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Snail Mail, Teenage Indie Rock Wunderkind, Bursts From ‘the Era of Shred’

At 18, Lindsey Jordan is an acclaimed writer of pristine love songs

Snail MailSnail Mail

Erik Tanner for Rolling Stone

Lindsey Jordan just graduated from high school last year, but the 18-year-old wunderkind is already turning heads with her band Snail Mail. She’s not one to waste time – she was just 16 when she dropped her acclaimed six-song cassette EP Habit. Her fantastic debut album Lush is full of pithy and poignant tales about growing up, breaking up and messing up, with her classically trained guitar flourishes. In songs like “Heat Wave,” Jordan sounds wise beyond her years, singing from the perspective of a young queer punk kid in a time of massive cultural transformations. As she admits, “It’s a real emotional roller coaster.”

Part of Snail Mail’s primal appeal is the way Jordan tackles her music with undimmed teen enthusiasm — Snail Mail are part of a boom of young guitar bands playing unabashed rock & roll, with no apologies. “Yeah, we are in an era of shred,” she says cheerfully. “It’s pretty sweet. I like to play really balls out — that’s what it means to be onstage with integrity. I’ve always been a really big fan of guitar solos. It’s nice to go see bands and hear guitar solos without people throwing tomatoes.”

A year ago, Jordan was playing DIY shows at punk houses, while filling out college applications; now she’s on the rock & roll highway, touring hard and joining Angel Olsen onstage at Coachella. Growing up in suburban Maryland, Jordan began playing at the age of 5, talking her parents into letting her take classical guitar lessons. “I thought, ‘Avril Lavigne plays guitar — that looks cool.’ So I did that.” She eventually took lessons from an indie-rock legend — Mary Timony, of bands like Helium and Ex Hex. (As Jordan says, “Everybody wants to be her.”) She started Snail Mail at 15 — two weeks after the first band practice, she was playing a local punk festival with established bands like Sheer Mag, Screaming Females and Priests, who took her under their wing, releasing Habit on their Sister Polygon label. Habit became a word-of-mouth sensation, thanks to songs like “Dirt,” where Jordan sings, “When I’m 30 I’ll laugh about how dumb it felt.”

Despite her guileless teen-slacker vibe — her conversation is peppered with “sick” and “sweet” — she’s also an admitted “control freak” driven to master everything she tries. As a kid she got fanatical about ice hockey, the only girl on a high-school team full of boys. (She shows off her rink skills in her video for “Heat Wave.”) But she knew she wanted to rock as soon as she got her mind blown by Hayley Williams. “I grew up on Paramore — I saw them on the Riot tour when I was 8. My cool older sister took me — the first concert I ever saw. And I freaked out. That’s when I knew I wanted to play in a band. Until I saw Paramore, I didn’t know girls were allowed in bands.”

She also took inspiration from Nineties rock idols. “Sheryl Crow — my mom likes her — and Stevie Nicks and Liz Phair and stuff like that. Liz Phair’s ‘Why Can’t I?’ is the first pop song I remember hearing when I was a little kid. I started songwriting just by making up different lyrics to ‘Why Can’t I?’ — I made up so many songs that way, where I would take the whole melody and put different lyrics to it and think, ‘I’m such a genius, I wrote this song.'” In high school, she played in a Phair cover band — as she admits with a sheepish laugh, “We were called Lizard Phair.”

For a kid this obsessive about music, Jordan looked for inspiration everywhere. “I loved that Nickelodeon show Unfabulous — Emma Roberts, she was a girl around 11 or 12, with a nylon guitar, and whenever she had a problem she’d go into her room and write a 30-second song about it. And Lindsey Lohan in Freaky Friday — she was so bad-ass. I saw her play guitar with her band in that movie and thought, ‘I have to be in a band just like that.’ That was so cool — just a marker of the 2000s. I was really into Hannah Montana too.”

Lush is full of intensely personal love songs, reflecting how she came out between albums. She sings about tortured crushes and break-ups, as in “Pristine,” where she pleads, “What’s your type of girl?” She was playing these songs live before she got around to giving them titles, so at shows, the set list would be just a list of these girls’ names. “If I wrote the same record I did when I was 15 there’d be something wrong,” she says. “I just took it seriously and made a record I would actually want to listen to. To make genuine music, you have to be hard on yourself and run everything you do through a lot of tests, without beating yourself up.”

Snail Mail is part of a new crop of female-driven bands — the past year alone has seen excellent albums from Hop Along, Soccer Mommy, Waxahatchee, Mannequin Pussy, Palehound and many others. It’s inspired a lot of loose talk about women saving guitar rock, mostly among people who don’t listen to guitar rock and haven’t been paying attention long enough to notice women have propping it up since the first time Bikini Kill plugged in. As Jordan says, “There’s this kind of ‘save rock & roll’ energy that’s going around. And I don’t think anyone’s gonna save it, or needs to save it. Like Sheer Mag — if anyone’s gonna save rock & roll, it’s gonna be them. But it’s not life or death — we’re not reinventing the wheel onstage. All I need is to hear a little vocal in the monitor.”

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