2020 Can’t Slow Down Sadie Dupuis

Photo: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

Toward the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sadie Dupuis spent her Sunday mornings making brunch — not just late-Sunday breakfasts but hours-long projects. Over the phone one August morning, she describes crafting fully homemade vegan, gluten-free breakfast sandwiches, ascribing the newfound, time-consuming hobby to “losing our minds in crisis.” Eventually, though, Dupuis stopped making the brunches. “I got a little burnt out,” she admits. It’s not surprising, given everything else the multi-hyphenate musician and writer, most known for fronting the Massachusetts rock band Speedy Ortiz, has been balancing.

She runs a label, Wax Nine, and, shortly after the pandemic began, started a poetry journal on the label, which she now edits. With Father/Daughter Records owner Jessi Frick, she curated Saving for a Custom Van, a benefit covers compilation honoring songwriter and Fountains of Wayne member Adam Schlesinger, who died from coronavirus complications in early April. Without touring, her work with the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers has ramped up. “Things in the world seem so bleak. Like, the last thing I want to focus on is creating something new of me,” Dupuis says. She’s not writing music right now “but working on things to help other people — that’s what I’m waking up in the morning to do.” So she hasn’t given up on Sunday brunch entirely; she just started supporting a local vegan diner in her hometown of Philadelphia (where she is quarantining with boyfriend Dylan Baldi from Cloud Nothings) instead.

Between it all, Dupuis just released Haunted Painting, her second album under her solo project Sad13. (She’s even working during our conversation, taste-testing the “Haunted Breakfast” black-tea blend she released alongside the album.) Dupuis’s music doesn’t miss, and even so, Haunted Painting is some of her best ever — blending lyrical direct hits with her most exciting sonic experiments, without losing her signature energy. She turned the album’s creation into an opportunity for others, exclusively seeking out and working with women audio engineers after learning that women make up 7 percent of the field. She made the album after confronting unresolved grief in her life but points out that even the music itself isn’t for her. “I hope if other people are going through an experience like that, they can feel like they’re not alone in those feelings [and] have something fun to listen to while they’re processing that,” she says. Dupuis talked with Vulture about Sad13’s new music, her other projects, and the plight of independent musicians right now.

I hadn’t heard Speedy Ortiz or Sad13 do an orchestral, scene-setting opening track like “Into the Catacombs” before. Where did that come from?
I have to point out different references depending on the song. I tracked that song at Figure 8 in Brooklyn. They have a whole room of weird metal objects, so it was a lot of scraping them against each other to create that atmosphere, on top of a string section. I feel like we often see an indie band do their strings song, and it can be very schmaltzy — it feels like, Here’s the big moment of strings!, rather than something that invites you into the whole personality of the record. So I was trying to counterbalance that [to] achieve that balance between gritty, horror hip-hop, Scott Walker strings and weird sounds, and, like, there’s some country elements for some reason? [Laughs.] For every song, I feel like my brain is doing that. Like, Here are the four genres of music I’m referencing — how do I make them play nice with each other?

It was funny going back through old interviews — there were more people than I expected being like, “Oh, so you make rock music, but you like pop music too?”
[Laughs.] I know, it’s so funny.

I thought we were over all that. What did you make of that read on your taste and sound?
I hope that we’re over all of that. But I think coming up in certain DIY and punk circles, maybe it is treated as anomalous to want to do both. I want the Sad13 project to just be whatever kind of music I’m interested in. I’ve been talking to Greg Saunier from Deerhoof for a few years — Sad13 toured with them, and Speedy’s friends with all of them — and we’ve been talking about doing a pop-country album. So when I started this record, I was like, This is gonna be my pop-country album. Which didn’t quite happen …

Do you think it could happen later down the line?
I think that both Greg and I would love it. I’m so curious how his brain would perceive of a pop-country album ’cause I can’t imagine it would be straightforward. Nor do I think mine would be.

This album has some of the heavier songs you’ve done, and it’s very direct. What was writing like that like?
It’s not that it’s hard for me to be straightforward, but it’s not always the most interesting thing, to me, to do. I spent so many hours in advance trying to make the arrangements perfect, and I think I worked in a way that the arrangements would carry the story in the case of some of the songs. Like, I think about a song like “Ruby Wand,” and the lyrics are really transparent in a way that I don’t normally do. But I think it’s because I want them to be so clearly tied to the way the arrangement develops. To me, they’re in utter conversation with each other. I think that made it easier to be more straightforward about some of these heavier subjects, because there are always moments of levity to it. Life is not just all hard or all laughs. And I really tried to have that come across with the arrangements, so it felt a little easier to be less opaque in the lyrics. There’s a place for allegory, and there’s a place for wordplay, and there’s a place for being silly and funny, and I think all of that can co-habit in a song that’s about something serious.

What was putting together Wax Nine’s poetry journal like for you?
It’s been really fun. I definitely bit off more than I could chew in the very beginning because we were publishing weekly. And I certainly overestimated the amount of donations that might come in with submissions and was spending a ton of money out of pocket. But the basic idea behind it is just that so many of my friends have lost their income. I did a lot of touring on my book [Mouthguard] in 2018, and musicians can sit in the room and talk all day about how unfairly we’re paid and how bad our contracts are, and we’re right, but I got to see on tour that it’s even worse for poetry. Poets are just grateful that anyone’s interested in their work. I wanted an excuse to be able to pay some writers who presumably are separated from their primary sources of income right now.

You also co-curated the Adam Schlesinger covers compilation, Saving for a Custom Van. What was his influence on your work?
If you couldn’t tell by the fact that the thing I most want to talk about on this record is production and arrangement stuff, I’m really interested in songwriters who are able to do all that, and work in so many genres, and just are clearly excited about the work of arranging and creating something. I think he did it in such a genius way — such a huge and diverse body of work, and it’s all really wonderful. It was obviously heartbreaking to have to work on the compilation at all, but also nice to get to remember that he did so many amazing things, just by being in touch with all the people who loved him too.

I know Liz Phair, who Speedy toured with in 2018, has been a big influence on you too. It feels like in the past two years, between the Exile in Guyville anniversary and her memoir [Horror Stories], there was this big reevaluation around her — all these people coming around saying “Liz Phair’s a genius.” What was it like to watch that happen?
I’m hopefully, obviously, in the “Liz Phair is a genius” camp, to the extent that I was hounding her to play from Funstyle on tour. It’s baffling to me, some of the reception she got for things that are now lauded that she did 20 years ago. But I do have a really fun Liz Phair story that connects to this album.

Liz was working on a lot of songs with [Guyville producer] Brad Wood around the time that I was doing this record. And when we finished up the sessions I did with Sarah [Tudzin of Illuminati Hotties], she was like, “Come hang out at the studio with us!” So I came to the studio, and she played me a bunch of the new songs that she was working on. And then she was like, “Play us what you’re working on!” I played her rough mixes, and she heard “Oops…!” and was like, “That’s gotta be a single!” Which is obviously advice I loved ’cause I followed it. [Then] she was like, “Okay, I’m gonna track some vocals now. Sit right next to me on the couch while I track vocals.” So in some way, [laughs] I’m making a guest appearance on Soberish, by Liz Phair, just by breathing the air in a room.

Oh my God. That’s definitely an album that I’m really excited for.
It was funny showing up ’cause I was like, “There’s stuff you’re doing on this album that I’m doing on my album, but it’s not stuff you’ve done before, but I think I’m just so influenced by you that my brain developed in the exact same way.” [Laughs.] It’s awesome sounding.

You’re also working with the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers. What are the big issues on your mind right now?
I think we’re all viewing this long-term break from touring as a way to reenvision what our work could look like in a way that’s safer, healthier, and fairer for music workers, who often are working the most absurd, grueling hours on tour for very little payment. Or funneling tons and tons of their own time, money, and resources into albums and then recouping 2 percent of a cent per stream, when companies profit billions off the streams. We’re talking about how we can envision a more fair system for our work, which is work and often isn’t recognized as such.

It feels like a lot of music fans have latched on to Bandcamp Friday as something tangibly and directly supportive to come out of the pandemic. What do you think about people rallying around that and around actually buying music?
Certainly my Bandcamp sales this year are better than ever. I think one thing that just can’t be made up for — when I say that the bulk of my money comes from touring, a huge chunk of that is the record sales that you do on tour. I’m used to selling like ten to 50 records a night. I don’t want to feel like a store online, and in the past, I didn’t feel like I had to because you sit at the merch table — you get to meet fans. It’s one of my favorite parts of touring. I’m certainly not selling ten to 50 records every day. I am on Bandcamp Day, but that’s only once a month and not five nights a week. So I love that that opportunity exists for us, [but] it’s gonna be a hard year for a lot of us, I think.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

2020 Can’t Slow Down Sadie Dupuis