Are Vikings Even Real?: A Conversation With Sadie Dupuis
While many know Dupuis as the bandleader of Speedy Ortiz, the angles of her new project, Sad13, are provocative, unexpected, and maybe just what we need right now.
In the wake of Donald Trump's extraordinarily offensive comments about women and the resulting coverage, one phrase from my recent conversation with Sadie Dupuis (she of Speedy Ortiz fame, now with a solo LP, Slugger, under the name "Sad13") rung in my mind: "It's a privilege to be able to talk to someone, it's not a right."
Throughout Slugger Dupuis tackles myriad important topics with this same level of succinct insight: quick, even catchy phrases that would read as well on a sign as it sounds over fuzzy guitars and even the occasional synth. Though we discussed the influence of her mathematics background, her poetry MFA shines throughout, as on one of my favorite lyrical moments of the album, she drops the word "acuity" early in opener "Less Than 2", showcasing her ability to choose le mot juste.
Slugger brings her ability to pair an addicting hook with verses of substance, while the backing instrumentation never overpowers but instead complements the lyrics with the proper mood. Early singles "Less Than 2" and "Get a Yes" distinguish this well, with the former, as she revealed to Brooklyn Vegan, is about finding balance and a singular self, whereas the latter has been well-covered for its unique status as an anthem dedicated to getting consent. Elsewhere on the album, various musical styles show up, from the quick punk guitars of "Line Up" to the video game synths of "Just a Friend". Slugger is one of those album that, while having something for everybody, also contains a singular vision at its core.
PopMatters' conversation with Sadie traipsed from the Oulipo school to the aforementioned Vikings, from music recommendations traded back and forth to the important messages found within her forthcoming album.
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Your poetry MFA is, for good reason, frequently talked about when discussing your songwriting. But you started out as a math major, as well; does that background influence your songwriting as well?
I feel like an interest in seeing patterns informed how I started writing both music and poetry. I'm very interested in changing time signatures, just some of the compositional stuff doesn't get more attention than structure. So I do think that having a background in math at least makes you keen to seeing certain kinds of numerical patterns that maybe someone with a different background playing music might not be keen to.
Even when I first started writing poetry, I was very interested in hiding numerical messages that I don't really gravitate towards much in poetry anymore, but definitely in music I'm always thinking "What will it do to make the song exciting?" -- if there's like some pattern to the count, structural stuff that I hope no one notices, but if someone does, I'm really excited. It's the kind of thing where I'm like, "Okay, the first time it happens it'll be four, the next time three, the next time two, and it'll count back up."
Going back to putting numerical references in writing, one of the books I'm currently reading is A Void by Georges Perec, and it's from the Oulipo group --
Yeah, I love that school! I used to love trying to get away with following those kinds of hidden rules for a project and not revealing the constraint. Actually, I used to teach a songwriting class at a summer camp that was sort of an artist's colony. I would teach a songwriting class where the students would write a song in an hour and we would come up, as a class, with a constraint for the song -- so, it might be using the time signature 5/4, or the lyrics might have to mention donuts, or the vocal melody stays mostly at one note. So everyone would write songs with a constraint and if you were to hear the songs, you might not notice the constraint. The first Speedy Ortiz songs were written that way, as well.
You moved to Philadelphia recently, which Stereogum called in 2015 "the unexpected capital of American rock music." How has the city affected your solo work?
There's so many great bands there and so many inspiring songwriters, and obviously being around people whose work you admire inspires you to do better in your own work or try things you might not have considered. There's so many bands in Philly right now that I'm really excited by that you can't help but feel excited to work on your own projects, too. Like The Spirit of the Beehive I think is amazing, Ursula from Boston just moved there, and Old Maybe is great; and then also the bands that everyone knows. I feel like going to the grocery store is like a "Who's Who" of indie rock in 2016.
The closing song on Slugger features rapper Sammus, and you've noted your love of Nicki Minaj in the past along with working on a song with Lizzo. Do you have more plans to work with rappers in the future?
I'm always happy to work with all kinds of musicians. I don't personally rap, but I listen to a lot of it, so it's cool that I'm afforded the opportunity to get to work with musicians I really admire. I was a big fan of Lizzo well before we worked together, and the same was true of Sammus. So it's exciting that someone who's played in rock bands forever, like me, who's also a fan of other kinds of music now sort of gets to branch out into areas of which I've been a fan for so long. But I can't rap at all. [laughs] But I'd be happy to produce: it's been fun to work on this project because I've never really produced anything before, but it's got me thinking that it'd be fun to make beats with other people. I have a dream list of rappers I'd love to work with.
Do you want to share any of that?
We did a song with Doomtree, and I got to meet all those people and that was really cool, 'cause I really like a lot of those rappers, like P.O.S and I love Dessa. Jean Grae would be so cool; huge fan of hers.
How do you feel about Young M.A.?
I don't know Young M.A!
Oh, you don't know Young M.A.?! Have you heard the song "OOOUUU" that came out? It's absolutely phenomenal, highly recommend.
I'll check it out! The record that I'm most excited to come out this year is Tkay Maidza. She had this song out two years ago called "U-Huh", my whole band was obsessed with the song, and we would always put it on before we went on stage. And she just had a new song with Killer Mike ["Carry On"] that is so good! She's my number one choice to collab, I'll say that, so that she knows how much I love her. She's got this cool style, her rhythm is so unique, I just love her. And her videos are really cool, too! Some of them are animated. She's just the full package.
Speaking of videos, you said, with regards to the video for "Less Than 2", that you were letting a lot of the looks be "Art-for-art's sake". Slugger, however, seems a lot to be Art for the sake of important messages. What's your mindset in balancing Art for the sake of itself and Art with a greater purpose?
Well, I think that the video for "Less Than 2", there was sort of a message involved that tied in with the song: it was about a person's physical appearance not determining their character. Specifically, the song is more about the toxicity of gender assumptions dictating character, not letting other people's ignorance play into how you represent yourself. With that said, we did a bunch of different looks and the idea's that it's the same person under all of them; how you choose to present yourself is not any bearing on who you are intellectually or ethically. So, wanting to represent that, we also, there were certain things we wanted to see happen, like gluing a bagel to my head or having a rainbow beard, I would consider those "Art-for-art's-sake", but also tied in with the theme of the song.
I think all art is a balance of that: Art-for-art's-sake is really just your aesthetic preferences, and ideally, art is most exciting to me when the aesthetic preferences are interesting but also align with something that's important.
[A discussion of Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly as an example of the above art discussed ensued. From here, this led to another music recommendation from Sadie.]
Have you heard the Xenia Rubinos album [Black Terry Cat]?
That album is -- I feel the way I feel about her album the way I did about Kendrick's album last year in that it covered so much ground musically, but the message is so important, and also it's fun. So to be covering serious topics, life-or-death topics, you know, topics in which your identity is causing you to thrive or not, she's really taking these things apart in an interesting lyrical way, but it's also a pastiche of so many different genres. I really recommend her record.
You were saying her album tackles very important topics, and a lot of Slugger tackles very important topics. One point of reference I had for "Get a Yes" was Meghan Trainor's "No", because that song was all about being able to tell guys "No". What's the importance of the opposite message, being able to tell people the affirmative?
I haven't heard the Meghan Trainor song so I can't weigh in there.
The hook basically goes [I then proceeded to speak the entirety of the hook to "No"].
That's pretty cool! That's a good hook. But I think, you don't want to spend your entire life denying things. I think they're different subjects. Being able to set boundaries and, more importantly, other people understanding that they don't have a right -- it's a privilege to be able to talk to someone, it's not a right. I think the message of that song is to respect other people's boundaries, whereas I think "Get a Yes" is about navigating boundaries where you can forge relationships in a way that's comfortable for everyone.
"Just a Friend" is a song about, well, just having a friend. Was this a conscious response to the Biz Markie song, or was it borne out of something else?
Yes, it's a conscious response to the Biz Markie song. [laughs]
In the song, too, you repeat "Objectify these boys". Is this your way of reclaiming the objectifying phenomenon where it's most frequently referred to as men objectifying women?
Yeah, if you're gonna do it, do it universally. I mean it's sort of tongue-in-cheek, like, no one should be objectified. I think the idea is -- I guess I object to the gendered nature of it. So often it's obviously in the direction of men doing it to women, but, sometimes also women are objectified by being distrusted and their friendships with men are distrusted, and it's basically a way of viewing people as sexual property based on their gender; that's the point behind that line: that the gender of two people of a friendship -- it's exceedingly heteronormative to extrapolate that that dictates a sexual connotation.
If somebody came to your city and you had to tell them one place to go, where would it be?
I have a thing in Boston a lot. It's called the Norumbega Viking Tower. It was built as a tribute to this historian who posits that Vikings discovered Boston via the Charles River, so it's a tower built to commemorate [laughs] the Vikings who discovered Boston.
I never knew that Vikings lay claim to having discovered Boston.
I think there's a lot of debate: the veracity of the Viking story is debatable. But the tower is very real.
It seems like most everything with Vikings is debatable. I was reading about the Lewis chessmen -
Are Vikings even real? Are they?
I now have a subtitle for the interview.