Snail Mail Moves from Teen Angst to Adult Pain
"[I'm exposing] a lot of my inner feelings in a public way, which is pretty gnarly," Lindsey Jordan says of sophomore album 'Valentine'
Published Nov 01, 2021Lindsey Jordan is exhausted, smack dab in the middle of a long press day after having spent a late night in New Jersey shooting a music video. Over the half-hour that she chats with Exclaim! from her New York apartment, she rubs her eyes often and keeps her hands in near-constant motion, a drowsy martial artist fighting off sleep.
She apologizes for her tiredness, though there's no need. Even when running on fumes, Jordan — who performs under the name Snail Mail — is a conversationalist, funny and candid and thoughtful.
Her sincerity isn't a surprise, given the way she writes. A Snail Mail song is a membrane, all transparency and raw nerves, and there's never any doubt that Jordan's there just on the other side, her shape only barely blurred.
Valentine, Jordan's ecstatically heartbroken sophomore album, ups the ante set by her 2018 debut Lush tenfold, dissolving whatever spittle-thin barrier once existed in exchange for the audio equivalent of sustained, unflinching eye contact.
When asked whether that level of honesty ever makes her apprehensive, she pauses for a half-second, runs a hand through her hair, and laughs.
"Definitely. I mean, especially now that I'm seeing the consequences of it," she says. "I'm very much like, 'Ohhh, lord.' But also, when I was writing it, I could see the consequences of writing about these things that are hard. And I just kind of wanted to make stuff that was really personal, and so I just allowed myself to not process it until now — that some of the stuff I'm [writing] about is stuff that I'd then have to talk about in the press cycle."
Valentine, while exceedingly beautiful, is not easy listening. Rehab, obsession, blackouts, suicidal ideation, pain and divine intervention all find a place beneath the record's vaulted, finely wrought ceilings, a gilded mausoleum that holds a lot of hard feelings.
"[I'm exposing] a lot of my inner feelings in a public way, which is pretty gnarly," she says. "Like, it does have negative effects. But at the same time, I do think it's worth it for the integrity of the work."
She continues, "And I'm saying that now, and I only just started having to talk about rehab and stuff. In a couple months maybe I'll feel differently. But as of now, I still think it's worth it, because authenticity is really important to me. And I just think that, if I'm gonna perform music all the time, I want to feel deeply connected to it, not like I'm portraying characters and stuff that don't exist."
Rather than pull back from her writing, she explains, she's instead learned to build those boundaries in the world beyond her page. While her art becomes less and less guarded, Jordan is learning to better protect the person behind it. That includes a more careful approach to the potential mine-field of the press cycle, a gentle caution belied by her friendly openness.
"At the end of the day, people probably don't even realize — I think the artist does have so much power to keep the narrative as concise as they want, and I definitely feel like I still haven't given away more than I'd like to," she says. "There's such a strict boundary for me as to how far I'm willing to go into detail, because I just think Lush was really easy to talk about, because it's not loaded at all. Like there's nothing loaded about any of it, which is almost why I think it's still a special album to me — it's innocent.
"Now, there's a lot I want to keep to myself and for myself and for the people around me. But I am willing to give away a certain amount of vague information in my lyrics and that's as far as I'm willing to go. So I'll reiterate it till the cows come home in interviews, but I won't necessarily go any deeper than I actually have. It all hits the same wall."
That wall was crafted out of necessity, the response to a much-lauded debut album that saw an exceptionally sensitive teenager hit with far too much attention far too quickly.
"It's so new. Like, having any kind of boundaries is super 2021," she says, laughing. "Now, I have an adult life, an experienced life that I feel like I need to protect. And an integrity that I feel like I need to protect, only because I don't want to discuss intimate details with … everybody. It's too chaotic."
Lush was hailed for its candour, but there's a different flavour to its brand of heart-on-sleeve vulnerability — a strange joyousness in its anguish, the kind of teenage pain that feels bigger than the world until, suddenly, it doesn't. The hurt that Jordan sings about on Valentine feels more like a deep ache than a slap. Things linger now.
"It was easy for me to just spill my guts because nothing about it is too personal," she says. "When you're 16 singing about your love life and stuff, it doesn't really matter, y'know? There's no negative effects. It's just like, 'Well, I guess my crush is gonna think I'm weird.'"
When asked if she recognizes that slack-jawed kid on the cover of Lush, the one who howled so innocently about her apocalyptic crushes, Jordan sighs before slowly getting up from her seat, laptop balanced on her arm.
"Um… no. Which is sad. Like, I can definitely recall — sorry, I'm refilling my coffee, I'm so fucking tired — a feeling of what it felt like to feel that way, but I can't feel it anymore," she says, pouring coffee into a mug that reads "World's Greatest Lesbian." "It feels like there's definitely a self before I experienced touring and having a job and having real-life experience and stuff. A clear before and after."
Jordan's words have only gotten sharper and more deliberate on the other side of that divide, but an instrumental version of Valentine would tell you just as much about her artistic development as the lyric sheets. Helmed alongside indie-rock veteran Brad Cook, Valentine is beyond anything that teenage Jordan could have imagined, incorporating samples, funk guitar, synths, programmed drums and dense finger-picked ballads into her blazing indie rock.
The record's finely tuned bombast is a testament to both Jordan's restless ambition and her desire to perfect her craft before the chance disappears on her. She describes her writing as an act of happenstance or unexplained intervention. For someone so attuned to melody and songcraft, she says she lives in constant fear that her muse will one day just walk out on her.
"I never don't feel like that. I question why I do this all the time, not because I don't love it, but because the feeling of being done with one record literally only means fear for the next one, which is such a point of anxiety for me," she explains.
"I never think of myself as a writer, I think I always just feel like, whenever I finish something — I mean, I do think of myself as a writer — but I don't ever think of it as a talent, like something that I can come to expect from myself," she continues. "I always feel like it's something that has to come out of some magical moment of inspiration. It doesn't ever feel like I'm in the driver's seat."
If that's the case, then Jordan is an exacting and demanding passenger, guiding her music to new heights with each release. Valentine is the rare second record that turns away from much of what made its predecessor a success and finds something even greater on that new horizon.
When asked whether she's proud of this new version of Snail Mail — more comfortable in discomfort, more honest about where honesty must end, more ready to share and be shared — she sounds confident in her answer.
"I wanted it to be great. Capital G. And I do think it's great. What's the point in putting something out if you don't believe that? You know?"