Snail Mail’s Journey from High School to the Stage

Snail Mail

Photo by Audrey Melton.

It’s 8pm on a Tuesday and L.A.’s Teragram Ballroom is packed. Later that night, Girlpool will headline a sold-out show in support of their fantastic new release, Powerplant. But first, all eyes are on Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan. Onstage with drummer Ray Brown and bassist Alex Russell, Jordan’s steady, wistful voice and expressive guitar riffs seems to fill every empty space in the room, luring in even the wallflowers in the back as she winds her way through songs from Snail Mail’s debut EP, Habit.

As the crowd quiets, she pauses to announce that last night was her high school graduation, and that this is Snail Mail’s first time on the West Coast. “L.A. is so beautiful,” she says, sounding both youthfully wide-eyed and fully in control. The kids at the front of the stage start cheering, and Jordan launches into “Thinning,” a crystalline coming-of-age anthem that captures the essence of being a teenager and distills it into three minutes of soaring guitar rock.

A week later, on the tail end of a three-day drive from Vancouver to Minneapolis, Jordan sits in the back of Snail Mail’s tour van and recalls her whirlwind graduation night before she left for tour. “It was a little hectic. My mom threw this big party and there were all these people in my room, and before I knew it, it was 3am and I hadn’t even started packing,” she says. “I got on that plane really tired, but somehow we made it work. It was fun. I am still really shocked I made it out of high school.”

Contrary to popular rock ‘n’ roll mythos, Jordan didn’t nearly flunk out of school. In fact, just the opposite: “I graduated with a 4.1,” she says with a laugh. But over the past six months, she’s also been gone a lot, mostly playing shows outside of her hometown in Ellicott City, Maryland, and stoking the buzz that’s been building around Snail Mail’s hypnotic and heart-rending debut.

Habit, which gets a proper vinyl release this July, is worthy of the hype. Its six songs feel like a box of treasured snapshots, sentimental and slightly ragged recollections of youth, heartbreak, boredom, and suburban malaise. “Is it easiest to hide? / Under covered rocks / Or would you rather cut it all down? / Just to keep it from dragging you around,” Jordan sings on “Slug,” drawing a weirdly poignant comparison between herself and the slimy creature hiding under her feet. Her lyrics are both poetic and plaintive, and at times they rush out of her in an arresting and breathless fury. On “Dirt,” she reflects on a crush, wailing the line, “Baby, when I’m 30, I’ll laugh about how dumb it felt / And oh god it’s not funny, but I know we can laugh it out.”

If Snail Mail’s lyrics seem wise beyond Jordan’s 18 years, there’s good reason. For starters, she’s been playing guitar since she was five. In addition to music, Jordan spent most of her childhood skateboarding and playing hockey. “I was a real aggressive, ADHD, screaming-and-running-around, trying-to-be-the-center-of-attention kind of kid,” she says. At seven, she joined the local rock camp a full year before she hit the minimum age requirement. “I think I was just a really big Avril Lavigne fan and wanted to do what she was doing,” she recalls. At camp, Jordan says she was surrounded by older, mostly male guitarists that “just wanted to play a bunch of Megadeth covers.” “The boys were so mean to me, and I would get down on myself a lot,” she remembers. “At some point when I stopped doing rock camp, I realized that I was a good guitar player, and I wanted to be up in the front. But it was a really long process of self-discovery through boys being mean to me.”

As she got older, Jordan joined the church band, then the school jazz band, then her parents’ friends’ bar band. In her teens, she also amassed an enviable squad of allies, like Helium’s Mary Timony, who started giving Jordan guitar lessons in 2015. Listening to Snail Mail, you can’t help but make the comparison; like Timony; Jordan’s melodies are sharp, nuanced, and animated—an ideal foil for her raw singing voice. “She’s one of my favorite people in the world,” Jordan says. “And, obviously, she’s one of the greatest guitar players of her generation, so it’s really inspiring. I think that she’s sort of a genius, and she’s really humble and doesn’t act like someone who everyone looks up to.”

Snail Mail

By the time she was 14, Jordan had fully immersed herself in the Baltimore music scene. “I would go to every single show,” she says. “First, it was indie bands; I really loved Flock of Dimes and Wye Oak and Celebration. Then, I got really into punk and I would go to Priests shows all the time. There’s a really fantastic hardcore and post-punk scene in D.C., and I made some really incredible, supportive friends through that.” It was around that time that Jordan also started working on the first Snail Mail songs, writing casually in her parents’ home, whenever inspiration hit. “I definitely wanted it to be some projection of how I was feeling at some point, but I never sat down and was like, ‘This is going to be the diary album of the century!’” she recalls. “I think I was more doing it for me and not expecting anyone to listen to it.”

But shortly after she posted the demos to Bandcamp, people started reaching out. “I pretty much formed [Snail Mail] so we could play this one show with Sheer Mag and Screaming Females and Priests,” she says. After that first show, Priests guitarist Gideon Jaguar offered to record and release Snail Mail’s songs on the band’s Sister Polygon label. Together, Jordan and Jaguar compiled Habit’s tracklist, which features a mix of Snail Mail’s first songs, and newer ones like “Thinning.” “I wrote that one so fast, like in an hour,” she says, “just because we wanted to have a more fun song to play, because all of the songs are a little bit depressing.”

Even if Habit’s songs feel depressed, they’re no reflection of Jordan’s day-to-day life.  In conversation she’s thoughtful and self-aware, but also goofy and sarcastic, often punctuating her stories with nervous bursts of laughter. “I feel like we got put in this annoying category of ‘90s nostalgia indie rockers, bummer, sad, lo-fi,’ and we didn’t want any of that. I definitely never wanted any of that,” she says with a laugh. The songs she’s writing for Snail Mail’s full-length, Jordan promises, are more in line with her vision: more instruments, more articulate guitar work, more variations in tuning, and more riffs, as well as lyrics that are more true to herself. “I feel like the songwriting is a lot more brutal and honest and straightforward,” she says. “I feel like I’m saying a lot more about exactly how I feel and it’s a little less shrouded with secrecy. I’m not as scared to say exactly what I mean. I’m not scared to say what the songs are about anymore.”

Later this fall, Jordan will head into the studio to record. Before that, Snail Mail will spend the summer supporting Waxahatchee in venues across North America. Though Jordan admits it’s a lot to handle at times, she’s feeling more confident than ever in what’s to come. “I’m scared for the future and excited for the future, but not super unsure of it,” she says. “I feel really lucky the way Snail Mail has set a path for itself right as I would have had to make more career decisions. I had no idea what I want to do other than music, so the fact that it happened right as I was supposed to be picking out majors and stuff is a relief.”

Onstage at the Teragram, it was evident that Jordan was exactly where she was supposed to be. Dressed in a ball cap, T-shirt, and track pants, she didn’t necessarily look like a rock star, but when she stepped up to the mic—to crack a joke about Spirit Airlines, or shred on her Jazzmaster, or exhale a line about laying face down for a month—the room went pin-drop quiet. In L.A., the crowd was mostly young and mostly female, and it’s hard not to think about the fact that just over a year ago, Jordan was standing where most of these young people are now, happily nodding along to whatever band was in Baltimore on a Tuesday night. It’s a thought that Jordan admits to having, and something she hopes to take advantage of, if only to keep other young women from experiencing what she did growing up.

“I hate to be called a ‘woman guitarist’ or a ‘female songwriter’ or whatever,” she says, “so I’m kind of hoping that, maybe without pigeonholing it, this inspires other girls who want to write direct, honest music. I always bring it back to Taylor Swift, who wrote these super brutally honest songs about boyfriends and crushes and stuff, and was immediately crucified for it. Everybody hated her for that, and I think maybe that has discouraged an entire generation of young girls from writing songs about their crushes. I’m here to say, ‘Write songs about your crushes! Do whatever you want!’ I want people to be excited about guitar rock and writing about their feelings.”

Aly Comingore

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