Snail Mail defied fears of the sophomore slump to make ‘Valentine’
When it was time to start work on the second Snail Mail album, Lindsey Jordan only had a couple of songs ready. “If I don’t actually have anything to write about, I’m not gonna write anything. I don’t want to. I don’t want to waste my time — I don’t want to waste anybody else’s time,” she says.
Speaking on Zoom from a London hotel room she’s just checked into while on a promotional run for her sophomore record, Valentine, it’s clear that in the time since, she found plenty to write about.
“Living life after that, in a normal not-music way, dealing with love and loss and heartbreak and real-life stuff really informed the process,” she says. “All of a sudden, I wanted to write rather than felt like it was something that I had to do. And that’s important to me.”
Preferring to write about things as she experiences them, “in real time,” to capture a sense of emotional immediacy, Jordan records demos soon after writing the songs.
“I tend to write right as things are happening to try [to] really feel it as intensely as possible,” she explains. As such, Valentine is rife with intense, difficult emotions. “That was a lot of the reason that I was writing. I was really hurting in a lot of ways,” she says.
Valentine takes the listener through loss (“Wish it’d been you the other night/Should have been you, but it’s all right” on “c. et al.”), jealousy (“When did you start seeing her?” opens “Headlock”), fixation (“Doesn’t obsession just become me?” she sings on “Forever (Sailing)”) and desperation (“Fuck being remembered, I think I was made for you” from the title track).
Finding inspiration was one thing, but there was also the challenge of following up her critically acclaimed debut album, 2018’s Lush. The overwhelmingly positive reception to that record crowned her as a leading artist in the indie-rock sphere at just 18 years of age. “The praise was kind of insane for a while, using the p-word — prodigy — like that shit. I’m like, ‘I don’t know about that.’ I don’t necessarily feel like a capital-p Prodigy,” she says.
"That kind of praise only made her want to work harder to prove herself, to get to a point where she felt like she earned all of those compliments, and it made the process of making a new album even harder. “It’s a really high place to fall from,” she admits. The pressure of following up such a highly acclaimed album, and fears of the “sophomore slump,” were mounting, exacerbated by the fact that Jordan, now 22, is still so young. Yet, delving into what she was experiencing emotionally at the time provided a way out.
“I was like, ‘Fuck, I don’t want to crash and burn. I’m like 12!’ So a big part of everything was just getting back to ground zero. For me, that is writing from a point of catharsis, and luckily, I was going through a lot. So as twisted as that is, I was like, ‘OK, perfect. I can take from that,’” she says.
For Jordan, making music is a way of processing her emotions. It shows on the record, which at times feels so full of emotion that it’s practically bursting with sadness or longing. The aching “Light Blue” is led by a combination of acoustic picking, echoing piano notes and sorrowful violins, which crescendos around Jordan’s evocative falsettos. She articulates the struggles in moving on from a relationship with lines such as “But I gotta grow up now/No, I can’t keep holding on to you anymore/Mia, I’m still yours,” as her voice ambles over the guitar picking, strings and piano on melancholy “Mia.”
“There’s multiple catharses in making music about your feelings,” she says. “I’m a journaler, and that’s its own catharsis, getting the words down onto paper, making sense of it."
"Putting music to it is its own catharsis, too, because you’re providing even more and processing it as you go. Recording it is catharsis, and performing it is catharsis, so it’s all different, but it helps you work through feelings in a really unique way.”
Jordan’s lyrics do feel like they’ve come straight out of a journal because of their confessional quality. “I’d hate to picture someone with you/I lay down and start to cry,” she sings on “Valentine.”
“It is a weird obsession with honesty, and it’s like a compulsion of honesty,” she says, linking it to growing up Catholic and going to confession. “I got really scared that I wasn’t always confessing everything all the time, and it turned into something for me, and it’s still there. Sometimes I’m confessing things, and sometimes I’m like, ‘Well, I literally can’t not force myself to say this honest-ass thing in this song, or the song is gonna be ruined.’”
That honesty is exactly what she became known for in the first place, but even in that area, she’s grown, and her work has evolved. “Every time I make a new record, I’ve noticed it’s like practicing being more open than I’m comfortable with,” Jordan says. And each time, she goes a little further. “On Lush, I thought I was being so embarrassingly vulnerable... I was just scratching the surface of vulnerability,” she says.
Her evolution is immediately apparent when listening to her debut EP, Habit, and Lush. Across those releases, she didn’t use feminine pronouns when referring to a love interest in the songs. “I wasn’t even really all that out yet, so from there to here, it is such a big difference,” she says. There are, of course, added layers of concern when writing about her sexuality as a queer person. As Jordan puts it, she had no desire to “experience any more homophobia than I already have in my life.”
However, she’s careful not to give away too much, especially when it comes to people she knows. “I don’t want people in my life to be scared to experience stuff with me because they think I’ll write about it,” she says, an anxiety of the public eye that comes through on the “Valentine” lyric, “Those parasitic cameras, don’t they stop to stare at you?”
Jordan’s clear with her intentions, though. “Ultimately as a songwriter, I come in peace, and I just do it for me, and I do it because I like being expressive,” she says. She explains that when writing music, artists often have to be vulnerable by showing the parts of them that others — or even themselves — may not like.
It’s her willingness to portray herself in a less than favorable light that sticks with listeners. “Ben Franklin” is a prime example, trading stripped-bare vulnerability for almost callous flippancy. “Got money, I don’t care about sex,” she sings. Jordan says it was written in a “very spoiled, apathetic-ass, little rude tone because that was my way of showing that I was putting distance between myself and the things that made me uncomfortable and feel pain. And I was trying to do that in my real life, too.”
She also points to the line “Sometimes I hate her just for not being you.” “That’s mean and ugly, and so is rehab, and so is obsession and desperation and emotions that are pathetic, where you put them out there and you’re just making yourself look like shit,” she reveals.
But for Jordan, she knows there’s a trade-off when it comes to creating the art she wants to make. “All of it is sacrifices that are worth making to make really honest, personal music,” she says.
Though the emotionality, vulnerability, transparency and maturity that Snail Mail is known for continues on this album, it sounds quite different. The most striking difference between this record and previous releases is Jordan’s voice, which is lower, deeper and more raspy than before. It’s a more mature sound, but it also helps to add gravity and fragility to the songs.
Jordan pushes her voice to a point where it sounds like it’s about to break, whether it’s the loud, powerful, rougher vocals or the dips into delicate falsettos. On “c. et al.,” Jordan sings, “I hate those long drives/At least we ended things nice,” her voice almost unable to contain the emotion in the final word. As she gets to the end of the line, “Feels like I’m losing my mind,” her voice quiets to a chilling whisper.
Before Snail Mail, Jordan was a guitarist and songwriter — and didn’t sing. Her voice changed after going on tour and learning how to take care of it with the help of a vocal coach.
“For some reason, the resonance of it means it’s always hoarse. I’m always losing it. The way I learned to sing on tour is the style that you’re hearing on Valentine, which is more controlled. It’s healthier,” she says. Even since recording the album, Jordan says her voice has changed.
Valentine is also a progression in terms of style, confidently pulling from different genres, from “Ben Franklin”’s blaring bass to the somber acoustic picking of “Light Blue.” Jordan was listening to pop, R&B and jazz while working on Valentine, and she names Bill Evans, Oasis, Elliott Smith, the 1975, FKA twigs, Drake and Sufjan Stevens as some of the artists she turned to at the time. “Forever (Sailing)” — a rare case of being a song Jordan wrote just because she needed a 10th track — stands out because of its unusual mix of genres, as it was inspired by trip-hop, disco and yacht rock.
Even so, Jordan doesn’t only look to music for influence. She’s also an avid reader, taking plenty of inspiration from fiction. “When I’m reading something and something really touches me, I just take note of it. I’m like, ‘Why did those words on the paper really touch me?’ There’s such an art to understanding that, doing it in your own style and then bringing music to it and [the] presentation of how it’s sung. It’s almost like method acting,” she explains.
Listing the books she devoured while working on Valentine, it’s clear that she wants to be moved above all else. She cites Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (“An exercise in making people feel the worst they possibly can”), Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (“I was reading that around when I was working on a lot of stuff, and that really touched me emotionally”), George Saunders’ Tenth Of December (“Really, really beautiful”), Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, James Baldwin and Joan Didion.
She mentions, at the time of the interview, that she’s reading Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and bell hooks. In fact, she chose Philip Roth’s American Pastoral specifically to read while on this promotional run. “I need something that’s really consuming for this trip... and I’m loving it,” she says.
Movies are also a big point of influence for her. “On the inspiration board, I have a lot of Lars von Trier stuff, which is kind of icky,” she says. Jordan’s a big fan of horror movies, as well as dramas. She’s even been crossing “well-regarded films” that she’s never seen off her list (“I only just saw Good Will Hunting, but it’s a fun way to watch movies”).
The music video for “Valentine,” with its historical setting and costuming, is almost a mini-period drama in itself, although the genre is a recent interest of Jordan’s. And in the same way that she’s connecting with stories on the page and screen, she hopes her storytelling is just as vivid and immersive. “I hope that people can like my imagery,” she says. “I think a big part of the record is painting a picture.”
That’s certainly the case with “Automate,” one of Jordan’s favorites from the record, with its waltzing staccato and attention to detail. “It’s a picture that came exactly straight from my head onto the songs,” she says. “The imagery, for me, in my head, is very strong, and I hope that other people can see what I mean and feel what I mean.”
Ultimately, Jordan’s just hoping people connect Valentine to their own lives and experiences. “I think that’s when I have the most personal experiences with music, and the most exciting is when I hear a song and it makes me think of somebody I’m in love with or somebody that hurt my feelings,” she says. “Being able to transport other people is a really beautiful thing, and I hope that Valentine does it.”