Sadie Dupuis And The Return Of Speedy Ortiz
April 30, 2018
Like many of us, Sadie Dupuis thought Hillary was going to win.
Sure, her mother Diane would sometimes tell her about the plethora of Trump signs throughout the small Connecticut town where she lives. There’s still one on the barn near her place. But when Dupuis took to the former Total Request Live stage on election night, she was completely confident it was all going to be fine.
Dupuis had recently finished recording the third album with her band Speedy Ortiz. It had its share of feminist themes, as always, but also plenty of songs about relationships and heartache. But that album wasn’t her primary concern that day. Never at a loss for a project, she was about to release Slugger, a side dalliance under the solo moniker Sad13 that traded in her jagged guitar prowess for danceable synth-pop beats about the liberating joy of women working together and the importance of consent. During MTV’s brief woke reinvention, Dupuis and her all-female backing band had been invited to play a few songs. It was quite an evening. There were slam poets, revolutionary-themed artwork, and even a few puppies, dubbed “the basket of adorables,” she remembers.
“I left after our performance because I wanted to go watch Hillary win,” she says. “And I got on the subway for a hour, and when I came off, I had so many texts, like, ‘He’s gonna win.’”
The next day she started touring with Sad13, vacillating between feeling intense fear and feeling very little. “When you experience any kind of trauma, like a death of someone you care about or a break-up or losing a job, you sometimes feel numb about it,” she remembers. “There was definitely some of that shutting down.”
She shakes her head a little while recalling that time, and then looks down for a second.
“The members of my band were all women. Primarily queer women, mostly women of color, and there were a couple instances on that tour where my tour mates got harassed at gas stations,” she says. “We started the tour driving through rural Pennsylvania and Ohio, knowing that the people we were seeing elected someone who stands for the extermination of all of us. More so my friends of color than me, obviously.” But growing up partly in rural Connecticut, she had experienced her share of anti-Semitic slurs, and knew that Jewish cemeteries were starting to be desecrated. “I thought that wasn’t a thing anymore, and suddenly it was. I was worried about my family’s gravestones. My dad’s gravestone, even.”
Shellshocked and terrified as she was by “this new understanding of how bigotry works in America,” she started writing as soon as she got off tour. “I just didn’t wanna do songs that had nothing to do with what my thoughts have been preoccupied with for the past few years,” she says. “I was like, ‘I don’t need music like the music I wrote. Who cares about your breakup? We’re all gonna be dead soon.’”
Speedy Ortiz ended up redoing half of the album, adding defiant, outspoken anthems such as “Lean In When I Suffer” and “Lucky 88.” The revamped and emboldened Twerp Verse is another strong step forward for one of the best young rock bands working today. It took a lot of work to pull it off, but that’s just business as usual for Dupuis. She’s always looking for a way to push herself. To do more. Even if she claims she just wants to watch TV.
Dupuis moved to Philadelphia two years ago because most of her artist and musician friends, like Katie and Allison Crutchfield, lived there. Now some of them are starting to vacate, which gets her down, but she’s on tour most of the year anyway. When she is home, she is decidedly home. In her words, she is a true Cancer, “which means I don’t like leaving the house,” she says with a laugh. “I mean, even if my friends are home, I’m like, ‘Come over to my house; let’s watch a movie.’ I don’t really go out.”
She lives in a three-story apartment in West Philly. In the basement, there’s her home studio where she added overdubs of synthesizers and drum machines to Twerp Verse. It’s filled with keyboards, a pair of Ariana Grande signature headphones (replete with cat ears) that don’t work that great, and draped on one of the amps is a T-shirt arguing “Gender Is Over! If You Want It.”
She lives alone, which has its “pluses and minuses,” she admits. “If you don’t leave the house, which is how I operate, it’s nice to have a roommate, because you’re getting some kind of human contact when you are working on music for three days straight and only go out to get groceries at 9:45 PM before your ice cream gets cut off,” she says. “But I like living by myself, especially because it leaves me a lot of space. As you can see, I kinda sprawl out all over the place, and there’s a lot of art projects and writing projects, and I don’t really have to worry about the ongoing projects getting in someone else’s way.”
There’s a drawing of Nick Jonas on the wall, right next to a bookshelf well-stocked with manga and graphic novels. She has a subscription to the service Vinyl Me Please, and now her collection has flowed well past her already-stacked album racks. There’s a pile of small-press poetry chapbooks and a copy of Annie Baker’s play The Flick on her TV stand, and framed concert posters from the Breeders and Pavement adorn her hallway wall. In her kitchen are the drawings she made for the cover and inlay of Twerp Verse; images of a witch ritual and a colorful, perhaps autobiographical couch potato. Eventually, all of the drawings will go live with her mother in Connecticut, who already has a well-stocked museum of her daughter’s artwork.
Dupuis was born in New York City, and was raised there for the first few years of her life. “There were less Chipotles than there are now,” she says, smiling. She grew up riding the subway and feels comfortable in the city, but barely recognizes it anymore. Most of the old friends and landmarks are gone now.
Her mother, Diane Dupuis, is an artist and former public school teacher, and her father, William Kornreich, worked in the music industry for several years, serving as an A&R representative for ZE Records, Buddah Records, and United Artists. He also helped found the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame and the MTV precursor the Pop Network, amongst other endeavors, before transitioning into insurance brokerage. After they divorced, she lived with her mom and would spend time with her dad in the city on weekends. He took her to see experimental plays by the likes of Robert Wilson and to the burgeoning alternative artists he remained interested in and still had some pull with. “There’s a really goofy picture of me with Conor Oberst at that age that I’m sure my dad took,” she notes.
She spent most of the week in a small Connecticut town an hour away from the nearest train station. “I remember when we moved up there, I thought that kids wouldn’t have CDs,” she says, laughing. She describes the town her mom picked (which she declined to name) alternately as a “village of less than a thousand people with dairy farms that have been there since like the 1700s” and like Gilmore Girls’ central hamlet Stars Hollow, except “it’s somehow even more white. It was weird that I was half Jewish in my public school,” she says. “Like I grew up in New York, what are these weird anti-semitic jokes?”
But overall, she doesn’t feel she was bullied in school, and appreciates the perspective (if not the three hours of travel) fostered by shuttling between an extremely urban existence and an extremely rural setting. “I was in New York public schools until middle school. And the year I moved, I noticed a lot of my friends getting into drugs at age 12. Which was not happening in Stars Hollow,” she says. “So I’m thankful that I was still able to have a foot in New York, but then I could go home and have this normal life where I didn’t feel the pressures of being a kid in New York. It’s totally different.”
For a while, all of her pressures were strictly self-enforced. Hearing Dupuis describe her teenage self can make one feel bad about their own teenage self’s work ethic. (As well as one’s current work ethic.) There wasn’t much of a music scene in her town, save for the occasional VFW or basement show she would play or attend. But she didn’t have any problem keeping busy.
“I was like an overworked teenager by my own design, and I was really involved in the children’s choir from age 12 to age 16, which toured internationally. And we’d have like four-hour rehearsals twice a week,” she says, noting that they usually stayed with host families, “so I got very used to sleeping on the floor and a couch as a 15-year-old,” which is always a useful skill for a DIY musician.
“And then towards the end of high school, when I had more time because the choir was over, I was the captain of the track team, and got into exercise for the first and only time in my life,” she says. “I was on student council, I was the Model UN president, I did all this stuff. How did I find time for that?” She makes a bit of quizzical, hands-up gesture.
“You were a driven kid,” I observe.
“I can’t believe how much stuff I did,” she says. “Now, I don’t leave the house.”
During all of this activity, she was also writing songs. Her dad got her piano lessons and she learned to read sheet music for choir. Her mom got her a guitar for her 13th birthday and a four-track recorder the Christmas after. She would spend her summers at the Connecticut performing arts camp Buck’s Rock, taking songwriting classes.
“You’re practically daring me to call you the Indie Rock Rory Gilmore,” I say.
“I was,” she says. “I kinda was.”
If you spend enough time, either professionally or personally, with high achievers and the highly intellectual, you’ll notice those born with the blessing of modesty will always find a way to deflect whenever they sense they could be in danger of putting on airs, or appearing like too much. Spend time with Dupuis, either in person or on her witty Twitter page, you’ll notice her way of deflecting and deflating her achievements is by insisting that she doesn’t do anything anymore. That all she ever does is sit around and watch TV. The night before our interview, she was at a viewing party for the musical episode of her favorite show Riverdale, and last year her mom finally, after years of trying, got her to watch Gilmore Girls all the way through.
“I mean, it took me a year, but I just finished it a couple months ago,” she says. “And my mom had always tried to get me to watch it ’cause she was like ‘you’re gonna relate to this, it’s like us.’ Uh, she was right.” (For the record, she feels the character Logan was treated unfairly in the recent Netflix revival, and never cared for Jess.)
She stops to make us both tea, drinking hers out of mug featuring the Adventure Time characters Finn & Jake, and pours mine into a mug emblazoned with the Spinmagazine logo, which she stole when she was an intern. She’s wearing chic gray sweatpants with a matching shirt, a royal blue sweater, and hoop earrings. When we leave to get noodles later, she will add a peach overcoat and leopard print shoes to the ensemble.
Dupuis attended MIT, originally double majoring in music and math. She liked the poetry classes that she was taking, led by the celebrated William Corbett, and she liked writing for the student newspaper. There were things she didn’t like, though. “I did two years and realized that there was no way I was gonna finish all of the core math and science requirements that were needed from me, and yeah, I dropped out.” Eventually, she transferred to Barnard and studied poetry.
“I don’t think he was into it,” she says of her father’s reaction to her leaving MIT to pursue poetry. “I think he chose almost not to believe me. He was like always like, ‘Take a microeconomics class.’” While studying at Barnard, she interned at Spin, started doing as much freelancing as she could, and also began playing whatever bars and DIY venues would have her first band, Quilty. She thought she might want to be a music critic. It never occurred to her that she could be a musician.
“I just knew that I liked doing it,” she says. “I don’t think I ever thought it could be a job because I’d maybe been trained to feel that way, and rightfully so.”***Both of her parents encouraged her love of music, and took her to see her first show: No Doubt at the Roseland Ballroom. Later her dad would turn her onto the ’90s indie rock staples that “I’m definitely sick of being compared to, but were really formative to me,” she says. Her dad would buy pretty much anything Matador Records released, “and then it would be mine to listen to.” She points to the VHS compilation What’s Up Matador sitting near her TV, next to a copy of Brick. “I still love Liz Phair. I remember stealing his copy of Whip-Smart,” she says. Later, she would spend much time downloading rarities on “LizPhairB-sides.com or whatever it was.” She even likes Phair’s much-maligned, would-be commercial breakthrough self-titled album.
But while they both encouraged her love of music, her dad knew firsthand how volatile the industry was, and encouraged her to be practical.
“He really wanted me to not do any of the stuff that I’m doing right now. He wanted me to have a steady day job,” she says. “Really, up until the last year of his life he was like, ‘You’re spending a lot of time on this music stuff.’” In contrast, her mom remains her biggest fan. “She wants to be backstage, she wants the all-access pass.”
She went through a lost period after graduating, living “in Bushwick, like many of us in 2011,” she says. “And I was not getting hired anywhere, I was going to interviews all the time and I was temping, and freelancing, and keeping weird hours and taking any work that I could get that was somewhat related to writing or editing.” She applied to graduate school on a whim, and was accepted to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where she was also offered a job teaching writing. Her band did not survive the move.
“I had been dating the other main member for five years, and we broke up when I moved to Massachusetts, so we kept trying to do the band for a few years, but it was not a success,” she says. “It was my first relationship, and it was hard to continue to play in a band together. It just wasn’t working.” But they had shows booked, and Dupuis had new songs she wanted to play, so she recruited friends of hers who were in bands that had recently broken up, including drummer Mike Falcone, bassist Darl Ferm and former guitarist Matt Robidoux. “We were able to pool the resources of the last band, not like monetary resources, because there were none, but just the friends we’d all made touring,” she says. “Speedy took all the dates that Quilty had booked. We’d sorta finally been starting to get better shows when we broke up.”
Before the breakup, she had spent the summer teaching at the music department of Buck’s Rock. “At night while the campers were asleep, I would use the music department space and their instruments to self-record these songs I’d been writing while teaching a songwriting class,” she says. “We would do this exercise where you would write a song in an hour. So all the first Speedy Ortiz stuff was written in an hour, and then when the kids went to bed, I recorded it with whatever I could take out of the instrument shed. I mean, it doesn’t sound very good. I’m better at recording now, but I think it’s charming in its own way.”
That 2011 demo, The Death Of Speedy Ortiz and the 2012 EP Sports earned them enough of a reputation to undertake a series of grueling DIY tours, one of which featured a stop at Missoula in which they played to the soundboard guy and no one else. And then he also left. “It would be the kind of thing where I taught Tuesday and Thursday classes,” she says. “On Thursday, the second I was done teaching, we’d be in the van driving to Chicago or wherever, and then I’d get home at 5 AM Tuesday morning to teach two sections in a row starting at like 11 AM.”
Speedy Ortiz’s 2013 official debut Major Arcana earned raves and announced the arrival of a band that would quickly begin to feel like an indie rock staple, one capable of turning complex, nearly math-rock-like herky-jerk compositions into vehicles for pop-bliss and exhilaration.
Before long, some of her students began to notice their teacher was in a band, which could be a bit awkward. Some other people noticed her band as well, and Speedy Ortiz started to make some actual money on the road, which was a nice change of pace. She’d finished her MFA in poetry, and was hoping to hold on to her job. And then Speedy Ortiz were offered a chance to tour with Stephen Malkmus And The Jicks.
“I was on the fence. But, I was like, ‘I couldn’t do this if I had this job. Let’s just go all in,” she says. “I mean how could you turn down a tour with your childhood hero?”
She told her dad that the money she was making from touring was about the same as from UMass, but like with many things in her life, it wasn’t about the math. “I’m just as much of a fan, if not more so, of the Jicks than I am of Pavement. So he knew how much that meant to me,” she says. “We did a tour with the Breeders right before that, and he also knew how much that band meant to me. He got to see us play Webster Hall, where he’d taken me to shows when I was too young to get in.” She smiles, a little, at recalling the memory. Her father would pass away a little while later in 2015, after a brief battle with cancer. Behind her while she talks sits a photo of the two of them from her childhood, beaming.***While working our way through her career, I tell Dupuis I want to talk about what I consider the highlight of first album, an achingly fragile ballad called “No Below,” a piece of music that feels like it might fall apart if you touch it. At least until the noisy, show-of-strength outro.
“Yeah, you and everybody else,” she replies.
“Oh, if you’re sick of talking about it, I won’t … ”
“No, it’s cool,” she says. “We actually opted out of playing that song for a long time. But it was recently in a very popular video game and it had this resurgence,” she says, referring to the game Life Is Strange: Before The Storm. “If it wasn’t our most popular song before, it big time is now. We get like video game fan art with the lyrics.”
She’s nothing but open and generous with her time, but there are a few subjects she understandably doesn’t relish talking about, and this is one of them.
“I think I needed some time away from it. I mean I hesitate to go into this in an interview again, but I was in an abusive relationship between right around when Major Arcana came out up ’til writing for Foil Deer, and that was sort of the love song I wrote for that person. In hindsight, it’s is kinda like a fucked-up song, so I couldn’t play it without thinking about that and having to revisit that, and I was really trying to shut it out of my mind.
“So we didn’t play that song for a couple years, but now I can kind of appreciate it for what it is as its own thing, and definitely have met a lot of people who come up for merch after the show and say that that song helped them through something tough,” she says. “It’s like it would be unkind to ignore those sentiments, so we play it now. And I have fun playing it.”
After the Malkmus tour finished, the band replaced Robidoux with guitarist Devin McKnight, a close friend of Dupuis who played in the band Grass Is Green. She declines to get too much into the situation. But she allows that these experiences colored the making of their follow-up album Foil Deer.
“I definitely had some stuff to say on Foil Deer,” she says. “Firing a toxic bandmate, and getting out of an abusive relationship and thinking about the ways that I’d allowed myself to be treated … even using that kind of language. Making it my fault. Not that I hadn’t thought about these topics before, but I hadn’t really thought about the way in which my life was impacted, and perhaps how I’d been socialized as a kid and how people around me had been socialized as kids based on something as arbitrary as gender.”
The album’s first single “Raising The Skate” borrowed the line “I’m not bossy/ I’m the boss” from the Ban Bossy campaign, particularly, she says, the Beyoncé contribution, and follows it up with “Shooter/ Not the shot.” Elsewhere, she contemplates the everyday dangers women face on “My Dead Girl.”
Though she says she’s been “playing with gender roles” in her songwriting since as far back as middle school, she admits that she didn’t always consider herself a feminist. “I didn’t know anything about it until I went to college, and I definitely remember rolling up to a writing class, when I was first introduced to bell hooks and Audre Lorde at age 18, and straight up saying to my professor, ‘I’m not a feminist, I’m like a humanist.’ Whatever stupid thing people say when they’re 18,” she says. “You have had no exposure to any of this stuff, because it’s not in public school curriculums.”
In many ways, the aesthetics of Speedy Ortiz are a natural outgrowth of a number of internet-fostered movements that gained steam right as Dupuis was forming the band. Like many curious listeners who grew up with access to everything, she loves R&B and Top 40 pop as much as she loves discordant indie rock like Mary Timony and Bettie Serveert. As knotty as her compositions get, she always makes sure the grooves hit with force and the hooks land. They land at odd angles, but they land nonetheless.
“Growing up in New York, I was listening to Hot 97 and Z100, before I was stealing my dad’s CDs. I don’t think I got into indie rock until way after that, so I’d say like my primary musical blood is more in the pop/rap/R&B zone,” she says, sounding both upbeat and resigned. “But I like it all. And I play guitar as a primary instrument, so even if I think I’m writing something that’s like R&B, it’s gonna be ’90s rock to everybody else.”
Just as the ever-connected world changed musical tastes and eventually musical performers, Speedy Ortiz was one of several artists led by women or non-binary artists that emerged this decade with often explicitly feminist themes, influenced at least in part by the internet’s ability to incubate and spread feminist and progressive ideas typically ignored by mainstream media.
But Dupuis took it further than most. Speedy Ortiz donated money to the Ferguson Library after a Missouri grand jury decided not to indict a police officer for the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, and did a tour where they donated all their proceeds to the non-profit Girls Rock Camp Foundation. The band often eschews corporate-sponsored shows if they take issue with the company, and Dupuis is seemingly always either speaking on a panel about feminism or organizing one.
Her most high-profile instance of “walking the walk” was the hotline her band created while touring for Foil Deer that fans could call if they felt harassed or in any way unsafe at one of their shows. “Prejudicial, oppressive language and aggressive behaviors of any kind are unacceptable to us. This includes, but is not limited to: racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, & all other oppressive and marginalizing actions and microaggressions,” read the initial announcement.
I hadn’t really thought about the way in which my life was impacted, and perhaps how I’d been socialized as a kid and how people around me had been socialized as kids based on something as arbitrary as gender.
They kept revising their policy and would post safer space guidelines at venues that didn’t have them about “how to be decent at a show and how to know how to look out for one another and treat each other with kindness, and not take up so much space that other people can’t enjoy the show.” Dupuis also invited the writer, activist, and musician Jes Skolnik to teach a bystander intervention course they’ve become known for before a Sad13 show in Chicago, and incorporated their teachings as well as advice from the anti-harassment organization Hollaback into revisions of their guidelines. “I think we’re all learning this stuff together,” she says.
“It was a really wonderful, warm experience, and I was surprised at how well people took to it in a show environment. I’m used to doing it for other activist groups and in movement spaces,” says Skolnik. They also helped Dupuis fine-tune the practicalities of the hotline, such as “who to alert and how,” and have already seen its impact.
“Honestly, just having an artist take such a strong and practical stance about how to deal with assault and harassment is really important; it sets the tone for the entire show,” Skolnik says. “The practical part is just as key as the strong part is; a statement alone might feel good, but it doesn’t help anyone without the potential for specific action.”
Dupuis admits that the number got its fair share of trolls, but they also heard from fans who needed assistance. She’s also glad that bands such as Dispatch and Modern Baseball, as well as a few music festivals, have reached out to her for advice about setting up their own fan hotlines. “I’m thankful that almost everyone who’s reached out to institute them is bands that are almost entirely comprised of cis white guys,” she says. “The people who need to be doing more of the work.”
After listening to her talk about activism for a while, I offer that “it seems like you’re very intent on, and I’m trying to think of the right way to say this, but making certain you are not being a white feminist,” I say, referring to the common Twitter derision for a brand of feminism that only concerns itself with the needs of financially stable, cisgendered, heterosexual Caucasian women.
“I mean,” she says. “I am white and I am a feminist.”
“But you know what I mean. With capital letters.”
“Yeah, sure,” she says. “Yeah, I would agree with that. I mean it’s hard to say this when you’re doing an interview where you’ve been talking for two hours, but I’ve really tried to be cognizant of listening to the needs of my friends, and learning what they want and promoting people who I think are saying it better than I ever will.”
The punk icon Ted Leo is a fan of Dupuis who asked Sad13 to open for him last year, and opened for Speedy Ortiz’s New Year’s Eve show. He’s a big fan of her unusual chord changes and the way “they really create this tension and dynamics in her songs that I find really interesting.” He’s also a big fan of her engagement.
“Especially having grown up particularly in the ’90s punk world, politically there was a lot of forward movement in terms of ideas of representation, feminism, and inclusion of LGBT people,” Leo says. “And in the broader indie world, it was never as common a topic of discussion. Certainly, in the 21st century, even less so.
“I find that the way Sadie approaches these things is really great. It gives no quarter, and yet it invites you to the table to be part of the discussion,” he adds. “She really knows how to make a strong point that doesn’t waver in her point of view, but also makes you feel like you can be part of the conversation, and I think that’s important in the broader indie world, where people don’t often go to shows to be engaged politically.”
After our interview ends, Dupuis is driving us to meet her new guitar player Andy Molholt for noodles at Stock, a Fishtown area restaurant known for having the best noodles around, and plenty of great vegan options. (She’s been one for the past 13 years.) There’s an air freshener in the likeness of Cam’ron on her rear window, and we’re listening to R&B star Kali Uchis’ debut album Isolation. Dupuis is nodding her head along to the first few tracks while pointing out a few landmarks. She asks if I’ve heard the song that Damon Albarn, one of her favorites, produced for the album and then skips ahead to “In My Dreams,” declaring in amazement, “It’s so lo-fi!”
Her second guitarist McKnight left the band last year to front his own project Maneka. She was sad to see him go, but happy to finally hear him sing outside of karaoke. The original version of Twerp Verse was recorded as a trio, but there’s too many parts in all of their songs, she says, for that to be a tenable situation going forward. It’s tricky enough to do it all with a four-piece, she claims.
A genial, bearded man wearing a black T-shirt with the slogan “Fuck You. Just Kidding,” Molholt fronts the psychedelic group Laser Background, and is always looking for a sideman position. He fell in love with Speedy Ortiz after his sister took him to see them in San Diego and later played on a bill with them at the now-defunct Brooklyn DIY venue Silent Barn; Dupuis is happy to learn that his favorite song before joining was “Raising The Skate.” He originally hit her up about playing in Sad13, but was denied due to her “no men” policy for that backing group. Eventually, he joined up and starting cramming a week before Speedy Ortiz played a handful of festival dates.
“What I like about Sadie’s songs a lot is that they have what I like to call a freckle in a song, where it’s like something happens one time and never happens again,” he says. He turns to her after finishing a bite. “And then another thing that you do that I really like is like a part will come back in a way that I find really clever. There will be like a pre-chorus, but then it also be a post-chorus but just like half the pre-chorus. The parts are fluid. I think that’s really smart.”
“Not if you want to make money,” she retorts.
She likes to write complex guitar parts for herself to challenge the stereotype that female guitar players lack technical chops, and admits that she doesn’t always allow space for other players in her songs. “There’s not always room for a complicated idea, and I feel like Andy really brought a good sense of texture to the record.”
The band self-recorded both versions of the album at the Silent Barn with their friends Carlos Hernandez and her former Quilty bandmate Julian Fader, and brought in Bright Eyes’ Mike Mogis to mix it. (Molholt jokes that he thought that as soon as they left the room, Mogis would overdub steel guitar.) But before they recorded, Dupuis wrote half an album’s worth of fresh songs that better reflected her current headspace.
“I’d already been feeling like maybe we should do some new songs before the election,” she said, back at her apartment. “And then that happened, and I was like, ‘How could I release this music I don’t care about?’”
Some of the songs she kept had political undertones, including one about her frustration with what she calls “Hillary’s dismissal of Black Lives Matter.” The new songs survey the current moment, and report back, regretfully, that The Men Are At It Again. She attacks omnipresent sexual harassment and personal space invasion on “Villain” and half-hearted allies “that you have to explain this shit to over and over again” on “Lean In When I Suffer.” And the sock hop-pop of “You Hate The Title” dismantles performative disdain with the refrain of “I just can’t with your ‘I just can’t even.’”
But while the album grapples with serious issues, it’s buttressed with some of her stickiest, most bubblegum melodies and soaring choruses yet, helping it to go down easy. It’s Speedy Ortiz’s most confident sounding album to date, which she attributes at least in part to her Saturn return, the astrological belief that as one nears 30, the planets will align to bring forth challenges that eventually lead to greater clarity. While songs like “Lucky 88″ were born of her “post-election misery hangover” and the feeling of “how did we so badly botch this?” it’s ultimately a song about her hope in the next generation of grassroots activists to push us forward. She’s never one to wallow.
“I feel really good about these songs and the arrangements we did, and how it navigates the depressing everyday shit we’ve been talking about,” she says. “But it’s also fun and bright and colorful not only in its artwork, but I think the lyrics are somehow fun, even though it’s talking about some really worrisome stuff.”
Towards the end of our interview, I ask Dupuis why is it that someone who spent their teenage years doing as much as they possibly could now frequently mentions that they barely leave the house, even though there’s clear evidence they’re as engaged with the world as ever.
“I think I’ve struggled with depression since I was pretty young, so I always had my ups and downs.” She says she swore off being her own boss again after her experience with freelancing, “But you never expect your band to become your day job,” she says. “I definitely vacillate between long stretches of not going out, not doing anything. I can drive myself to keep busy with work, and then when there’s time off, I can respect the mental space that I need to not do things.”
She’s been a fan of comic books and graphic novels since her dad took her to New York’s sequential art gathering spot Forbidden Planet when she was a kid. She first fell in love with the Archie comic books, and Speedy Ortiz recently guest-starred in an issue as judges at a battle of the bands competition. The Hernandez brothers’ trailblazing independent series Love And Rockets, she says, “changed my life.”
Around the time she was reading the series, two friends of hers died unexpectedly. “I hadn’t lost young friends at that age yet,” she says. “I was 22, 23. My roommate died of a heart attack in his sleep. It was really hard to deal with because you don’t expect … you just never expect random deaths. And another friend had died from overdosing.”
The songs she was writing then, she says, helped her process her grief, and she ended up titling the project Speedy Ortiz in their honor, named for a character in the series who died young and whose loss forever altered the other characters. “I’ve dealt with a lot more death since then,” she notes. “But young deaths don’t make any sense and still don’t.”
She mentions that this made her sensitive to her friends with addiction issues and the current opioid epidemic our country is facing. She pauses for a moment, and continues.
“I’ve lost a lot of people and I think for everyone close to me who dies, I try to change something about me to be in tribute to them. For instance, my friend who passed away in his sleep; when he was my roommate, he was so active. I mean, here I am saying I don’t leave the house. But he really did everything he could every day,” she says. “He was working at a newspaper, coming home, going to a museum, going to a weird art gallery, and then staying up until 4 AM writing poetry. And that really made me examine how active I was with my time at that time, especially as a freelancer who was struggling to pay rent and depressed because of it.”
She rolls up her sleeve to show me a tattoo on her wrist that is a tribute to him, designed after a picture of a Nautilus he once took: “[It’s] a reminder that anything could happen, so don’t waste time,” she says. “I got it as a reminder to get off your ass.”
From glancing at her bookshelf and hearing her talk about her current favorite creators, such as Boundless and Skim creator Jillian Tamaki and Lose and Ant Colonycreator Michael DeForge (whom she has collaborated with), I get the sense that the likes of Spider-Man and Batman aren’t her thing. But in her own way, she follows the four-colored superhero formula beat by beat, and not just because her onstage outfits tends to be brightly hued. She’s had great training and boasts impressive abilities. She’s fueled in part by great pain and loss. And without fail, she always reaches out to help and protect those that need her.
After our talk and dinner finish up, she insists on driving me to the train station. Along the way, we chat about music and protests in the area, and the rest of her month — the press and album launch preparation she has still, the latest panel to organize and speak at, and a tour to get ready for. Her days of doing nothing are numbered. It’s time to leave the house for a while. Just in case someone needs her.