At 18, most people are applying to colleges, falling in and out of first love, still figuring out how they see the world—and how they see themselves. Lindsey Jordan is doing all that, but she’s also playing in her band, Snail Mail. After shooting up from the Baltimore underground, where her allies included Washington, D.C. punk mainstays Priests and her guitar teacher, Mary Timony (of Helium and Ex Hex fame), Jordan released the first Snail Mail EP, Habit, at just 16. But while Habit, which she wrote in her suburban Maryland childhood home, is a collection of intimate, urgent emotions, it’s important to Jordan that the music she’s making now be at the forefront, and not just part of some trend. “People think [female] is a genre,” she told Paste. ”[Snail Mail] is sort of in this weird way getting compared to Soccer Mommy. They’re our great friends… but we sound nothing like Soccer Mommy. It’s so weird.”
On June 8, Snail Mail—which is Jordan’s brainchild but performs as a quartet—will release their debut album, Lush, via Matador. Now out of high school and pursuing music full time, Jordan still isn’t sure about all the attention, but she’s definitely sure of herself. In her recent interview with Paste, she spoke honestly about recording Lush, her identity as an openly gay woman, and how she’s changed her approach to making music now that so many people are listening. Despite the hype—which she admits has forced her to “grow up” and sometimes puts her in a “really weird place”—she is smart, capable and fully in control. “I didn’t care if anybody heard [my music] before,” she said. “Now I don’t really care how people take it, but I do care what I feel about the music that I’m putting out.”
Lush is poised to launch Snail Mail to mainstream fame, but it’s clear that Jordan is still doing it for herself.
“I spent so much time writing and throwing away and starting over, and being inside my own head as a musician. It is such a hard job, and getting compared to every single teen girl on the Earth is just… annoying. No matter what, we’re getting compared to every single girl on the Earth with a guitar.”
You’ve been playing guitar since you were 5. What inspired you to first get started?
Maybe some mixture of School of Rock and Avril Lavigne. It’s hard to say because I was 5. I wanted a guitar, and I got a little Squier… it’s actually kind of funny, because it kind of looks like the guitar that I play now. But it was this little red and white Squier Strat. I took lessons at this place called Music and Arts. It’s a chain, and there was one five minutes walking distance from my house. The rule was that you had to be 7 or something, so I just pushed it a little… I got to know the guitar teacher, and he was like, “OK, this is fine.” And I’m glad I did.
When did you start taking lessons with Mary Timony?
Actually not that long ago. We started working together maybe two years ago. I actually met her at a show, and I had a friend who she taught, and I was in the market for a new guitar teacher. I didn’t really start getting to know her music until after we started working together, but she’s obviously awesome.
Did you meet at a show in Baltimore?
D.C. But I’m like, really obsessed with the Baltimore scene. I think it fosters a lot of young creators.
A lot of really cool and weird bands come out of Baltimore.
Yeah, I mean there’s that band Horse Lords, probably the best technical musicians I’ve ever seen in my life. There’s a weirdly huge collection of giant bands that have come out of Baltimore and it’s not really a place that supports DIY. There are not many DIY spaces anymore. There used to be this crazy scene and it’s not there anymore. There are so many crazy bands that came out of there, from nowhere, like Beach House, Lower Dens, Future Islands, Wye Oak, Celebration, Dan Deacon. There used to be such a cool thriving indie-rock scene happening, and now… I have a lot of friends doing hardcore shows and stuff, which I think is cool. A lot of young people. There are a lot of creative awesome people curating shows and doing it for themselves, but D.C. definitely has more of a [DIY] scene [than Baltimore]. There’s a big punk legacy over there and I feel like everyone is just trying to uphold that.
Do you think Baltimore DIY is starting from zero again? That’s sort of how it feels in New York, now that a lot of the spaces like Silent Barn and Shea Stadium are gone.
I think a lot of people still think there’s a lot happening in New York. People move up here with the intent of being signed and stuff… there’s a lot of, in my opinion, B.S. here. I would go to shows and be like, “What the fuck, why…?” I mean, not to shit on bands, but there’s a lot of lame shit, a lot of poser shit.
It sucks when there’s a four-band bill and it’s these heavy guitar bands that all sound exactly the same.
Baltimore is really cool to me still, because I think people are just making crazy art with no intention of getting anywhere with it… I think sometimes that’s where the best stuff comes out of. A lot of those bands do end up doing well, but it feels like we’re surrounded by bands that are doing it just because they like it, which is really cool. I feel like I’m just inspired by the people I’m surrounded by in Baltimore. We have a hometown show coming up, and eventually a record release, and it was just so fun curating the lineup. Just because I was like, “These are friends that I think deserve it more than us.” There are lots of really insanely smart artists all over the place.
Since you started playing music so young, your parents must have been supportive. I heard that your mom used to drive you to shows.
Yeah. I mean they were just really supportive in general. I feel like no matter what, they just back me up… I went to a lot of shows, probably a lot more than I go to now, and they would always drop me off. I remember at some point, close to when I got my driver’s license, my friend Sean, who used to play drums in Snail Mail, started introducing me to these cooler punk shows and so I was having my parents drop me off at houses, which was funny… they’ve seen really cool shows. When I was like, 12, I dragged my mom to these little venues to see these bands that are now bigger, and so my mom keeps up with a lot of them and it’s cool. She was pretty into it.
Lindsey Jordan led Snail Mail at SXSW in Austin, Texas, last week. (Adrian Spinelli)
Since the success of Habit, you’ve been on this crazy press cycle. How has the hype and attention changed the way you’re looking at your career, which is just getting started?
There was a lot of B.S. that I had to go through in order to get to you and where I am now… there’s so much that’s behind the scenes. The press that got us here was sort of all at once, and kind of seemed like it came out of nowhere. That time was really stressful, because we had, like, 20 manager interviews… we had all these agent interviews and the European booking agent interviews, and 15 label offers… it seems like it would be cool, but I was pretty dumb about the way I went about it in a lot of ways, because I was really just excited and really naive in a lot of ways… I felt like I was falling into these pockets that weren’t so good. I learned a lot, and I feel like I had to grow up a lot in this weird little way. It’s been such a short amount of time but I’ve just learned so much, and I just feel like this angry old man who used to be in an indie band, like, “Oh, you’ve got to stay away from this…”
And your record isn’t even out yet!
You can’t even tell how much we’ve done. The recording process itself was insane and long. I had a really close relationship with our producer and we were just like sharing brain waves and getting in tune with each other. We spent a lot of time doing that. And we had all these crazy steps that I know not every band does, so in turn, the record took sort of an unnatural amount of time. We did all these extra things to make sure everything was perfect, and yeah, choosing the producer was a real interesting time. But now, I feel like the thing about all of the hype is that obviously it’s temporary, and I’ve had a lot of friends in old hype bands be like, “Yeah, it’s fun now, but be careful because in a year no one is going to care!”
When you made Habit, you were a high schooler writing songs in your bedroom. Now that your perspective has grown, how has that altered your approach to songwriting?
In pretty much every single way I have had to reconfigure how I do things, which has really been a little difficult. I wrote Habit completely for myself, it’s this real collection… I was really interested in making songs that I felt fit together. That was my goal. I didn’t even want to play any shows or have anybody hear them, I just had this personal goal of doing this thing and having it be all me and arranging a band and working together… And then this [record], some of those songs I wrote directly after recording the other one, once again, just for myself… So I feel like between the two, I just read a lot, and sort of just spent time listening to as much music as possible and just figuring out what it means to me and what I wanted to represent me. Just locking myself in my room with records and being like, “Why do I even like this?” and sort of starting from nothing. I wrote probably 30 songs for the record and only kept a few. So it was a very intense process, and I spent a lot of time reflecting and just figuring out how I could make a record that I care about enough to play every night and felt like I could put out with my name on it and would be like, “OK, this is something that I would listen to.”
As a very young woman in music, have you felt labeled during this process? Snail Mail is a band, but people tend to frame your music as singer-songwriter. Also, if you’re comfortable discussing it, you’re openly gay now—have you ever felt like an identity was being forced on you?
Yeah, definitely. Not so much yet the gay stuff, we’ll see, I’m like waiting for it… I think about it all the time, like, “Can’t wait for my Republican fucking uncle to read some article…” But yeah, especially with the female thing… people think [female] is a genre. There are people that listen to bands because they’re female-fronted, which I think is weird. I consider myself a feminist… I care a lot about that stuff on a personal level, but I don’t promote it in my music, and I never really made any point to share that with anyone. Even though obviously it’s important and I’m glad that I can, and it’s nice to even have people listening. That is stuff that I care about, but I mean… we do get really pigeonholed for being female-fronted and a feminist [band]. A lot of the music I listen to is male guitarists and singer-songwriters… I like a nice mix, but I just don’t ever turn anything on and think like, “Oh, hell yeah, I love this female-fronted band.” Elektra is one of my favorite bands of all time and it’s all women, but I don’t know—they’re just very good at their instruments and their songs are great. For me, since I’m not turning on my record player like, “Hell yeah, female-fronted,” it sometimes feels like I would rather just be compared to male artists in a lot of ways, because there are bands that we could be getting compared to that we’re not, just because I’m a woman… We’re sort of in this weird way getting compared to Soccer Mommy. They’re our great friends, Sophie’s the best, we were all close friends from before. We would play house shows together. But we’re not—we sound nothing like Soccer Mommy.
It’s easy for people to identify something they want to be a trend, and then lump a lot of dissimilar things into that. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
It sucks, too, because sometimes it feels like it belittles your accomplishments… Everyone [in Snail Mail] is all really young, and I feel like I had to work really hard just to get to where we are, and tour really hard, and I spent so much time writing and throwing away and starting over, and being inside my own head as a musician. It is such a hard job, and getting compared to every single teen girl on the Earth is just… annoying.
Now that you’ve been open about your sexuality, do you feel any pressure to be someone for young gay women to look up to?
I definitely think representation matters. I don’t feel any kind of pressure. When I look out to the crowd, I like seeing that there are lots of gay teen girls. We all love playing for teenagers—that’s the best, they’re so nice, and they’re just genuinely excited. That’s so much better than playing for a bunch of people who are like, arms crossed, eyes rolled to the back of their heads. When people come up and are talking about being gay, that’s cool. I can definitely recognize that we’re not really a queercore band. I respect a lot of those bands, but for me, it was important to keep sexuality out of the genre, just for me personally. It wasn’t the route I ever wanted to go down. But I do think it’s cool that people have that. I personally didn’t really have any kind of heroes that were gay, or any of that stuff, and probably if I knew about any when I was younger, I would have been psyched. It’s hard to come to terms with being gay when you don’t have someone you respect as being gay. There was a long time in my life where I didn’t even know girls were allowed in bands, which is crazy… I remember I went with my sister to go see Paramore. I was 8, and I didn’t know what Paramore was, but I was so excited to see that there was a girl in the band, and it was a cool band. They were so awesome. I was moved by that, and it’s one of the only things I remember from being that age. I was like, “Wow, cool, I can start a band,” because I was already a guitarist at that point. So just thinking you could be that for someone else is awesome.