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The Eerie Tale of Sad13’s ‘Haunted Painting’

From ghosts to garden gnomes, Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis explains how she made her scary-good new solo album

Natalie Piserchio*

Sadie Dupuis never intended for her song “Ghost (of a Good Time)” to become a quarantine anthem. The synth-pop tune was partially inspired by her memory of a Bushwick, Brooklyn, show that started at 1 a.m., but its true subject is binging a Netflix series all day — something many of us can relate to at this moment in time. “Who would have thought that me singing ‘I don’t want to go outside’ is now the only choice?” says Dupuis, 32. “I’m a trailblazer.”

“Ghost (of a Good Time)” is one of the many highlights from Dupuis’ new album, Haunted Painting. It’s her second solo release under the moniker Sad13, which she acknowledges would have made for a great screen name back in the day. With glittery pop hooks, horror imagery, and songwriting that grapples with grief and mental health, it’s an album that stands apart from the sharp-edged indie-rock records she’s made with her band, Speedy Ortiz. Think about throwing a silent disco party in your apartment on Halloween, and you’ll get the idea.

Starting Haunted Painting wasn’t easy. Following the 2018 release of Speedy Ortiz’s Twerp Verse and Mouthguard, her first collection of poems, Dupuis experienced a creative drought. “The thought of working on music or writing was really unappealing to me,” she says. “There was a lot of not only grieving, but just regular old mental-health work that I needed to do before I could start working on art again. I spent the past several years doing the therapy thing, and I got to the root of why I wasn’t interested in working on things, and why it felt so overwhelming to me.”

That changed when she visited the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, and was struck by portraits including German painter Franz von Stuck’s Saharet, a 1906 image of Australian dancer Paulina Clarissa Molony. She felt a presence within the painting and became inspired. “I’ve always liked haunted imagery, creepy things, [and] horror movies,” Dupuis says. “Seeing that painting gave me context for how I wanted to work on this album.”

The album opens with “Into the Catacombs,” an ominous track about the right-wing coup d’état that overthrew Argentina’s government in 1976. “Arrest me, won’t you?” she sings, her vocals drifting across an eerie string arrangement. “I’ve waited for some time/To face the moment you’d come to take a life.” She likens the original demo’s instrumentation to Beck’s Sea Change: “Beck would have had to call me up and back me off a little bit,” she jokes.

“The Crow” ventures into prog territory, with a keyboard solo that echoes Foxtrot-era Genesis. Dupuis wrote it after receiving the news that the indie-rock legend David Berman, whose music and writing she deeply admired, had died (“He’s dead/I’m trying on clothes I can’t afford”). With the guitar part and melody rattling inside her head, she wrote the lines down at Taix, a restaurant in Los Angeles, and returned home completely fixated on the track. “It was the most amount of hours of work for that song, [more] than any of the rest of the album,” she says. “I joked it was the most possessed I’ve felt making a song.”

After a two-song session in Seattle, Dupuis worked on Haunted Painting across six different studios. Unlike 2016’s Slugger, which she made almost entirely in her Philadelphia home, Haunted Painting includes instruments that varied based on each studio’s gear list. Not limiting herself to guitar and synths, she incorporated organ, glockenspiel, sitar, theremin, and more into the record, including what she describes as “toys, trash, and ephemera.” “There’s a lot of random shit on here,” she says with a laugh. “It was very intentionally written to the spaces [the songs] would be tracked in. I’ve never worked that way before, but I probably will again, because it was really fun.”

One of the studios Dupuis recorded in was Elliott Smith’s New Monkey Studio in Van Nuys, California. “I’m just a huge Elliott Smith fan,” she says. “The thing I think about when I think about Elliott Smith is that he was a gear nut. This studio is the living document of his interest in the studio as an instrument, and in installing and repairing gear and finding cool old vintage stuff. It’s very vibe-y, which is a word I have never used in my life other than talking about this studio. There’s little garden gnomes that were his, and comfortable couches. It’s a really low-key, calm, good energy place to work.”

Haunted Painting was made exclusively with female engineers, including Illuminati Hotties’ Sarah Tudzin, Erin Tonkon, and Maryam Qudus. Dupuis recalls a panel she hosted for Sonos speakers and She Shreds magazine in 2018: “The whole point of it was highlighting the non-male engineers who are so talented in these fields but are so drastically underrepresented, which I would count myself as part of,” she says. “I kind of was like, ‘What is up with me that I’m hosting this panel and then I look at my own engineering credits, even for stuff I’ve produced, but I continue to hire so many male engineers?’ It just felt incredibly hypocritical. So this album put my butt in gear to practice what I preach and hire so many of these engineers whose work I admired, but just hadn’t found the time to go work with before.”

The album is Dupuis’ first release for her indie label, Wax Nine Records, which she’s kept busy running while in quarantine. She also publishes the label’s bi-weekly poetry journal (she holds an MFA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst). “I’ve gotten to read a few thousand submissions now, as well as get to pay a bunch of poets for their work, which is really gratifying,” she says. Outside of those projects, Dupuis has continued her work as a trailblazer in staying inside and watching “garbage” TV.

She already sees another Sad13 record in the foreseeable future, in addition to a new Speedy Ortiz album. “Who knows how long it’ll be until we can safely all hang out and do things?” she wonders. “I will for certain do another Speedy record, but I have no sense of timeline. We’ve been talking about wanting to do a Deftones-sounding record for some years.” She laughs, sounding pleased at this idea. “We’ll go full nu-metal next.”

From Rolling Stone US