Sad13 | photo by Natalie Piserchio | courtesy of the artist
Sadie Dupuis talks songwriting, self-exploration and the creative energy surrounding Sad13’s new Haunted Painting
When Sadie Dupuis isn’t fronting the celebrated rock band Speedy Ortiz, she produces pop-oriented solo work under the name Sad13. The project’s 2016 debut, Slugger, was noticeably more spare and less guitar-driven than her previous work, but made up for it with an explosive, extroverted energy that burst out of headphones.
Sad13’s new album, Haunted Painting has a slightly darker edge, as the name suggests, leaning on Dupuis’ expert lyricism and ability to swerve from nuanced verses to the catchiest pop hooks in an instant. It’s indulgent in the best way. But it’s also an album filled with anxieties, grief, and the struggles of maturity, all things that come with being a musician for so many years.
Dupuis spoke with The Key in July, covering all of that, plus what it’s like recording at Elliott Smith’s studio, her new hot sauce, and the difference between concert wigs and Zoom wigs. Some of the interview has been edited for content and clarity.
The Key: Are you still based in Philadelphia? How’s your quarantine going?
Sadie Dupuis: I’m still in Philly, yeah. It’s been fine. I’m here. I wish that I had found an apartment with a yard. But you know, I’m here. And all things considered, everyone in my family and immediate friends are healthy, so I can’t really complain.
I heard a rumor we were the number one mask-wearing city in the country, but then when I go outside I see tons of people having fucking picnics without masks and I worry about how bad it must be in other cities if we’re the best.
TK: So when you’re not working on album-related stuff, I understand you’re spending a lot of time writing and reading poetry.
SD: I’m not really doing any writing right now, personally, because I have an album that’s done that’s going to be out soon, and I also finished up a second poetry book right before we got into quarantine. So I was doing a substantial amount of editing on that, but not really new, generative writing. There’s just so much going on that I don’t really feel interested in exploring my own brain right now. I’d rather help other people on their projects.
So, what I have been doing a lot of is, I am running a poetry journal through my label, Wax Nine, and I’m the sole reader and editor of that. So I wind up reading a tremendous amount of submissions every week and then getting to select the ones that I like best and kind of curating them together. And that’s been really fun. It’s about (April, May, June, July) I guess four months into publication. And the other thing that’s cool is we’re able to pay poets, which a lot of online journals don’t do.
And one thing that kind of inspired me to start it is when I was touring on my own poetry book in 2018 and 2019, I just was hanging out with tons and tons of poets who also had sort-of indie book press deals, and just hearing about how bad the money is in poetry, compared to even music, which obviously we all have many complaints about. If you’re a poet and you’re touring, you’re not making any money unless it’s on your book sales, generally, unless you’re doing an academic appearance. And even at that point, the royalties are often like, you make, if you’re lucky, you make a dollar off a book, per sale. It’s not so great.
TK: If somebody was interested in getting into poetry right now, what would be something they should know?
SD: I mean, I think if you’re totally brand new at writing poetry…presumably you’ve read enough poetry to have a sense of what you like, and want to do that. If not, that’s kind of the first place to start, just poking around at either online journals, or I would say anthologies. I don’t especially like reading anthologies, just cause it’s like listening to a Spotify playlist of something. I can’t really get a sense of what the poet is all about from just a single poem.
But yeah, I think just checking out a bunch of things, seeing what you like, trying out different styles. I think the next big step is just finding other people to share your work with, in a supportive way, not in a publicly-publishing-it way. I think that having a community you can bounce ideas off of, and send poems to, either for affirmation or suggestions is really, really important.
TK: So I was wondering about the song “Ghost of a Good Time.” It was written long before COVID, I assume, and I read that it’s about playing a show in Bushwick.
SD: I wasn’t playing it, but I did write it after I went to a basement show in Bushwick that, the band I was there to see, I don’t think the show started until after midnight, close to 1 a.m. And I was there just like, drinking a huge, I don’t think it was a forty, but something I got from a bodega in an equally large size, and just remembering how that was really my whole life ten years ago, when I was in my late teens, early 20s, living in New York. And now that I’m in my early 30s, my idea of a great night out is to…uh, do you know Lucy Stone? Another Philly musician. She’s a Sad13 bandmate, does a lot of her own music, she’s amazing. But I went over to her house later in the week, and we watched all of the show Marianne in a single sitting. I was like, “Oh, this is how I like to go out as a 31-year-old,” at that time. Just hanging out with my friend inside.
I mean, the pandemic has obviously changed the meaning of loving to stay inside. But I think it’s just about finding ways to enjoy yourself and “party” that feel healthy to you where you are in your life and in your body. That’s the sort of the idea behind the song. 1 a.m. shows are just not happening for me anymore, I’m too tired [laughs].
TK: So, I wanted to single out a line in “Ruby Wand.” You mentionbeing diagnosed with OCD. Does that help your songwriting process or hinder it?
SD: I’ve certainly thought about that, and I do think, I mean, you never want to say “Oh, my mental health diagnosis is what helps me make my art.” I’m in therapy to figure out some of the ways around the trappings of specific diagnoses. But yeah, I think certainly having that very hyper-attentive, detail-oriented, get fixated on one particular thing and follow that until I can’t anymore, is really crucial to my producing and arranging process. On this album, the only things I didn’t play are the orchestra stuff and the live drums. But even the live drums I wrote all the parts for. So I really go down a hole with all these things, trying to get things exactly as I’m hearing them in my head. And sometimes that can be to the exclusion of other things I should be doing like having water and going to bed before 5 a.m.
Also I got diagnosed with ADHD this year. Which, I had always assumed…why would I think I had that? I was very good in school. But over-focusing is a form of attention disorder as well, apparently. So yeah, I think that helps me do my work, but also, it’s important for me to try to find work-arounds for that, because the way it makes me work is not always super healthy for me.
TK: You mentioned playing a lot of different instruments on this album. I notice autoharp, theremin, organ, lap steel, essentially everything but the kitchen sink. A lot of them operate in entirely different ways. I’m thinking of the theremin in particular, I’ve tried playing one and it is equally intuitive as it is unlike any other instrument. What was it like switching modes between instruments, in your thinking and playing?
SD: The theremin was just, you know, I’ve played just as much theremin as anyone who’s walked into a music store with a theremin has, which is just messing around with it.
But, the way that I wrote this album, I kind of worked on two or three songs a month, and booked studio time around what Speedy [Ortiz] was up to. So, one of the studios I wound up in, for example, in Louisville, was because Speedy had a one-off festival date in Chicago. I was like, “Well, Louisville’s just a straight shot down from there.” I had a friend come pick me up, and then I went and recorded there and then I went home a little later than my bandmates. So it was a lot of like, I know I have this limited window of time, where can I find a studio to work? I didn’t work with any men on engineering this album, so that was really important to me.
So I chose these studios, basically based on whether I could work with women there and around what Speedy was up to. And I wrote the songs, sort of, with the intention of doing them at particular studios. So I would look at the gear list, sort of, extensively, and basically make versions of every single track at home. Like if I knew the studio had a marimba, for example, I’d make MIDI marimba. Or if I knew they had like a particular vintage synth, I would be using a MIDI patch that kind of approximated what that synth sounds like. So, in that sense I came to everything with, like, a really clear plan and so it was sort of easy to switch between things. But the challenge was just kind of trying to retain that much information, because often these songs have, like, 100 tracks on them.
It’d be like, “Alright, now you’re playing the marimba. Now you have to play, you know, this synth part. And now there’s 30 other synth parts to get.” And I’m not a really wonderful keyboard player. Like guitar, it’s a little easier for me to just say like, “Oh, that’s what it sounds like? I’ll just play it by ear.” But keyboard takes me some time. So it was a lot of, like, sitting in the van with headphones on with a little practice MIDI controller, playing the synth parts over and over again, or like on a flight practicing chord changes on a keyboard. And then once it was done, like, totally wiped from my memory, how to play all this stuff. So even in doing the music videos, trying to do a sync performance of, for example, the bass part of the song, I’m like, “Well, I don’t really remember what I played. Let’s listen back to that.”
TK: So do you think that you used this album as an opportunity to explore a lot of different instruments? Was that something that you couldn’t do with Speedy?
SD: I think Speedy’s been able to do a lot in the studio. The difference is that I generally have three other people that helped me out with it, so I’m not having to retain like, “This is exactly the bass part. This is exactly what the drum machine is going to do. This is what the Wurlitzer should be.” But certainly, Speedy never worked with, like, a woodwind section or with strings. So that’s an expansion. And I think a lot of the little clips and sound effects and stuff like that, I’ve always put, obviously since Speedy started as like my solo home recording project. But even on Major Arcana, there’s some sound treatments that I put in there that I had recorded at home, but we’ve sort of branched farther into that stuff over the last few albums.
TK: Also just digging through the credits, I noticed that Sarah Tudzin [of illuminati hotties] was credited with “microwave.” Where does that fit in?
SD: Yeah, so we did two songs at New Monkey which was Elliott Smith’s studio. And we had, just, there’s a really good energy there. I felt, I don’t really often pick up on an energy of a space, but I did there. Elliott Smith is one of my biggest songwriting, arranging, recording heroes. And so of course, we’re asking Greg, who works there, like, “What stuff is Elliott’s?” You know, “Tell us stories!” And apparently, the microwave had been his, and there was some story about the microwave and possibly the microwave acting up after he died and his family sold the studio. And they sold the studio, like, wanting to retain basically the exact energy he had set up for it. The console he repaired himself and his guitar that I got to play and his piano and stuff like that. But there was some story about the microwave and we’re like, “Oh, we got to get the microwave on the album.” So we sampled the microwave, and Sarah was pressing the buttons and we turned it into a synth part. It’s on “Good Grief.”
TK: What exactly was that energy at the studio?
SD: We just got really great work done. It felt very comforting to be there. Sometimes in the studio, things can feel tense or stressful or like you’re running out of time or things aren’t going quite the way you planned and everything just felt really smooth. It feels, if you look it up and look at pictures online, it just looks like a cool studio someone set up in their backhouse kind of. It just has, like, a warm energy, sort of dim, warm lighting. And apparently, when Elliott was working late, there’s one of the isolation booths where the piano is, he would just sleep in there. So I think we sort of felt like he’s sort of a guiding figure for me and a lot of my music, but maybe especially on this project. So to have, sort of, that energy of that space where he had been dedicated to his music and repairing gear and being kind of a gear nerd and staying up late to focus on his music just felt, like, comforting that someone had done such great work there before.
TK: So also in the process of writing this album, David Berman passed away.
SD: Literally right after that session. I was at the airport, and my flight had just been delayed 22 hours, and then I found out. I found out right before it got announced because someone told me that they’d heard a rumor and then it, yeah.
TK: Maybe you can point to somewhere on this album that his songwriting and poetry directly influenced you?
SD: It’s hard for me to think about. I mean, I did write a song specifically after his death, and regarding it. I think beyond that, I don’t know that this album sounds tremendously Purple Mountains-y or Silver Jews-y. But I wrote “The Crow,” sort of, I started writing it after he died, and I was kind of just stuck in LA for 22 hours with this sad news of someone that I really revered having been lost.
And I think the fact that I just wrapped up working at New Monkey, which, you know, is connected to Elliott Smith, who was the first songwriting hero of mine, who I remember passing away, and on a song about my dad dying, I was just like, man, there’s so much, you can work on all the art in the world, but it doesn’t matter, you still lose people all the time. So that’s sort of what I started writing “The Crow” about. I think there were multiple mass shootings that week. It just, the world was seeming very, very bleak. And, I think a lot of artists struggle with wondering whether doing any of this stuff is worth it when so much human life is lost all the time no matter what work we do.
TK: Do you ever listen back to your music and hear some semblance of your idols there?
SD: I think if there’s something I’m going for, it’s on such a micro level that I will recognize it, but nobody picks up on it. Like I’ll be saying, “On this song I want the exact bass tone from…” I think there was a Broken Social Scene song on one album, I was like, “That’s what I’ll get the bass tone from. And then the drums are going to be from a Mary Timony solo album. And then the synth is going to be from, like, Tracey Ullman.” It’s usually a lot of very small influences weaving together. So when people call out, like, a big influence in connection to a song, it’s often not what I was going for, but just makes sense because I’ve listened to and internalized a lot of that artist’s music. Or not, I think I get compared to a lot of stuff I’ve never even really listened to.
If I go back and listen to a record, it’s like really early stuff, pre-Speedy. Just like, “Oh, remember when I worked on that? What a strange lifetime ago.” But um, yeah, I think I’m generally pretty intentional with what I’m trying to reference. And I don’t know if I surprised myself with it with something like that.
TK: I saw that you have a hot sauce.
SD: Yeah. Oh my god. I hadn’t even tried it yet.
TK: I was gonna ask if you had any creative input?
SD: I did. Yeah. 100%. We developed this flavor based on what I like, and I can’t wait to try it. It’s been sitting, it came in the mail last week, but I’ve just been busy with other stuff and, yeah, I want to do an unboxing video, which means I have to brush my hair. (NOTE: Since this interview was conducted, Sad13 has also rolled out a Craft Tea line and vegan hazelnut spread. -ed.)
TK: I was actually on your Twitter and I saw that your tweet that was like, “There are stage wigs and there are party wigs and there are Zoom wigs.”
SD: Oh, yeah, I got a Zoom wig.
TK: So I was wondering if you could tell me about the difference between the three genres of wig?
SD: Well, frankly, I guess I just have stage wigs for the most part. And at this point, I do hair extensions on stage because it’s just too sweaty to wear wigs for most of the year. But if I’m going for stage hair, I want something big that I can kind of throw around and looks dramatic or interesting. Fun colors or textures, you know, especially for music videos, a lot of stuff like that. But I don’t really own any wigs that just look like my own hair, for instances like right now when I can’t get a haircut for five months, and it’s fully crazy. So I’ve gotten, I now have two wigs that are sort of vaguely in the color scheme of my own hair. And I will wear them for Zoom in the future so that I don’t even have to try.
TK: So the Zoom wig is just to reset yourself to pre-COVID.
SD: It’s just, you know, to look like I am presentable that day without putting any time or effort into actually changing anything.
TK: Would you mind if I asked you some questions about just lines from songs that I was hoping you could dissect?
SD: Yeah, sure. If I can remember I’ll try.
TK: All right, for sure. The first one is from “The Crow”: “What was it like to come of age in such a cool place supping on the bones of your old chaperones?”
SD: I think it was about growing up in New York and sort of the… My mom moved out of the city when I was going into middle school. My dad stayed there, but I got out of school in New York. And I think, seeing sort of the divergence in my life from the friends I grew up with, in one or two directions, either just, like the abject poverty that living in such a large city forces a lot of people into, or the other direction, like the some of the kids I grew up with, who knew, are like, just so utterly wealthy and wind up running places like The Wing, know what I mean? Bizarre symbols of this current stage of capitalism. So that line just…I can’t remember exactly why it’s relevant to the entirety of the song, but New York is a cruel place.
TK: So the next one is from “Oops!”: “Portrait of a songster, young hussy crossed with cuddlecore / 10,000% out for blood.” And there’s a couple words that I actually do need defined in there like “songster” and “cuddlecore.”
TK: It sounds just as just as awkward as the other one.
SD: It’s a little better. It’s like, you know, how we say, “server” instead of “waitress” or “actor” instead of “actress.” “Cuddlecore,” it’s like a genre of music and dressing, isn’t it? I think that was why I put it in there. I’m gonna have to now look it up because I can’t even remember. Yeah, it’s like a 90s style of dressing that’s pertaining to sort of twee pop. So what does the line mean? It’s my, you know, if I had a Tinder bio, that could be it. It’s just a description of myself.
TK: So the last one from “WTD?”: “So we’re gonna die faster than our fathers, make a crime out of fiction / Silent cohesion, less paranoia more progress.”
SD: I wrote this song about climate gentrification. So, it’s just about the fact that industry will kill us and there’s not always seemingly a ton that we can do to stop it, unless corporations are dissolved. “Fathers make crime out of fiction.” It’s written a couple years ago, and I can’t remember the specific thing but it was about some, I mean, we’re constantly hearing about CEOs and we’re just even yesterday, you know, the US government is giving 750 million dollars to Kodak, the photo company, to become a company that produces hydroxychloroquine, which is a drug that’s not useful for this pandemic. And if all that money were just given to Americans, we could each have 2 million dollars today. So it’s just about the lies and misdirections that huge companies use to continue to get away with evil, whether that’s completely disrupting our climate or causing more immediate human death, in the case of Amazon. That’s sort of what it’s about.
Can I give you a fun fact about “The Crow” since you asked about it? When we were working at New Monkey, Zoë, who’s my drummer who played on this album, we were driving around listening to Clairo a lot. We were really into Clairo. And when I made “The Crow” I was like, “I’m gonna make a Clairo song.” And in my mind, I thought I was making a song that sounded like “Bags” by Clairo. But it’s clearly, like, a math rock, nu-metal song. But at least to some extent, I was trying to copy the drums from Clairo and just put it in the time signature of 11.
TK: Yeah, kind of like a portrait from memory. And then once you get done, you’re like, “Oh, this isn’t…”
SD: Yeah. So often it’s more like, when you asked if I listened back to stuff and it sounds like things I’m influenced by. It’s more that I listened back to stuff and I’m like, “I know I was trying to rip something off and I just did not succeed.”
Sad13’s Haunted Painting is out this Friday, September 25th via Wax Nine Records. Pre-order the album in vinyl, cassette, or digital formats — as well as other items from the Sad13 pantry — at Bandcamp.