Snail Mail’s gonna write you a love song

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In conversation with Lindsey Jordan on entering her 20s, rockstar reinvention, and writing a breathtaking sophomore record. Illustration by JL JAVIER with photos by TINA TYRELL and GRAYSON VAUGHAN/MATADOR RECORDS

In her new album, Snail Mail writes about love.

Out Nov. 5, “Valentine” finds Lindsey Jordan of Snail Mail navigating every nook and cranny of the experience of desire, from the delicate ruminations on devotion in “Light Blue” to the blistering acerbity in the second single “Ben Franklin” to the sparkling, wistful longing in “Mia.” In an interview on Zoom, Jordan talks about the forthcoming record, the ways she’s taking control of every facet of her work and the ways her perceptions of love have changed.

Snail Mail made one of the boldest debuts of the last decade in 2018 with her album “Lush” — an eviscerating, moody rock record that rounded out the lo-fi grunge of her 2016 EP “Habit” with fuller production. “Lush” saw the then 19-year-old Jordan rounding out her teens in the limelight, touring this critically acclaimed album of gut-wrenching love songs.

Becoming a rockstar overnight had a profound impact on Jordan and she feels she’s had time to grow in many ways in the time since. “I think I just got really, like, equal parts cocky and also scared,” she says. “A lot of people made me feel like a concept and so I kind of feel like I started just being a concept to myself, too, like a caricature of myself, which totally works for the job. It honestly benefits you for the job: being a character even in your off time, just being like, ‘Damn, I'm like a wind-up toy. I'm like a rockstar doll.’ Just literally being like, ‘I don't need any depth. I have it all right here.’”

“I was living like that for a long time, I guess. A big coming-of-age thing for me has just been existing out of that and just learning to be a good boss, you know, how to be a good band leader, how to bring good energy and stuff like that, how to make my own decisions and have good boundaries, and be self-aware, and be a person with substance and depth and morals — just all of the adult stuff… I feel much more open to challenges and hard decisions and responsibility, which is just all the stuff that I would’ve been running from before.”

‘Valentine’ is very much [a] post-exploration of real love and loss. A big thing that I'm exploring on the record are my own faults and what's gotten me into these heartbreaking situations, but also the discovery that love is ultimately between a person and a person and never a person and a concept.

Now at 22, Jordan still wears her heart on her sleeve in her songwriting, but the way she’s come to see love has evolved, too. She says, “The record is very much a departure from ‘Lush’ because ‘Lush’ is all about that yearning phase of being young and wistful and excited about love and life. And I think that's really beautiful in itself but, like, there is this toxic idealism in it — I mean it's beautiful and it also leads people into shit. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this crush that I have is everything. It's going to complete me, it’s this and that’.”

“And then ‘Valentine’ is very much [a] post-exploration of real love and loss. A big thing that I'm exploring on the record are my own faults and what's gotten me into these heartbreaking situations, but also the discovery that love is ultimately between a person and a person and never a person and a concept. It's just earth-shattering. It's earth-shattering in life and it's earth-shattering in all of the songs, because it was just like this big turning point moment in my life where I finally had some time off tour and I experienced love, and I experienced different relationships, and I experienced, like, all kinds of real stuff,” she says. “There’s just, like, a self-awareness budding into this record that isn't there necessarily on ‘Lush.’”

Jordan paints these narratives of heartbreak and longing across the record. In the dreamy yacht rock track “Forever (Sailing)” she sings, “No matter what we are / I love you from the city to the stars / but nothing stays as good as how it starts.” In “Headlock,” she begs, “Sorrow snuck into our secret place / Drag me with you to nirvana, baby / take me all the way.”

On making her way to the self-awareness on “Valentine,” she laughs and says, “It was such a bitch! It's been a bitch. It's, like, so nice to live in a fantasy world. I think coming right out of high school and getting my dream job, that is a good way to live in a fantasy world.“

She continues, “Having to live real life as a person that wasn't on tour all the time and isn't necessarily getting applause all the time, it’s such an adjustment. I was like, ‘Oh my God, real life exists where Snail Mail doesn’t exist.’ And I have to learn how to cook, I have to learn how to be a good friend and I have to learn how to be a good partner.”

The production on “Valentine” shows an expanded sonic palette for Snail Mail. Photo by TINA TYRELL/MATADOR RECORDS

The production on “Valentine” shows an expanded sonic palette for Snail Mail, led primarily by Jordan’s own desire for sonic experimentation and aided by co-producer Brad Cook. Eerie synths open the title track before the massive arena rock chorus comes in. “Madonna” has a serpentine slink in its full-band arrangement while “ al.” is set to just dreamy finger-picked guitar. Melancholy piano and strings fill out the closing track “Mia.”

Jordan says, “I guess [it was] just wanting to bring the songs to another level and wanting to do it very intentionally with all of the different parts... I'm not crazy about people just, like, throwing budget at stuff, you know? Like, ‘Here, we have money. Let's get some violins in!’ It was very much a matter of wanting to experiment around with stuff like that but just wanting to make sure all the parts were right and the songs were totally done first, so most of it would just start with me and the guitar. And then, like, a lot of the times I added synths by myself and we would be like, ‘What does the song need?’ And my instinct was, I guess, to make the songs different. I was just excited to just see what sounded cool.”

It’s breathtaking to see an artist like Jordan coming into her own as a storyteller and quite literally finding her voice. One of the most palpable ways she’s grown on “Valentine” is this newfound command of her voice as an instrument. “I think now it’s, like, obvious to me that my voice has changed even more because I started doing vocal lessons for vocal health and stuff ’cause I always lose my voice, since it sits in like a lower register,” she says. “It gets husky really quickly, and I think, like, the way that I’m singing on the record is sort of just how I learned on tour to, like, try to honor the fact that it’s become lower somehow.”

Whether she’s belting, whispering or snarling, Jordan’s vocal delivery works intentionally to color the emotional worlds of these songs. “I guess learning dynamics subconsciously that work with the songs, like, I've been experimenting a lot and then that just became the most natural way to go about what you hear on the record.”

“It was a big thing for me to want to work closely with someone who did styling. I think a major mark of the style on the record is that it's very androgynous and it's glam but it’s understated," says Snail Mail's Lindsey Jordan. Photo by GRAYSON VAUGHAN/MATADOR RECORDS

Even in the album’s visuals, we see Jordan slipping into something new. On the cover, she poses in a ruffled dress shirt and a plush pink suit adorned with a cameo brooch and a rose boutonniere. “It was important to me on the first record for authenticity's sake for us all to just have T-shirts and jeans and stuff and, like whatever. I was like, ‘This is how we all dress, whatever.’ And now, all of a sudden, I'm like, ‘Hey, I have these ideas and I want them to be translated well. How can I make it so that everything is just concise and exactly as I want it?’”

Collaborating with Alexa Lanza, who’s styled all of the visuals for “Valentine” thus far, Jordan’s been able to execute her sartorial vision for the record. “It was a big thing for me to want to work closely with someone who did styling. I think a major mark of the style on the record is that it's very androgynous and it's glam but it’s understated. It works really well with how I want everything to be presented,” she says. “It's been super rewarding and it's also just really fun. I think that there’s so much of my identity that I feel like I'm able to present in fashion stuff and it's liberating as fuck to dress exactly how I picture myself in an ideal world.”

“I think a big part of this second record for me has just been taking things more into my hands,” Jordan adds, “being a co-producer, working directly on the videos, wanting everything onstage to look really great, and a major goal for the record for me has just been making everything presentable and clean and professional.”

Jordan wrote the initial concept and script for the “Valentine” video before handing the reins to director Josh Coll to bring her gory Edwardian fantasy to life. “I was wanting to, like, enter into the horror realm a little more. A lot of the movies that I'm really interested in are horror movies,” she shares. “My initial character was an ex that had, like, become a stalker and was doing all kinds of murdering and, like, hiding things and putting together a shrine and all that stuff. And there was a big chocolate cake in there, and there [were] tears and there was alcohol and all that stuff. A lot of the imagery made its way over to the concept that Josh came up with.”

The video plays out like a queer period romance turned slasher film — think “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” meets “Blood and Black Lace.” Jordan plays a dressmaker who spots her ex-lover at a party with a dandy and goes at him with a knife. The video ends in carnage and bloodshed, but doesn’t lose sight of the tenderness of the protagonist’s devotion. In the last few seconds, Jordan sits drenched in blood, gorging on chocolate cake as she imagines herself dancing with her lover again.

Perhaps it’s here where we see the fullness of her vision for the entire record: love as something dreamy, delicate and dressed to the nines, but also an experience that can take a turn for the grotesque and visceral. Desire is the electricity that runs through the record. It thrums through the synths and guitars and surges through Jordan’s masterful vocal performances. When “Valentine” ends, what has she said about love? Perhaps that it’s overwhelming and complex, that not everything about it can fit on a record, but it’s worth unraveling with the tenderness of someone in love.

“Once you get into, like, serious love stuff, there is no room for a pedestal and there’s no room for looking up at somebody. And I think that the record goes into that a lot, because it's like: What happens when you get everything you want?” Jordan laughs, “You discover that it's a lot.”

“Valentine” is out now via Matador Records. An audio version of this interview will be broadcast in a special one-off show on Manila Community Radio on Nov. 7.