The Incantation of Speedy Ortiz

Sadie Dupuis talks about writing through trauma at your own pace, harm reduction advocacy in public spaces, starting a poetry journal out of spite and Rabbit Rabbit—her band’s first album in five years

Music Features Speedy Ortiz
The Incantation of Speedy Ortiz

You can thank the Cleveland Guardians for wrecking (what would have been) the link-up of the century. Last fall, Sadie Dupuis and Michael DeForge were doing a joint book tour across the East Coast—Dupuis was promoting her recently released poetry collection Cry Perfume, while DeForge’s latest graphic novel Birds of Maine had come out in August. The duo were set to come through Northeast Ohio for a reading at the Happy Dog on Cleveland’s West Side. I’d been asked to host the event but had to decline, because the Guardians were playing the New York Yankees downtown that same evening and I was expected to be in attendance to root on a team destined to lose in the playoffs. My first poetry reading after undergrad was with Dupuis back in 2020, when we both took part in a virtual event put on by Grieveland to fashion some semblance of artistic normalcy during COVID.

Since then, she and I have hummed around in adjacent circles online, but never have we been able to directly collaborate on anything. When I had to ditch the Happy Dog party last October, I figured that I wouldn’t have a chance again to break the internet with Dupuis for a good while. Little did I know that, luckily, she and her beloved band Speedy Ortiz had been quietly picking away at their first record in five years. Now, Rabbit Rabbit is finally here—solidifying that it’s pretty nice when life throws you a bone; when the traffic lights stay green just a few seconds longer.

Speedy Ortiz are, in my opinion, one of the “definitive” Philadelphia bands actively working. Though the foursome originated in Northampton, Massachusetts and Dupuis has roots all over New England, there’s something so incredibly Eastern Pennsylvania about what Rabbit Rabbit is. Don’t ask me to explain it succinctly, it’s very much a geographical thing that sparks a kinship I have with other industrial regions in the country. But the organizing and advocacy that live on Speedy Ortiz records feel so deeply embedded with foundations built through a convergence of Rust Belt and mining town affectations and blue-collar poetics.

On a song like “Kitty,” Dupuis pays an immediate homage to her West Philly neighborhood and the noise and erosion that inhabit it—potholes, brick streets, drag racing and all. Much of that came via the only human interaction over the last three years being what was happening outside of our windows and the couple-block radius we were all forced to memorize. On “Plus One,” Dupuis sings of puzzle pieces degrading on her sidewalk—something that was directly inspired by, amidst everyone’s obsession with table-top games and tasks during COVID, somebody dumping a 10,00 piece puzzle on the ground. As quarantine unraveled, she watched the puzzle slowly degrade with rain, footmarks, dirt and passing, immeasurable time.

“I was taking note of little things I noticed in the neighborhood more than I’ve been able to in the past, especially since I was on tour so often,” she says. “I moved to Philly in 2016 and, when the pandemic started, I realized I’d never spent more than two consecutive weeks here—which is an insane way to live. But, I guess that’s what I needed to do for that whole period of time. So, not only has it been fun to get to know neighbors—which I was never really able to do before, because I was never home—but also to just observe little things. I lived on a very noisy block, and it was charming in its own way. It became this hopeful thing of ‘Well, I’m not sleeping at all tonight, but I certainly hope that my friends across town are clocking a few more hours than I am.’”

The last Speedy Ortiz record, Twerp Verse, came out in 2018—a landscape that looked much, much different then than what we’ve got in front of us now. One Trump administration and a global health catastrophe later, and artists across the board are still figuring out how to re-insert themselves into cultural conversations after quarantine and lack of touring and resources pushing them, momentarily, out of conversations by circumstantial default. However, a pause for Speedy Ortiz was practically unavoidable by the time shutdowns happened. They’d toured almost non-stop for over five years prior to COVID taking over, and there were lineup changes leading up to that that made it difficult to proceed as the same musical machine that put out Major Arcana in 2013.

Devin McKnight was replaced by Andy Molholt on rhythm guitar in 2017; Darl Ferm, the band’s longtime bass player up until Twerp Verse, left to do his dream job of teaching in 2018 and Audrey Zee Whitesides came in as his replacement; Mike Falcone had to depart the group after finishing his degree in library science in 2019 and was replaced by Joey Doubek. In turn, Speedy Ortiz built up a new, different rhythm together as a unit. After Twerp Verse, it was the same project but with different people. The pandemic was a stopgap in the momentum that the quartet had been trying to capitalize on. “We have a really good musical and friendship rapport together,” Dupuis notes. “When the pandemic started, it was frustrating to not be able to continue to build on that—especially as I was working on all of these projects that are very much Sadie all the time. I really was missing getting to play with my friends.”

The pervading narrative around Rabbit Rabbit is that it’s a comeback album—and it is, sort of. While Speedy Ortiz has never ceased to exist, Dupuis found herself working non-stop outside of the band-centric format she’d grown so accustomed to for 10 years. After Twerp Verse, she put out two poetry books (Mouthguard and Cry Perfume), put out her solo album Haunted Painting (as Sad13), continued to run her own record label Wax Nine, remixed a bunch of old Speedy Ortiz recordings at home and scored a bunch of projects at home. “It was a lot of me sitting solely with my own brain and my own creative ideas and insecurities and obsessions,” she tells me. “I do like working that way, but I also like playing with my friends and working things out together and saying, ‘Here’s a puzzle I’m having about this particular part—who can figure this out with me?’”

When Dupuis was putting together the demos for Rabbit Rabbit, she was recording them solo while still imagining how her bandmates would fit into each part. Prior to rehearsals in early 2022, they’d only been able to share a space together if it was outside at a park, playing Jackbox games, on Zoom or getting coffee in the middle of winter and sitting underneath a heated patio umbrella. Whether it was the joy of finally getting to be in a room with Whitesides, Doubek and Molhot again or the natural progression of Dupuis’ creative growth that catalyzed it, what’s true is that never before had Speedy Ortiz spent so much time prepping for a record they hadn’t made yet. “We spent at least two months just running through things, making little changes and locking in together,” she says. “Then we all got on a plane for the first time since the pandemic started and went to Joshua Tree, which was a beautiful experience.”

Speedy Ortiz decamped to Rancho De La Luna, a studio founded 30 years ago by Fred Drake and David Catching that’s famous for its Desert Sessions. Formative artists for Dupuis—like PJ Harvey, Mark Lanegan and Carl Azar of Autolux—made records there, and they were especially on her mind as she and the band were using the same equipment and occupying the same spaces. A similar thing happened for Dupuis when she was making Haunted Painting with Illuminati Hotties’ Sarah Tudzin at New Monkey in Van Nuys, California—Elliott Smith’s studio. There’s a microwave there that has a tendency to act up, supposedly because it’s Smith’s spirit trying to hangout at sessions. Dupuis and Tudzin wound up programming the buttons on the microwave as synths—one of the many ways that their partnership leads to making the sonics of their approach together more storied and unconventional.

But Dupuis swapped out unconventionality for maximalism when it came to making Rabbit Rabbit. Tudzin returned to co-produce (with Dupuis) and mix the record, while Emily Lazar and Chris Allgood tackled the mastering. The 13 songs are dense, heavy and full of rewards you can peel away to reveal more splendors. Much of that comes at the expense of the in-studio kit at Rancho De La Luna having remained the same across its existence. Catching keeps an inventory list that is 40 pages long, and Speedy Ortiz used almost every available piece of gear that Rancho De La Luna had—including over 100 guitars and several hundred pedals. “We were clearly starved for being at a studio,” Dupuis adds. “It was like, ‘Oh, we’re back, we can track eight guitars on this song. No worries.’” It was a beautiful, grand return for the band—a reunion fully earned and long-awaited.

When Dupuis was working on the songs for Rabbit Rabbit, she’d (unknowingly) adopted a similar exercise that her peer Sarah Rose Etter was using while assembling her most recent book RIPE: going to museums to find inspiration. The only problem was that, during the pandemic, Philadelphia’s art museum went on a major strike (a labor dispute that is still ongoing). “But, there is a pretty tremendous collection of art on Google, from museums around the world,” Dupuis notes. She doesn’t have synesthesia, but she did make it a habit of assigning colors to the sketches of songs she was making—which became a grounding experience while she was holed up inside for many months.

“I would wake up every morning and whatever the first color was that popped into my head would be the color I’d pick for that day,” she adds. “I’d dress in that color and I’d spend an hour looking at art in that color range until I found something that felt like what I was going for. When I worked on the production, I would have not only those images, but those colors in mind to help me pick drum sounds or bass tones or synthesizers. What kind of tempo is like fuchsia? Of course, this is a very arbitrary thing and anybody could take fuchsia and interpret it differently. But, it was a fun guiding principle, especially as I was working alone on the demos and was able to give myself this artifice of ‘This is the chartreuse song.’ It feels like I’m following a little bit more of a plan.”

I am often thinking about the musicians who talk their talks and musicians who walk their walks. Dupuis is very much a part of the latter, as she (in and outside of her work with Speedy Ortiz) has been a strong advocate for prioritizing care in not just performance spaces but in our general, complex existences. Having to navigate those parts of life often takes a much higher precedent over being in a band and making art—even if those two modes share an orbit with each other sometimes. With COVID having uprooted the touring world—and also the response towards musicians who have to cancel shows or postpone tours having softened and grown more empathetic—it feels like conversations around how we allow ourselves to care for each other and tend to mutual needs has become much more productive. Dupuis, who has scoliosis and has dealt with chronic back pain since she was a child, mentions a time when she threw her back out and had to cancel a gig at a fly-in festival—a necessary choice that she got an ample amount of shit online for, for no fair reason.

“I did a tour with Stephen Malkmus and we both had pneumonia, but neither of us canceled a show,” Dupuis says. “Through food poisoning—just make sure I’m in the bathroom before and after the show, but the show’s gotta go on! I think that mentality has been well-shattered by COVID in a way that I hope continues—because I think musicians really inherited that high school theatre mentality of ‘the show must go on.’ But the cost is pretty great, of constantly working through illness. I do feel heartened to see musicians canceling tours and not feeling compelled to specify the exact reasoning. People seem to be very supportive now of that kind of decision-making. I feel like we all no longer feel like there’s a dire need to power through for the sake of the concert. You can always go back somewhere. ‘I have a 103-degree fever, but I’ll play the house show and then go sleep on top of our van.’ I don’t think that’s the phase most of us are in anymore, thankfully. The financials aren’t quite there, but at least the willingness to work through unsafe and unhealthy conditions has waned.”

Much like Speedy Ortiz records, especially an album like Twerp Verse—which was a turn towards defiant songwriting in the wake of Trump getting elected—Rabbit Rabbit ushers in a similar sense of visibility and a kindred, spiritual link between Dupuis’ advocacy and the disparities she has watched unfold around her. “Scabs” was inspired by her seeing the horrible working conditions at spaces like USPS and Amazon—and especially in seeing how the folks who had “support essential workers” signs in their front yards were the same people yelling at exhausted, overworked retail employees. “Ghostwriter” was written after Dupuis read that more environmental activists had been killed while protesting in 2021 than any other year ever. The anger and frustration she was feeling was palpable, but she wanted to stop feeling all of that all of the time. “How to move on when the ocean is coming up strong?” she sings. “I’m tired of anger. How do I let go? Yank a dandelion and blow. I’m trying, I’m trying.”

The narrative backbone of Rabbit Rabbit sends me backwards to Cry Perfume—a generous, moving text that works through the tethers between grief and how personal worlds can be upended by a type of loss that the systems around us are not interested in circumventing. If you spend any time with the lyrics of Rabbit Rabbit, you’ll notice that Dupuis enlists a deeply poetic approach to her own lyricism. The syntax is of metered breaks and the imagery is a juxtaposition of pastoral nouns and adjectives and a corroding, recurring, relentless absence of loved ones. Losing friends to overdoses has been a reality for Dupuis since she was a teenager; the first Speedy Ortiz record was greatly impacted by her losing someone close in that very way, as did Matchbook, her first book of poems in 2018. But where Matchbook was a place she could articulate grief when she had no place else to put all of it, Cry Perfume pulls in more fixtures of hope through Dupuis’ better understanding of harm reduction and community organizing efforts aimed at improving public health for drug users and folks who are immunocompromised and/or disabled.

“Learning about harm reduction has really transformed the way I thought about the music industry, the way I thought about the choice to play through pain or through sickness of any kind,” she says. “The music industry doesn’t reduce that harm; the music industry compels people to work through sickness. It compels people to pick up other kinds of sickness. It’s very driven by alcohol sales, venues can’t function without it. Often, artists are not given a meal, or a buyout for a meal, but they’re given unlimited alcohol. It’s been interesting to re-contextualize my thoughts about how the industry works and what pays the bills. That’s what inspired Cry Perfume, too.”

Dupuis is also a strong advocate for carrying Narcan in these public, community-oriented spaces—whether it be stocked behind bars or accessible in bathrooms. Workspaces are starting to have essential conversations about this, about how people everywhere use drugs for an assortment of reasons—and having access to life-saving medication no longer needs to be controversial. After so many years of it not being the case, Narcan is FDA-approved in the United States—though state and county laws differ from state to state. In Ohio, possession of fentanyl test strips was only just recently decriminalized. In other places around the country it’s legal to carry Narcan, but carrying those test strips can result in a misdemeanor. The always-changing laws around harm reduction have become tricky for folks who want to distribute them at bars, music spaces and gathering spots. In Columbus, where I live, the organization This Must Be the Place travels to festivals and shows and makes certain that people are stocked with Narcan and are aware of what’s locally in supply.

“It’s crucial that someone is doing that, specifically in music spaces,” Dupuis says. “Because nightlife and drug use are synonymous, and there’s drug use in every workplace, in every community and every family. People should be armed with medication that can help keep their loved ones with us. Harm reduction, as a philosophy, is that people use drugs for all kinds of reasons and you’ve got to meet people where they’re at. The stigma and judgement and shame surrounding drug use doesn’t help anybody make any positive changes to their life. What can make a change is supporting people with what they need to get through that day—to live to the next day. For many music venues—and for some of the corporate-owned venues—there is the concern that supplying Narcan or putting out snorting straws or test strips is seen as condoning drug use and could be seen as a liability. But the thing is, people are going to use drugless regardless of whether you don’t condone it or whether you offer them these public health resources.”

Much of Dupuis’ approach to art in general is so deeply intertwined with a simple desire to make spaces and visibility much more accessible for folks whose necks are stuck under the boot of capitalism, classism and systematic oppression. You can connect that ethos to any other part of Dupuis’ career. She runs her own record label, Wax Nine, which was born out of her appreciation for Drag City and Father/Daughter—distro institutions that publish books alongside albums and challenge preconceived notions of what a label is limited to. Wax Nine is not just an imprint of Carpark Records with a roster featuring Johanna Warren, Mandy, Melkbelly and Spacemoth; it’s a living poetry journal that publishes writers and artists who’ve never made a single shred of music. Dupuis calls the journal part of the whole endeavor a “spite business” that came to exist from the very daunting and unfulfilling labor of paying submission fees to poetry publications that, in turn, don’t even pay the writers they feature.

As a poet, it’s a cyclical, unwavering business. You spend $30 to have your manuscript read six months to a year after you send the submission out, and then you’re—more often than not—hit with a form rejection from an auto-generated web engine. With Wax Nine, Dupuis was able to home the work of writers and artists she both admires and has never heard of, all while giving them a small honorarium and the clout that comes with being able to say you had your writing or art published by a record label. In a world where authors are self-releasing their work more than ever, having a resource like Wax Nine is essential in the ongoing fight to keep literary communities alive and to rebel against traditional publishing’s harmful, reductive pillars of exclusion.

While my own history with poetry is a big reason why I’m lucky enough to share a community with Dupuis, a big, gravitational force that brought me to Rabbit Rabbit was that—across the album—she depicts her experiences of having been abused as a child, something that happened to me as well, many moons and a lifetime ago. A song like “Plus One” will always be magnetic and worth replaying over and over because I, and many others, have lived through it, too. When Dupuis sings “What you did, we both remember” on “Brace Thee,” I feel it all deep within me. I can remember the day I was stripped of myself, but I can also remember the day I demanded I get it back.

Though Rabbit Rabbit points a finger at union busters and picket line-crossers in creative industries, the external push-and-pull across the album is much more personal and much less reactionary than it ever was on Foil Deer and Twerp Verse. On “Who’s Afraid of the Bath,” Dupuis sings: “Hard to say what happens but they keep on coming up with stories about our past—though we share in none, don’t know each other. Taking the honest way out: All your projections are not about me. Wet, shivering. Wring me out, I’m not for pleasure.” Writing or talking openly about her trauma was not something she was much interested in doing, not even in therapy—at least not until she realized that her anger towards anti-labor actions and climate death was greatly heightened by being abused.

“I think that, growing up with that and surviving that, it really informs my emotional processing in a way that I’m still unraveling,” Dupuis says. “A lot of that tendency to be just as sensitive, I think that comes from a place of not having been protected as a child—feeling like there’s an overdeveloped need to protect everything around me and to be very angry when I don’t see people being protected. How do I take this anger back so I can live a slightly happier life? Some of it goes back to those nitty, gritty, horrible memories of when I was little, in a way that was really scary and different for me. It’s a lot easier to say ‘Oh you, an adult, did this bad thing to another adult’ than it is to say ‘This happened to me as a child and I was not protected.’ Who am I condemning? There’s a definite shame that comes attached to those kinds of experiences that makes you reticent to talk about it. My lyrics are very blatant, but it still felt incredibly stressful and frightening.”

It wasn’t until Dupuis was co-writing songs with A.C. Newman for the most recent New Pornographers album, Continue as a Guest, when he sent instrumentals to her and she began noticing that what she was penning kept harkening back to childhood—a realization that was greatly spurred by the isolation of quarantine and she’d explore more during the demoing phase of Rabbit Rabbit. “The forced time at home forced my hand to consider these things and to actually ruminate on what I was repressing, in a way, by being on tour so constantly for so many years,” Dupuis adds. As someone who tried to write (but later scrapped) a book about my own child abuse while quarantined in 2020, having a reference point like Rabbit Rabbit is such an essential arm of hope to have right now and always.

The title Rabbit Rabbit is derived from a self-soothing ritual that Dupuis performs first thing on the first day of every month—where she says “Rabbit Rabbit” to herself and then writes it on her social media accounts. For her, it’s a compulsion that’s on the nicer side of her own OCD spectrum. “Any license plate I looked at, I would assign every letter the number that it was in the alphabet and then add all of those numbers together and then reduce them to a single number,” she notes of one ritual she had as a child. “I think it’s very nice to start the month with a repeated phrase for luck that has all of this symbolism and reminds you of your life outside of human drama.”

What’s special this time around is that September 1st also happens to be the day that Rabbit Rabbit is set to enter the world in full. I’m not certain there’s a more complex record that’s come out this year. From the timely worker-solidarity and strike-focused “Scabs” to the gooey, anthemic romance of “You S02” to the uncomfortable, rapturous illustration of agency lost on “Brace Thee,” there are contradicting throughlines of violence and promise and damage and anger and love. We can’t shed all of this; it’s meant to stick with us. All we can do is say an incantation for ourselves as this month turns over into the next. Tomorrow we can try to start anew, in whatever shape that faith is meant to take. I’m going to lsiten to Speedy Ortiz’s Rabbit Rabbit and hang on to some hope that the places and people nearby will continue to make space and care for me—that living will become more and more of a reward with each waking and waning day. “With praise washing over me, I’m fine,” Dupuis sings near the end of the record. And so it shall be.

Revisit to Speedy Ortiz’s Daytrotter session from 2014 here.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

Share Tweet Submit Pin