Snail Mail Is A Songwriter, Not Just Another Girl In A Band

Photo: Michael Lavine.
Lindsey Jordan graduated from high school in the spring. This summer, she releases her debut album, Lush, with the band Snail Mail, courtesy of the venerable indie rock label Matador Records (a.k.a., the people who brought us a Liz Phair album in the '90s that changed the lives of a lot of women...among other accomplishments). If that makes it sound like Jordan is an overachiever, you should know she's been taking guitar lessons since she was 5. One of her teachers and mentors is Mary Timony, who is indie rock royalty.
Jordan and company have racked up praise from just about everywhere for their gorgeous album, which is just perfect for soundtracking a summer of angst. Jordan spoke to Refinery29 about the quirks of her songwriting process, her dislike for the separating "women in music" from musicians, and her advice for women who aspire to be in the industry.
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Refinery29: Your sound is like the '90s and '00s with an indie rock vibe to it, which is not what everybody else is doing. How did you develop it?
Lindsey Jordan: "As far as songwriting goes, I've been a guitar player for as long as I can remember. I've been developing my style and constantly absorbing musical inspiration in order to figure out what my style is and what it means to me. When I get started on a song, even though I write the guitar parts first, I usually go in with an idea of what I want the song to be about, I use it as a vehicle for the lyrical concept that I want to create. I like to think that when I sit down with a guitar, the sound is just what comes because it feels really natural. The comparisons we've gotten to '90 bands have been so flattering and validating, but there was no real intention to follow up on the sounds from that time."
Do you write melodies on the guitar first, and then usually lyrics follow later?
"Usually I'll start with instrumentation and do that all the way through on the guitar, and then write a vocal melody, and then write lyrics. I usually go into it with a phrase in mind, or a topic, but I don't feel comfortable starting the lyrics process until the song is entirely arranged. It's a weird personal preference, and it has worked for me in the past. If I feel like I'm constantly rearranging, the music and the words stop working together, and then I kind of give up. I wish I had the ability to have a song idea or a melody in my head before I get started on the guitar, but it's just never started that way. I think that's a really cool skill, though."
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I imagine that also helped inform how these songs came out, because there's something wistful and summery about this record. But it also doesn't feel quite as gendered, or about the female experience, as some albums.
"Something I am always going for is to write about experiences that I want to be writing about or time periods or events, but doing it by putting space between myself and the song so I don't feel like I'm forcing anyone to hear my side of the story. I prefer writing about something because it impacted me and not necessarily writing it from the perspective of someone that is really close to it. I think that having a gendered point of view comes into play there because you're not necessarily taking a side on the topic or taking a position in the storyline but instead talking about how something has impacted your life. I like to think that when I'm writing it's objective and not necessarily from a super a gendered place."
Before this interview, your label sent me a list of questions that you commonly get asked, and one of them was, "What does it feel like to be a girl in music?" Are people still really asking what is it like to be a woman in a band or a woman in music?
"Originally, I think where this all started was that in the New York Times they had that piece that emphasized women in music. I am a big fan of having that conversation, and I am an extremely politically driven person and a feminist who on a personal level really cares about women's issues. But, it got to the point where it was the hook on the story of Snail Mail. I don't necessarily feel like I want a narrative attached to the work that I'm creating because I think it limits how people take in the work and puts you into a box. What I really would love to be known for is my songwriting. I feel like I am often asked to be a voice for marginalized groups that I don't feel qualified to be a voice for. It's not that I reject my responsibility or that I don't want to have that voice or be a role model. It's more that I feel like it takes away from the work that me and a lot of other women have made when we get categorized together because of laziness and people wanting to make a story out of it isn't there. I think a lot of people would agree that we're all making music that is vastly different from one another. We all have a lot of respect for each other, but I don't feel like we collide musically. It feels like people aren't really listening, they're just looking. That is a little disheartening and kind of hard to talk about all the time. What am I even doing if I'm getting a pat on the back for how I identify rather than the work that I'm putting all of myself into?"
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I think you've got a point, and a lot of women musicians feel that way. They don't want to get attention because they're women, but because they're good musicians. I think the other side of it is that the press, myself included, are trying to build a narrative. But it's less about how to classify music or tell people how to listen to music and more an argument with the music industry because women are so underrepresented.
"I think that's a valid point, and the playing field is not equal. In an ideal world it would be great if festivals were diverse and people weren't worried about who is in what band because everyone was getting equal opportunities and representation. But we are living in a time where that isn't quite the case yet. That's why I'm not completely rejecting my role and accepting that I am able to speak up and have something to say on the topic. I'm definitely not ashamed to be a part of that movement. I think it's incredible that people who maybe in the past wouldn't have had the opportunity to utilize their platform for something good are now able to. But it's definitely a double-edged sword."
Since you're making music outside of the mainstream, what kind of career you want to build for yourself? For a long time it's been a struggle for people in the indie rock world making a go of it monetarily with music. How are you marrying those ideas together of exploring your creativity while making the music that you want to and making it something that is a sustainable career?
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"It's something I think about a lot, but it's hard to think 10 years ahead of where I am now because everything is changing and transitioning all the time. Seeing that music is my full-time job right now, success to me would be defined in longevity and being able to make as many records as I want without being told how to make them. I feel pretty lucky right now. I have resources to make records that I personally believe without having someone telling me like how or what to do with it or controlling the content I put out. My ultimate goal is to be able to make as many records as I want and to keep touring and making music that matters to me and not settle for less. Or, to not feel like I have to put out records quickly in order to sustain hype, or whatever."
Are you going to cut off interviews when you become successful enough to not have to talk to the press, like Beyoncé? Just kidding.
"No, no. We talk about this all the time. This press cycle has been totally insane. A lot of it has been really rewarding and educational. I've gotten to talk to some awesome writers and to do some really fun things and get involved with fashion stuff. It's been pretty fun. I feel like, I don't know — maybe."
Younger women don't have nearly enough role models showing them that things like learning play the guitar, or any instrument proficiently, and being a songwriter are things they can do. Do you have any advice on confidence building things for women and girls who don't think this is an avenue for them?
"The best advice I can possibly give is to work on your craft, do what you like, and make as much music as possible because you want to. Do what makes you comfortable, and do it because you like it. If you like what you're doing, believe in it, then other people will, too. Be easy on yourself, but also know that it is a job that takes a lot of discipline and hard work. So, work hard, make songs that you care about, play shows, and have fun with it. Maybe don't worry about anything else. I learned a lot about self-validation being the most important aspect of being a songwriter and a musician, It's easier said than done, but not paying attention to other people and how they react to your music, positive or negative, is probably the most important thing you can do to stay true to yourself."
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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