In Under The Influence, The A.V. Club asks a musician to pair three of their songs with a non-musical influence.
Sadie Dupuis has a way with words and a masters degree to prove it. Dupuis has put her masters of fine arts degree in poetry to use writing knotty, impressionistic lyrics for Speedy Ortiz, which fit well with the band’s heady indie rock. Now Dupuis is releasing a record as Sad13, a solo moniker that sees her exploring different sounds and textures throughout the course of Slugger. The A.V. Club spoke to Dupuis about what inspired three of the album’s tracks. Each one ended up having a cinematic tie-in, even if it was only applied to her songs in the most abstract way.
Sadie Dupuis: Do you know the actor Matt McGorry? He played Paul Newman’s character in that production. We had one scene together, and he was two or three years older than me. This was at summer camp. I feel like I was supposed to sell him something for the con—I forget what it was—but everybody had a huge crush on him. He worked at the camp canteen and sold ice cream. And I was like, “Oh, my god! It’s the cute guy that sells ice cream.” So that’s the other fun fact about the time I was in The Sting. Matt McGorry had a lead role in this summer camp production.
The A.V. Club: This summer camp production was a real star-making venture.
SD: Right? For some of us more than others.
AVC: So obviously the song is not really about that experience. What’s the correlation?
SD: This was a summer camp where I returned to teach at for many years. I ran their songwriting workshop, and they had me come and do three days of songwriting intensive workshops with some of the kids who wrote music. This camp is Montessori-style, so a lot of kids flake out on things they’ve committed to, and there’s no real accountability for that. Kids sign up to take a technical-level songwriting class, and then they won’t show up. I wrote this song in an hour in which a kid skipped out on a lesson. So I was at the scene of the crime, even.
AVC: A lot of the language you use in the song takes those crime tropes and adapts them to that situation.
SD: I like that kind of language. I think “minced the proceedings” is a funny way to say you embarrassed yourself in front of someone you’re trying to impress. A lot of it is about feeling awkward and uncomfortable and trying to move past that for the sake of having feelings for someone. But I certainly like using that kind of legalese jargon.
The way I wrote this record is that I had voice memos that had been on my phone for years. They might just be 10 seconds of me singing something, so a lot of the lines in this song came from that. “Apathetic, half pathetic” is something I sang into my phone, and I was like, “Cool. Gotta use that.” Some of the lines are just a pastiche of different voice memos throughout the years. So there’s not as much of a cohesive narrative to some of these than ones on Speedy Ortiz records. But you should just tell everyone it’s about how much I love Paul Newman.
AVC: Did making this record on your own give you the freedom to play around with the narrative structure of songs in a way that Speedy Ortiz songs don’t?
SD: Definitely. A lot of the scraps and bits and pieces I imagine as pop songs, which wouldn’t have worked with how Speedy’s been operating the last few years. There’s certain lines on the record that I had as voice memos from five years ago, and I never felt comfortable using them for Speedy. I just didn’t want to subject my bandmates to being in a band with those lyrics.
AVC: What were some of these lyrics?
SD: There’s one specifically where I say, repeatedly, “They still want to lick my asshole, man.” When my bandmates heard this record they were like, “Sick song. Glad that it’s not for Speedy.”
SD: Sometimes these songs come together very quickly, especially if I’m feeling strongly about something. I had seen this person that I’d been involved with years ago, and we’d gone to this diner, and it was late night and dramatic. But there’s an air of drama to any kind of late-night dining establishment. You get a lot of weirdos at a diner late at night, and I guess we were two of them. So I took that and used that to write about the experience of the relationship. But I pulled in lots of things that were a bit more visual cues than I normally use in a song. I talk about blowing bubbles and a water-gun fight in a parking lot. I tried to use fun, childlike images in a song that uses the word “narcotic” over and over again. It plays with that same thing I was saying about diners. There’s this Americana kitsch, and it’s surreal when you see someone getting shot up in a diner. And that gets used all the time. The last season of Fargo, that’s in the first episode. Filmmakers love to use that trope. I was excited to try to use that in a song.
AVC: You said it’s unique for you to use those visual elements in a song, but did you find it’s something you’d want to explore moving forward?
SD: I don’t think I’m a very narrative songwriter. Especially because I come from this background of having an MFA in poetry, so I’m interested in wordplay and how the words look on a page, less so than the words themselves. I’m more interested in how the words sound than what they’re evoking visually. I don’t wind up with very narrative songs a lot of the time, though I admire that kind of songwriting. This song is a bit different for me in that it does have so many of these specific images and does tell more of a story.
AVC: Is it weird to do something like this, where you’re asked to give stories to songs that are more open and impressionistic?
SD: I just don’t always have an answer. I read an interview with Angel Olsen recently where she was like, when the record’s done she listens to it on a plane and writes down notes about what she thinks it’s about based on how it sounds. Because I think, similar to her, the songs come very quickly. Maybe you’re processing all these feelings that you haven’t come to terms with quite yet. So sometimes years later it’s easier to point to what it’s about. But with this one, I can point to how it’s about getting this milkshake.
SD: And this is another one where the title has nothing to do with the movie!
AVC: But it seems to capture that energy of it being the holidays and yet having to deal with a rather horrific situation.
SD: This is another one where I had the title before I’d even written the song. I think the idea was that I still really loved this person that was acting monstrous, and it’s sort of about the idea that even monstrous people have feelings and experience love. I guess that’s why it’s “Krampus (In Love).” It would be the spin-off, straight-to-video Krampus movie where the Krampus goes on a date and is humanized.
AVC: You’d also mentioned you were watching Jessica Jones during the holidays, which seems pretty fitting for the overall theme here. There’s even some language about heroes and villains popping up.
SD: I was watching Jessica Jones. I had problems with that show, but I liked a lot of it. I think a lot of what people liked was sort of the way that it represents an emotionally abusive relationship with this superhero dynamic. The dynamic between these two characters who are super powerful heroes and villains is so true of regular human emotional abuse. There’s a scene where Jessica goes to the bathroom to text, and I liked how the show used the heroes and villains tropes to explore something that is very common, as I think most people experience one kind of relationship like this in their lives. And it’s not always portrayed in a way where the person on the receiving end of the abuse is seen as extremely strong. And it’s not always shown in a way where the villain is humanized at all, and I think Jessica Jones did that in an extremely strong way. And I was just trying to do something similar.
This is actually the first song I did for the Sad13 record. I did it as a Christmas song. I put the demo online just for my friends, and it was on every website 10 minutes after because nobody is posting new music on Christmas Eve. So I was like, “I should probably redo this a bit better.” But it was very much just intended to be a Christmas song. Every couple years I make a Christmas song and put it online for my friends. This one just happened to get picked up on all the music websites, but I ended up keeping it for this record, and I redid the vocals on it.
AVC: It seems like all of these songs are tapping into something very personal and potentially painful. Did it change how you felt putting these songs out on a solo record as opposed to on a Speedy Ortiz album?
SD: I feel like that’s how I’ve always done it. I write songs to process what’s happening in my life, and that’s been the way that I’ve processed whatever depression or anxiety I’ve had since I was a little kid. So this doesn’t feel much different than how I’ve always written songs. Of course, like I said, you don’t realize what the songs are about until a bit later. I made this record in January and was still dating someone who wasn’t very good for me. And then once it was done, I was like, “Oh, I wrote a breakup record and I’m still dating this person.” Which is a lot to realize about yourself when mixing your own record.
AVC: How did it feel to have that realization listening back to it?
SD: I mean, I knew it was about it, but I was like, “That’s a lot of songs to be this concerned about these very real problems.” But that’s not all of it. I think a lot of it is a stand-in for fairly common human experiences that I just happened to also experience. It’s not all so cut and dried. I’m not revealing personal details in any lines. Everybody’s had that one relationship or that one shitty person they’ve worked with, or they’ve one friend that they give too much to, and I don’t think any of these are abnormal experiences. And that’s part of why they felt important to write.