Snail Mail: ‘A lot of my favourite musicians are from the 1990s’

The US teen is one of the best of a wealth of young, female, ’90s-tinged up-and-comers

Snail Mail: “Avril Lavigne got me into music … into alternative music.” Photograph: Michael Lavine

Snail Mail: “Avril Lavigne got me into music … into alternative music.” Photograph: Michael Lavine

 

Ellicott City, Maryland, has a hard-won reputation as the US’s most haunted town. At night a “demon truck” is rumoured to prowl the highways, like a gonzo version of Stephen King’s Christine.

The gothic ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute – an antebellum girls school perched high in the hills – are, it is whispered, stalked by the spirits of former pupils. The Old Fire Station, according to local lore, receives frequent visits from the chain-clanking souls of deceased firefighters.

Recently, however, Ellicott’s quotient of goosebumps has emanated from a rather different source. Aged just 19, local musician Lindsey Jordan has been anointed one of alternative pop’s brightest young prospects. The New York Times has proclaimed her an “indie rock hero at 18”; MTV has predicted she would “lead the next generation” of alt-rockers. Under the alias of Snail Mail, she’s an artist going places in a hurry.

If not quite rags to riches – Jordan’s parents are firmly middle-class – this is nonetheless a story to give hope to underdogs everywhere. Jordan writes wide-eyed, scrappy dream-pop, her lyrics infused with self-doubt and haunted by unhappy romantic encounters. She’s also gay, a minority traditionally underrepresented in left-field music.

And yet here she is, surfing a wave of what might look suspiciously like hype were her songs not so deserving of the attention. More than a dozen record labels reportedly jostled for Jordan’s signature after the release, when she was just 15, of her debut EP (she opted for indie powerhouse Matador). She lit up Instagram duetting with Angel Olsen at this year’s Coachella (Jordan helped make history as part of a line-up featuring a record number of women) .

Indie rock has officially entered its “Black Crowes era … where young artists refigure music from the decade they were born

In June Rolling Stone proclaimed her debut album, Lush, one of the best of 2018 – four days after it hit shelves.

“What I worry about is how to make my shows interesting and fresh,” says Jordan. “The other stuff – all that internet stuff – it’s beyond me. I don’t like it. I try not to read it.”

She may demur. In fact she does demur, at length. Nonetheless, Jordan’s story is bigger than her alone in the sense that the music that has taken her so far so quickly conjures with the ghosts of alt-pop past. Juliana Hatfield, Liz Phair and Belly’s Tanya Donnelly are among her more obvious influences; at moments Lush is so woozily, Winona Ryder-ishly 1990s – naive and acerbic in the same heartbeat – you can almost smell the tie-dye and dusty Reality Bites VHS cassettes.

This perhaps explains the sting in the tail of Rolling Stone’s otherwise ecstatic write-up of Jordan’s debut. The magazine cited Lush as evidence that “indie rock has officially entered its “Black Crowes era … where young artists refigure music from the decade they were born”.

“It’s not something I even thought about until somebody brought it to my attention,” she says. “But when it was pointed out, it made a lot of sense. A lot of my favourite singer-songwriters are from that time.”

Just a few years ago, such a confession might have marked Jordan as an outlier. The 1990s were remembered as the decade of Kurt Cobain, rap-metal and not much else – a clangorous footnote in the pop wars. No more. As Rolling Stone observed, Snail Mail’s debt to the epoch of grunge, floppy fringes and Converse running shoes places Jordan firmly in the mainstream of 21st-century alternative music.

It’s a bit like the way Friends threatens to live forever on Channel 4 and Netflix. With Jordan and her peers in the driving seat, the 1990s have, suddenly and for reasons that remain less than entirely clear, become one of the defining influences on left-leaning rock today. Jangling guitars are de rigueur, accompanied by mumbly lyrics and the aroma of sardonic detachment.

A woman’s world

What’s even more remarkable is that the instigators of this movement are almost exclusively female. Joining Snail Mail in the Gen X reboot are Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison (her September Dublin show is already a sell-out), slacker revivalist Courtney Barnett (also Dublin-bound) and Waxahatchee, aka one-woman indie disco Katie Crutchfield.

The trend has even spread to Ireland in the form of Pillow Queens, whose single Favourite sounds like the snotty cousin thrice-removed of Suede’s 1993 hit Animal Nitrate. It’s as if Ginger, Sporty et al’s prophecy had come belatedly true and girl power has finally swooped to rule the day.

Many of the above artists are under 25, and a few barely out of their teens. Jordan was born in 1999, the year Pavement disbanded. On reflection the extreme youth of these participants is not a surprise. Liam and Noel Gallagher were too young to have any meaningful memory of The Beatles, yet Oasis’s appeal was built on their sounding like a lager-loutish Lennon and McCartney.

Britpop similarly arrived 25 years on from the heyday of The Kinks and The Faces, whose Carnaby Street strut Blur and acolytes reappropriated for a new generation. For as long as teenagers have mooched in bedrooms learning guitar, the music of their extreme youth, haunting the furthest fringes of their memory, has exerted a fascination.

The more woman and people of colouring and gay people in music the better. It’s really cool that this is happening

A surprising influence that comes up again and again talking to Jordan and her peers is Canadian punk-popper Avril Lavigne. Jordan was just three when Sk8ter Boi was a hit (Soccer Mommy’s Allison is just a year older). Yet Lavigne’s music, with its implicit argument that a woman could rock as hard as any man, has clearly shaped their perspectives on life and on art.

Soccer Mommy
Soccer Mommy

“I remember going bowling to her songs,” says Jordan. “I don’t think there was ever a time I stopped up and said, ‘Oh, that’s a woman in music’. But I definitely saw a lot of myself in her at that time. She got me into music … into alternative music. She had this rebellious thing going on that was really cool. Even now I still like her music – I still go back.”

“You can just put those [first two albums] on in the car and every track – boom. Hit, hit, hit, hit,” Allison told Billboard in January. “[She was a] perfect blend of Elliott Smith meets Evanescence, with some ’90s dark grunge … That’s the kind of stuff I like that I can do.”

The other thread that connects the present generation of female rockers with the music scene of 20 years ago is gender. It’s not controversial to say women are making all the truly essential pop today, whether it be St Vincent in her guise as a 21st-century Bowie, Taylor Swift as a post-ironic American Sweetheart or, at the indie end of the spectrum, plucky outsiders such as Allison and Jordan.

Tellingly, one of Jordan’s mentors is Mary Timony, of the great lost 1990s group Helium (Timony’s historic association with Matador was one of the reasons Jordan signed with the label). And at high school her first taste of acclaim was fronting a Liz Phair covers band.

“As a musician it [gender] was not something that I ever had to do about making music. But it’s awesome that we are filling more space with the voices of marginalised people – the more woman and people of colouring and gay people in music the better. It’s really cool that this is happening.”

One thing that has changed for the better is the manner in which the current generation of rockers is depicted in the media. Back in the 1990s, even in the supposedly progressive indie world, female artists were matter-of-factly objectified.

Virgin suicide

Juliana Hatfield, for instance, had her career essentially derailed when she offhandedly remarked to a journalist from Interview magazine that she was a virgin, only to find herself fielding creepy questions about her personal life in every interview she gave for the next decade.

“When the article hit the newsstands,” Hatfield would write in her memoir, “I was shocked by the amount of attention generated by that one little six-word declaration of virginity … People jumped on the quote, tripping over each other to get to it, as if what I had tossed out flippantly was something really important or scandalous. Almost every subsequent article written about me referenced the quote. I couldn’t shake it; my recorded words were like an incurable disease.”

Things have thankfully moved on. Certainly it is difficult to imagine an artist such as Jordan identifying as gay in 1995 and it not being a big deal. The 1990s were a golden age for independent rock – the last true golden age, one might argue. But nobody would want to go back there.

“[Coming out] was difficult in its own right,” says Jordan. “But not because of my environment. People were pretty accepting and cool. I already had it in my head that if anyone didn’t like it, then I would not keep them in my life.”

Snail Mail’s Lush is out now. Soccer Mommy plays The Grand Social Dublin on September 7th

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