An Indie-Rock Star at 18? Snail Mail Is Figuring It Out

Lindsey Jordan writes astute, emotional indie-rock songs that imply a lifetime of wisdom beyond her 18 years. Her debut album for Matador Records, “Lush,” is due in June. CreditCaroline Tompkins for The New York Times

BALTIMORE — Strolling through the National Aquarium last week, Lindsey Jordan, the singer and guitarist who records under the name Snail Mail, had some concerns about the animals’ emotional well-being.

“I wonder how they keep them all eating and not depressed,” she said, observing an exhibit devoted to an Australian river gorge, where long barramundi nosed one another and turtles drifted by. She paused to post some spindly jellyfish on her Instagram story because the background music was so comical (Steve Vai-like shredding), although she found them gross. The lone dolphin doing languid flips in a huge tank was a bummer too far, and she quickly moved along.

Ms. Jordan, who grew up in the suburbs about 20 minutes away, had been to the aquarium on school trips before. Those aren’t in the distant past: She is 18 and graduated last year with a critically beloved EP called “Habit” under her belt and ideas in her head for her first full-length album for the storied label Matador Records. (Plans to attend St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn were put on hold indefinitely, even though, she said, “I was so excited, I had a sweatshirt.”)

Her style of indie rock — poetically honest lyrics set to harmonically creative guitar parts — can recall Liz Phair, an idol she recently met, and Mary Timony, who used to give her lessons. But Ms. Jordan is not merely an inheritor; she is an innovator, creating fresh expectations for what a complex artistic statement from a young voice can sound like today.

“Lush,” due next month, is a 10-song reverie about building friendships, aspirations and love on shaky ground — the kind of uncertainty and hope that speckle adolescence with excitement but often calcify into fear and resignation with age. “The songs all had to have that moment for me where I feel like when I was playing live I could cry,” Ms. Jordan said, tucking into a late-afternoon breakfast burrito at her favorite diner, Sip & Bite, which has been featured on Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” “I’m comfortable being my whole imperfect self onstage and in songwriting,” she added. “Nothing is off limits.”

Ms. Jordan has been playing guitar for 13 years, making her the odd woman out in her nonmusical, but very supportive, family. Her mother, who shares Ms. Jordan’s fascination with fashion, owns a lingerie store called Bra-la-la; her father works for a company that provides textbooks and curriculum for home-school programs; and her older sister is an outdoorswoman. But the artists her mother listened to (Coldplay, the Fray, Lighthouse) and her sister favored (angsty, harder-edged Warped Tour bands) shaped Ms. Jordan’s earliest musical memories. Until she heard Paramore, she said, “I actually didn’t know women were allowed in bands.”

She asked for a guitar when she was 5 and started classical training, forcing herself to practice two hours a day. “It’s an obsessive personality trait,” she said. “My parents were never like, ‘Go practice.’ I was just like, ‘I have to practice.’” She brought a similarly fervent work ethic to ice hockey, which she played through high school.

When Ms. Jordan started attending a rock ’n’ roll camp, her passion became a competition, dulling her interest. “I was like, oh, now I have to learn ‘Cliffs of Dover,’” she said, referring to the Eric Johnson noodle-a-thon often heard in the aisles of Guitar Center. At 9, she began playing at sports bars in her parents’ friends’ cover band, the Eight Balls. Around 11, her spark for the guitar returned in earnest, and she starting writing songs, emailing the owners of restaurants and coffee shops to book her own sets. Then she discovered the D.I.Y. punk scene and didn’t want to play coffee shops anymore.

Precocious and social, Ms. Jordan had a wide network outside of school. Another local musician encouraged her to perform at Unregistered Nurse, a Baltimore punk festival, and before long she was sharing the same stage as Screaming Females and Sheer Mag, recording an EP with the Washington band Priests and building buzz. “Habit,” six loose, lo-fi songs released in 2016, included “Slug,” an especially astute meditation on helplessness and identity that empathizes with the garden mollusk. (Snail Mail is now a trio that includes Alex Bass on bass and Ray Brown on drums.)

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“I’m comfortable being my whole imperfect self onstage and in songwriting,” Ms. Jordan said. “Nothing is off limits.”CreditCaroline Tompkins for The New York Times

When Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee played in Baltimore about a year ago and met Ms. Jordan, she remembered thinking, “This is a person who’s going to probably change a lot of people’s lives.” After Ms. Jordan began the confusing process of securing a label deal and entering music full time, she turned to Ms. Crutchfield as a mentor, though she admitted that she resisted advice at first: “I really just wanted to be the mastermind behind everything, control freak, superstar.”

Ms. Crutchfield remains struck by Ms. Jordan’s confidence and purity as an artist. “Superficial things to gain from being successful in music don’t interest her, which is cool,” she said. “She has a clear vision, and it’s inspiring.” But Ms. Jordan, who treated herself to a solo visit to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter during a recent stop in Florida and responded to the waitress’s offer of a soda refill with “That would be sick,” is also very much still a teen.

“She has a tremendous amount of emotional intelligence, and then she’ll say something and I’m like, ‘Oh my God you are a goofy kid,’” Ms. Crutchfield said with an affectionate laugh.

After our aquarium adventure, Ms. Jordan hunted for a lost parking garage voucher in her red Prius, which was littered with candy hearts, empty bottles and toiletries. She admitted to speaking in “meme language” and internet shorthand, subbing “v” for very.

After she signed to Matador, however, Ms. Jordan said she snapped into a fresh head space. “I was obsessed with being the life of the party,” she said. “I was so high energy, [an] extrovert. When I knew I had to start writing, I started to kind of lock myself in my room.” The process of meeting industry operators who didn’t necessarily have her best interests at heart was sobering, and she retreated into books and music for inspiration.

Some of the songs on “Lush” were written when she was struggling to understand the music industry, which was a mode she preferred because “that’s when I was writing more about myself and less about wistful crushes.”

Ms. Jordan came out one Christmas when her parents playfully suggested she was attracted to her bandmate. “My parents were like, ‘You’re going to marry Alex,’ and I was like, ‘I’m gay!’” she said. Her sister had kidded her about her sexual orientation for years, and Ms. Jordan said she has always been “in awe” of older women. “I was always a huge fan of songs about women — it’s such a great topic!” she said. “So when I discovered that was who I was predominately interested in, I was like, can’t wait to just start writing songs about women.”

Ms. Jordan had a firm idea of what she wanted “Lush” to sound like, and her producer Jake Aron (who has worked with Solange and Grizzly Bear), said he was impressed by her poise. “The importance of what she’s saying is really central to what makes her music so special, so she really pushed me for clarity” in the production, he said. “It’s crazy she knows this much.” On one of the record’s standouts, “Heat Wave,” Ms. Jordan traces an infatuation that curls into disappointment as surprising bursts of guitar break the track’s calm.

Spending time in the studio appealed to Ms. Jordan’s perfectionist impulses (“There’s so much shaker on the record, it’s sick,” she boasted), and being a full-time artist has also allowed her to indulge her interest in fashion. A few days before our meeting, she attended a Gucci party in New York with two friends from home for support.

“I’m really glad I had them there, because we were the only people sitting because the shoes are a little hard to stand in,” Ms. Jordan said, confessing that she needed to visit the brand’s website to figure out how to affix the long leather strap on the pair she borrowed.

Laughing as she thought about how she had approached the event, she said she’s matured to the point where she is never “that person” making a scene at the party. Then she inadvertently spit out an observation that could be a motto for her music: “I have a lot of self-awareness,” she said, “and not a lot of shame.”