Teenagers like Lindsey Jordan aren’t supposed to be this good at anything. Imagine yourself at that age: Do you have a stack of melodramatic scribbles lying in a box somewhere? Did you keep track of every heartbreak, swearing off love for good? Were there moments of existential dread committed to paper, and are they maudlin, half-formed things? Are you cringing at their very memories?
At 19, Jordan is this good. Her preternatural feel for composition surfaced on her first EP, Habit, written when she was just fifteen. She wrote most of those songs without thinking they’d be played in front of much of an audience. They were introspective, closed-off garage rock tracks that explored teenage loneliness without a whiff of soppy sentimentality. Consider this lyric from “Slug,” one of the standout tracks from the EP: “I could’ve waited my whole life to/Know the difference/But I should’ve just known better than that.” Jordan was writing this stuff before she could drive.
That precociousness may be why Jordan is tired of talking about how old she is. “I don’t really think about age when I’m writing,” she says. “I guess it’s just like a sense of confidence and self-esteem. I think it’s just about writing songs for yourself and just writing songs because you like writing songs.”
Jordan grew up in Ellicott City, a suburb of Baltimore most famous for being extremely haunted. She first picked up a guitar at an early age, starting classical lessons at age five and adhering to a rigorous, self-imposed practice schedule. She was writing her own songs and playing coffeeshops by the time she was eleven, but it wasn’t until she began listening to the complex rock of Future Islands and Television in middle school that she shifted her tastes and fell in love with Baltimore’s tightly knit DIY and punk scene.
That’s where Jordan found her people, forming Snail Mail in 2015, and playing at the Baltimore punk U+NFest alongside seasoned shredders Sheer Mag, Screaming Females, and Priests, the last of which ended up releasing Habit on their Sister Polygon label in 2016. Jordan signed to Matador a year later on the strength of her EP and a few demos. She was still in high school, splitting time between recording sessions and ice hockey practice.
Lush, Snail Mail’s debut LP, is stunning, one of the best indie rock debuts in recent memory by anyone of any age. With musical nods to bands like Sonic Youth and Jordan’s hero, Liz Phair, the album explores themes of loss, yearning, and detachment, its lyrics a reflection of the professional whirlwind she’s been enduring over the last couple years as labels and press have vied for her attention. “The songs are odes to my own life’s changing,” she says, “and just sort of growing as a person.”
The guitar work on Lush is especially striking, from the mellow warbles on “Speaking Terms” to the tight riffs on “Full Control” to the dreamy fingerpicking on “Let’s Find an Out,” a song written while Jordan was dealing with the stress of a packed touring schedule. There’s never any fear or self-doubt in her voice, even as she plumbs the depths of suburban melancholy on “Stick” or acute longing in “Heat Wave.”
Lush also marks the first time that Jordan, who has said she is “predominately interested” in women, has written about explicitly female love interests. She knows that her coming-out process was probably easier than most, given a supportive family and her tightly knit Baltimore music circles. “I guess the world — at least the one I come from — tend to be more accepting of one another and sort of foster and encourage people to come out,” she says.
Jordan doesn’t waste any time showing you what she’s capable of. Album standout “Pristine” announces itself after a lullaby intro a little more than a minute after you hit play. The opening riff has all of the eerie air of Thurston Moore’s spectral notes that open Sonic Youth’s “Teen Age Riot,” but as Jordan begins singing “Pristine/Untraced by the world outside you,” the song takes on a life of its own. She navigates hurt and despondence and gloom without ever dipping a toe into melodrama, something that seems damn near impossible when you consider the lyrics “And I know myself, and I’ll never love anyone else/I won’t love anyone else.” In the hands of a lesser artist, those words would become weepy and mawkish, but Jordan loads them with emotional ballast. You believe her. It’s a hell of a thing.
Jordan arrives at an auspicious moment for a smart, spiky indie-rock grrrl, with artists like Courtney Barnett, Angel Olsen, Lucy Dacus, and Soccer Mommy leaving their male contemporaries in the dust when it comes to composition and performance. Jordan has taken her place among that fierce sorority with Lush. Of course, she bristles when I ask if she feels stifled by the label of “female rocker.”
“I just think that perpetuates the problem,” she says. “I’m just totally sick about talking about being a woman.” And it’s not that she wants to slough off the mantle of feminism, or isn’t aware of the trials that her female forebears had to deal with to get a record deal, it’s that Jordan knows that women artists doing well shouldn’t be the focus of fascination or overwrought trend pieces. It should be the confirmation of what anyone who’s been paying attention already knows.
“Girl bands” are not a genre or a subset, and Jordan understands that continuing to position female-led acts like Snail Mail as something of an ancillary narrative to what’s happening in music today is doing listeners and fans a disservice. Snail Mail is not a girl band; it is just a great band, and it’s just getting started.
Snail Mail play Music Hall of Williamsburg on June 6.