In the seven years since Massachusetts alt-rockers Speedy Ortiz released their debut, 'Major Arcana', it seems that frontperson Sadie Dupuis has never stopped creating.
Between Speedy albums and tours, Sadie found the time to release her first solo record, the electro-pop-oriented 'Slugger' under the name Sad13. An impressive feat in itself, but even more so when you factor in that Sadie has also written a critically acclaimed poetry book, founded her own record label, Wax Nine, taught at prestigious universities and established an online poetry journal, as well as working as an advocate for numerous organisations such as the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers and No Music for ICE.
Yet after the release of Speedy Ortiz's third record 'Twerp Verse', the prolific artist found herself unable to create new music.
"It's probably the longest stretch of time I've gone without making new songs," recalls Sadie. "Partly because I got vocal chord nodules and I was afraid to try recording again, so I had to make a bunch of changes to my routine and health even to be able to perform live. I was also dealing with some grief and mental health issues, and I wasn't interested in working on a new project, it seemed really overwhelming to me."
In order to fall in love with the idea of recording again, Sadie had to make several adjustments. One of these was the decision to work exclusively with female sound engineers. "For someone who has a burgeoning interest in engineering and production and also wants to highlight the work of women in audio, it seemed weird that I hadn't really worked with other women apart from Emily Lazar [Beck, David Bowie, Dolly Parton and hundreds more] who masters all my stuff. So I sought out women whose work I'd admired from afar and pencilled in time with them in between Speedy's tour dates."
One of the women who can be credited with reminding Sadie of her love for being in the studio is engineer Erin Tonkon, who worked on David Bowie's 'Blackstar'. "I told Erin that recording a whole album seemed too overwhelming, and she suggested we just try a couple of songs. I did that first session with Erin and remembered that being in the studio is my favourite thing in the world. It was at that point I started to write towards an album.
"I ended up tracking about two songs a month in between festival dates in different studios spread out a little over half a year. One of the things that is so overwhelming for me about this project is that because I play everything and tend to compose music that has lots of little bits and pieces, it's a stupid amount of stuff to memorise for the studio. Just having to focus on two songs a month was more than enough for me."
Given the time to really flesh out ideas and experiment with a whole host of new instruments, including marimba, lap steel, sitar and theremin to name but a few, the resulting record, 'Haunted Painting', expands upon the poppier, synth-led sound of 2016's Slugger. 'Haunted Painting' is much bigger and more realised, or 'maximalist' as Sadie calls it. It's more akin to 'Lucky 88', the oddball alt-pop anthem of Speedy Ortiz's last album, only much glossier, melding sweet, squelching synths with math-rock dynamism.
"With 'Slugger', basically my bedroom demos became the songs. While plugging my guitar straight into my computer was really fun, there are limitations on how big it can sound. I love stuff that's overproduced - music that has a ton of layers and is really hi-fi."
Aside from altering the logistics of recording, there was something a little stranger that nudged Sadie towards Sad13's second album, and also inspired the name 'Haunted Painting'. Having realised those first two tracks were going to be part of an album, she came across a painting at the Frye Gallery in Seattle by German expressionist Franz von Stuck that captivated her. In fact, even the artwork for the record ended up being inspired by the painting, with Sadie asking her artist Mother to create a portrait of her in a similar fashion.
"It's a portrait of a dancer named Saharet, and there's something very haunting about her. I didn't know anything about her but was really drawn in by that portrait. The very basic terminology that stuck out to me in looking at it was 'haunted painting'. I thought it was an interesting way to describe a document of a time in my life when I was feeling a little bit haunted myself."
Celebrated for her literary lyrics, Sadie is not one to shy away from writing about serious subjects, though her lyrics tend to gravitate towards the oblique. While 'Slugger' was heavy on themes of consent and sexual politics, 'Haunted Painting' finds Sadie musing upon death.
"I think one of the main through lines is grief. I've lost a number of friends to drug overdose, not that there's any silver lining to losing people, but I've become very involved in harm reduction work in the past two years, in terms of carrying Naloxone the anti-overdose medication, and advocating for venues to stock it and have people on staff able to distribute it.
"A lot of the lyrics on 'Haunted Painting' are pertaining to me processing grief and dealing with mental health stuff that came up from grieving that maybe I hadn't dealt with for a long time, I think that's maybe a darker part of what I'm exploring. I had OCD as a kid pretty badly and didn't think it was something I dealt with anymore, but in going back to therapy, I found I do still have it and death is a really big trigger for it, so, not fixating on death but writing through it is really helpful to me as part of the grieving process."
Though 'Haunted Painting' serves as a tool for Sadie to explore her grief, it's by no means morbid. Known for her off-kilter style and wry wit, she playfully explores her interest in all things creepy. No stranger to the strange, having named the first Speedy Ortiz record after an aspect of Tarot and experimented with the horror-comedy genre in their videos, 'Haunted Painting' enables Sadie to lean into these creepy tropes and have some fun with them. Very aptly, the video for the album's first single 'Ghost (of a Good Time)', a party song about not going out, sees her hanging out in a motel with a bunch of Scooby-Doo sheet style ghosts. Recent videos for 'Oops…!' and 'Hysterical' have seen Sadie play a prom queen vampire and witness her friends murdered by a vengeful spirit over a webchat.
"I have a thing, and I can't quit it, and it's creepy stuff," laughs Sadie. "I 100% believe in ghosts, and I've had a couple of experiences that would be hard for me to explain other than with some supernatural presence. I had a roommate who passed away about a decade ago in our apartment, he was really funny and had a dry sense of humour. There was an alarm system installed in the apartment that had never ever worked, but after he passed away the alarm would just start going off at tense times - I felt that he was messing with us, letting us know that things were okay. I hope ghosts do exist and they're hanging out with us and laughing at all of us for how naïve and weird we all are about death."
Taken from the October issue of Upset. Sad13's album 'Haunted Painting' is out now.
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