A League of Her Own: Sad13 interview
Taking a break from her work in Massachusetts guitar manglers Speedy Ortiz, Sadie Dupuis goes solo and scores one of the year's most important albums in the process. Here she tells us about the importance of refocussing pop's male-centric narrative
She's a formidable musician, but Sadie Dupuis is remarkably accessible too. Prior to our chat with the Speedy Ortiz singer, Dupuis makes a curiously ellipitical tweet: “Every time I play solo it takes years off my life.” Happy to oblige our pulling on that thread, as she chats via Skype from her Philadelphia home, she's typically candid about the trials of preparing to tour solo LP Slugger – getting to grips with playing alone, for example, or having to tone down the backing tracks where she’s enthusiastically overdubbed the same synth line five times.
“It’s so strange – if I have one other person on stage with me, I don’t have any kind of stage fright,” she laughs, fighting off a cold. “Speedy [Ortiz] tours all over the world, we play big festivals and I never feel nervous, but if I am by myself on stage… Last night I played in a kitchen to 30 people sitting on the ground and I was sweating and shaking. I can’t do it! I feel like if I’m in a band I can be Courtney Love, and if I’m alone I’m like Cat Power!”
Self-determinism is a big theme of Slugger, Dupuis’ debut solo record under the moniker of Sad13, her Twitter username. On the back of two critically-acclaimed albums, Major Arcana and Foil Deer, Dupuis’ band Speedy Ortiz have gained a reputation at the vanguard of the DIY indie rock scene, owing in no small part to Dupuis’ intricate lyrics and gnarly guitar arrangements. With the band currently taking a short break to work on other projects, this latest work sees Dupuis trying on the pop jacket in an attempt to hit a home run by herself.
Written in two weeks following her move from Massachusetts to Philadelphia, Slugger is a playful bedroom pop record which shows Dupuis successfully fusing sugary modern synth lines and drum machine beats with 90s pop and R'n'B references, without abandoning her distinctive guitar squalls or knotty reflections on relationships. With Philly renowned for its highly inclusive and feminist punk scene (it's also the home of artists such as Waxahatchee and Girlpool), Dupuis believes that although Slugger could have been written anywhere, the city certainly contributed to the record’s political mindset.
“A big reason I moved here was just to be closer to my friends, many of whom are songwriters that I really admire,” she says. “I knew I didn’t want to live in Massachussetts anymore but I still had a house there so I sub-let a friend’s bedroom. I was going out all day hanging out with my Philly friends, then I’d come home at night and work on these demos until five in the morning. The excitement and energy of being around my friends, who I had up until that point only hung out with on tour, was inspiring and I think a lot of the songs certainly had messages about women supporting and lifting each other up.”
Slugger’s feminist overtones are one of the record’s most striking aspects, from the haunting, Britney Spears-tinged Tell U What (which shows Dupuis defending herself against abuse from an ex against whom she nearly had to get a restraining order) to the celebration of affirmative consent on woozy lead single Get a Yes. These themes are by no means new for fans of Dupuis, with Speedy Ortiz dedicated to making their shows accessible safe spaces, even setting up their own 'help hotline' so that concertgoing fans can call them directly if they feel they are being harassed. However, on Slugger these messages are more direct than ever, which she explains is due to the record’s pop medium and the importance of her songs’ topics.
We venture to Dupuis that it feels quite radical to hear such complex depictions of relationships in a pop format, of women being independent without adhering to the aggressive male trope often found in pop songs such as Rihanna’s Bitch Better Have My Money.
“But I love that song too!” she laughs. “I wouldn’t look cool in a music video with a gun so I can’t do the Rihanna! We’re in such a great golden era of the political returning to pop music, I think – the Solange album just came out and it’s stunning – so I don’t think it’s completely rare. Maybe we’re seeing an increase in the amount of topics that can be explored in pop music. It’s such a state of political unrest – basically, young people who are frustrated by the bigots who are in control – that of course pop music’s reflecting that tension.”
We move on to the the systemic themes in her work. “I think my music is often based on my own personal history, but often that’s a very shared history with other friends who have a similar identity to me,” she explains. “Obviously, with regard to consent, 20% of women experience sexual assault and so much of that could be prevented if we had better conversations about consent and sexual education early on. If I’m writing a song like [Get A Yes] I’m not just thinking about my own history; I’m thinking about the way my history has been caused by the way our society works.”
What is clear from this conversation is Dupuis’ deep love for the pop genre and the sincerity of her hopes for it. With her history of teaching songwriting at summer camps in her pre-Speedy days, Dupuis knows that one of the earliest educations one receives in life comes from pop music. Its ubiquity therefore gives it a certain responsibility to send positive messages to its young listeners, particularly, Dupuis argues, regarding issues of sexuality.
“I think often that the ways in which eroticism works in pop music is not in a way that’s particularly women-friendly, especially when the artist is male,” she says. “Often the songwriters for the pop I grew up loving as a kid, it was men writing for women which I think we see a lot less now. Often the narrative tension in these pop songs would be about trying to convince a woman to dance with you or sleep with you when they’ve already said no. [Positive K]’s I Got A Man, for example, is a song I love but it’s basically just about pushing past someone’s boundaries after they’ve just stated no. So while I still like a lot of these songs I wish that I’d heard other things as a kid. It’s not romantic to have your boundaries denied. Not sexy. It’s shitty.”
As Dupuis readily admits, it’s unlikely that any songs from the subversive Slugger will find their way onto the American Top 40. However, at least Slugger is using the pop format in a positive way that gives voice to less fashionable topics. It also continues a trend which gives Dupuis cause for optimism; of young female pop stars writing their own songs, such as the thoughtful Lorde.
“Men are allowed to exist!” she offers reassuringly. “It’s just that we need more space for other voices, especially when people are speaking for other identities. I think that we’re starting to reward women creatively [in ways] that were sort of unforeseeable ten years ago.” Here, she points us towards the prodigious Julia Michaels who, at 22, has already written for Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber. "Let’s have some young women writing songs for adult men because I think that the messages are going to be better.”
Dupuis stresses that one of her proudest achievements on Slugger was recording and producing the record entirely independently. Not just extending her praise to female singers and songwriters but also to female guitarists and programmers, then, she hopes that the record will encourage more women to get involved at all levels of the music industry.
“I was very inspired to do this album because I knew about other women who were home producing their own pop music,” she concludes. “I think just adding my name to the list of women who can home record and home produce offers a level of representation to women who still feel very shut out from engineering fields and production fields. If I meet any kids who are like, ‘I didn’t think I could produce my own pop record but I did because you did,’ that would be the ultimate goal.”
With Dupuis already thinking of other songs that would work for her Sad13 project, one can’t help but admire her sense of fun, determination and dedication to helping others knock it out of the park. After Slugger, the major leagues surely can’t be too far away.
Slugger is released on 11 Nov via Carpark Records