Shervin Lainez

Sadie Dupuis Never Stops Evolving

From Speedy Ortiz to Sad13, the artist blazes her own path

“I’m just trying to afford these blackberry danishes,” Sadie Dupuis says, laughing, when I ask her why she decided to go solo for a spell. We’re sitting in Clementine Bakery, a sunny establishment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, which specializes in vegan cakes and pastries. Dupuis has shown up in style, wearing her pink-highlighted hair in a high ponytail, bracing the cold with a massive green, pink, and blue furry coat. “Really, I think I’m just addicted to working,” she adds.

As lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist for the Massachusetts-born band Speedy Ortiz, Dupuis has made a name for herself as a supremely talented lyricist and musician, penning brooding rock songs that call to mind bands like Helium and Sebadoh. “I was never the witch that you made me to be,” she snarled on “Plough,” off the band’s 2013 debut, Major Arcana. “Still you picked a virgin over me.”

But all the while, Dupuis was collecting ideas for songs on her own time — voice-memo sketches and vocal melodies that wouldn’t necessarily work for Speedy Ortiz. A home-recorder for years, it wasn’t until she worked with rapper Lizzo on a collaborative song last year that Dupuis started seriously recording her solo song ideas. “I was expecting it to be more of a complicated back-and-forth, but she was just like, ‘I’m really into freestyling right now, just write the song and I’ll see what comes to me after that,’” Dupuis recalls. “The track was so fun to work on, and I was like, I wanna do a lot more songs in this style.”

The songs Dupuis worked on outside Speedy Ortiz eventually became her solo debut, Slugger, released under the stage name Sad13. Rather than the straightforward rock of her main band, Dupuis populates these songs with synthesizers and pop hooks. “When you have a live band that’s based around two guitarists and a drummer and a bassist, it makes sense to use that instrumentation,” Dupuis says. “But it was fun to mess around, and there are certain things on this record that maybe my bandmates would think are too goofy for Speedy.”

“Too goofy” things include some Nicki Minaj–style vocal stuttering and lyrics like “they still wanna lick my asshole, they still wanna buy what I’m selling them,” which Dupuis delivers on the standout “Hype,” which calls to mind Liz Phair’s buzzy “Supernova.” Every song on Slugger plays like a self-confident punch to losers and underminers, whether it’s the peppy electronic jam about sexual consent “Say Yes” or the mystic dis to toxic people on “Devil in U.” “Nobody tells me off when I’m exactly who I want,” Dupuis sings on “Coming Into Powers,” the album’s finale. “Look at me, lookin’ back at me, loving everything I see.”

Dupuis recorded the demos for Slugger assuming she would go on to finish them in a proper studio but found herself surprised by how much she liked the original sound. “I make demos for all this Speedy stuff and have so much fun working on those, and I’m always kind of sad that they don’t go out into the world,” she says. “I’m so accustomed to working in studios now that I almost forgot it was an option to just do it myself. Then when the songs were good, I was like, Oh yeah, I forgot I’m kind of good at this.”

Because of this, there’s a fuzzy, DIY electronic sound to Sad13’s pop, as Dupuis layers guitars with hand-clap beats and spacey synths. “I was excited to show off a different side of my playing,” she says. “Very often — less so now than when [Speedy Ortiz] first started — but people would always be like, ‘Oh, it’s like a ’90s rock band,’ because people are accustomed to guitars signifying grunge or something. It was fun to experiment with the same melodies that, for me anyway, were using really cheesy synths.”

I mention the way some people seem surprised or impressed that Dupuis listens to, say, Nicki Minaj. “And I’m like, ‘Why is that surprising whatsoever?’ Everyone should like Nicki Minaj!” she says. “I think it cuts both ways. People are surprised Miguel, for example, doesn’t want to be classified as an R&B singer — I mean, he writes on guitar and there are a lot of really rock moments in his music.”

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

This past summer, one prominent music website wrote that Dupuis had “proved that women could rock harder than their male counterparts,” with an aside on her distinctly feminine way of dressing. Dupuis immediately called out the piece’s misguided framing in a Facebook post, writing, “Part of the reason I consciously started wearing glitter & wigs & dresses & outrageous flamboyant makeup onstage ... was to push back against this stupid notion that people on the femme side of the gender spectrum aren’t shredders.” (The piece was later edited to remove the lines in question.)

“We were on tour, playing Lancaster, Pennsylvania, that night, and I was like, ‘I can’t do anything for 20 minutes,’” Dupuis recalls. “I just pulled out my computer on the bar and furiously typed out this long thing.” Her reaction that night ended up partially inspiring her Slugger song “Less Than 2,” about being both feminine and caustic and not having to choose between the two.

Dupuis has been pushing back against outdated gender binaries for years. “I went to a really rural high school, and I was the only girl who played guitar,” she says. “Part of trying to fit in with that — well, there were boys in bands, and I’ve had to bro down. And I can bro down. I feel like I can pull a decent bro.” But after years of touring and making music on her own terms, Dupuis’s perception of what a rock singer has to look like changed. So she dyed her hair candy colors, topped her eyelashes with falsies, and wore blue lipstick.

“At some point, [I was] dressing and conducting myself in a way that felt needlessly gendered and kind of untrue to how I actually wanted to present myself — which was really that I just fucking love glitter,” she says. “And I was like, I’m going to go the total opposite route here. And now I take dressing for stage very seriously, and I really want to show that.”

Dupuis recently moved from Western Massachusetts to Philadelphia, where she’s part of a small, growing crew of artists like Radiator Hospital and Japanese Breakfast — a more inclusive, activist-oriented scene than the one she left behind. “It was a very small community that’s very, very white,” she says of her previous home in Northampton. “How many battles can you fight in a small college town that’s already whitewashed?”

With Slugger out in the world, Dupuis is hardly slowing down: She’s already written most of Speedy Ortiz’s next album and begun recording material for a new Sad13 project. She’s also figuring out how to translate her loose, fun solo demos into live performances. “I didn’t map the tempo changes and time signatures, so I have to go through and manually add a click track — really tedious stuff that I wouldn’t have had to do if I recorded this properly,” she says. “But it is what it is. I’m living and learning. The next record is going to be pro as fuck!”

The past few years of life as a recording and touring musician have been busy ones. “I’m better at carrying amps,” she says. “Certainly I never thought I would be playing keyboards live in a band, and I’m doing that for Sad13. Maybe in 10 years I’ll have a banjo album out.”

But Dupuis still feels like she’s always learning. “For the most part, I like to write songs that I think surprise me with where they go in terms of the chord changes,” she says. “I have a hard time not writing, like, five sections of chords, and I guess part of that is just wanting to have surprising parts of music. Sometimes I think that’s where my amateurishness with recording is helpful — I don’t really know what I’m doing, so sometimes some things mix way too loud, and it’s this one thing for three seconds. And that’s exciting, because it makes people want to hear it again.”