Snail Mail's Lindsey Jordan: “I’m a perfectionist – I will rip a song apart until it is done”

Snail Mail
(Image credit: Scott Kowalchyk/CBS via Getty Images)

When Guitar World reaches Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan over Zoom, the vocalist-guitarist hints that she’s been breaking in a pair of instruments at home in New York City over the past few months. One is the gorgeous, custom Jazzmaster she’d co-designed back in 2019 – the flipped leftie with a pearl pickguard is technically the second pass at the instrument, with the original custom suspiciously lost in the mail back in 2020.

The other instrument, more precariously, is Jordan’s voice. Last November – just days before Jordan was to take off on the first leg of touring behind the scintillating, heart-swelling guitar rock of Snail Mail’s sophomore full-length, Valentine – the musician revealed she’d be postponing the dates to undergo surgery to remove massive polyps from her vocal cords.

Jordan was put on three months’ vocal rest following the procedure in early December. Over the winter, she retreated to the comfort of a beanbag chair up in her loft to play guitar for hours on end. There, she recontextualized some existing anthems for her eventual return to the stage, and tried to master some obscure anime anthems. Slowly – though arguably ahead of schedule – she got back to singing while strumming.

“Out of curiosity, I tried Valentine before I was supposed to,” Jordan admits. “It was crazy in the beginning. [My voice] was so wobbly and weird.” She’s since built up the strength, song by song, to embark on a run of U.S. dates this April (“I’m working on all of it aggressively right now”).

Despite the tour delay, fans have likewise been able to spend countless hours with Snail Mail’s latest release. As with the gain-crushed anthems of 2018 breakthrough Lush, Valentine’s title track surges with especially euphoric swathes of chord work. But elsewhere, Jordan plays with slippery, close-mic’ed fingerpicking on acoustic highlight c. et al., and works a more ethereally effects-cloaked groove on pieces like Ben Franklin.

Speaking with Guitar World, Jordan further delved into revamping demos in the studio (“I’m a perfectionist; I will fucking rip a song apart until it is done”), short-scale favourites in her guitar collection, and how putting down the pick can change the mood of a riff.

How has your vocal recovery been coming along?

“It’s been very complicated, more labor-intensive than I thought – it’s been a lot of discipline and doing exercises all day long. It’s still healing, but I’m starting to sing again, which is cool. My lower range is pretty much gone, but my upper range is insane – so high! I think I might’ve had polyps since I was 14 [so] it’s the first time I’ve ever been a boundless singer. I feel like a bird, or something. It’s almost too much freedom.”

Did that forced vocal rest push you towards playing more guitar those first few weeks after surgery?

“Definitely. I’ve been spending so much time at home, because I’m not supposed to be overusing my voice, and I’m not supposed to be in loud environments. I’ve been playing so much guitar. I have a loft up here – you climb this ladder; all my guitar stuff is up there. I just sit in my beanbag all day long and never put it down.

“I’ve been writing a little bit [and] I’m modifying things for the live set. There’s a guitar solo during the set that I’m not crazy about, so I’ve been messing with that. I’m doing a lot of metronome practices and messing with different tunings. And now that I have so much time to play guitar, I’ve been learning some other people’s songs.”

I love learning and just metronoming ‘til the cows come home. That’s so satisfying to me

Whose songs have you been learning?

“I’ve been learning Duvet by a band called Bôa. I guess it’s the theme song for some anime I’ve never seen [Serial Experiments Lain], but I found the song on the internet and was obsessed with this one riff in it – it’s very glide-y. It’s hard, but it’s coming along. I love learning and just metronoming ‘til the cows come home. That’s so satisfying to me.”

A few months back you received a custom Jazzmaster from Fender that you’d co-designed. What went into that? 

“I designed it in 2019. It [was sent] to me in 2020, but was stolen by a mail person, straight up. It didn’t even make it to my apartment. 

“It’s been so long since I designed it, [but] I remember asking for the rectangular fret markers – that was a big point of conversation. It was difficult to get that done, because they don’t really do that any more, I guess. The leftie thing – it’s a leftie that’s flipped – that was literally just because they had one maple neck left and it was a leftie. I thought, ‘Cool! That’s weird!’

“There’s not that much going on with it. The switch is pretty uncomplicated: neck, body, and in the middle. I didn’t want all the Jag complications. It was just, ‘Let’s make the headstock match; let’s get a pearl pickguard.’ I feel like we didn’t do that many modifications. But the neck is intense. It’s really thick.”

Which guitars were you playing through the making of Valentine? In the music videos and talkshow performances for the album you’d been playing your ‘71 SG, but had you bounced around?

“There was a lot of bouncing around in general – [we recorded in] lots of different studios – but I feel like it was actually an uncomplicated tone process. I was ignoring a lot of that stuff; there were certain things I was paying more attention to than others. We were working with a producer, Brad Cook, who was like that, too: ‘Figure out the song, and we’ll figure out the rest of that stuff later.’ 

“So, we used a lot of the same guitars without thinking about it, but now that we’re figuring out the live setting, it’s gotten extremely complicated. I have all these options now, which is a great problem to have. The SG is for Valentine, and that’s kind of the only song I like it for in the set. I don’t know if it’ll even come with me. 

“Fender sent me this other, orange Jazzmaster and it’s the best guitar I’ve ever played – I played it on the one live session we did before surgery. It’s sick. It's the exact same colour as the album cover, but Fender didn’t know that because the art hadn’t been put out yet when they sent the guitar.

Fingerpicking is a skill I learned really early. It comes pretty naturally to me, so when I’m writing and [figuring out] the mood of the song, I don’t use a pick

“They were like, ‘This was the last one that we had sitting around; we thought you’d like it.’ It’s got god-tier tone. No matter what I do to it, no matter which pedals I’m running through it, it’s the perfect guitar. It's easy to play, and it looks cool. It rocked all of our worlds when I used it for the first time at band practice. 

“There’s also this Fender acoustic: it’s a little short-scale Malibu that I used for a couple songs. And I have a Mustang that I’m considering [bringing on tour]. I’m starting to think I need to prioritize a guitar that’s easy to play. With the Mustang, it’s short-scale and light; it’s very broken-in. I’d never considered bringing a Mustang with me on tour, but now as my singing gets more complicated, how great would it be to make sure everything was easy with the guitar [setup]?”

With that short-scale Malibu in mind, can we get into your fingerpicking style on this record? That’s something you brought into Lush as well, but it feels more pronounced on acoustic Valentine songs like c. et al. or Light Blue. 

“I’m a much more confident guitar player after having played for so many days in a row. Writing the record, I was sitting with my guitar for hours on end, just experimenting.

“Fingerpicking is a skill I learned really early. It comes pretty naturally to me, so when I’m writing and [figuring out] the mood of the song, I don’t use a pick. When I’m working them out, I feel like they can go either way. I’m working on a song right now and I can’t tell if it should be a jangly Britpop thing or fingerpicked and quiet. 

“But I’m really comfortable with [fingerpicking]. It’s a unique skill that I have, and it feels good to integrate it. On c. et al., I feel like I’m showing off a little – because why not?”

Let’s get into some of the electric tones: Headlock has a ‘90s jangle to it that doesn’t really exist anywhere else on the album…

“That was built from this demo that I have, which I think will come out eventually. It’s pretty close to what you’re hearing on the record – I was trying to stay as true to that as possible. Yeah, I don’t know… I’ve heard a lot of different interpretations about what that song sounds like. Someone told me it sounded ‘cowboy’. I can kind of hear that.

“I think I used an ‘80s SG on that bad boy, which was in the studio. With the producer that we were with at the time, I was like, ‘How can we shape this to be as similar to the tone on this Logic demo as possible.’ 

“In the demo, it’s literally just a little crunch, a little chorus, and a couple effects that are already pre-set on the [interface]. It’s very chill. I feel like that part of the process was basically a blur, [but] we weren’t running that many pedals [in the studio]. I feel like there aren’t anywhere near as many bells and whistles as there were on Lush, surprisingly. But I don’t actually know! I don’t know what the amp was…”

I’m excited to go on tour, but I’m so nervous – it’s like a death march to that first show. There’s an emphasis on my voice; I’m so nervous about the prospect of people listening closer

You’d recently released the Adore You demo, which went through some significant structural changes before becoming the album’s Valentine. Can you get into the lighting strike moment of finding that big, bashed chorus melody for the album version?

“In that demo, there’s a synth line [in the background], which [ultimately became the] chorus. It took months of work on that demo before I realized, ‘There’s no chorus here!’ But I wasn’t thinking of it as a structured song. It was more like, ‘This is my heart.’

“I was listening to the demo when I got to the studio. I love that [synth] melody, so I just started singing over it. There were infinite amounts of chord combos with the original version of the chorus – G, C, E minor, F, whatever. There’s one [version] where its completely different than the [album], with an A minor and an E minor. One’s gentler, one’s a little sadder.

“The version we went with is actually not my favourite, [but] in the moment I was so flustered – I couldn’t hear the difference between them anymore. It was like, ‘Fuck… they all kind of sound the same.’ It’s overly complicated. I’m accentuating the phrases with extra chords, and that’s where I was running into problems – like, this chord could go here.”

Did any other songs from Valentine go through those kinds of changes?

“I’d been writing c. et al. for over two years. It used to be seven minutes long. I was writing it on tour, so I had nothing but time to play the guitar [on the road] and mess with it, which is not good for me.”

You’re not playing guitar in the performance video for Madonna, fully focusing instead on your vocals. Is that something you’ll be experimenting with on this tour?

“Yeah, for Madonna, Forever (Sailing) and Ben Franklin. It’s just me and my limbs.”

Who’s in your band right now?

“We’ve got Ray Brown on drums – we’re old-school homies; been in the band forever. Alex Bass – my best friend in the whole world – is on bass. We’ve got a new member, Ben Kaunitz. Both Maddy [McCormack] and Ben are on guitars and synth – they switch off on parts. It sounds really full.”

We haven’t done a tour in three years. That’s really who I am as a person – it’s who I’ve been since I was a teenager becoming a young adult

In the Ben Franklin video, there’s this one scene where you’re eating a bowl of cereal with a live snake around your neck. Later on, you’re playing with the band in a bedroom. Had there been any point during that shoot where you tried playing the guitar with the snake around your neck?

“No… that snake scared the shit out of me. I came up with the idea for the video. There were these old Tina Barney pictures of American wealth; there’s one with this big snake in a mansion, which is what the whole video is based off of. I was like, ‘We have to get a snake,’ even though I hate that shit. I hate snakes! 

“She was getting really grouchy towards the end of the shoot. Her handler was like, ‘We should probably wrap this up; she’s getting tired.’ But she loved Alex, the bassist. He was wearing this preppy jacket – I think the snake thought he was Voldemort, or something. She kept going into his jacket while we were shooting. It was disgusting. I felt so bad for him. We did our snake [scene] and never got near it again. Like, ‘Go home to your tank!’”

Being that things obviously did not go as planned – having postponed the start of your tour to undertake a serious procedure – does the anticipation for these spring dates hit you differently than if you had started the tour last November?

“I’m excited, but I’m so nervous – it’s like a death march to that first show. There’s an emphasis on my voice; I’m so nervous about the prospect of people listening closer. I’m taking care of it, but [I’m] learning this new instrument, basically. I’m still trying to get a hold of it. 

“We haven’t played a show for two years. We haven’t done a tour in three years. That’s really who I am as a person – it’s who I’ve been since I was a teenager becoming a young adult. It really does feel like something has been missing [so] I’m excited to get back in.”

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Gregory Adams

Gregory Adams is a Vancouver-based arts reporter. From metal legends to emerging pop icons to the best of the basement circuit, he’s interviewed musicians across countless genres for nearly two decades, most recently with Guitar World, Bass Player, Revolver, and more – as well as through his independent newsletter, Gut Feeling. This all still blows his mind. He’s a guitar player, generally bouncing hardcore riffs off his ’52 Tele reissue and a dinged-up SG.