she moves through in a haze. “It just feels like the same party every weekend / Doesn’t it?” she sings on “Pristine”. In “Heat Wave”, a long summer stretches out indefinitely.

She jokes about her gravitation towards mid-tempo songs. “My producer was like, You guys need a track that's faster because all the songs on the record are the same tempo! But this is who I am. I'm a very 3/4 individual.” I tell her she seems more effervescent than that in person. “I'm Red Bulled!”

There are moments of breathless romanticism on Lush: “And I hope whoever it is / Holds their breath around you / Cause I know I did,” “Heat Wave” continues. Jordan sings like someone beyond a fear of rejection, still stuck stupidly in love – someone who knows they’re doomed to lust after someone who won’t look back, but doesn’t want to get over it and move on either. “Don’t even wanna fix it now”, she sings on “Full Control” – hinting that she seeks out this state of permanent infatuation: “In full control / I’m not lost / Even when it’s love /Even when it’s not.”

There’s a depth to the guitar work on Lush beyond anything on Habit. “I’m a guitar player first,” Jordan explains. “It's not evident on Habit. I wanted Lush to be truer to the music that actually inspires me and that I actually like, rather than being a vessel for my vocal melodies. Now, the song writing’s more mature in comparison to Habit. It’s very hi-fi, with a lot more room for more guitar work, because Habit was predominantly one guitar track.”

“I was never not in the studio when things were happening,” she insists. “Like, during the mixing, I was right there in the producer chair. I take a lot of pride in every single thing about it, because I was a true control freak. I’m really proud of it. Habit, for me, it will date. But Lush was such a process, and I went through so much to get it where it is, that I just think it will probably always mean a lot to me.”

It’s also a more direct record. “Pronouns like she and her, weren't on Habit,” she explains. “I was already nervous about releasing my songs and having people hear them, it would have doubled that to be like: And also I’m gay.” She’s delighted that she made the leap on Lush.

“There’s a lot of casually gay love songs on there. I didn’t have that growing up. I was always reaching in the dark and wishing I had access to songs that weren't necessarily about being gay, but were love songs from a gay perspective. I hope there are other little gay tweens out there that listen and are like, ‘I want to write this gay song and not worry about it.’ Even if you're not gay, writing songs about crushes, and actually speaking your mind, and not worrying about whether its trivial”

Does she think people should always tell their crushes how they feel? “Yeah! Come on! Yeah. There's no use hiding your feelings for people or feeling nervous or having regrets or anything.”

“I think putting yourself out there is technically uncool,” she says with a glint in her eye. “I’m trying to make feelings cool again. We’re bringing feelings back in 2018!”

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.