Oh my god, I just finished my weird, out-of-order Sex and the City re-watch,” gasps Sadie Dupuis down the Zoom line from her home studio in Philadelphia. She’s been speaking with quiet passion about her band Speedy Ortiz’s new album ‘Rabbit Rabbit’ for over half an hour, but as the subject switches, a new kind of excitement animates her.
“I started with Season Four, because I love Aidan – I love any TV boyfriend that knows how to build stuff,” she explains. “Then I watched Season Three, because there’s more Aidan. Then Season Five, the next logical choice. Season Two after that, then Six, and I just finished Season One yesterday. And then I watched the movie, which is horrendous.”
This sudden conversational left turn is just the kind of non-sequitur, dream-logic-based sidestep you might expect from someone with Sadie’s highly expressionistic lyrical style, but in this instance, there is a reason that we’ve stumbled onto the topic. The opening track of ‘Rabbit Rabbit’ - an album that straddles scrappy indie rock abandon and sophisticated technical proficiency - is titled ‘Kim Cattrall’. Take an aural magnifier to the song, though, and you might be stumped at exactly how the actress’ name became attached to it. Sadie is more than happy to elaborate.
“Oh, it’s not actually about Kim Cattrall,” she quips. “In part, it’s about the stupid, idiotic, trauma-informed decision-making that plagued me until I was 27, and about starting to make healthier choices as I get older. At the time I was writing the song, there were a million headlines about why Kim Cattrall was refusing to come back to [Sex and the City spinoff] And Just Like That…, regardless of the paycheck offered to her. I was like, ‘Good for her!’”
In an idiosyncratic way, the kernel of what sets ‘Rabbit Rabbit’ apart can be found in this explanation. Sadie, the group’s lead songwriter, vocalist and guitarist, has steered her band from its early days as a DIY solo project to its status now as a cult name in US indie rock. This fourth studio album, though undoubtedly their most expansive and ambitious project to date, retains their defining independent spirit. Speedy Ortiz do what they want to do, regardless of the allure of the mainstream dollar.
“Girls are against god, but I’m not one / I spend 10,000 hours avoiding this problem,” she sings at the opening of ‘Kim Cattrall’, leaving the listener to find a way to put together the pieces. At times, Dupuis’ delivery feels conversational, blazed through with a wry, cutting wit, but it is certainly never prosaic. There’s a nebulous, unreachable quality to her writing, a style she herself describes as “sphinx chat”.
“I’m just trying to make it interesting for myself,” she says. “I’m not really drawn toward saying things in a straightforward way, because it doesn’t feel like I’ve unlocked understanding that way. Language has a lot of transformative and psychedelic and beautiful properties that I don’t feel like I get to when I’m speaking.”
“My emotional responses are very tied to my lyrics, so it’s this meta-psychological investigation for me.”
— Sadie Dupuis
The “trauma-informed decision-making” that she refers to regarding that opener is what goes on to form the emotional core of the album as a whole. Sadie recently disclosed publicly for the first time that she experienced abuse as a child; a subject that she had never previously been inclined to write about. “It wasn’t something that I wanted to put in music, or disclose to friends, or dwell on at all,” she says. “I’m estranged from that person, and it hasn’t felt like an urgent thing to tackle through art. My therapist has been like, ‘Why don’t you write songs about that?’ I said, ‘Why don’t you do therapy about your past trauma? This is my job. I’m paying quite a lot, buddy, to sit with a medical professional so that I don’t have to put this into the lyrics.’”
It was during a lockdown-era writing session for The New Pornographers’ Carl Newman, however, that Sadie noticed that she was starting to subconsciously reference elements of her history that had never previously emerged in her work. It speaks to her strength of character and her artistic credentials that she decided to delve deeper as she began to write the new Speedy Ortiz album.
“My emotional responses are very tied to my lyrics, so it’s this meta-psychological investigation for me,” she says. “Why do I process things in these ways and how does that connect to being drawn to playing music in the first place? It gives me perspective on who I am and how I am. I don’t think you write an album and then it’s like, ‘Cool, done with that, everything bad is cleansed’. But it does make it less anxiety-provoking to return to those thoughts.”
The album’s penultimate track ‘Brace Thee’ plays like a five-minute healing exercise - a gently paced, tender salve where she sings lines such as “What you did, we both remember” and “Trust, something I’m sorry I once gave you” as the band build to a rousing, defiant and ultimately dignified crescendo.
For much of the runtime of ‘Rabbit Rabbit’, though, Speedy Ortiz are ablaze with the scuzzy, frantic, serrated energy that has become their calling card. ‘You S02’ features writhing guitar lines that seem to simultaneously burrow through the ground and soar through the air, while on ‘Ghostwriter’, the band embrace a muscular, earthy menace. And crucially, they continue to show off their knack for ecstatic melodies, as on ‘Plus One’ or ‘Scabs’.
“I don’t think you write an album and then it’s like, ‘Cool, done with that, everything bad is cleansed’.”
— Sadie Dupuis
‘Rabbit Rabbit’ is Speedy’s first album in five years, during which time bassist Audrey Zee Whitesides and Downtown Boys drummer Joey Doubek have graduated from occasional touring musicians to fully-fledged members alongside Sadie and guitarist Andy Molholt. Both Audrey and Joey bring a rhythmic complexity and a desire to push at the limits of the band’s compositional potential, and the album’s at times dizzying instrumentation is a testament to a band that have never felt more sure of themselves.
It is with some pride that Joey boasts that David Catching - owner of the legendary Joshua Tree recording studio Rancho De La Luna (birthplace of the Desert Sessions, as well as albums by PJ Harvey and Kurt Vile) - told him that Speedy set the record for the most guitars and pedals ever used there. And those soaring guitar riffs? Well, Sadie admits that “looking out of that screen door into the desert, with those panoramas, it’s hard not to get into some guitar hero stuff”.
Beyond their studio lives, meanwhile, Speedy Ortiz are identified too by their social activism - acting, among other initiatives, as organisers within the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) which fights for better conditions and compensation for working musicians. Their proactive outlook means that, at a time when it might be easy to feel downhearted about the state of the industry, they remain optimistic, citing the rise of DIY bookers and venues in their hometown of Philadelphia as a source of encouragement.
“Seeing a lot of different touring musicians who hadn’t worked together before coming together on projects like those [UMAW campaigns], it brings me back to the table of enjoying playing music and being part of groups of musicians,” says Sadie. “While there are plenty of people in organisations that I can point to that infuriate me, there are plenty that inspire me too and make me want to keep doing this year after year.”
The future, then, remains bright. But for now, Speedy Ortiz can take a moment to step back and admire their work before a mammoth nationwide US tour consumes the remainder of their 2023. For Sadie, it leaves just about enough time to finish the other important project she’s been working on. “I still have the second movie left to watch again, but I might have to just…” She stops and reconsiders. “I remember that one being particularly egregious. I might have to skip it altogether...”
‘Rabbit Rabbit’ is out now via Wax Nine.
As featured in the September 2023 issue of DIY, out now.