Sadie Dupuis is not sitting still in lockdown — she doesn’t sit still, ever. “I think a lot of us are using this time for emotional work and self-reflection,” the Speedy Ortiz frontwoman, who releases solo work as Sad13, says on our phone call at 9 a.m. on a Saturday. She’s not used to having so much space for deep introspection, because her schedule on tour typically doesn’t allow for it: “Get into the van at 9 a.m., get to the venue at 3 o’clock, then load in, soundcheck, set up all the merch, get into stage clothes, maybe there’s an hour for dinner, first band is on, I want to watch everybody play, selling merch until the set is done."
Without this enforced hectic lifestyle, she’s staying busy. As well as working on herself in therapy, Dupuis has been running a new poetry journal called Wax Nine, promoting the release of her new solo LP Haunted Painting, and working with the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers. “I’ve been working with the steering committee there to negotiate for better futures for music workers once we’re on the other side of [the pandemic],” she says of her work with the UMAW. “I think a lot of us are really excited about that — using this downtime to make massive structural changes.”
That desire for systemic change naturally dripped into Haunted Painting, though she's clearly grappling with her own personal grief and trauma all the while. Thankfully Dupuis didn’t take all of that on alone. She brought together a team of women engineers (Sarah Tudzin, Maryam Qudus, Emily Lazar), a throng of guest vocalists (including Helado Negro’s Roberto Lange, Deerhoof’s Satomi Matsuzaki, tUnE-yArDs Merrill Garbus, and Pile’s Rick Maguire), and drummer Zoë Brecher who's played with Dupuis since the early Sad13 days. Dupuis played just about every other instrument on the album, from the familiar guitar and bass to the organ, lap steel, marimba, glockenspiel, and autoharp. Haunted Painting is not just an album — it is a dramatic, three-act play living inside of a fairytale world that frequently takes dark twists and turns.
Today, we’re premiering the record's fourth single, “Hysterical,” alongside a hilariously fucked up music video, written and directed by Kate Banford and Jamie Loftus, featuring Mitra Jouhari and Demi Adejuyigbe. We spoke with Dupuis about her vengeance complex, her experience with grief, and her fascination with maximalist music.
The press release says that “Hysterical” deals with “the convoluted logic of outdated, offensive comedians.” Can you expand on that?
I think there were three comedians in really short proximity last year who made some kind of claim that comedy isn’t funny anymore and they can’t work in it because “PC culture” and “cancel culture” have made things unfunny. I think one was Todd Phillips in promoting Joker, he was like, I won’t do comedy because the feminists have destroyed it [laughs]. This was around the time that Hari Kondabolu — who did The Problem With Apu — was getting death threats again because they finally decided to relent on that character in The Simpsons. It’s just a common refrain that, to me, is ironic. I never had a big interest in comedy growing up because it was always not for me. It was intentionally shutting women out or making them the butt of jokes that just weren’t good. As comedy has become more inclusive, I’m actually interested in it now and was able to get some of my favorite people in comedy to be in this music video.
The song “Oops…! is you reckoning with your vengeance complex, which I see happening in “Hysterical” as well. I was wondering if — in your reckoning — you came to a conclusion about the ethics of having a vengeance complex and wanting revenge versus leaving space for redemption and forgiveness?
Yeah, that’s a big question mark for me, and probably for a lot of people with a hair-trigger reaction to statements or injustices like the one I just described. As someone who’s protective of not only my friends, but also people in my community, and of people in general, I think you can often get that adrenaline high: You’ve hurt people I care about, and now I want you done with. How do you reconcile that temper with a belief in prison abolition with the hope for the restoring of justice? With the hope of redemption for people? I don’t believe people should be thrown away or are disposable. I had a family member go to prison for a decade on a minor offense when I was young; I really don’t think people should be thrown away or locked away.
["Oops…!"] was me putting myself in check for getting so quickly to the place of the gleeful, You underestimated me, and now I will destroy you emotion that I can sometimes get to when someone I care about has been hurt.
The theme of a haunted painting for this record came from a portrait you saw in a gallery in Seattle. What was your experience, and how you were inspired by it?
I had been really hesitant to work on a new record — I just had a mental block about it, and didn’t want to do it even though I knew that it’s something that I love and something that I needed to do. I had spent a lot of years touring the entire year, [then] touring’s over, now it’s time to write the record, the writing’s done, now it’s time to go into the studio for a few weeks, now you take three months to do photos and music videos, live at home, now you’re back on the road for another two years. Keeping that kind of schedule, you’re also experiencing normal human life stuff. I lost a parent, I lost several friends, and I think — probably like a lot of people in a capitalist world — it’s easier for me to not want to deal with my emotions or process trauma and grief and instead just work so I don’t have to think about it. I did that for so many years that it finally caught up with me and I had to spend time in therapy and step back from overextended work schedules and start to talk through some of this stuff that I avoided.
Once I had enough time off and enough time working with a therapist, I still was intimidated by the prospect of diving back into all of that. I did one session [working on “WTD?” and “Market Hotel"] then I went to Seattle to do a poetry festival. That’s when I was at the Frye Gallery and saw this Franz von Stuck painting. I was so captivated by it. From the two years where I wasn’t interested in working on music or poetry, I related to this ghastly looking portrait of an elegant woman with prominent under-eye circles. [She's] smiling but there’s something sinister about it, or disheveled — something more to the image. It felt like a visual parable for how I felt when I was not touching my own feelings. It wasn’t a dramatic I see this painting and I must work, but it felt like a nice sign from the world: I’m interested in this painting, I like the theme of a haunted painting, maybe these two songs that I had a good time doing can bring me back to the world of making an album. That’s when I started.
There are a ton of ghosts on this record. Is there a metaphorical importance to them?
Some of it is literal. I’m totally into ghosts and believe they are real — I should say that first and foremost. I’m not just using ghosts for imagery and metaphors. I think that when you’re processing grief, when you’re dwelling, when you’re having intrusive thoughts or memories, those are ghosts in their own way. Your brain is as capable of generating reality as anything in front of you. [Some of] the recurrence of ghosts in the lyrics is somewhat literal. There are people in my life who are no longer here who I’m communicating [with] through writing songs and poetry, which I think is a long legacy in authored works.
As far as the imagery, sometimes that’s just for funsies. I really like horror and horror comedy. Growing up, my favorite movies were Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Beetlejuice, and things along those lines. I’ve always drawn from that stuff in Speedy Ortiz and Sad13. We’ve done a lot of movie-specific homages. Doing this project, I was like, I can do this for everything! It can all be horror comedy! Lyrically, I’m talking about real loss, but I don’t love to just full-on hit people over the head with grief. I think it’s nice to temper some of those heavier feelings with lighter, fun imagery, and there’s a great well to draw from in the horror and horror-comedy canon for that.
You’ve mentioned that you wanted Haunting Painting to be maximalist, and it is. Why?
I don’t know — I wish I could calm down! I think there’s a big impulse right now in pop to go minimal — to completely eschew drums, to have beats be really simple, whereas I’m coming in like, There will be three programmed drum machines all playing really complicated rhythms at once. I grew up doing some classical music, and it was always avant-garde, weird classical music with lots of vocal parts that were similar and then would deviate slightly and clash. As a music listener, the stuff that has the payback to me is — payback, is that what I mean?
Yeah, I mean payoff. I’m not getting paid back when I listen to 100 gecs [laughs]. But if I can listen to something for the 15th time, and only then do I hear that a second bass track enters, panned hard right, a minute and thirty seconds in and never comes back — I’m so psyched by little easter eggs like that. In working with my own music, I’m always trying to cram it with little details. With the music culture we’re in now, people skip through things. I’m not really making music for that kind of listener. I’m not gonna say that that’s not a valid way of listening; I think a lot of people listen to music like that. But I really like to make stuff that rewards a bunch of listens and close listens. For better or for worse, that’s — as a listener — what I like and what I wind up composing, too. And it’s just really fun for me to go into the rabbit hole. At this point, just doing pre-production and writing at home, I’m generally pulling a 10 to 12 hour day on the computer like three days in a row to get a song done. Just because I’m filling it with a lot of sounds and details. That’s the thing I like the most about doing music at all.
Haunted Painting is due out on September 25 via Wax Nine.