Shervin Lainez

Sad13: Sadness Is Her Happiness

A deep dive into the music, books, spells, and places that shaped Sadie Dupuis’s first solo record

Well before being championed as a bright voice amid rock’s dying light, Sadie Dupuis had a secret — or so I was convinced during 2008 and 2009, when she was an intern at Spin magazine (where I was music editor) while also studying poetry at Barnard College, and before her first band, Quilty, had released a peep. With a wry, slow-burn wit and teeming, unpretentious intelligence, Dupuis was more than a talented young writer, she was an original character — a knowledgeable music geek with an edgy warmth; a Matador Records devotee who goofed on herself for being a Matador Records devotee; someone who schooled us as much as we schooled her. I used to joke that by working with younger people, we were “assembling our replacements.” With Dupuis, that felt like an insult. She was on her way to somewhere far better, and we just wanted to tag along.

When I first saw Quilty — yes, they sounded like a Matador Records band, mostly Helium — it was no revelation. But as Dupuis has grown as a musician and person, she has evolved exponentially. Her band Speedy Ortiz, for which she’s “frontdemon” (singing, writing, playing guitar, et al.), has released acclaimed albums, EPs, and singles. She’s also a poet, teacher, activist, and even a music critic. Now, with her debut solo album under the name Sad13, Slugger (out November 11 on Carpark), Dupuis is a producer as well. The record’s artfully shambling synth-pop, both cutting and confiding, has a lot on its mind. So I asked Dupuis to talk about her inspirations, and she obliged with style.

Rihanna’s “Woo

Sadie Dupuis: I asked someone if they wanted to “listen to Rihanna in my car.” This is code for “make out in my car,” by the way. And Anti had just come out, and I was like, “Check out this siiiiiiick song” and I put on “Woo.” They were like, “This sounds like one of your GarageBand demos.” And I was like ... “THIS. SOUNDS. LIKE. ONE. OF. MY. GARAGEBAND. DEMOS.” It’s amazing what having your demos compared to a Rihanna song can do for your confidence.

Women doing everything

Dupuis: I love projects in which one person plays every instrument and produces themselves. When I first started writing songs and recording myself as a 14-year-old, most of my songwriting heroes fell into this category — Elliott Smith, Emitt Rhodes, Bright Eyes. These formative musical heroes also all fell into the category of “dudes.” If you try to google “one-person bands,” you wind up redirected to lists entirely comprised of men (save maybe tUnE-yArDs, who deserves to be on all best-of lists till the end of time). Thankfully, this never derailed me from carrying on as a multi-instrumentalist, but I also had a hard time envisioning myself as a producer because I rarely saw (and still rarely see) women in that role. I didn’t take my four-track efforts seriously and usually redid my home recordings in proper studios with men serving as the producer.

But 2015 ruled because so many of the year’s best records were self-produced solo efforts by women: Grimes, Empress Of, Alison Wonderland, Björk, and Computer Magic spring to mind (and Sammus, who makes a guest appearance on Slugger, LUCKY ME!). Reading interviews with some of these musicians about their production styles and tricks gave me a sense of how to proceed on my own. Still, 95 percent of the producer profiles I read last year were about men. That made me eager to add another name to the list — my own.

Charli XCX

Dupuis: A genius songwriter. Sucker came out a couple of years ago, but I still listen to it regularly. There are a lot of things she did on that record that I really wanted to draw from on mine, with regard to her attitude and her aesthetic, but also the way her songs are produced. I used this tiny portable synth called an OP-1 for a lot of this record. It has tons of cute samples and some of them seemed very Charli to me, like an arcade-game coin sound or really blown-out handclaps. She has a tremendous singing voice, but I love how she sounds when she’s speaking her lines. I’ve always felt self-conscious doing that, but I do it a few times on Slugger. (Pitching those vocals down a few octaves helped — it’s amazing what sounding like a monster does for self-esteem.)

Dan Savage

Dupuis: I’ve heard every episode of “Savage Lovecast!” (I think?) Is that totally uncool? I don’t unilaterally agree with Dan, but listening to him dissect other people’s garbage relationships has helped me get out of a few garbage relationships, and has given me a much wider understanding of my own sexual identity. My anxiety is so soothed by this guy talking about pegging! At least half of the songs on Slugger are, like, advice-column pop; if I wrote CliffsNotes, I might say Slugger deals with themes like “the commodification of love is dangerous” and “no one deserves emotional abuse” and “stop getting mad at male friends for being men, ya heteronormative scrub.” I scrapped a song for this Sad13 record called “DTMFA,” which is a Dan Savage–ism (but it’s cool, Speedy Ortiz is playing it now).

Undoing bad spells

Dupuis: When a pop song has a great hook, it has an incantatory quality that borders on magic. But a lot of the time, these hooks spew toxic garbage. I grew up loving radio pop (you want Z100’s phone number? I still have that shit memorized). I still love radio pop, and I feel like it’s made a lot of political strides! And it wasn’t all bad in the ’90s either — I still look up to TLC’s songs and messages. But I wrote a lot of these Sad13 songs as a way to undo the misogyny I’d uncritically internalized singing along to catchy songs as a kid. Gotta undo the bad spells while I still can!

I’m basically imagining a world in which Brandy and Monica write a sequel and decide “The Boy” isn’t worth either of their time. They go out to the bar and buy each other beers and play pinball and become BFFs forever.

Lizzo

Dupuis: I was so obsessed with [her album] Lizzobangers, I asked Lizzo and [her producer] Lazerbeak, who I met when Speedy Ortiz toured with Doomtree, to do a remix for a Speedy Ortiz song. Then Lizzo and I wrote this song together about women taking control of their own recording careers — “Basement Queens” — and it was the first one I released as Sad13. I had so much fun doing it, I decided to try to write a whole Sad13 record in that style. [Lizzo’s] Big GRRRL Small World came out right before I started writing Slugger, and I’m so impressed with how nuanced it is; she’s unflinching in her dissections of feminism, race, and body positivity, but she always lands on self-love. Such an important artist.

Philadelphia

Dupuis: I’m the king of living in two cities at once — admittedly a very gross thing to be king of. I sublet in Philly for a few weeks when I was trying to figure out whether to renew my lease in Northampton, Massachusetts, or move on to something different (perhaps a larger metaphor for “stay in a crappy relationship with someone I lived with, or GTFO forever”). I wrote and recorded most of Slugger in that two-week period, and the love and support I felt from my friends in Philadelphia indeed inspired me to GTFO and move. So many of my favorite projects are based here, too: Swanning, Old Maybe, Waxahatchee, Radiator Hospital, Marissa Paternoster, Moor Mother, Spirit of the Beehive, Shamir, Allison Crutchfield, Fleabite, and Marge, to name just a few.

Learning how much I hate email

Dupuis: I had this insane idea after recording this record that I’d let a different person mix every song, so I have early mixes from AMAZING folks like Sylvia Massy, Emily Reo, Joey Waronker, Chad Clark, and a few others. Buuut ... it turns out I hate doing mix revisions via email! So Gabe Wax — who worked on the last Speedy Ortiz record, too — mixed it with me in his apartment while his adorable dog, Roux, looked on. (“Do I hate replying to my email ... or do I just hate myself?” — a tweet draft. Anyway, remind me to never mix via email again.)

Reading stuff

Dupuis: bell hooks! A working title for the record was Love Ethic (based on hooks’s idea of an “ethic of love” as a challenge to an “ethic of domination,” from an essay in her book Outlaw Culture); Action by Amy Rose Spiegel is psychic friends with my record — her writing on consent inspired me to ask her to write my press release; Lindy West, who is brilliant and hysterical and fiercely strong in the face of an internet loaded with bigotry (and who I asked to write the Sad13 bio). Also, in no particular order, Rebecca Solnit, Jessica Valenti, Melissa Broder, Kim Gordon, everything Sheila Heti writes and everyone in the Women in Clothes book, Nia Levy King and the Queer and Trans Artists of Color project, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Angela Y. Davis, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Carrie Brownstein, Elena Ferrante, Koyama Press, Janet Mock, Mary Ruefle, Jenny Zhang, Audre Lorde, Maggie Nelson, Michelle Tea, Louise Glück, Dorothea Lasky, Roxane Gay ... aw jeez.

Sleuths

Dupuis: I’m a Veronica Mars superfan. I’ve watched this show front-to-back more times than I’m comfortable admitting (and all of its offshoots — Rob Thomas canon, waddup). Just like Veronica, I’m vindictive as fuck and get off on seeing justice served. The amount of times I’ve written songs just to satisfy a personal notion of vengeance troubles me. Anyway, there are some neo-noir references on this record. In my next life, I’ll be a private eye rather than a songwriter. Oh, also, Slugger is named after a character in the Satoshi Kon anime Paranoia Agent, which is sort of a supernatural and surreal detective story.