The Story Behind Every Song On Snail Mail’s New Album Valentine

The Story Behind Every Song On Snail Mail’s New Album Valentine

More often than not, the sophomore album represents an inevitable decline from a promising debut. Not so with Snail Mail’s Valentine. It’s the rare second outing that makes that promising debut sound almost flat by comparison, which is saying something considering Lush is sensational — one of the best albums of the 2010s. Lindsey Jordan has nailed the sometimes baffling follow-up to a prodigious debut. Revisiting Lush, I miss all the new textures and tricks that are now in the Snail Mail arsenal. By closing the door on the impassioned, intricate guitar wanderings of her debut, she’s opened onto a world that’s more vivid and precise and still, of course, passionate. She exhibits immaculate restraint throughout Valentine — the highs are high, and the lows sound oh so grand.

I must draw your attention to “Automate,” my frontrunner for rock song of the year (and not even a single!). It encapsulates everything that Valentine gets so right. A flurry of acoustic guitars and stumbling piano builds to a driving chorus and simmers back down again. As Jordan sings about the loss of control, the song blunders along with her; her narrator watches as the love of her life pours out the “Jack and consequence” in a fiery rage. “Who was I to ever want like this?” Jordan demands of herself in the chorus, her delivery guttural and then soft and then tragically undignified as the song descends into a coda where she grovels for attention, wishing that there was anything she could have done. “I guess I couldn’t keep her fire out,” she moans. “I’m like your dog/ Only I know you’ll be sweet if I stay.”

So goes the high-stakes melodrama of Valentine, an album that’s as much about heartbreak as it is about learning to move on from said heartbreak. Jordan is still singing about love and the lack thereof, but she does so with a newfound maturity and perspective. She pokes fun at the idea of always being the one jilted, sometimes turns herself into the one doing the jilting. This new multifaceted approach to her lyrics is met with a fresh, expansive sound — there are still plenty of guitars on Valentine, but they’re bolstered by strings and synths and samples and a clearer, more direct usage of Jordan’s endlessly expressive voice.

The album is truly marvelous, and we got Jordan to run it down for us track-by-track. Read on below for a deeper dive into Valentine.

1. “Valentine”

I feel like this is a good bridge between the new album and Lush. Did you always envision this as the opening track and lead single?

LINDSEY JORDAN: I didn’t always envision it that way. When I was beginning to work on the songs that would actually shape the album, I already had “Light Blue” and “c. et. al” written and I had had them for years. And I was like, What am I going to do because I have all these ballads?, which come easy to me. “Valentine” was a ballad at first, it was called “Adore You.” The demo is really devastating and heavy, it’s not as much of a rock song.

It wasn’t called “Valentine” until we got into the studio. The song didn’t really have a chorus, it was just hella verses. And I wrote the chorus and the name immediately came to mind, and it just seemed perfect for the project — it was instant. So I knew we had to open with it. And the way the song starts, with that droning synth, I really like the way it introduced the record.

How would you describe your songwriting process? Do you often sit down with the express purpose of writing a song or does it sort of just come to you?

JORDAN: It’s such a funny thing to talk about because I’m so bad at making it happen for myself. I knew for so long after Lush was done that I needed to start writing. All my friends were on the road and writing and I was like, I’m so jealous of y’all. I just don’t have a method that gets me going. But I do have a way of working that’s pretty specific.

So when inspiration strikes — which it so rarely does for me — I then am like, OK, I have to capture it now. I’ll sit down and, whether it’s on one of my synths or on my guitar, I start coming up with melodies. That’s the most important part to me, so I put a lot of emphasis on making sure the melody is cohesive. Lyrics usually start to pop up, especially if I am in a strong emotional headspace — not a sound emotional headspace, but leaning one way strong, a passionately feeling type of way. Phrases start to come to be and I have a feel for what’s going on.

Then I completely arrange the song and go crazy on the lyrics. That’s the thing that sometimes takes me the longest because I rewrite so many times until everything is in its right place. That’s been really important to me on this record cycle because I wanted to step up as a writer and I think that takes a conscious effort.

When you’re in the studio, does a chorus often come to you then and there, or was “Valentine” a rare event where you knew the song needed something extra?

JORDAN: Usually I come to the studio with stuff kind of done. The demo is usually pretty fleshed-out and the instrumental arrangement is more about figuring out how to bring drums and anything else to it. But sometimes the song is just missing something and I’ll be able to feel it. In some cases, it just jumps out, but usually I need to go to a room by myself and just do it over and over and over again. That actually worked for me in the studio this time because I didn’t really feel pressured by Brad [Cook], and he really encouraged me to do a lot of the production because that’s what I was interested in and I didn’t want to lean on him for help. He kind of wanted the same thing. I’m not that much of a collaborator and I take a lot of pride in the writing, so it’s all about going somewhere by myself and bringing something back.

2. “Ben Franklin”

How conscious were you of the stereotype of the artist that gets really big on a guitar record and pivots to synths? There’s certainly some of that on this record. Were you thinking about that at all, especially on a song like this, which is really synth-heavy?

JORDAN: Yes and no. Yes in that I had to be conscious of it because I didn’t want to take a pivot that wasn’t cohesive, and no in that I listen to so much pop music that it felt natural to start writing what I was listening to and what I wanted to perform. It was a pretty natural progression. I almost understand why everyone’s second record has synths on it — it just felt right. Like, third eye open, I really wanted to work on something pop. But it wasn’t that easy to switch over. I was trying to put my head in a space that could do pop melodies and lyrics that weren’t necessarily melodramatic but also still fit. There is a time and place for some of my lyrics, and a place for not using them. A lot of “Ben Franklin” was about stepping outside of what I’m used to, but it was really rewarding and it’s one of my favorites on the record.

What kind of artists do you listen to, pop-wise?

JORDAN: I love newer R&B-type stuff. I love Summer Walker. I’m a massive Drake fan — I have, like, Drake vinyl at my house. Erika de Casier. I’m a really big fan of Tinashe. Tirzah, on that more minimal tip — Devotion is one of my favorite records of all time. I spin it constantly, it’s always on, it’s always in everyone’s playlist.

Katie Crutchfield sings backing vocals on this. Could you talk a little bit about your relationship with her?

JORDAN: She wasn’t around in the studio, but I worked with Brad because she worked with Brad [Ed: on Waxahatchee’s most recent album Saint Cloud] and she trusts Brad. Katie and I talk on the phone every single day. I am always asking her for career advice. She’s like my sister, but I also have a sister who I love so I’m hesitant to say sister.

I was staying with her in Kansas City because I wanted to spend some time out there. There was a crazy snowstorm going on. This was after working on everything with Brad in North Carolina, but I had mentioned before to Brad that I really wanted a choir of harmonies in the chorus and I had mentioned that to Katie and she was like, “Cool, we should just mess with it at my studio in Kansas City.” And I’m a huge fan of Katie’s voice, but I don’t know, I didn’t go into it expecting us to come up with anything. But she’s just really instinctive with harmonies. We worked through it a couple different times and it ended up really elevating the song to that super next level. Now on our drum setup, we have a pad that just triggers her vocals and it makes such a big difference. I just love getting her wisdom on stuff. It was cool. I was just like, This bitch knows harmonies.

Why is it called “Ben Franklin”?

JORDAN: This story just makes me sound dumb. [laughs] But when I first started working on this song, this meme was going around that was like “presidential-type beat” and everyone in my band was obsessed with this national anthem dubstep remix because it’s so stupid. We joked that it was going to be our walkout music, which is obviously not going to happen, but before I put in any vocal melodies or even the keys in the chorus, we were like, “Why does this sound like the ‘presidential-type beat’ meme?” So the file was originally called “Ben Franklin-Type Beat” and I wasn’t going to call it that, but obviously I called it “Ben Franklin,” so it’s not so far outside of that. Brad was like, “Please, God, anything else,” and I was like, “Noooooo.” I just got attached to it. I like that it’s meaningless.

3. “Headlock”

Your lyrics are so much stronger on this album and “Headlock” is a good example of that. I know you read a lot. How does your reading influence the way you approach songs?

JORDAN: Thank you, first of all — I’m really proud of the lyrics on this record, and “Headlock” is one I’m protective over because I feel like the lyrics took so long and they all have such a personal meaning and they’re kind of shrouded, which is what I wanted. But I was reading lots of really melodramatic stuff at the time. Right before I went to rehab, I read A Little Life, which is kind of crazy … That book is fucked up. I read the Joan Didion book The Year Of Magical Thinking, which has an e e cummings poem in it, which put me on a little bit of an e e cummings tip. There’s a lyric on “Headlock” that’s inspired by that.

I continued to work on those songs after I was in rehab, and while I was there I was allowed to read personal books if I read a mental health book. So I read 17 books while I was there. Only some of them were books I actually wanted to read. But I was really inspired by Ocean Vuong and George Saunders, whose writing means a lot to me… Raymond Carver.

It almost simplifies it to an annoying extent, but the way I think about why reading helps me write is that I feel like I’m always taking in what makes me feel emotion when I read it on a page because there’s something so strong about not having to see or hear something — a tone in someone’s voice, or a melody that makes you emotional — but just reading something that moves you. When I find something like that in a poem or book or in a movie, I feel like I hang onto it and take note of it. But I don’t know how direct it is. But I like to think that everything I consume hopefully steers me toward being a better artist.

4. “Light Blue”

You said this was one of the first songs you wrote for the album. How did this one come about?

JORDAN: I wrote it when I 19 years old, and I wrote it for my girlfriend at the time. It’s a love song. And it’s actually the first Snail Mail song written that doesn’t have a bitter edge to it. There’s no betrayal or sadness or anger — it’s just a love song. So it’s been close to me in my heart for a long time. It’s just, like, sweet. It almost didn’t make it onto the record and we were running out of time … I make my own schedule, but it was also sort of like, chop chop, it had been a really long time since I put out anything.

I played it for Brad and he said it was a beautiful song and not to hide it. Working on it with the arrangement — the cello and the little synth moments — made me feel really emotional singing it again in the studio, which was unexpected. I was like, Who cares, I’ve had this forever, I don’t want to work on it. And there were tears in my eyes when I was singing it in the studio with the new arrangement. And I feel really strongly about it again.

There are a lot of instruments on this album that you’re using that you haven’t really worked with before. Why did you want to bring more instruments into the Snail Mail sound?

JORDAN: For me, it wasn’t consciously about mixing it up so much as it was about elevating stuff. I feel really strongly about arrangements being minimal if the arrangement calls for it. Throwing instrumentation at things is one of the worst mistakes people can make. The more budget you get, the more you just want to throw instrumentation at things because it’s fun to work with strings and stuff like that. But I’m a firm believer in meditating on if a song is done. I just wanted to test the waters and see if adding in strings, for example, actually took the song somewhere else or if it was just like, Oh, there’s strings on this Snail Mail song.

So I do feel like it works really well. That song is only this cellist, it’s not the whole orchestra like on “Mia” — this woman Kaitlin Grady, who is friends with Brad, and she came in and ripped it up and killed it. We heard everything she did and edited together something that felt really emotional and powerful. I love that little synth line in there, too.

What was it like working with Brad in the studio?

JORDAN: He’s so real with me and he was so easy to work with in a way that I’ve never met anyone that was so easy to work with. He keeps his energy very chill and nonjudgemental. That relaxed tone makes me feel so comfortable. I would do one or two vocal takes and that was it. Usually, even when I’m by myself recording demos, sometimes it takes me 40 takes because I’m very neurotic and self-conscious about how everything needs to be perfect. And Brad just generally really believes in me and that made such a difference. You can just feel when somebody really respects and believes in you. I could just tell that he was like, “We’re gonna go with what you feel is right and I trust you as an artist and a producer.”

And then, for example, in “Forever (Sailing),” there’s a sample in it. I was like: I want to sample this disco song, I just know it. And at first he was initially like, “How is that going to fit?” but then he was like, “Alright, that’s what we’re going to do.” That kind of support is everything to me.

5. “Forever (Sailing)”

That’s an easy transition to move on to “Forever (Sailing),” which is built around Madleen Kane’s “You And I.” What was it about the original song that made you want to rework it?

JORDAN: I first heard the song in a coffee shop somewhere when we were on tour, and I asked the barista what it was because I thought it was so crazy. It sounds so haunted. It has this magical quality to it that, even after working on it for months, I still really like the song. I got to North Carolina and I needed two more songs and I had this feeling every time I listened to it that I just wanted to have a part of it. I’d never really thought like that before. Like, if I don’t cover this, I neeed to do something with it because that song has a crazy pocket. It feels really intensely special to me and unvisited. I’d never heard of it. It’s rogue, it came out of nowhere.

It was really hard to build something around a sample because I had never done that. It was weird to work around. It’s really only a little bit of a sample — when you isolate it, it just kind of sounds like an air conditioner. We replayed a lot of the stuff. I spent a ton of time in Brad’s guest room with an acoustic guitar trying to figure it out. I actually ran out of time in the studio and ended up finishing pretty much everything afterward — the lyrics and those lead guitar parts and all the double vocals and harmonies and all the funky stuff and I recorded them in my apartment in the East Village.

Your voice, especially on this song but across the album, sounds so good. Did you take vocal lessons or are you using your voice differently?

JORDAN: So I actually took vocal lessons after the record was done. Just because my voice got deeper — I don’t know how that works with being an adult woman, but it did. The caveat of that is that I’ve found out that if I go out at night or if I don’t get enough sleep, it goes away. It’s hoarse, generally, and if I abuse it, even if I’m not yelling, but if I stay up too late, I lose it. Vocal health has been my new passion.

In the studio, after touring so much, there was definitely a shift. On Lush, it’s super raw. I didn’t know how to sing so I was just singing how I thought you sing. Then I started losing my voice like a motherfucker because I was basically just yelling. What’s on the record is how, mentally, I thought you reworked it not to lose it on the road. And what’s happening now is actual vocal health education, which is also a big shift. That’s my biggest point of fear: losing my voice.

6. “Madonna”

You’ve sung about religion a couple times on your other songs, but this one is very religious. Why?

JORDAN: This song is about putting someone on a pedestal and worshipping them and how that just doesn’t work. At times, I feared that it sounded sacrilegious. I’m actually very fearful of being sacrilegious — that’s a big part of my Catholic upbringing. We didn’t say Jesus Christ in the household, we didn’t do anything like that. I was really afraid my mom would be like: “Lindsey Erin Jordan.” I don’t want to make it seem like I’m making fun of it because I’m not. In a lot of ways, I still carry that education with me in my morals and wanting to be a good person. I had a really good time writing it because I was like, Wow, look at my Catholic education — this is just sitting here, what am I going to do with it?

It’s an interesting thing to have it in my heart in a sort of halfway sense. I don’t go to church or anything… I guess being a gay person makes you feel naturally separated from it. I was in the church band when I was younger and I was a big believer. I’m not going to say I’m not now, but it’s just shifted for me. It was interesting to reference it and grab from that and it felt really right for what I was writing about.

The language of recovery is really steeped in religion. While you were going through that, were you thinking a lot about religion and a higher power?

JORDAN: Definitely. You can’t get through rehab without having a higher power of some sort. They won’t let you. I definitely was doing a good amount of praying. That’s still there for me. That was a big part of my upbringing in Catholicism, having a personal relationship with God. But at rehab and in recovery, I felt a lot of the stuff I was trying to channel was the spiritual aspect of my love for music and art and reading and movies and everything. That was such a big thing — channeling how it feels to be present and making music was a big thing. Wanting to get back to that and shed any external reasoning for doing anything… Getting back to how I feel when I’m making music, which is connected to some greater thing. That was on my mind when I was working on it, especially coming out of rehab, because I felt very renewed in my love for life, which is wild… Especially because I didn’t have to be in rehab anymore. I was like, dude, everything is amazing if you’re not sitting in a classroom in Arizona for 45 days. I was like… Everything is amazing and spiritual!

Despite all that, “Madonna” is kind of a dark song. I feel like whenever anyone uses spiritual imagery, it becomes ominous and conflicted.

JORDAN: It’s bitchy! It definitely is intended to be bitchy. I don’t write from a place of anger, usually, because I don’t think it lasts in the same way that despair does, or even love… I try to not write songs from a place of anger because it’s like, how long in my life will I have to be performing that song? Fingers crossed it’s a long time, but I try to think about it like … you’re going to be singing from this place of anger for a long time. But … yeah, this song is angry. It’s slighted and angry and scorned and it’s using religion as a jumping off point to compare, but I think it’s more about the danger of letting a human in your life become God because that really doesn’t work. It’s not meeting someone where they’re at. It’s meeting someone on your knees.

7. “c. et al.”

This is another song that’s been around for a while. I wanted to talk a little bit about the performative aspect of your voice. You really lean into the scratchy side of it on this song. Is that intentional? Is that how you feel the song should be sung?

JORDAN: Part of me thinks that it’s more instinctive than intentional because I was singing it for so long and that’s how I knew to sing it. But it is powerful in its own way. It’s interesting now that I’m thinking about it because this song is super gentle, and I guess I was really singing it from my gut. Maybe just from practicing it all the time in the voice that I was practicing everything in for a while — the Lush voice…

It feels theatrical in a way.

JORDAN: It all is. Sometimes it’s instinctual. There are definitely moments where it’s intentionally soft or not soft, but then there are moments where it just happens. If “Ben Franklin” is my Saturday night, then “c. et. al” is my Sunday morning. It’s that feeling like when you were a kid and were watching the weekend slip away and thinking about Monday. That’s where it sits on the record for me and what it’s kind of supposed to feel like.

Why did this one stick around?

JORDAN: It was another one that I was stuck on. I was not really feeling any of the ballads while I was recording, other than “Mia.” I’m really proud of that guitar part at the end — I worked on that for a year while we were in the van. That was the only thing I accomplished while on tour, in terms of working on the next record. It got cut down, it used to have several verses, but bringing it back in a way that was concise and very intentional made me feel like it fit very well on the record. I like where it contrasts. It’s not about the same thing as some of the other songs, and I think it sits in a way where you can tell I’m singing about something else. It’s almost lighthearted.

8. “Glory”

This one gives me some Hole/Courtney Love vibes, and not necessarily just because it’s set in LA. Where did this one come from?

JORDAN: I wrote this from a place of hurt. Another kind of angry one, which is crazy… It’s also sad. It fits in the universe. It came really naturally. I remember writing it really quickly and being like, This song bangs and it’s done. Now that I’m thinking about it, “Glory” is one of the oldest ones, too. It had been around for a while. I knew that I wanted to do a breakbeat of sorts in there — I wanted to have one on the record because I’m a big fan of them — so I was like, this is the one with the breakbeat. I’m glad you said Hole, because I was going through a pretty intense Kurt Cobain moment and I was like, this song has to have the grunge cello from the MTV Unplugged “Something In The Way” — that’s what we were referencing as the sonic inspiration for the cello.

This song seems to be about substance abuse and addiction and how the music industry facilitates and encourages those things. Do you feel like that?

JORDAN: “Glory” definitely touches on that. It’s about entertainment at large. It’s icky. It’s a hard thing to make sense of when you’re working in it because it’s very acceptable to be doing whatever the fuck you want. It’s a party kind of job, but it’s also not. The suits can definitely get fucked up at the festival, but it’s not as cute when I do it because I have to perform. “Glory” is very much making fun of how ridiculous all that is. Not making light of it necessarily, but the song is rude. It’s definitely poking at the concept of being washed-up in your respective industry. It’s not that cool — it’s extremely uncool, in my opinion.

In the lyrics, you switch up one word in the chorus.

JORDAN: I keep trying to get us to make merch that says “You owe me/ You own me” because I don’t know if people realize I’m saying different words unless they read the lyrics. It’s trying to express anger but also it’s very “Madonna” in that way: I want this last word, I want it so bad, give me something for all the hurt. But at the same time: I’m yours forever, I would do anything for this person. That’s thematically similar to “Madonna” because this person is God but I also want to scream in their face. Putting them next to each other like that: “You owe me and you own me” is really powerful for me because it’s like, look how you can have both.

9. “Automate”

JORDAN: This is my favorite song on the record.

It’s my favorite, too. How did it come about?

JORDAN: At a party, I ran into my friend Nick, who is in that band the Obsessives. He’s a dear friend to us all in the band. And we were talking a lot about songwriting and were jamming in the basement, just us two sitting next to each other, and I came up with the melody and we were riffing together. And after that night, I took the voice memos of everything and was like, Oh my god, I can make something really magical out of this. And then spent the next several months in my room at the computer with the MIDI analog synth and the guitar just trying to fill in the parts. I had the song and I needed the words that fit.

I didn’t finalize the chorus lyrics until a week or two before I recorded them. I was having such a hard time. I had so many different versions of the chorus with so many different lyrics. A notebook full of lyric options. And those syllables are very tricky. Some things fit better than others in a way that you would never think … I think the original lyrics were like … [sings] “Automate me/ And I’ll never find a love like this/ I’m free/ But I’m not having any fun like this/ Wash, rinse, repeat…” It was really hard to fill in those exact syllables and make it sound powerful and choosing between the hundred lyrics I had written down.

And then the ending, which is my favorite part of the entire record, came to me really quickly in the studio. And I was like, OK, this is my favorite thing I’ve ever written. It fucks me up every time. It makes me cry and I’ve heard it a million times.

10. “Mia”

Before we get to “Mia,” I wanted to talk about the length of the album. It’s very short, just about 30 minutes. Did you have any reservations about that?

JORDAN: It almost didn’t make the cut for how long a record needs to be. It needed to be at least 30 minutes, and I had a little bit of trouble getting it there. I really wanted it to be concise. The same thing that I said earlier, in that I got really obsessed with knowing when I was done. And with a lot of these songs, if I added anything, I knew it would be just fluff. Adding something for the sake of meeting a deadline or how long something needs to be, or making a fast song because you have too many slow songs — that chills me to my core. I will not do that. Luckily, “Forever” was the last song that I wrote and it was long. And that was just coincidental — I wasn’t really calculating too much, but just knew that I needed another song. I didn’t want verses that exist just to exist when the songs are all more concise. It was like, I’ve said everything I need to say and it’s 30 minutes.

Why did you want to end on “Mia”?

JORDAN: That song is another one that makes me sad. Every line of it… Every line of every song on the record has personal meaning to me, but this one is like a dagger in my soul. It’s super grand, which is how I like my songs to sound, and I think it ties everything in a bow in that the song is almost an example of acceptance. It’s obviously sad, and I’m obviously not singing the song and being like, I’m OK with the fact that Mia has somebody else. But it’s this horrifying “it is what it is” song that wraps up the stages of grief naturally and subconsciously. I think all the stages of grief are represented in the record. It’s super dramatic. I love the way the actual ending is very cinematic. And I paid a lot of attention to the way each song ended and the next one began, and the ending of “Automate” into the beginning of “Mia” is a special moment to me. It’s almost just hinting at how sad the record is going to become. The ending of “Automate” is like … well, just you wait.

“Mia” to me represents the feeling when you break up with someone and then you wake up the next day and for a second you forget that it happened and then you remember. And it’s like … oh … oh no. It’s the sonic manifestation of that horrible day-after feeling. It’s almost a rude way to leave people at the end of it, but I didn’t want it anywhere near the beginning. And then it’s kind of like, alright, see you all later.

Lush ended in a similar way.

JORDAN: “Anytime” is kind of a similar ending, but “Anytime” is wistful and not necessarily, like, “Mia, don’t cry, I’ll love you forever.” “Anytime” is more like, I’ll love you forever and I’m always here for you. “Mia” is like, damn, it’s over over, and I’ll always love you but this is the final say. It’s pure coping, that one. And it’s coping without expecting anything in return. It’s not for anyone but myself to be like … fuck.

Valentine is out now via Matador Records.

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