This week, one of the most perceptive songwriters in music, Sadie Dupuis, returns with a bold reimagining of modern pop under her solo moniker Sad13. The Speedy Ortiz leader’s self-produced 2016 full-length Slugger hinted at the potential of her Sad13 project, and Haunted Painting, out Friday (Sept. 25), makes good on the promise of its predecessor, with Dupuis’ razor-sharp turns of phrase paired with maximalist synth-pop arrangements and some of the more indelible hooks of her career.
Haunted Painting, which is the first Sad13 release on Dupuis’ own Wax Nine label, features contributions from Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, Deerhoof’s Satomi Matsuzaki, Helado Negro’s Roberto Lange and Pile’s Rick Maguire, among others. In addition to her work with Speedy Ortiz and Sad13, Dupuis has stayed busy as the editor of the Wax Nine poetry journal and through her activist work with No Music for ICE as well as the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers.
Below, Dupuis discusses the creation of Haunted Painting, how she incorporates her social activism into her albums, her karaoke go-to and why she’d sing the praises of Veronica Mars to her younger self.
1. What was your dream job when you were a kid?
A cartoonist! My mom is an artist and taught me to draw with Archie comics when I was little. From there I got into Yeah!, Peter Bagge and Gilbert Hernandez’ Josie & the Pussycats-type space adventure, which opened up a whole fandom of indie and alt comics from Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly. I was also super into manga and have journals and journals under my childhood bed of my homemade Sailor Moon spinoff. Obviously I wound up with a different dream job, but I’m glad I’ve collaborated on merch with so many of my favorite artists in comics, like Michael DeForge, Simon Hanselmann, Cathy Johnson, Bridget Meyne, and even Jaime Hernandez (whose Love & Rockets character is Speedy Ortiz’s namesake).
2. What’s the first piece of music that you bought for yourself, and what was the medium?
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ Let’s Face It on CD.
3. What was the first concert you saw?
No Doubt at Roseland Ballroom while they were touring Return of Saturn!
4. How did your hometown/city shape who you are?
I grew up in New York City, and having access to amazing museums and theaters and parks got me interested in creative work at a young age. During middle school my mom moved to a rural area. There were positives to living there – it’s beautiful – but the homophobia and antisemitism I experienced at school in an extremely white and conservative area gave me a hair-trigger reaction to injustice that is still my default. Also, growing up with parents who weren’t together and lived hours away from each other weirdly prepped me for life as a touring musician. I have no problem being in the car for many hours at a time every day because I did it twice a week growing up.
5. What’s the last song you listened to?
“Whew Chile” by Dai Burger.
6. Which young artist impresses you most consistently?
7. What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen happen in the crowd of one of your sets?
I could get dark with this one — I saw unspeakable weirdness in my first decade of playing basement and warehouse shows. I will instead go heartwarming and remember Speedy’s first show in Boise, at which my guitar hero, [Built to Spill’s] Doug Martsch, happened to be standing in the crowd, close enough to front and center that I spotted him and then had to try very hard not to mess up.
8. How much has spending this year in relative isolation shaped the focus of Haunted Painting?
I finished recording this album in December of last year, so the pandemic wasn’t a factor in creating it. But I still haven’t figured out a great way to translate this record to solo performance or livestream. I’ve spent the last couple days woodshedding on guitar, finger picking synth parts, trying to solve how to make it work. The arrangements and layers feel integral to me in the songwriting, which is why I never play solo. But there’s not really a choice anymore.
9. How different was the recording process of the new album due to the pandemic?
Again, thankfully, it was done last year and pre-pandemic. It was a new recording process for me, though, since it was done in short sessions at six studios over as many months, rather than spending a few weeks in one location. That process allowed me to really finesse the pre-production for each song, and have time to rehearse and memorize lots of parts, since I was responsible for playing pretty much everything. Also, it allowed me to use six times the gear. As a nerd who loves playing with new toys, it was exciting to find excuses to use out-of-my-league synths and pedals and weird instruments, diverse equipment that wouldn’t have made it on to one album if I’d done it more traditionally in a single location.
10. As always, the album is full of wonderfully literary lyrics — “Goons waltz in wearing shitkicking grins without reason, without cadence” is a personal favorite. How different is your process of writing songs from writing poetry?
The editing process is similar — getting rid of boring or gratuitous words, trying to build off the last phrase in a way that’s surprising — but I do lyrics last when writing songs and I’m writing to fit a melody. That limits where I’m able to go with words. But in most ways it makes the process easier since there are only so many options that will fit. Constraints are really motivating to me, so I write songs much easier than poems.
11. Haunted Painting includes multiple songs that touch upon inequality and upheaval, as well as nods to your own social activism. How daunting is the process of trying to incorporate that commentary into your songwriting?
I think it would be harder to write about other subjects at this point. Since lyrics are the last thing I write, they get populated by whatever I’m obsessing over that day, and politics tend to take up that mantle. I’m envious of songwriters who dabble in narrative, fiction-based worlds. I tried in one or two places on this album, like “With Baby,” but it winds up more allegorical than anything.
12. Given that Sad13 is a more pop-focused musical project, what’s your current interaction with mainstream pop, either in terms of listening habits or songs you’ve been returning to lately?
Radio pop and rap in the ’90s and ’00s was pretty weird! I have a strong taste for production in the vein of Timbaland & Missy Elliott and The Neptunes, and my love of weirdness in “mainstream” at that time still drives my pop taste. Of course, pop is no longer synonymous with mainstream, but looking back on new pop music I’ve listened to most in the past year – Allie X, Rina Sawayama, Charli XCX, Dua Lipa, Kitten, Muna, Caroline Polachek, Princess Nokia, 100 gecs, Yaeji – there’s a clear lineage from the mainstream pop I grew up with, it’s just been mutated. Rap-rock is part of the pop conversation. House is part of the pop conversation. Ska is part of the pop conversation! And that makes me excited because that omnivorousness is what I want out of my own pop production, too.
13. “The Crow,” one of the standouts on Haunted Painting, was partially inspired by the passing of one of your songwriting heroes, David Berman, last year. Where should someone unfamiliar with Berman’s work start exploring?
American Water was my favorite Silver Jews record for a long time and it still has some of my favorite songs. Speedy played a Berman tribute on his birthday this year in which we were the backing band for a bunch of different singers covering songs (and poems) from across his career. I got to revisit the whole discography and it’s of course still incredible. Tanglewood Numbers might be my current favorite.
14. How meaningful is it for you that Haunted Painting is your first release on your own label, Wax Nine?
I initially wanted to keep Wax Nine separate from my own music and have been really psyched to use the label to work with Melkbelly, Miranda Winters, Johanna Warren, the Adam Schlesinger tribute compilation, and all the poets we publish! Since I did so much myself on this record, though, it felt right to see it to the end on my own label. Also, my mom did the front cover portrait, and Wax Nine is named for her pen name when she worked at Punk Magazine. So that’s meaningful to me as well.
15. Which of your new habits developed during quarantine do you think will persist when it is over?
I’ve already long since given up on making meals that take three hours and video barre classes, for better or worse. This is by far the most time I’ve spent off the road since 2012 and I wouldn’t mind scheduling future tours with a little more sensitivity to my mental and physical health. Once you’re in the habit of traveling 10 months of the year, it’s hard to remember that there are so many benefits to sleeping in your own bed at regularly scheduled hours, but it’s true! So I hope the habit of “having downtime” sticks.
16. You’ve been tweeting about binge-watching The O.C. during quarantine. Who’s your favorite character?
All of the children are bad except for Sadie — but do I only think that because I am also named Sadie? Sandy Cohen is mostly unimpeachable. Julie Cooper has shown tremendous character growth. Again, the teens are all awful.
17. What’s your karaoke go-to?
Squeeze is always a good one! I got to duet with Liz Phair to “Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)” in Toronto a couple years ago, maybe a karaoke career highlight. Also very into “Sunny Came Home.”
18. What movie, or song, always makes you cry?
I’m not a big media crier (unless a couple breaks up and then gets back together in a TV show, other than Seth and Summer, who I do not care about). Sammus’ “1080p” gets me live every time, to the point that when we play shows together, I just don’t bother doing very elaborate eye makeup because I know it’ll get f–ked up with tears.
19. How do you plan to spend the day that Haunted Painting is released?
If I want to stay on haunted brand, I might take a walk through the Woodlands, a really amazing 54-acre “pleasure garden” and cemetery in my neighborhood. There are lots of woodchucks there and it rules. Either way, I really hope I’m not staring at my phone all day, although I fear the worst!
20. What’s one piece of advice you would give to your younger self?
I didn’t really start watching TV until I was around 21. If I could have watched Veronica Mars in real time… I can’t even imagine how positive that would’ve been. Younger self, you should do less homework and watch more TV.