Golden dreams and the cities we thought we knew: Snail Mail in Hong Kong

Golden dreams and the cities we thought we knew: Snail Mail in Hong Kong

One writer’s quest to see one of 2018’s breakout stars in a city he loves.

Photos by Apa Agbayani

 

Few songs have torn straight through me like Snail Mail’s Pristine. The five-minute song is pure emotional nakedness set to Lindsey Jordan’s unforgivingly precise guitar lines. It is the year’s singular greatest rock moment — takes no prisoners, gives no fucks, lingers in the mind like a fresh wound.

A few months ago, Young STAR asked me and a handful of other writers to talk about our favorite sad songs. At the time, I said, “If you’ve ever tallied hurts against someone then felt them burst out of you like poison, you’ll love Pristine. The song is Lindsey Jordan’s ode to coming clean with every dark, resentful thought that’s burdened you.” [READ: It’s time to bring back the Sad Songs playlist]

 

Lindsey throws one lyrical barb after another and even if sometimes the sentences don’t connect cleanly, you’re left with the immensity of a feeling.

 

The lead single off her debut album “Lush” is just one of her formidable achievements as a 19-year-old singer-songwriter who started out in a Liz Phair covers band called Lizard Phair. True to its title, the album glistens like golden hour sunlight. Lindsey paints these stories of lost love with a jagged tenderness, like she’s clinging desperately to both the hurt and the wonder she feels over someone. Lindsey throws one lyrical barb after another and even if sometimes the sentences don’t connect cleanly, you’re left with the immensity of a feeling.

When Snail Mail announced a Southeast Asian tour in October that conveniently left Manila out, I thought it might be a good idea to see her elsewhere. Hong Kong is a city I know like the back of my hand (and a place where I can stay with family), so I thought to catch Snail Mail there with my best friend Keisha and my friend Wacky who’d just moved there. Keisha and I planned a five-day trip. On the first night, we’d see Snail Mail.

Hong Kong met us with rain clouds, but it was still the city I knew how to navigate rain or shine. After spending the day battling rain and wind in Tsim Sha Tsui and dumpling joint queues in Mong Kok, we took the trains to This Town Needs, an underground gig venue tucked in Hong Kong’s old industrial district of Kwun Tong. This Town Needs felt like the perfect music venue: dark and intimate but spacious enough for a couple hundred people. Think Route 196 meets Samsung Hall — truly what this town needs.

Snail Mail came on after a couple of opening acts and the first thing I noticed was a lack of polish that didn’t feel in any way rock ‘n’ roll. Lindsey’s band stumbled through technical difficulties during her opening song Heat Wave, and it was a little dispiriting to feel such a great song’s impact so dulled because the band didn’t do a proper sound check.

There was a minor gaffe when Lindsey told the audience, “It’s our first time playing in China,” unaware of the fraught political history of Hong Kong as a special administrative region. Someone in the crowd started to yell “We’re not China! We hate them!” and an awkward exchange ensued before Lindsey went into Golden Dream. After finishing the song, she apologized. “I’m sorry I called you guys China. I’d be pissed off, too.”

After these bumps, Lindsey and the band got into their groove and the rest of the set proved to be beautiful. She shredded through work from her early EPs like Thinning and played up the dour deadpan of songs like Let’s Find An Out.

I have an old Ang Nawawala-inspired habit of calling someone from a gig during their favorite song. Wi-Fi was spotty so I figured I’d record a Telegram voice message of Let’s Find An Out for someone I thought would love it. He replied, “Perhaps I’m bawling,” and honestly, same.

As expected, Pristine tore right into me when Lindsey played it. I gasped hearing the opening notes, could hardly hold back my tears through the chorus, then barely breathed through that bridge that extends into a coda that feels like it should never end. “And out of everyone, be honest with me, who do you change for? Who’s top of your world? And out of everyone, who’s your type of girl?”

After Deep Sea, she dismissed the band and ended the set with Anytime, the closing track on “Lush,” and a cover of the Courtney Love deep cut The 2nd Most Beautiful Girl in The World. By this point, I could almost ignore the bungles at the start because I was completely hypnotized. By herself onstage with just her guitar, Lindsey had a way of laying her emotions bare that left you feeling just as naked.

Anytime is a soft admission of lingering, bittersweet feelings for someone you once loved. “In the end you could waste your whole life anyways, and I want better for you,” she sings in the chorus before confessing in the coda, she’s “still for you, anytime.”

After her set, Lindsey gave a soft grin and a wave and walked off stage. We had a couple of beers while waiting for the venue to empty out. Long after the show finished, the city, too, felt bathed in that sad, golden glow. We walked back in the dim yellow of streetlights to catch the last train, talking about the songs and the people and situations they reminded us of.

The next four days were mostly long walks, commutes around the city. I took photos on my old Olympus AF-1 Twin all through the trip and when I landed back in Manila and developed the photos, I saw how the best ones had that dull nighttime glow of a Snail Mail song — photos of a lively city tinged with tragedy. Street lights flickered; the pavement glistened wet with rain; blurred figures moved through the night; an old city submerged in a new feeling.

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