Snail Mail: The rebound
“Oh my god, I’m talking about stabbing too much. It sounds like I have a problem!” Lindsey Jordan gasps, eyes widening in droll horror. Days before she logs onto Zoom from her apartment in New York’s East Village, the returning indie rock star better known as Snail Mail shared the video for the title track from her sophomore album Valentine, in which she rushes an ex lover’s new man and stabs him to death with a cake knife. As his blood spurts all over Jordan’s face, she throws her head back with maniacal glee.
These dark-but-comedic extremities reflect the magnitude of emotion that courses through the album. The demos, Jordan admits, were even more raw: “I’m sure they’ll be out eventually, but they’re almost not listenable because they’re just so sad.” The 22-year-old has always worn her heart on her sleeve – she admits she can’t be any other way – and in that sense, Valentine picks up where her critically-acclaimed 2018 debut Lush left off.
Getting to the point where Jordan even had a second album wasn’t easy, though. Lush – a record of great candidness, melodrama and poeticism – saw her anointed indie’s new darling and swept up a whirlwind of praise, sold-out shows and a rapidly growing fanbase who eagerly hung on to her every move. She’d not long graduated high school at the time and, where her friends were gaining new emotional maturity at university or first jobs, Jordan was stuck in developmental limbo. “One time [on tour] I was like, ‘I don’t want to play,’” she recalls. “But my tour manager Lisa was like, ‘You’re playing’ and picked me up and put me on stage.” Off the road and with album promotions wrapped, she struggled with being spat out of the music industry vortex and having to deal with adulthood.
Jordan’s lack of interest in starting the follow-up to Lush wasn’t just down to immaturity, however. Living on a tour bus had given her few experiences that she felt strongly enough about to want to turn into songs. Instead, re-emerging into everyday life left her questioning what she was even capable of. Eventually, these feelings prompted her to begin working on herself; suddenly, she became “very aware” of life outside of her role as bandleader. “I was like, ‘I can talk in an interview, I can play guitar, I can take pictures with people – but what else?’” he sighs. Then, the pandemic hit. Jordan had nothing but a yawning chasm of time to confront who she had become and how far that was from who she wanted to be.
Part of that work included facing her own problems. In November 2020, Jordan checked into a rehab centre in remote Arizona to address those issues – details which she wishes to keep personal – caused by her rise to success at such a young age. At the facility, she was on the receiving end of what she describes as “tough love”. “It was like drill sergeant vibes,” she recalls. “I got a pretty strict talking to one day where they made me get up in front of everybody, and they were like, ‘Lindsey, nobody cares that you’re a little pop star, what’s going on with your values?’” Following this dressing down, her counsellor’s advice about not holding onto external validation continued to ring in her ears. “That’s an interesting thing when you have a pretty externally valuable career,” she says, eyes widening as if she’s experiencing this revelation anew.
“I was like, ‘I can talk in an interview, I can play guitar, I can take pictures with people – but what else?’”
Being forced to confront her principles took her on a “personal motivation journey” that reminded her of her love for music, outside of the “praise and outfits” that come with fame. “I was able to leave that situation excited to work on stuff, which was amazing because I hadn’t felt like that in a while,” she smiles. “It’s kind of like a fresh start.”
Being reminded of the cathartic power of songwriting is something the young musician needed. As well as in rehab, she found motivation in her childhood bedroom in Ellicott City, a former milling town in the suburbs of Baltimore. It’s the same place she wrote Lush and also where, during a five-month stay at home during the pandemic, Valentine’s anguished love songs began to pour out of her. “People leave me alone when I’m home, which is awesome,” she says, noting the stark contrast with New York City’s relentless social bustle. “The people that I love know that I need a lot of space and recharge time. Being in that space, I was like, ‘Oh great, I love music again!’” Jordan implies that she hadn’t necessarily fallen out of love with music, but the relationship was strained. She also fell prey to the age-old impulse to match the intense despair she was feeling by only listening to sad music. “I was bathing in it,” she offers with an eye-roll. “A lot of Drake and the most masochistic type of stuff possible. I just got to a point where I was like, ‘I cannot take it anymore.’”
One instance in particular caused a serious shift for Jordan. Parked in the driveway of the house where she grew up, she sat in her car listening to a miserable song, inconsolably sobbing. She thought, ‘What is happening to me? Last year, I was on top of the world – now I’m crying outside my parents’ house.” It was at that point she decided she and music were through. “I was just desperately like, ‘I don’t fucking like music anymore. I’m done.’”
It was writing Valentine that helped her exorcise that sorrow, as if she were physically ridding her body of toxins via songwriting. This is best exemplified in the resigned melancholy of Mia; the burning betrayal that rushes through Ben Franklin’s grooves; the tear-spilling desperation on c. et. al. as Jordan whispers, “Feels like I’m losing my mind, baby blue.” And yet, for all its tortured energy, it barely scratched the surface of the heartbreak she was experiencing. “I was writing all of [these songs] with tears streaming down my face like, ‘I adore you, bitch,’” she utters in a raspy hiccup.
Jordan categorises herself as someone who “feels things really hard”, a trait she describes as often feeling like a curse. But, surprisingly, it’s also something she’s grateful for. “My dad told me, ‘I’m not at a point in my life where I’m feeling things like that,’” she shares. “But he was like, ‘It’s really so sad to see you so sad, but it’s also pretty beautiful that you can feel like that.’ Sometimes it’s nice to have a reminder that I’m alive.” Having people who feel things so intensely, she adds, is why our world is full of so much “touching art”.
“The people that I really love know that I need a lot of space and recharge time”
Valentine doesn’t so much touch you as it does completely eviscerate you. Recorded in collaboration with Brad Cook (producer for the likes of Bon Iver and Waxahatchee) in North Carolina, it dances the line between world-ending heartache and complete adoration. At times, it’s even both at once, as the musician pays tribute to exes who, despite shattering her, still helped shape who she is. “I consecrate my life to living at your altar,” she sings in devotion on the low shuffle of Madonna. “My second sin of seven being: wanting more.” This careful balance of hiding behind a proud façade and laying it out bare lyrically was her intention, Jordan reveals. “I spent so much time asking myself, ‘What sounds casual to go with this vibe that I’m curating, but isn’t?’” she laughs. The answer? “Talking about rehab and stabbing the shit out of some girl in the verse.”
If Valentine’s lyrics are teeming with drama, so is its orchestration. Featuring lush piano and synths, sweeping string arrangements and full-bodied production, Snail Mail’s musical horizons have been pushed further than they’ve ever gone, and, crucially, projects the songs’ emotions into 4D. “I have strong feelings about orchestral arrangements,” she explains. “They can be really harmful or really powerful.” Here, they turned out to be the latter. So much so that she was completely overwhelmed when she heard the Mia string arrangement in all its opulent glory for the first time. “I was like, ‘Nobody talk to me!’” she recalls in an impassioned growl. “It was beautiful and heartbreaking.”
This sentiment sums up Valentine, and indeed Snail Mail, perfectly; a project that distils the crushing lows of losing a relationship – and yourself in the process – that you’re still willing to go all in for. And while Jordan’s work has always been stamped by a powerful vulnerability, this album is her most potent strain of it yet – just don’t expect her to emulate the songwriting process on stage anytime soon. After so much inner work, she maintains that emotional boundaries are firmly in place. But suddenly, with a sigh of acceptance, she changes her tune. “These songs are all about really specific times in my life that caused me pain or love or loss,” she empathetically asserts. “They cut me really deep, and I don’t know if there’s any escaping that.”
Valentine is out on 5 November via Matador Records