Though Lindsey Jordan’s professional career started a little more than two years ago, the 19-year-old songwriter, who operates under the moniker Snail Mail, has already gone from uber-buzzy cassette artist to indie sensation. Hailing from Ellicot City, Maryland, Jordan started playing guitar in elementary school and began writing her own songs by the time she turned 12, gathering material toward her Sticki EP, which hit in 2015, when she was 16. The following year, she released the underground-favorite cassette Habit, via Sister Polygon Records. In the wake of the release of 2018’s critical and commercial smash, Lush, Snail Mail has been officially ordained indie rock royalty, commanding huge crowds and quickly becoming one of the most bankable artists in the genre. Some may attribute her success to her heartfelt performances, but most will agree that Lush floats to the top of the heap because of Jordan’s impeccable songwriting. Intrigued by Jordan’s ascent and her abilities as a songwriter, we approached the 19-year-old about her process, its evolution, and how she’s learned to adapt along the way.
Spotify for Artists: What are your ideal conditions for writing a song, or even coming up with the kernel of an idea?
Lindsey Jordan: I’m actually very particular about it. I've been on tour for more than the last year and a half and along the way I came up with ways to write on the go, and every time I did it kind of felt like I wasn’t able to give it the attention that I wanted. I always ended up with things that just felt half-assed. So, I feel like I really haven't had much luck when I’m away from my house, [where I can be] alone in my room for as many hours uninterrupted as I need.
The further you get down this road, it's going to get harder and harder for you to do that. Do you think you’ll get to the point where just a closed green room and you with your guitar will suffice? Do you ever write on any other instruments?
Just guitar. But yeah, that's worked for me too. We were somewhere in Europe, and when everyone went to dinner I decided to skip so I could lock myself in [a] room uninterrupted and just write. I kind of do the same thing after sound check—just sit on the stage by myself.
Do you have sources of inspiration that lie outside of music?
Mostly it’s just reading for me, because I like to fill in a lot of my time with books. I feel like that's where I get the most direct inspiration. Going to shows very occasionally will make me feel like I want to write because I noticed someone's [music] writing style but I feel like my most direct inspiration just comes from reading.
What about books do you specifically find inspiring?
I think for me it's usually just the power of language. It could just be something as little as, “Why does this sentence make me feel emotional?” when it's just a combination of words. What is it about that combination that relates to me? It's less the picture in my head from a description of something—it’s if it made me feel something. It's something that is cool to pick up on because I think a lot of authors have different ways of appealing to the emotions that I find exciting. I like to figure out what it is about things that makes me excited or emotional and try to build off that. That usually makes me want to pick up the guitar and write something.
You’ve mentioned that you like to present your band with a fully formed idea. Is there ever a “tennis match” where that idea morphs and changes based on input from your bandmates?
Yes, but mostly in the studio because I think we are all working on making the parts fit together. In the studio, we had all of the parts done and arranged—and then we started reworking sections because we were more focused on the bigger picture and not the individual parts. So that was really exciting, and it also kind of forced me to look at the songs a different way.
Has being in the studio and understanding its power changed the way you approach writing?
Definitely; that's a huge part of where I'm coming from now. Once we were in the studio and we had all these tracks and were able to do overdubs of all these different guitar parts—that's really when songs can reach their full potential. [Then] I’m able to think about the songs from a perspective outside of the live show. That really made things go to the next level.
Has your songwriting inspiration changed now that you’re a professional songwriter?
Oh yeah, definitely. I think before getting into writing I was really single-minded about the kind of music that I liked. Now that I’m surrounded with music so much, I’m excited by other people's styles. I feel like lately I am more drawn toward hip-hop and electronic stuff, and I feel like I'm much more involved in being a music fan now than I ever was before.
What advice would you offer a young artist as to how to effectively write a song?
I think that the best advice is—and it's really hard to follow because it's a state of mind that you have to get in—make it a personal experience. When I find something personally exciting and fulfilling, I think that translates to the listener too. The subject matter could be embarrassing or vulnerable or you might think someone else won't understand it, but when you're done if it means something to you, then others will connect with that too.