Q&A: Snail Mail talks break-ups, Paramore, gay ’80s fiction and the ‘sad girl’ stereotype ahead of Mission Creek

Mission Creek Festival: Snail Mail

April 7, 9:45 p.m., The Englert Theatre, included with pass

Photo by Tina Tyrell, courtesy of Matador Records

Lindsey Jordan’s music is sometimes soft and innocent, sometimes loud and gut-wrenching, but always heartfelt. In the six years since the release of her first EP, the singer-songwriter and guitarist has cultivated an intimate sound, reminiscent of bygone days.

Jordan — performing under the name Snail Mail — started playing guitar at 5 years old. Now the 23-year-old artist is kicking off her spring tour at the Englert Theatre as Friday night’s headliner for Mission Creek Festival, her first time in Iowa, before performing at Coachella, Pitchfork and Shaky Knees festivals.

The tour will support her latest LP Valentine (2021), a heartbreak album about a decaying relationship, from the grungy soft-verse, loud-chorus anthem of the title-track to the self-medicating and self-conscious lyrics of “Automate.”

Between preparing for her cross-country tour and playing Elden Ring, Jordan spoke with Little Village about her albums past and future, changes in the indie-rock sphere and dreams of the ’90s.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Is there anyone you’re excited to see at Mission Creek?

Cat Power sounds like it’s gonna be sick. Sudan Archives, I’ve never seen. Yeah, fuck yeah.

What are you reading right now?

I’m actually reading the 33⅓ book about The Stone Roses. And I lost my bag in an Uber the other day, so I had to re-buy this book, but I’m reading this book, Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin … It’s like lesbians in ’80s Taipei, which I’ve never read anything like that. … I also really like fiction about gay men. I feel like I end up in that a lot, like in the ’80s. So, that’s one of the top things I read.

Getting into music, how do you feel that your music is contiguous with bands like Paramore and Avril Lavigne, and how do you feel like it’s different?

I grew up on those artists heavily, starting really young … Paramore in particular, I had a conscious moment of being like, “Cool, I want to do that.” Just not having had really a hero that was like Hayley Williams. I was really into all the Warped Tour music when I was little because my older sister was. So yeah, that’s a huge compliment.

Snail Mail’s emo-influenced. Pop punk is always in the back of my mind. Although it’s not — Paramore’s still one of my favorite bands, and I still listen to Avril all the time — but I don’t really, like, partake in modern, new pop punk. But I feel like I was so little getting into those artists that it’s deep in my head, whatever it is. I don’t even know how to compare myself. I’m just super inspired by both and just like a big fan of both.

Photo by Tina Tyrell, courtesy of Matador Records

I think it’s different. I feel like a lot of your music is very dreamlike to me. Is that something that’s conscious when you’re writing?

It can be. Sometimes it’s kind of what I’m going for, and sometimes it’s not. Like, I can feel when I’m going through that, and when I’m not. I definitely — not that I’ve made it very far on making another record — but that feels like a good way to describe how I’ve started writing again.

It’s really interesting that you say that. More so than usual, I feel like I’m going into the dream world. But I know what you mean. I think there’s a lot of imagery that I feel like just comes from my subconscious and stuff. Like “Deep Sea” is a good example. That’s like the dream track.

A line that stuck out to me was in “Headlock.” Like “I’m tethered to / Another world where we’re together / Are you lost in it too?” That’s a very dreamy image.

Totally, I was just in a crazy place writing that song. And I was really still in love with my ex-girlfriend. Like I hadn’t given up on the idea that we would still be together in my head. In my head, it’s a possibility that can come back. But it’s not realistic. The breakup ensured that, you know what I mean? It was very much like, “OK, this is all I have. The only way I’m with this person is in my dreams anymore.” That song, it’s very hopeless mode.

What were you hoping to accomplish with Valentine?

Valentine, unlike Lush, was something that I started with an idea in mind. Not that it’s a concept album, but it is mostly all about the same stuff and the same person. I get into these modes between touring and writing where I’m like, “I can never write a song again.” And then I don’t feel like the spark is back to finish a really good song. And I think I was really sad, and there was a certain point where I was making music just to make myself feel better.

And that really made the pivot happen, where I was at my parents house during COVID for a couple of months, just trying to feel my feelings and get them out on paper. And then the songs just sort of started flowing naturally … I was challenged with getting all the words I wanted to say into the lyrics. After finishing every song I would listen to it, and I’d be like, “Is this the feeling I’m describing, or does it not come through?”

“Automated” is my favorite on the record because I feel like – it’s wordy, and it took me so many rewrites to land on things – but it evokes the exact thing I’m talking about.

What’s your favorite song that you’ve written?

Oh, I love “Mia.” I think that song is awesome. But yeah, I’m gonna have to say “Automate.”

Every, every day I try to grow as a writer, and that song I had a vision and imagery in my head. And I was like, “Let’s get this across.” And that’s not always how it goes, writing songs. Sometimes I’m like, “This line feels good here. I’m talking about this, and this is powerful here.” But that song I was like, “We’re evoking imagery.” And yeah I’m really proud of just, like, the melody too. Yeah, “Forever (Sailing),” pretty dope. Underrated.

“Forever (Sailing)” is my favorite from the record.

Hey, that’s awesome … So I have a studio in North Carolina, and I already demoed out all the songs and made a lot of the parts already on my synth at home. The harmonies, the demos are pretty fleshed out. And when I got to the studio, I realized I had nine songs, and I needed 10. But obviously, I don’t want to just throw filler in. I don’t want to make an instrumental. I kinda want to sample this song, and I’ve never sampled anything.

I’ve never even thought about it, until I heard this Swedish song, “You & I” by Madleen Kane … So I had the file of that song on my computer, and I was trying to play chords and figure out how to integrate it into a Snail Mail song. It was fucking insane, but I finally did it. I ended up finishing the track in my apartment in New York, just like, I ran out of time in the studio. But yeah, tons of rewrites, like everything else I do.

Is there anything you hope to see out of the indie rock sphere in the future? Anything you hope will change going forward?

One thing that I can speak to specifically is just like, [clinging to] everybody for their identities feels weird. It feels more backwards to me than it does making progress. Like the “sad girl” conversation is low-key pretty sexist, I think. And just the way we talk about it, at least for me, feels degrading. I don’t like being grouped with people just because we’re all women, or because we’re gay, or something like that.

I would love to see a time where new bands that are coming up can just talk about their music, and don’t have to be like, “What’s it like being a girl in a band?” Because at the end of the day, it’s great, more representation is awesome. But there’s always been women in bands, and it’s not a genre. The way we act like it’s a genre, it just feels like we’re going back in time, not ahead … And newer bands coming up, I see it happening to them. I can only hope that that will change because it’s just gnarly to answer identity questions when you’re just trying to be an artist, I think …

It’s awesome that there’s so many more singer-songwriter women that are like killing it out there. But I always felt like once all that started in the press, it started feeling less like people were caring about my music for its merit and me as a writer as much as me as a figure, I guess. And I don’t feel qualified to be a figure. I want to be a writer.

Photo by Grayson Vaughan, courtesy of Matador Records

You’ve also talked about the importance of having a queer representation in media. How do you balance that?

When Habit came out — and honestly, when Lush was getting written — I didn’t put pronouns in it, because, like my extended family, a lot of people in my life didn’t know I was gay. And I didn’t want to draw attention to it, because it would have meant me having to come out to people. And the idea of people listening to my music and knowing I was gay was kind of scary to me, because I just want to like — not be anonymous, but not have it all on display … I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be vulnerable like that. And at some point, I was just like, “I think it’s more important to be representation for people,” so I just kind of came out.

But I do think it’s really important. Had I had that, I think it would have been really powerful for me. I just remember being on Tumblr as a tween, and just being like, “Cool, people on here are gay, and it’s, like, not that weird,” … you know, living in a place that’s not very gay, I didn’t really know any gay people. I didn’t really have any gay heroes or anything, so, like, the idea of making more figures like that available for people, I think that’s awesome. It’s just like when the conversation steers away from music too far, it starts being like, “Wait, do you guys like my music?”

Is there anything you want to say to your queer fans?

I love you, and thanks for sticking with me. And yeah, just keep doing you. I fuck with you for doing you. Yeah, I don’t know, we fuck with you, I love you.

You mentioned working on some new stuff, any preview of that?

Not yet, I’m still in the early process of getting stuff together. But I have a good idea of what’s to come. I’ve been working on demos in my house, and one thing about my process that is sort of annoying and difficult is I try to work alone until there’s something I can’t do, like recording drums. There’s been instances where, with an engineer or a producer in the room, they make a suggestion, I listen to it. And then I go back to the record after it comes out, and I’m like, “I like mine better.” Sometimes I think your intuition gets kind of cloudy when there’s other people talking. So yeah, it’s slow for me, but it’s moving. I try to keep it really independent. And therefore I’m a slow mover and a perfectionist in a serious way.

Is it hard to write while you’re out touring?

Something about the lack of privacy and just not really having anywhere to go, being by yourself, that I just struggle with it. If you’re playing guitar on the bus, the bus is loud as fuck, so you can’t even really hear yourself or record your ideas … I really get in my head about being refreshed versus being burnt out. I’m always like, “Am I just burnt out? Is that why I’m not coming up with good ideas? Or am I not inspired?” And it’s pretty trippy trying to write on tour, or just trying to write at all, I guess.

A lot of your songs feel nostalgic to me. I was wondering about the influence of nostalgia on your writing.

I definitely feel like maybe, just having always been a fan of ’90s music, I guess. I love Oasis and like Stone Roses and Liz Phair, and like I could go on and on and on. But a lot of the things that I find inspiring on the guitar, I feel kind of come from that time … I feel like that’s where I get excited when I’m listening to music. So, unintentionally somehow, it is pretty nostalgic. And yeah, I definitely tried to channel Sonic Youth and stuff on Lush. But Valentine, I don’t know, maybe I just think it’s the stuff I find most inspiring comes from then. Subconsciously, I’m just like, “Let me go there to the ’90s.”