COVER STORY: Snail Mail Delivers the Quintessential Post-Breakup Album

by | Nov 8, 2021 | Industry News, Interviews and Features

When I talk to Lindsey Jordan, the woman behind the band Snail Mail, at noon on a weekday, she has a lot going on. “I am very busy right now,” she tells me, “but making it work for myself in a way, trying to take care of myself too, which is in itself a challenge in itself but I’m kind of enjoying being busy.”

Snail Mail is ramping up for a November release of their new record Valentine, a post-breakup dossier of aching devotion amid absolute disaster. A departure from the sweeter tones she sang with on her first studio album Lush, in 2018, Jordan’s huskier delivery is even itself heart-wrenching, as if she were hoarse and recovering from that relentless post-breakup spiral: pleading for their return, snarling at their rejection, then pleading some more. And Valentine is precisely a plot to bring you along for that ride. Jordan’s lavish layers and cushy synth confessions can lull you into a swoon, then sharp changes in tempo and melody and pithy lyrics reemphasize the desperation, but adoration, that underpins it all. But today, Lindsey is upbeat, keeping busy, and taking care of herself.

You said you’re trying to take care of yourself, which is a struggle for everybody, I think. What does “taking care of yourself” and self-care look like for you?

LJ: I make sure that I throw in things that I do for fun into my day, because around this time with a record, as I learned last time, it just becomes all about me– but it’s actually not all about me. It’s like I’m talking about myself all day long and doing stuff for my career all day long. The actual things that I like to do to wind down I have to force myself to do. I have such an overactive brain; it’s over-productive all the time. Sometimes it’ll mean meditating, sometimes it’ll mean taking an hour out of the day to time myself where I just do something I actually like. I’m in the process of buying a nice overnight suitcase. Having a nice suitcase is self-care, in a way.

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Putting together Valentine during Covid, how did you handle that?  When you’re doing part of that at home and taking that into the studio, what does collaboration look like?

LJ: It was a little bit of everything. I did a lot of it initially at home, a lot of the fleshing out of the demos. And some of the actual process was at home. But a lot of the final stuff was done at Brad’s studio in North Carolina. [Producer, Brad Cook]

Collaboration to me, working with Brad for example, I went into the studio with all of these demos and all of these half-finished ideas and Brad really gave me the reins as a co-producer. He tried to be as hands-off as possible so that I could take over. It’s a lot about getting out of my own head and asking for opinions. That’s hard for me. I’m such a solo worker. It takes flexing certain muscles to try to be collaborative for me. I’m very much a control freak about my own stuff.

There are definitely times it helps to have experts around, getting some perspective on things that make a big difference that I’m willing to ask for help about. So, not the writing. [laughs]

I think that shows growth to go from “this is mine and this is me” to having the self-awareness to recognize that need for collaboration. But still, you said you “make everything happen” — so you’re writing solo or is that collaborative?

LJ: All of my writing is solo, it’s really intense, I think it’s the hardest part of the job because it’s so important to me to do it myself. It’s what makes it a special job. Not to shit on people who work with ghostwriters. But I can do it. It’s a lot of trial and error, especially with the lyrics. I’ll sit down and write something on the guitar and then start to bring lyrics into the fold and I’ll have a finished set of lyrics that doesn’t stop changing until the song gets recorded — because I just need and want everything to be perfect, by my standards.

When I’m making a demo I’ll add in some synth stuff, flesh out some stuff, redo some stuff and then when I take it to the studio it’s just kind of about adapting that to having more resources and having something bigger than the things that I have in my apartment.

Do you ever look at a studio-polished production and want to peel it back, like been made too big?

LJ: One hundred percent, I think that’s a huge part of editing. Knowing when you’re done often means taking something down a few notches. Sometimes with music, where it doesn’t speak it me, often I find that that is why. There’s too much going on, nobody dialed it back.

Over-produced can sometimes mean that the song isn’t necessarily good. But then sometimes having this big production works really well for the song! It’s really all just about having a strong connection with your intuition and really listening to it. Never doing anything just because. “Damn, I want violins here so I’m going to put them in.” That is definitely not conducive to making something really special, in my opinion.

‘Valentine’ is the first song and that’s going to be the first single. When you put together the track list are you thinking of it as a whole album, a concept, or in those singles and bite-sized pieces? The way we consume media and music is so different now…

I think it’s about piece by piece. I never made a song with the intention of it being a single, I just kept on trucking forward and making songs and then didn’t choose singles until the very end. There were a lot of options, which is always a good problem to have. Between me and the people that I work with, nobody was able to easily choose three singles and agree on them. Which I think is really cool. There’s a lot of catchy songs on there.

But the track list I spent a lot of time on, [especially] the sequencing. I have a method to it.  And I definitely think that is such a personal thing. Everybody had different ideas for the sequence, but I was like, I know that there is a correct answer within me and that has to be what we go with.

Valentine plays like a really excellent playlist; it has an incredible flow, obviously that’s by design. What’s your favorite song from the album, is it the title track?

LJ: No! I wanted that to be the title track. I wanted that to be the name of the album. But I definitely think my favorite is “Automate.” The lyrics are really personally loaded for me, as are all of them, but with those I got done what I set out to get done. The imagery is solid and it’s pretty clear to anyone listening what the tone is, and I really love that ending part. The end is one of my favorite things I’ve ever written. I just love that song; it always hits a nerve for me when we play it or when I listen to it. It just continuously hits a nerve.

Mentioning what it makes you feel like to play it: are you playing out at live shows yet? When was the last time that you played live in front of an audience and what do you anticipate that that’s going to feel like?

LJ: It’s been two years!  Hopefully it feels good, like riding a bike, but I don’t know that that’s true about it. I’m pretty nervous. Hopefully it will just come rushing back! We are doing session work. We’ve been practicing since summer and going really hard. We’ll do like two weeks at a time and do multiple sessions, end early if we feel like it and still have plenty of time left. We just really like hanging out.

What are you looking for folks to take away from their experience with this album, with all that you put into trying to craft the impact? 

LJ: I hope that people are able to be transported into the experiences that I’m talking about. I think a lot of them are just vague enough that I think that people can bring their own context to it. I didn’t intend to be specific enough that people would be digging around in my stuff and instead that it can be a personal experience for everyone.

A lot of the influences that people throw around in the press for you are a lot of those singer songwriter artists that also practice that catharsis: Elliott Smith, Cat Power, Fiona Apple. When you hear that, who of those comparisons feels really spot-on for you as an influence?

LJ: Elliott Smith and Fiona Apple are in my top five.  Smith is my all-time songwriting hero, so I just love that.  That comparison means a lot to me. Anytime I hear that one I feel so much more seen as a songwriter because I think people are quick to want to throw all the women together and it’s not a testament to anyone’s actual songwriting or intention, it’s just gender in common. Which is so obnoxious. I’m not comparing myself to him, but I wish that I could have more of my own corner instead of being associated with a wave. I feel like none of the people who get compared to each other have anything to do with each other, they’re all just women.

All the women and gay artists get put together. There’s space for it, which is awesome, we’re in a new time, there’s a lot more representation of more people. I’m with the wave, yes, cool. However, in a musical way, it’s harmful to group everyone together just because of identity. I’ve been compared to every single woman at it right now. And sometimes it’s so completely different. The progress is dope. Sometimes this can feel so belittling, though. It’s not a genre. It’s just more people making music and getting accolades for it, which is great. But it’s going backwards to put them all together.

I don’t want a pat on the back for my identity, I want the praise for the music.

Absolutely. It narrows the scope when you’re saying that this artist is cool because they’re queer rather than that it’s cool that they are a good artist who is queer and making good music. Right. What do they have to do with the other queer people making good music? It’s becoming the focus instead of the peripheral. So, where are you hoping that things go next?

LJ: It’s really hard for me to imagine doing it again, it took so long for me to make a second album and I can’t really imagine where I’ll be next. But I do hope that we get to tour for a while on this album and then can be afforded the chance to take my time again.

Follow on Instagram @snailmail

Photos by Tina Tyrell and Grayson Vaughan