“Ask me anything, even if it’s painful,” Sadie Dupuis sings on “Rabbit Rabbit,” the fifth album by her band Speedy Ortiz.
The lyric was, in part, a message to herself. After more than a decade of writing songs and poetry — as well as painting her own album covers — Dupuis, 35, found that she was asking herself ever more insistently about deep childhood trauma and her own survival mechanisms.
“There were aspects of my past that I was working through for the first time on this record,” she said via video from her pink-walled (from long before “Barbie”) home studio in Philadelphia.
Dupuis suggested the “forced stillness” of the pandemic led her to topics she hadn’t tapped for songwriting before. As the songs were emerging, she wondered, “Why do I feel so uncomfortable when I’m on the precipice of crying? Why am I not able to cry in front of someone or even myself?”
In “Cry Cry Cry” — one of the album’s most adventurous songs, with eerie vocal harmonies, sputtering drums and heaving, distorted guitar riffs — she sings, “Three ways to cry, and one is silence/He couldn’t see tears have meaning.”
An acoustic guitar and a keyboard were nearby as Dupuis chatted; the closet behind her, she said, was full of effects pedals. She was still wearing a patterned pink jacket and elaborate eye makeup from a photo shoot earlier that day.
Over the past decade, Dupuis has been writing songs for Speedy Ortiz that merge cryptic but resonant lyrics with gleefully asymmetrical, guitar-driven rock. Melodies collide with countermelodies; lyrics pose conundrums; choruses keep changing a word or two as they recur. The songs are complex yet surprisingly catchy. Dupuis also records on her own as Sad13, moving synthesizers upfront and giving her songs more of a pop sheen.
Dupuis earned an M.F.A. in poetry and has taught creative writing at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and she has published two books of hard-edge, abstract poetry. She met the producer of “Rabbit Rabbit,” Sarah Tudzin (who records her own songs as Illuminati Hotties), when she was giving a reading at a Los Angeles bookstore.
“She’s just sort of an ultimate galaxy-brain genius,” Tudzin said. “With her writing and guitar playing and production and everything, it’s true art.”
“Rabbit Rabbit,” due Friday, melds private reckonings and sonic ambitions. Amid careening, dissonant guitar lines and meter-shifting structures, Dupuis sings — obliquely and sometimes bluntly — about vulnerability, power, anger and how to move ahead. In the album’s closing song, “Ghostwriter,” she strives to find closure: “I’m tired of anger. How do I let go?”
Unexpectedly at first, Dupuis found herself writing about “early family stuff,” she explained. “I was abused by a member of my family when I was young, and I wasn’t really protected from it,” she said. “My dad was aware of it, and didn’t intervene. He apologized for it, very close to when he passed away. But it felt like there were more conversations that needed to happen.”
She said she had wanted not to think about it at all. “But clearly I needed to work on it, because it was coming out.”
While the record explores other topics, too, “I think it is about how my emotional responses have been formed by that, how my relationship to music has been formed by that,” she said. “And this remembrance of not being protected as a younger person makes me very overly protective when I see the abuse of power.”
Dupuis’s songwriting grew out of disparate sources. A crucial one was singing in a children’s choir whose director “gravitated toward really strange music,” she recalled. “I think he really liked the irony of these angelic-looking 12-year-olds singing and holding out dissonant notes and switching between bizarre time signatures.”
That happens to describe Speedy Ortiz songs, too.
Dupuis also soaked up 1990s indie and alternative rock: bands like the Mars Volta, Deftones, Pixies, Pavement, Helium and Throwing Muses, who wrapped convoluted ideas in squalling arrangements. True to the community spirit of do-it-yourself punk and indie rock in the 1990s, Dupuis and her bands have been activists, putting time into causes like unionization, treating addiction with harm reduction and supplying prison inmates with instruments.
Dupuis started making her own music early. Her mother got her a drum kit to play in the basement. “I was a very angry 16-year-old,” she said. “She thought if I could start playing drums, that might be helpful.”
She also studied guitar and keyboards, and she began posting her own home-recorded songs to Myspace while she was still in high school. As she took to playing, Dupuis often found herself the only girl among male musicians, and, she said, “I dressed like a little punk boy.”
But at a certain point she chose what she called, with a laugh, “a course overcorrection” — one that has her performing lately in candy-colored dresses and long acrylic fingernails, as well as writing songs in that pink-walled home studio.
“At some point I felt really sick of seeing only this certain representation of guitar music,” she said. “If the goal is to divorce guitar from a gender or from a gender presentation, then why not go really, really hard in the other direction? It felt like a way to make up for the assimilation under one gender that rock music had felt trapped in for a while.”
The acrylic nails had a technical advantage, too. The plastic made fingerstyle guitar playing as loud as playing with a pick. Dupuis has sent male guitar colleagues to a favorite nail salon.
Audrey Zee Whitesides, who plays bass in both the live Sad13 band and in Speedy Ortiz, said, “Sadie is a very driven, creative person. She really has a vision. She’ll come to the band with a demo that already has multiple guitar tracks and bass tracks and drum tracks. The songs are so dense that it’s nice to have a preview of how all the instruments are going to be in conversation with each other.”
The title of “Rabbit Rabbit” comes from a ritual Dupuis performs on the first day of every month: saying “rabbit rabbit” for good luck. She started writing each song on the album by giving it a color, dressing in that color and thinking about what sounds would match it. “Cry Cry Cry,” she said, was red; “Scabs,” with its snappy little refrain “Don’t talk to me!,” was “dark purple.”
Dupuis said she has obsessive compulsive disorder, and when she finds herself consumed by “the really, really tiny details” in a song” — whether a lyric should use “a” or “the,” the exact settings to dial into a programmed drum sound, where to crank up what started as a wrong note in a guitar solo — she pulls out an hourglass filled with pink sand that her mother gave her and allows herself just one turn of it to decide.
Speedy Ortiz recorded “Rabbit Rabbit” at two evocative studios: Rancho de la Luna, in California, with its huge collection of vintage amps, guitars and effects, and Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas, where Fiona Apple and Bon Iver have recorded.
“She does a great job of knowing when to be touching the trauma and pouring emotion into it,” Tudzin said. “And then it’s a job. As artists, we’re all in this realm of exposing our innards and guts to the world. But when it comes to the studio, there is a time to be emotional and a time that’s just about repetition and getting the job done and getting the sounds right, which is not always like a soulful or emotional experience.”
Highly technical music; heartfelt results. For Dupuis they’re inseparable. “A lot of this record, it’s like a twin feeling of anxiety-producing and I’m proud of it,” she said. “The scary thing is I’m like, ‘Well, where could I possibly go after that?’ This is my deepest, darkest, you know, most painful thing that I’ve wrung out. For the sake of a 13-track album.”
POST AUTHOR: Jon Pareles