Sadie Dupuis, songwriter and guitarist for ascendant Massachusetts rockers Speedy Ortiz, drinks more green tea these days than booze or even coffee. “I’m pretty straitlaced,” she says over a cup in a Midtown Manhattan café, “and I’m trying not to go crazy on the tea today.”
This sensible attitude may fly in the face of stereotypes about hard-living rockstars, but then Dupuis and her band aren’t your typical mid-2010s rock band. After making waves with 2013’s Major Arcana and constant touring, the band has readied a new record, Foil Deer, that ranks as one of the most anticipated guitar records of the last several years. Speedy Ortiz makes unapologetically thorny, tangled rock music struck through with a golden pop thread, all anchored by Dupuis’s remarkably imagistic, poetic lyrics. Dupuis represents an inventive, original voice in a sea of dull, soundalike guitar bands, and people are justifiably paying much attention to her next move. But if there’s the added burden of greater expectations for the new record, she’s not sweating it.
“To some extent,” she says, “I think the biggest pressure was that this is our job now, so we had deadlines that were self-imposed. And we funded ourselves from shows we’d played, so it was a very different experience. These songs were written in a month, instead of a year-and-a-half [with Major Arcana].” But another distinction in the material Foil Deer came to light after Arcana took off and sent the band to bigger and bigger venues on the road: “The other pressure was realizing that these songs were personal, and I didn’t expect them to have a broader reach beyond me and my friends, so I’d get sort of trapped playing these things I didn’t want to play anymore. So, that changed what I choose to write about.”
Foil Deer‘s lead single, “Raising the Skate”, gives a solid introduction to Dupuis’s shift in subject matter. Over a twisted riff, Dupuis declares, “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss, / Shooter, not the shot.” The song sees Dupuis reclaiming language typically used to slur confident women or women in positions of power (how often do you hear a man called “bossy?”) to fashion an undeniable anthem of self-empowerment.
Contrasting the song with her band’s previous material, she explains, “Writing about a breakup is something I’ve done, but these kinds of experiences are more harmful for more people, and I guess if I’m going to talk about something awful and encourage others to talk about it, then I’d rather go bigger.” She speaks to a “big feminist renaissance in rock music in the last few years,” noting figures like Pitchfork Managing Editor Jess Hopper as contributing to our current climate of “the first time people are taking women seriously who talk about sexism, and people are finally comfortable speaking out about it without being labeled ‘bitchy’ or ‘reactive.'”
Speaking of her own experiences with sexism, she compares her opportunities with those of other women: “I viewed myself as outside of sexism, but it’s there … and I’d always grown up with a lot of it, even since I was tiny. Growing up, I had a lot of male friends, and I held myself up to higher standards and didn’t consider my gender to be any kind of restraint. But I realized there isn’t traditionally a lot of space for women to enter into the kinds of spaces I’d been in. I studied at MIT for Math, I worked in music journalism. I was fine competing against men and didn’t feel the need to be held to any other standard, but not everyone can act so boldly, and women have been excluded from these types of spaces.”
And she’s seen firsthand how a culture of machismo in the indie scene has begun to give way to one borne of a concern for equality. “I used to go to house shows in Boston,” she says, “and there’d be women, but not too many. And it would get to the point where even I’d get [physically] aggressive, because that’s what’s expected. And even in the past five years, people are more about creating safe spaces and not getting violent. People are concerned about accessibility in venues, and that was never a conversation. There’s just a higher level of social awareness,” she says. “It’s great that an artform can open those kinds of dialogue.”
Dupuis, who maintains an active Twitter account and frequently contributes essays to The Talkhouse, recognizes the centrality of social media and blogging to the rise in opening channels for progressive discourse. “The internet’s been a huge factor in changing things,” she explains. “I don’t really do Tumblr, but I know that’s been tremendous. There’s more of a community for people to find now, and certainly there were fewer women writing in positions of power editorially in 2007 or so. That’s way more than talking about breakups,” she says, tying the conversation directly back to her new music. “You can’t talk about the songs without talking about the context of who’s allowed to make them.”
And as far as who’s allowed into her own songs, Dupuis has also reevaluated that criteria. When asked about her response to a fan shouting for Arcana‘s “No Below” at a recent NYC show where she said “I hate that song,” at the time, she has a clear answer. “That song is connected to a person who’s way too awful to deserve a nice song sung about them,” she says, laughing. “I have to reconcile the fact that other people have taken from that song what they will and that it belongs to them now, but I don’t have to like singing a nice song about someone who’s a psychotic jackass. So, that’s where we are: none of these new songs are about people who are awful. I don’t think bad people deserve my time anymore. I got a little older. Shitty people are wasting my time. Kick ’em out!”
She mentions other Foil Deer highlights like the awesome earworm “The Graduates” and heavy, lurching closer “Dvrk Wvrld” as songs similarly possessed of accepting one’s life, kicks and all, and “overcoming things that might be dragging you down.” Fittingly for a record with themes of perseverance and self-love, Deer seems more purely the record Dupuis wanted to make than anything in her previous discography. As with Speedy Ortiz’s past material, she wrote most of the music before bringing it to the band. “We arranged people’s individual parts together, but generally I come to the table with ideas about what everyone should be doing,” from drum parts to bass and guitar. She records ideas for melodies on her iPhone (“I’ll be driving around in traffic, and sometimes there are entire songs written up in these little twenty-second clips”) before demoing them in Garage Band. Lyrics typically come last: “I don’t generally start a lyrical idea and then try to apply it to music; the music is there, so how can I compliment it?” Once the songs were written, the band’s road-sharpened skills came further into play in the studio.
“I listened to the old record to get a sound comparison while mastering the new one,” Dupuis says, “and I hadn’t heard it in so long that we’re playing so many different parts live now. I play totally different guitar parts in many sections, and I’ve been singing it live a certain way for so long that I’d forgotten the originals’ melodies or timing.” She shrugs off these discrepancies. “The live version always seems to me like it should be a stripped down version of the studio recording, where I demo a lot of things and record them with extraneous instruments and always want to incorporate more than what’s available.”
In other words, Dupuis is both ambitious and grounded, a restless workaholic and a consistently self-reflective, generous personality: the perfect rockstar for our time. Reflecting on Speedy Ortiz in 2015, after personnel changes and endless touring and a veritable rewiring of her own mission statement as an artist, Dupuis says, simply “The band’s in a much better place now.” They’re likely looking up, as far as she can take them.