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Lopsided language: A conversation with Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis

Sadie Dupuis has never been one to avoid making a point. Not in a chatty, incessant way—as a seasoned poet, she has a dark and witty ability to spitball her pains and frustrations into the eardrums of her listeners. Listeners that have come to respect her cryptic, poetic lyrics and the erratic riffs of her band, Speedy Ortiz, instead of the easily digestible indie rock that tends to gain similar traction with less substance. To be completely honest, there’s only a handful of songs where I feel like I have an actual grasp on the meaning, most of which came from reading personal statements.

Three albums in, the most recent of which, Twerp Verse, came out just last week, and things only now sound a little more hopeful in the land of Speedy Ortiz despite the reality around us. Perhaps it’s times like these that bring out messages of hope from the most somber of artists. Dupuis has never been super aggressive, but her work has always tapped into the downtrodden side of her psyche in tandem with colorful visuals and fashion. Paired with guitars that both squeal and thunder, you’d expect someone fronting a project like Speedy Ortiz to be rowdier.

But chatting in a Bushwick bar as we wait for herbal tea that never arrives, Dupuis and I venture in and out of banter about our parents and discussions of the race and gender politics that she chose to focus on for the new record. But the conversation never extends past more than a heightened mumble as we both speak a tad monotone. Describing herself as “kind of boring on stage,” Dupuis knows she doesn’t have to kick and scream to change things. You can be laid back and still have a powerful voice.

Brett: Congratulations on wearing pants the first time in several years.

Sadie: I know. I wear them at home or when I’m hanging out. But we were playing a college show and I typically will change to something fun for the stage.

Is it typically stuff that’s kind of kind of princess-y? Because I saw that dress you wore at the SXSW show…

That’s this designer named Sloane Lenz who’s this young designer in Austin. All her pieces are custom so, she loaned me a bunch of stuff for that week. I wouldn’t say I typically wear a full princess gown, but if someone loans you one, why not?

You can’t say no.

I like stuff that makes the stage bright and colorful and fun. The fabric has some kind of motion, I think I’m kind of boring on stage, but if I move around, the fabric can do its own thing. So wearing jeans on stage doesn’t really lend itself to any of that, but I did it.

Was that just an “I have nothing else to wear” or “I need to be super comfortable”?

No, I had a stage outfit with me but it was a college show at Penn State University, which has a reputation for being a big party school but this was their arts program’s big show. All the students were exhibiting in all the different galleries and they had different bands play in different rooms. I was just feeling the jeans vibe.

 

What’s the hate with “I’m With The Band” shirts—I’ve seen that a lot on your Twitter?

It’s just reinforces the idea that women are there to be groupies or fangirls rather than professionals.

Oh, shoot. That did not click with me.  

“I’m With The Band” is about groupies. The thing you are referencing is Nasty Gal—a few years ago, they did a line called, ‘’I’m With The Band.’’ It was all kinds of 70s groupie, Almost Famous inspired clothes. Why don’t you just do ‘I’m In The Band’ and do the same exact thing? All you have to do is change one word and you can do the same fashion and have it stand for something positive. That’s my issue with that. Or do a unisex masculine line that’s button-up shirts with a metal font that says, ‘’I’m With The Band.’’ Like, can we gender flip it in some way so that it’s not just as if women are here to be a prop?

I never thought about the gender part of it. When I saw them, I was just like, ‘’Oh, someone just wants to tour.” That’s a really good point.

I wish it was “I’m with the band as their sound engineer.” I would buy that.

I love that. I feel like your first two albums were very in touch with your anger. The first album was “I’m angry about something.” The second album was like, “I’m angry and I’m tired of being a victim.” With this third album, or even with Sad13, what’s been your relationship with anger?

The difference between age 23, when I wrote the first record, and age 29,when I wrote this record, it’s only six years, but it’s a big emotional intelligence difference. Our first record, while I think that there are some identity politics, particularly my relationship to my own gender, it’s really just an angry breakup record and I don’t think I could reach that level of anger about interpersonal conflict at this age.

Do you feel like you know how to, maybe not move on quicker, but process things?

Those emotions, they’re not trivial and you have to honor them and process them in your own way. But it feels self-indulgent to make art that’s strictly about those kinds of things. I feel like I’ve written enough about that subject. Maybe I’ll go through some massive heartache again someday.

Hopefully not!

At age 48, I’ll return to breakups, but that’s just not where I am now.

Because I read that you scrapped stuff that you’d written before, it sounds like Twerp Verse is going to be a bit more outwardly what’s happening in the world mixed with personal stuff.

Yeah, I think that in the way the Sad13 record probably was, too. I don’t think I’m less angry, but I think I know how to be productive with it and I think a lot of the record is about staying engaged and staying awake and not losing hope. Because if you do, it’s easy to just turn away from injustice.

I’m glad you said the word ‘’hope,’’ because when I first heard “Lucky 88,” I sensed a little bit of hope…maybe?

It’s an optimistic song. Or I tried to do it that way.

When I hear it, I imagine the end of a disaster movie when the main characters have lost people and they miss them, but they know they can move on. They’ve survived something and they can go off into the sunset. Definitely a disaster movie. Just because they had to lose someone somehow.

That’s perfect! Wow, I’m going to steal that for the future. But yeah we have, I think—we’ve lost people, we’ve lost progress, but I have to hope that that’s mobilizing more people to vote and to show up at actions and to donate whatever resources they have to people doing work on the ground.

So, with this question, I’ve had a hard time wording it—I don’t want it to sound insensitive. You’re known for calling people and problems out and getting issues in people’s faces. With what’s going on now with Trump and #MeToo, and, obviously, those things are very important to talk about, does it ever get pandering when people ask about it? Because I wanted to ask your opinion and your thoughts on those topics, but my first thought was, “Isn’t it kind of like asking female actresses what it’s like to play a strong woman?”

Sure, but that’s not what you’re asking me. I wrote these songs about these subjects and, therefore, I have to be prepared to talk about them. I don’t feel like that’s pandering. I’ll say that in 2013 when we put out the Major Arcana, which was not necessarily an overtly feminist record, in fact, I tried to write a lot of it from a very gender-neutral place, every interview was, like, “a girl in a band! What’s that like? What’s it like to be on tour as a lady?” I was like, “What are you talking about? What’s it like to be a man writing this piece?” So I think those are very different things. Being asked about a subject that’s apparent to the art you produce is different than being asked, ‘’Oh, so this gender, what does this have to do with this job?’’

 

That’s good to know. I was worried about minimizing it and sounding, like, “Are you tired of talking about it?”

I mean, to an extent. I’m prepared to do so. I wish we could talk about My Little Pony. But if I wanted to talk about that, then I would write a My Little Pony concept record. I sat on a panel a few years ago with Kieran Gandhi. It was some SheShred’s panel that was about representations of women in music media. It was interesting that everyone sitting on the panel had very different perspectives about the question, “Do you mind being asked about your gender?” Because a lot of us are like, “It has nothing to do with the work.” Whereas Gandhi was like, ‘’I’m a drummer. It’s had everything to do with my career. What I don’t necessarily think has to do with my drumming is my race and I get asked about that all the time.” Whereas other people were, like, “My gender has nothing to do with it, but I do identify with my sexual orientation.” I think the conclusion we all came to together is it’s really great when you’re doing an interview or any kind of press and they make sure that the identity they’re asking you about actually resonates with you and you connect to it. Because we all have so many different identities that are intersecting and comprising who we are in the work.

And they might not play into your art, but they might play into something else.

They might have nothing to do with your day-to-day life or they might have everything to do with it.

Kinda related, “Lean In When I Suffer” is about poor allies. What advice would you have for someone who’s trying to be a better ally? To find that space between crappy self-care and being a good ally?

The point of the song is there’s work you have to put it on your own rather than expecting your friends to lead the way for you and educating you as to why your behavior’s wrong or how you can make things better. The song is coming from a point of exhaustion and frustration with people who don’t put in the work or educate themselves or attempt to do better. You said before that I call people out, but I try really hard to not engage in call-out culture. I feel like if I want to call stuff out, it’s trends that I think are hurtful rather than individual people because I think we’re all just trying to do better. I think the point of the song is it takes some work to do better. Do some reading. Show up in your community. Show up at actions.

Especially being someone who lives in New York, in an area that’s gentrifying, it’s an interesting place to be someone who’s trying to be aware of these subjects, but I’m currently part of the problem.

I think it’s important that so many white people are acknowledging their role in gentrification way more than we were 10 years ago and being more conscientious of where they rent, who they’re forcing out, and what kind of businesses they’re supporting in their neighborhood. So much of New York has a history of violence—of forcing people out of their homes and neighborhoods.

And moving into a neighborhood and then calling the cops on people who’ve lived there for years just because they’re not as quiet as you think they should be.

White comfort quite over the safety of black and brown bodies.

I think I may have touched on it, but the last thing I wanted to pick your brain on is, back on that idea of…not calling out, calling out wasn’t the best the best word…

Only because it has such an association with call-out culture.

These days, it sounds like they don’t want people to learn. They just want to get mad.

They want to get rid of them and have them be unemployable forever. I don’t think that’s the way to help society grow.

Your first album was not calling out but expressing the things that you are angry about or upset about—what would you say is the difference between expressing that back then before our orange mop of a president got elected and now? Or is there a difference at all?

There’s still utility for songs about those subjects. People are always going to have heartbreak and love. Hopefully, until we all get replaced with robots, at which point we’re in an aromantic paradise. But like I said, it’s the difference of my age and the things that concern me at this point in my life and those things have less to do with me and more with my community and my country. I think it’s just channeling some of the same energies to different thoughts and feelings

It sounds like it might not just a duty to yourself anymore. It’s a duty to the community? 

I think of my friends and I think of people we meet at shows. I spend a lot of time talking to the people who come to our shows. I like to be at the merch table while we’re on tour and find out what’s going on with them. I think I hear a lot from our fans and I think a lot of us are thinking through the same issues. So I do have people like that in mind, if I’m exorcising a demon. If I’m trying to channel those upset feelings, I know I’m not alone in those feelings. Obviously, the hope is that your song will make someone else feel better. I’d say that’s the biggest job perk of writing music for a living. But I’m definitely not thinking that I’m going to play a stadium, talking about this particular issue.

Lastly, a personal thing that I admire you for, anyone who goes after an MFA for anything like creative, I have such an admiration for it. I used to be a playwright. I thought about a playwriting MFA program. I was taking playwriting classes in college and I loved it. Then my teacher said she didn’t know anyone who made a living on playwriting and that just lost me.

I had a big luxury in that my program not only was fully funded, but I was employed by the university so I was getting a salary while I was there. So I probably could not have done an MFA in a situation where I was paying tuition or not earning a salary. But a lot of my poet friends, they’re not strictly just sitting around writing poems. They’re teaching or they’re running small presses and those are all things that I’m interested in. I feel really lucky that I had three years to go write poems and teach kids and just be surrounded by so many creative people. I feel so so lucky because it’s not easy to get into those programs and I didn’t really anticipate that I would get in.

Did either come first, the writing music or the writing poetry? Or did one lead to the other?

I’ve been writing music a lot longer than I’ve been writing poetry. I’ve been writing music since I was 8 years old. I didn’t start seriously writing poems until I was 19 years old. The songwriting has been a longer thread for me, but they’re both important to me for different reasons.

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