Speedy Ortiz interview: Sadie Dupuis delves into Twerp Verse, issues of consent, the Democratic Party, Jane The Virgin and more
Last week Speedy Ortiz released their third album, Twerp Verse, an album that took longer than expected due to the rapidly changing political climate in America (and beyond). After the election of President Trump, Speedy Ortiz – led by the outspoken and politically conscious Sadie Dupuis - felt they needed to make more of a statement with their next record, and this headed back into the studio to remake their album into something they were proud of and felt was meaningful at a time like this.
The resulting album is the most musically and lyrically dense and complex that Speedy Ortiz have put out to date. Even after half a dozen listens you wouldn’t have noticed the full breadth of the messages in the words and the tiny moments of aural wizardry augmented by mix engineer Mike Mogis. We called up Sadie Dupuis in her home of Philadelphia to get the scoop on the many levels and messages embedded in Twerp Verse, which naturally led to conversations about consent, the disappointing Democratic Party, and Jane The Virgin.
So first I have to know about this "scrapped album" - did absolutely nothing make it to Twerp Verse?
I feel like people are making it so much more dramatic than it actually is. Some of the songs did make it, and I'm sure that we're gonna release the rest of them as b-sides. We already have plans to release a lot of them. It's not like those songs are going in the trash, they're good and obviously we like them enough to have thought to have put them on a record, but as it goes sometimes these album making processes take such a lengthy portion of your year that where you were when you first started writing and recording is just not what you care about at the other side of it. So we started rehearsing all this stuff I guess probably about two years ago, we recorded it maybe 5 months later, but even by the time we were recording it so much of my thinking had sort of been preoccupied by this election. Not only the election and the rise of Trump, but disappointment in the Democratic Party which I've been registered to for over a decade, and I was sort of writing a lot about that and obviously thinking about these issues every day, and by the time of the election, when I really hadn't anticipated the result of electing someone who just stands for bigotry, was when I was in the album cycle for Sad13 and singing these songs onstage every night that are about consent and equality and queerness. I felt the Speedy Ortiz record, as we'd recorded it, didn't really say anything or stand for anything, and that's not a good way to feel about your own record. So while we really liked the songs, we really wanted to do something that just had a meaning, and I think what we came out with does.
What are the big things that you want people to take away from this record?
Every song has its own little world and spiel, but I think a lot of the record is just about trying to hold on to optimism and stay engaged when the world feels so sad and foreign and overwhelming. So that was why the record, in terms of its production, it sounds more pop and optimistic than some of the previous Speedy Ortiz stuff, even though the subject matter is perhaps more serious. So we want people to feel inspired and feel engaged, but not let go of the realities of how messed up things are.
You worked with Mike Mogis on this album, how did he come into it?
Yes! We've been in touch with Mogis for years about doing a record. We became friends, probably three years ago, and I obviously am such a big fan of his. Maybe that's not an obvious thing, but my holy trinity when I was in 9th and 10th grade were Bright Eyes, Cursive and Rilo Kiley, and I would order by mail Saddle Creek records. He was the first producer that I remember knowing the name of, so it was really very cool that we found out he was a fan of Speedy, and had invited us to come see his studio, and now every time we go through Omaha we stay with him.
So we'd been wanting to do this record for a few years and the timing didn't really work out for him to record it, but we were able to carve out some time for him to mix it. It's the longest time I've ever spent in Omaha, normally I'm there for one or two nights, and we were there for close to three weeks. He's obviously a thorough producer, but working with him as a mix engineer was so much more involved than any mixing process we've gone through; he really pays attention to the tiniest thing. For me, someone who's an aspiring producer, it was really educational to see what kind of things he picks up on. Lyrics really matter to him in a way that I don't think they always do to producers, especially when they're strictly focused on the mixing. He's automating every word so that everything's audible, and just thinking very hard about the tone choices we made and how he can improve upon them. He has such an amazing assortment of gear that he's collected over his however-many years of producing stuff, so that was really fun, to see what cool toys he'd be putting my guitars through on this particular track or day. So, yeah, only amazing things to say about Mogis, I really hope that we get to do a record from start to finish with him, maybe next time around. And what a childhood dream accomplished it was to do anything with him.
That's awesome to hear, because I've been a big fan of him for a long time as well.
Oh my god, just the nicest. I mean you never know with people you've admired from such a young age what they're gonna be like, but he's just the sweetest person, so brilliant and so nice. The best combination.
Yeah! And I didn't know mixing could take three weeks...
I did not either! [Laughs] But honestly, he was "mixing," but he was doing a lot of production as well. We haven't really worked with someone in a stereotypical producer role, but he was adding things and subtracting things. It really sounds completely different from how it did before he came on board. It was mixing plus.
Tell me about the album cover for Twerp Verse, which like the others, you made yourself.
I'm sitting right next to it! I have always done our album art and it's a pretty involved process because there's a lot of sewing and embroidery and incorporating of objects into canvas, which takes forever. I'm trying to eyeball the size, I'm so bad at this kind of thing, it's about 8 feet by 4 feet. It was really fun to work on; there's incense painted into it, there's false eyelashes painted into it, scraps of paper and notes, there's nails in it and rope, twine, matches, and then these paintings of this double headed mermaid sitting on a couch drinking coffee. Then there's this neat cowboy hat sign, there's a store in Omaha near Mogis' that has that sign.
As we were working on the album I was thinking about the lyrical themes, and a lot of it is about maintaining optimism in the face of this horrifying world, and how you can kind of do that with a sense of humour. Also there's these bright nods to what I view as the fun parts of American culture, like country music when it's not bigoted, mysticism which is the incense and the matches... yeah, that was sort of how it came together. It took a while to paint, and I'm really happy with it.
Awesome! Now let's talk about some of the lyrics. Firstly, I've looked at a lot of lyric sheets before, but I've never seen one that looks more like prose than poetry, is that your style?
I'm glad that's what you got, sometimes when people send it out they break it up, they lineate it, and I hate that. I think it looks really cool as prose. When I'm writing them out I tend to do it that way so I can get a sense of if anything is redundant, how the words are looking together on the page, would this be fun to read on its own divorced from the music. I much prefer to have them as prose blocks.
Cool! Why did you start with 'Buck Me Off'?
It's funny, when I wrote that song and showed it to my bandmates we were like "this sounds like the first song on a record." We hadn't even finished the record, but we knew it would be the first track. It sounds like a mission statement to me, it sets the tone for the rest of the record in a way.
Yeah! And is it targeted at any specific people?
Erm, no, I think it's sort of about how especially women are socialised to be nice and smile and help men through their discomfort, and sometimes that's not the best approach when you have something to say. When you're trying to enact change honey isn't always the best approach and you gotta act a little vinegary, even if that has you labelled as a “bitch” or “harsh” or whatever. So it's sort of about how sometimes there's radical softness and that's very important and has its place, but when you're mad sometimes you have to just be mad.
Cool. And it's also empowering, it's good to be mad.
Exactly, to not be afraid of the aspects of your personality that are "evil," because at least when you're doing work that's good sometimes those are the parts of you that get shit done.
Cool. I might just quote certain lines and you don't have to explain them, it’s just appreciation.
"I was kissing the grime with my trigger finger in the sunrise."
Oh yeah, I'm proud of that one! I think that's sort of the same optimism, hoping for a better world. "Kissing the grime," you're sort of married to these disgusting circumstances, "with a trigger finger in the sunrise" like you're shooting towards something more beautiful and new and better.
And the "whatever happened to what we used to do" - what is "what we used to do" in this instance?
Just like, do better [Laughs]. I guess that's kind of a naïve lyric, but when you look around at the world and the circumstances seem really foreign to you, perhaps you didn't expect there to be quite so many Nazis still, I guess that's sort of what I meant.
And it kind of just sounds like a classic nostalgic rock line.
There's some of that too. This record is maybe less of the riff rock that we've done in the past, and the first song is sort of more in that vein than a lot of the rest of the record. I always think of - and I can't believe I'm about to cite them - Radiohead, on Hail To The Thief, the first song on that record, '2+2=5', starts with the sound of them plugging in the guitar, and then the rest of the record is not a heavy rock record at all, but it's like a joke of a return to form of OK Computer. So I think maybe in this way, this song sort of feels like that. "Whatever happened to what we used to do?", it's on the first track, but maybe not the rest of the record.
Well 'Lean In When I Suffer' is a bit riffy as well.
Sure, but I think it's drawing more from other places. There's synths all over it, it's very disjointed, we're not really getting into a rock groove with it. We're pulling from bands like Deerhoof or Palm, bands that are consciously playing with the form of rock.
Is 'Lean In When I Suffer' about you or about people you know?
It's a lot of us. I think most of the experiences that I may be complaining about can be fairly recognisable to others. Especially those of us who really are trying to learn and do better, and you'd hope that everyone wants to learn and do better and be a better community member and listener to the people that they purport to ally. But then sometimes you find yourself explaining things over and over again to someone who just doesn’t get it. You're like "you can crack open a book, why am I sitting here trying to explain intersectional feminism to you when all the same books I've read are very readily available."
"I'm checking my phone but I don't wanna talk/ Don't wanna lop-side my language."
[Laughs] The most lop-sided line ever. It’s like when you're perhaps angry or frustrated at someone for the reasons I mentioned, and you just need to disengage for a second. The anger that I said was good in the first track isn't always the best way to educate someone who theoretically is on your side. So I guess it's like looking at your phone but not responding, not engaging for a moment because you need to lean in when you're suffering, rather than just being like "why the fuck can't you read some Audre Lord?"
Next up is 'Lucky 88' - why was this the first you wanted to release as a single?
It just seems like it is the most different from what we've done before. This felt like the first single to us when we were working on it. It's very fun and pop, but also crystallises the messages that seem important from the rest of the record.
And were you born in 88?
I sure was!
Hey, me too!
Yeah? Nice, so this song's for you too. Us and Kacey Musgraves; the first song on the new record she's like "born in a hurry, always late/ haven't been early since 88," I think. I could relate pretty hard, because I too was born prematurely in 1988.
Have you had your 30th yet?
Not yet, I have 3 months left of my 20s. Have you?
Yeah, mine was in January.
How you feeling?
Good, actually. I feel like my 30s are gonna be better than my 20s.
Yeah I'm kinda psyched. I'm definitely getting better with age. At least my brain is.
Nice, are you gonna have a party?
Hell no. Oh my god, I never do. I kind of don't like leaving the house if I'm off tour. In an ideal world I will go have a nice dinner and then go see a movie and then go to sleep at 11 o'clock. [Laughs] So boring!
Alright, do what you gotta do! 'Can I Kiss You?' does not do what the title suggests, it's like the complete opposite... is this the least romantic song you've written?
I'm not sure any of them are romantic at all, but yeah it's definitely playing with that trope. When I was writing it I was definitely thinking of the sort of rom com trope. I should first and foremost say that I love rom coms, I especially love rom coms that subvert drama. On TV I'm a huge, huge fan of The Mindy Project and Jane The Virgin, which have female protagonists and definitely don't lean into that trope of “the man doesn't get the woman right away so he keeps trying incessantly until she says yes,” and that's supposed to be romance. So I think this song is taking apart that trope.
Rom coms are something that comes up in 'Backslidin'' as well: "seeing you is the highlight in a saccharine movie I have to keep on mute."
[Laughs] I watch a tremendous amount of TV and movies. It's disgusting really.
Do you have any particular favourites?
It's funny, I don't think I liked them until recently. I try to watch the good ones. One that I recently really liked, I don't know if it's strictly a rom com, but I really loved The Incredible Jessica James, which is a Jessica Williams Netflix movie. I like that rom coms are becoming way more interesting and we have more complicated women leading them and they can pass the Bechdel test now.
Is 'Backslidin'' based on a real relationship?
I guess it's sort of a stand-in for any bad habit. I tend to put a lot of songs that aren't necessarily about love or relationships into that kind of language because it's easy language to tap into when you're writing a song, but I think it's more about when you have any kind of bad habit that you know isn't good for you, but you still kind of cling to, and trying to not be angry at yourself for that because we're all just people. It's OK to be a little bit self-destructive once in a while.
Cool. And I really like "swapping sweat in a steam room, you transformed into beast form."
Yeah I like to do horror tropes.
Yeah, there was a lot of horror on the previous album. I feel like the horror on this one is more based in reality.
I think our first record I was all about the witch imagery; spells and demons and stuff like that. It still works its way into the music once in a while, but you don't really need to rely on those metaphors when every day reading the news is like finding out about some other demon.
Which brings us on to 'Villain'...
Yeah. Oh god... the ever-present villain.
This one dovetails nicely with 'Get A Yes' from your Sad13 record.
Yeah, and it's funny because this song predates that song in terms of when it was written. I wrote 'Villain' in 2014, but because it's about being a survivor of assault I just wasn't ready to talk about that on a public level, for understandable reasons. But I think the conversation about being a survivor has really changed in the past four years. We had recorded this for this record and had planned to release it before the #MeToo movement, but I think it was just that finally people are realising that they shouldn't blame themselves and that this is an epidemic that's widespread in our culture. One in five - probably more - women have experienced assault, so I think the more people talk about these issues that they've had, the more people realise that they're not alone. I think that's so important for people, letting go of their own shame when they experience assault. And also for people who have perpetrated assault unknowningly, because they didn't know about consent. So I think it's really incredible that people are sharing their stories. I tried to do it in a way that is not explicit and hopefully not triggering in that way, which I think for a lot of survivors reading other people's #MeToo stories has been, because they are so explicit. But yeah, I'm happy that we put this song out finally.
And 'Get A Yes' I wrote two years after this one and I really wanted to talk about not so much when consent is violated, but how important and exciting it is to give and receive consent. So I think it's a conversation that needs both halves; it needs the positivity and excitement that is affirmative consent, and also people need to share their stories so that others can realise that it's not about you, there's nothing you ever did wrong, it's just how bad we were as a culture at talking about consent up to this point.
There have been some other songs around this topic coming out recently, the one that sticks in my mind is 'The Face Of God' by Camp Cope...
Yeah, absolutely. When I heard that song I was like… it's a really amazing song. And I think it's so interesting because album cycles take so long, I'm sure they wrote that song well before the #MeToo movement, I'm sure that was slated for release well before it, and I think it's interesting, the timing of it. Not just women, but people who have experienced assault, collectively being ready to share their stories, and that snowballing into this movement.
Yeah, I spoke to Camp Cope too, and they did write it before the #MeToo movement, but they said the same thing; as this movement picks up steam it's getting more comfortable to share these songs.
The next track 'I'm Blessed' makes an interesting pairing with 'Villain'.
Yeah, they're very much tied to each other. I think whereas 'Villain' is written much closer to the perspective of reconciling with yourself that you're a survivor. I think for a lot of people who have experienced assault, the first impulse is to deny what happened and try to normalise it, because you don't want to feel shame, and sometimes it takes people years to realise what they have survived; for me that was the case and that was sort of what 'Villain' was about. Whereas 'I'm Blessed' was written in 2017, so I had had quite a few years to have those conversations I told you about, connecting with your community and realising you're not alone, and that this is so widespread and prevalent, so 'I'm Blessed' is sort of about finding your power and sharing your story and realising that you're not alone.
You characterise yourself as a witch in this, do you do that because...
Because I love doing that so much [Laughs] and because I am one.
But it's because people still see strong women as something unusual...
Yes, very much. And when people share their stories about this I think there's often a push back that they receive. I think that's exactly why I went for that particular metaphor.
We've been talking mostly about the lyrics, but I want to mention how amazing the dark rock out bit is in this song.
Thank you, I am so psyched! That's my favourite ten seconds on the album I think.
Have you played it much?
Yeah, we started doing it at SXSW in March, kind of unsure as to how it would go because there's so many [elements]; it's really a rock song, but there's a lot of synths that I think have crucial melodies, but we're not doing it that way, we're doing it as a straight up rock song. Especially that loud section in the middle, which when we're rehearsing I'm like "the metal section" and my bandmates don't know what I'm talking about because it's not metal at all, but the part that I'm playing in there feels very much like a stoner metal line. It's really, really fun to play.
On 'Sport Death' the word "clan" comes up for the second time on the album, is that an ironic usage?
Yeah, very much. This is another song that's from the original version of the record, and it's really taking to task the Democratic Party than anything else. Particularly there was this moment where Black Lives Matter had an action at a Hillary Clinton rally, and she dismissed them and wouldn't let them speak, and I think a lot of us who are "progressive" or left-leaning democrats were aghast at this. Who we want as a political leader at this point is someone who has at the centre of their policies listening to under-represented voices who have been utterly fucked over with this legacy of white supremacy in this country. So it was very much a reaction to people brushing aside Black Lives Matter as not a legitimate movement, where to me it's crucial and has leaders that are making a change in this country. So that was what the song was about, people saying "vote for this centrist democrat and everything will be OK," whereas in reality the policies weren't there to protect people other than those who had already been protected.
This line "My opponent pawns his purpose, pugnacious skirting that ends in partisan flirting," can you actually sing that without messing it up?
Oh, it's really hard. I tried to do a Fiona Apple thing where she can rattle off a bunch of words really quick, but I'm a little more slow-moving than she is, I think! It's not easy, especially when playing that guitar part. I can do it, but it's not very graceful.
But you must have been happy when you wrote it?
Oh yeah, I think it's awesome.
Is 'Alone With The Girls' one that came after Trump?
No, this one's old too. But it is about trusting women. I think it's celebratory of female friendships. It's not too complicated.
"To find a big pink boulder I could claim alone for life," is a really fun image.
Thanks! I studied poetry and did a Masters in poetry and taught it, so people are always like "what's the difference between a poem and a song? Are they the same for you?" and they're such different writing processes for me, but maybe twice ever have I taken a line from a poem I scrapped, and this is the second time I've done that.
That's the exact line, yeah.
Wow, interesting, what was the poem about?
I don't even remember, it wasn't good, but that line was, so I had it sitting in my notes on my iPhone forever, and when I was working on this song I was like "I gotta put this in somehow."
Cool. And "Caterwaul to the window and back with a poison well for a bubble bath," is another really fun one.
Yes, that's a 'Get Low' reference. You know "to the window, to the wall."
What's the sample at the start of 'Moving In'?
Oh it's so amazing! We taped it off the radio, it was a call-in show that I think was Christian, but people were calling in about their demonic possessions and stuff like that, so we were losing our minds at how amazing this AM radio thing that we found was. So I recorded quite a bit and then when we were working on this song it seemed like a cool sample to interweave.
Does it have anything to do with the song itself?
This is like the only love song on the record, and I think demonic possession has a lot to do with love, so...
Interesting, care to expand on that?
Oh no, I think I've said enough.
Fair enough. Why did you decide to put this one truly lovey dovey song on the album?
I just think it's good, I don't know! I think that there's maybe some importance to having nice things and calm things when the rest of the world is such shit. This song is funny, I had written it for Speedy and then I was trying to do it for the Sad13 record and it wasn't working for that; I tried to do the song a number of ways. We started working on the song together and it felt right. We just like the song, nothing more complicated than that.
It finishes with 'You Hate The Title', was this always going to be the last song?
Yeah, because to me it's like a joke ending song. It's so saccharine in a way that most of the record isn't, and it's really short and to the point and it seemed appropriate for a last track.
Every time I finish the album this song is stuck in my head.
Oh good, I guess that's the point. It's funny, when we were picking singles, everybody wanted that - not the band, but everyone we work with wanted that to be a single, but to me it's like comedy music. I'm so happy it's there and that it's the last song and that it leaves this positive but sarcastic note in your mouth, because I think that's the tone of the record, but it was never going to be a single [Laughs].
But it does have a strong point to make.
Sure. I guess it's about tone policing. People who have an important message and are trying to share it, but are then get these criticisms like "she said it in too harsh a way, so no one's gonna listen." I guess that's what it's sort of about. It's done through the metaphor of talking about music.
So we've finished with the album...
Yeah, I can't believe it! I haven't thought about all of these songs in a row since we sequenced it!
Were there any books or articles that made an impression on you while you were making the album?
It's hard for me to totally remember because I read a lot, and this was written over a longer period of time than normal. Foil Deer I mostly wrote in a two, three week period, same deal with the Sad13 record, so it's easy for me to point to one particular month and say. But with this one, as I said, some of the songs date back to 2014. It's kind of written over a three-year period, so one that I think of a lot that's not a novelist but a comic artist, Aline Crumb, who does these self-portraits in a grotesque way that are kind of funny, but it enables her to get at these really real issues, like her self-image and insecurities, especially as a female comic artist at a time when there really weren't any, and sort of constantly being compared to her husband, R. Crumb. So I really love the tone with which she delivers her stories, there's a brightness to them even though she's talking about some really dark stuff a lot of the time; so I think it's not necessarily the subject matter of what she's writing about, but the style in which she tells it really informs this record, where it's sort of a really bright and bubbly record, but using that to deliver serious sentiments.
And even if it's not an influence, is there anything at all you would compel people to read?
I read the Alice Bag book which was unbelievably good. I've read a lot of punk memoirs where women are definitely in the scene, but aren't the primary authors, definitely not like this. It really was so interesting and affecting to me, some of the issues that are the same and also how much has changed. I saw her at SXSW and I went up to her and was such a loser and was like "this book is so important to me." She's such a phenomenal performer and musician, but I think it's rare when someone's also really great at telling their story in this way. So that was my most recent favourite thing. It's called Violence Girl: East LA Rage to Hollywood Stage, a Chicana Punk Story.
WARNING: We talk about Jane The Virgin from this point, with some spoilers (up to Season 4 Episode 16, which was the most recent episode at the time of the interview)
And, completely irrelevant, but you brought up Jane The Virgin earlier, which I also love, so how are you feeling about...
Everything that's happening?! I know there's been some push back on this season, but I love how queer this season is. Well I don't want to give spoilers but...
I won't publish this...
I mean, you should! Because I think a lot of what the show does is what I was trying to do on this record, which is incept the galvanising political message into something that's bright and sweet.
I love how often immigration reform is referenced by the narrator in the show, and also Alba's whole journey. But yeah, this season is super queer! There's a whole episode about bi-phobia, which is titled ‘Jane The Heteronormative’; it kind of blew my mind. I think the CW shows in general are pretty good at representation and being inclusive, but to have an episode titled ‘Jane The Heteronormative’ on a prime time TV show was amazing to me. And I fucking love Petra as a bi woman!
Me too, and they're a great couple!
Oh my god, I mean I'll watch Rosario Dawson do anything. It's such a treat to have her in my current favourite show.
And how about Rafael and Jane, is that going to last?
I mean, I feel like it can't forever, or there wouldn't be enough telanovela drama, but I do like Rafael. Obviously I was Team Michael, but it's nice that I get to be Team Both-Of-Them, in a weird way.
Everything's too perfect with them at the moment, apart from the money stuff.
I love that Rafael is no longer wealthy, because I think that gets rid of a lot of easy plot stuff that his massive wealth could solve before. So Rafael working a job, I really like that. I'm so glad that you watch this show because I bring it up all the time and not everyone watches it and I think everyone should.
It's hard to sell people on it.
I don't know why. I don't know why I didn't watch it right away, because I had seen the pilot and thought "this looks awesome", but I have so many shows that I'm always trying to keep up with that I wasn't ready to go back into a whole new thing, and now that I have I'm addicted.
I think it's because on the surface it seems like candy TV, and it's so much more.
Yeah. To me it really reminds me of Arrested Development, but it's politicised in a way that I of course love. And it's like, nice! It's like if Arrested Development were nice.
I hadn't thought of the Arrested Development comparison, but I guess the interaction with the narrator...
The narrator and the recurring jokes that just go on from season to season. I think that they share a lot of DNA.
Speedy Ortiz’s Twerp Verse is out now on Carpark Records.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 4th May 2018.