Speedy Ortiz: Self-Preservative

Music Features Speedy Ortiz
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Despite its critical success, Sadie Dupuis didn’t make the album she wanted in 2013.

Recorded in a lean four days, Speedy Ortiz’s Major Arcana was also built on compromises—an LP free of any textural bell or whistle that wasn’t Dupuis’ own guitar or voice, Darl Ferm’s bass, Mike Falcone’s drums or Matt Robidoux’s guitar. Major Arcana was adored across the music blog spectrum, where the band drew comparisons to Pavement and, sometimes confusingly, Belly. But that noise documented on Major Arcana, ‘90s revival comparisons be damned, was Speedy Ortiz’s own—set apart by Dupuis’ wry lyrical offerings. And if none of that rings a bell, Speedy Ortiz is that SXSW band that allowed Hannibal Buress’ near-virtuosic drumming to see the light of day.

But after two years of playing Major Arcana’s tunes, it wasn’t the album’s production that bugged Dupuis, though she would have loved an extra three days to add some studio touches. Nor was it the sheer tempo of the songs, though she wished they weren’t contorted. The band had started racing through them during live shows before recording. What’s most bothersome for the songwriter was the very root of some of these songs.

“I think it’s because I’m really self-critical, but the old stuff just seems a little superficial or self-involved,” Dupuis says over the phone. And while she’s not pointing fingers, she’s looking at you, “No Below.” “Some of the songs on the album, it’s like, ‘c’mon dude, go to the gym.’”

Dupuis laughs about it, but that’s pretty much what she did for Speedy Ortiz’s second proper LP— Foil Deer, which is out today on Carpark Records. It’s an album born, appropriately, in the woods of Northwest Connecticut during a year of band change. With Robidoux on a “hiatus,” Speedy Ortiz enlisted Devin McKnight to fill out the spot—a no-brainer move after you hear his warped guitar work with Boston’s Grass is Green. Oh, they also quit their day jobs.

“We were making ourselves totally insane with trying to accommodate those [jobs] and touring,” Dupuis says. Tuesday through Thursday, she was an adjunct writing professor at UMass Amherst. Friday through Monday—we’re already familiar. “It was basically like working two 30-hour jobs a week. That works for some people, like, going to law school, but the salary that you make teaching, unfortunately, is pretty minimal. If we’re doing this full time, we can actually pay ourselves better.”

It caught up with her, too. On a 2014 tour with Swearin’, Dupuis got sick. Not like, coughing-and-hot-tea-and-Netflix sick. “I got some kind of thing where I was throwing up every day,” she says. “I hate canceling shows, and I think we’ve only canceled one—and I’ve had pneumonia on tour, but I had this thing where we’d play the set, then I’d immediately run outside into a parking lot and…[ laughs] after that it was sort of—not a wake up call, but [I needed] to take better care of myself.”

After 10 months of life on the road, Dupuis retreated to her mother’s Northwestern Connecticut home. She quit drinking, gave up caffeine. Her only distractions were constructive: running, swimming, writing songs. “I think that kind of self-care is good for your mental health,” Dupuis says. “So much of your artistic output depends on your mental state. I think a lot of songs [on Foil Deer] are coming from a better mental state, and for that reason I like them more.”

Surrounded by little else than a few dairy farms and a grocery store, that house was fertile ground for Dupuis. While she aimed to pen a song a day, Dupuis usually wound up with three or four. And the foundation of Foil Deer was set. “Basically, it was the first time we had a month off from the band ever, so I was treating writing songs as this replacement for touring,” she says.

The songs produced in her mom’s house, they’re more useful if you’re asking Dupuis. Maybe they’re not exactly love songs, though she’s a fan of writing those. The songs that populate Foil Deer are songs of empowerment, and not the kitschy kind with lines drawn from classroom-wall inspirational quotes. “There’s a greater theme of getting the respect you deserve,” Dupuis says, and it’s illuminated best in “Raising the Skate,” Foil Deer’s second track, where Dupuis takes on a classic Queen Bey line with the chorus: “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss.”

“These are more songs about sticking up for yourself and moving past marginalization in relationships and the world,” Dupuis says. “I guess my thought was like, I’m going to write a nice love song, it better be more important than just my relationships. Also, I want to write a song about feeling empowered—I don’t know, sometimes it’s easier to feed kids sugary cough medicine than a big horse pill, but [with Foil Deer], didn’t want to get into the whole language of self-care.”

But here’s the other thing: Speedy Ortiz got to make a studio record on its own terms. With a comparatively luxurious three weeks booked at Brooklyn’s Rare Book Room with engineer Nicolas Vernhes, Speedy Ortiz started rehearsing Dupuis’ songs from those writing sessions. Those writing and recording sessions set a much different backdrop than Major Arcana. Here, we get layers of keyboards on gorgeous cuts like “The Graduates”—Speedy Ortiz’s self-declared “metaphorical side bitch anthem” where Dupuis proclaims, “I was the best at being second place/but now I’m just the runner-up/and only the second one you think of every day.” Processed, sampled drums and a hip-hop-ready bassline follow on “Puffer,” the closest Speedy Ortiz has come to the dance club. And yeah, they still know how to breeze through a guitar-led number. See: “Swell Content” and “Ginger.” With Foil Deer, Speedy Ortiz got to be a studio band first.

“We wanted the live version to follow the recordings and not the other way around,” Dupuis says. “On my end, whatever I visualize is what I’d hear on a record. I think we got way closer to that because of the order in which we proceeded.”

Speedy Ortiz is set to head out on tour behind Foil Deer. And with a set of songs based around self-care, or getting the respect you deserve, some of its themes are as immediately applicable. For example—have you seen those festival lineups?

“My bandmates keep telling me that I want to play Lilith Fair,” Dupuis says, laughing. “I’m grateful that we’ve been given the space to play at these festivals. It just seems like—and I can’t believe I’m about to talk about Lilith Fair—but I think the reason it was founded was some prevailing rule in festivals that one female act couldn’t follow the other. I look at festival lineups: we’re on this. Angel Olsen is on this. Maybe Warpaint is on it. I think the people who are listening to the music that populate these festivals, more than ever they want diversity…I’ll see plenty of women in rock bands, at some point you see how engrained this sexism and bigotry is in all fields. I guess having to see it so frequently for the first year when we quit our day jobs, it’s kind of changed my habits in general. I’m a little more self-preservative. That sounds like a jam, but yeah. I’m a jam.”

And so is Foil Deer.