Speedy Ortiz has come a long way since the project’s genesis, more than a decade ago, when singer-songwriter Sadie Dupuis first caught the world's ear with a set of solo recordings she made on her laptop. Blessed with Dupuis' gift for evocative lyrical imagery (she published her second book of poetry last year) and an ability to craft indelible hooks while also twisting melodies and chord progressions into the most ingeniously unexpected directions, Speedy Ortiz emerged as standouts from the Boston rock scene of the early 2010s, winning critical acclaim for albums like 2015's Foil Deer and 2018's Twerp Verse, and going on to tour with the likes of the Foo Fighters, Mitski and Liz Phair.
Now 10 years removed from the band’s first full-length, Major Arcana, Speedy Ortiz has marked the anniversary with a reissue, less than two months after the release of fourth album, Rabbit Rabbit. Produced by the band and Illuminati Hotties' Sarah Tudzin, and partially recorded at David Catching’s Rancho de la Luna studio in Joshua Tree (Queens of the Stone Age, PJ Harvey), the album feels like a post-pandemic distillation of everything that makes the band special. It's alternately poppy and arrestingly complex, with moments of discomforting honesty that coexist easily with a wealth of pullquote-ready lines ("call me when you need a plus-zero" being a particular standout).
Dupuis hopped on the phone with Q from the band's current home city of Philadelphia to discuss the new album, the old album, her songwriting process, and the summer’s biggest cinematic music controversy.
Did it feel like a milestone to have your first album, Major Arcana, get the big anniversary reissue treatment?
Well, two years ago we did a ten-year re-release of the earliest Speedy stuff, and for that I had to go multiple hard drives back, and ended up remixing everything myself even before bringing it to [producer] Justin Pizzoferrato to mix it further. That was a very intensive process where I was delving very closely back into the original files, trying to think about what my original intentions were and trying to honor those while also realizing that I had ten more years of production and engineering experience than I did when I first worked on it. So I really had to get back into the mindset of how I was working and playing back then. With this release, because it’s really just a remaster, I was able to have a little more remove from it. I didn’t have to be like, “oh wow, here’s where I put this piano part, what a funny choice that I don’t remember making at all.” It was way less labor-intensive, and more like a fun bonus at the end of an already pretty great year.
As you were revisiting the record, did you feel that any of these songs make more sense in a 2023 context? A lot of the ‘90s era touchstones that I feel like I hear on that album seem more culturally prominent now than they were at the time. When you have Olivia Rodrigo introducing teenagers to the Breeders…
That’s something to me that’s always been funny about this record. And I feel like I get misquoted every time I say this, so I’m gonna try to be really concise: I didn’t feel like we were trying to do a ‘90s thing on this record. I felt like we were in keeping with the Boston scene that we were a part of. To me we sounded totally in line with Grass is Green, and with Pile, and with Kal Marks, and with Krill, and all the other Boston bands [from that era] that certainly loved ‘90s bands, but who were very much of that time. So maybe there were some similarities between the way our indie music scene was operating at that time and how mainstream college rock of the ‘90s was operating. But it wasn’t what we were trying to sound like, even if there were shared influences. When I listen to [that record] I really think, God, this sounds like Boston of the early 2010s. I definitely have that regional perspective of where we fit in. Maybe on the national level people weren’t listening to Pile just yet, so they didn’t have that reference point. But we didn’t have our eyes on a national scene at that point, we just thought we were a part of a great local scene. And we were honored to be a part of it.
I want to talk about Rabbit Rabbit, but being from L.A., I do have one quibble with that record. On the song "You S02," you have a line about L.A. drivers cutting you off from the right lane…
You do do that, though. Don’t tell me I’m wrong.
Oh, we do. But the thing is, as someone who learned to drive in L.A., we were literally never taught that we’re not supposed to do that. It’s ignorance, not malice.
It’s just your local style, I understand that. It’s okay.
I appreciate that. So how did that reference work its way into the song?
I think I started on that song pre-pandemic. But it really took shape early in the pandemic as I was watching some early waves of, specifically, food-service organizing. Where essential workers felt that they were being forced to work in unsafe conditions so that their employers could generate profits. Who were organizing to ensure very reasonable new standards in their workplace to ensure Covid safety, and were being met with union-busting or other kinds of organizational discouragement from bosses who had come from a punk scene, or a punk background. And I saw that happen at a couple different places. And so…I love looking at what different cities’ drivers are like. I think that’s a helpful thing as someone who has to drive all over the country on tour a lot. So I already had that part about getting cut off from the right lane, and I thought, huh, this kind of reminds me of the boss who says “we’re family” and then does everything possible to not treat their workers as peers or as family.
How do you generally go about putting lyrics together, and where does that work into the larger songwriting process?
I have one big sticky note that’s just phrases I think are cool. I’ll see a road sign that sparks some kind of fun sentence...I have a big list of phrases I like. But song-wise, I always get a kernel of an idea at a really inconvenient time. So like a lot of songwriters my voice memos have thousands of things that are me singing one sentence because I got an idea while driving in traffic in the rain. There are a lot of voice memos that are melodies, or I’ll hum a bass line, or tap out a drum pattern if it's something that has a proggier rhythm. I'll run out of the shower to sing into my phone sometimes. When I know I want to work on some material I’ll just sift through all of these voice memos I’ve never used, and I’ll take notes of the tempo, the key, and I’ll start to pair different hooks together. Similar to how a big writers room would operate, except it’s just me over the course of several years. So from that I’ll put together a basic arrangement, go into demoing mode after that, and then the lyrics are usually the last thing. The arrangement and the melodies don’t tend to change from the demos, but I will be tinkering from the lyrics usually up until we record the song. That’s the icing on the whole thing.
How has your approach to collaboration changed, on this album in particular, since the earliest days when Speedy Ortiz was just yourself?
I think there are a lot of people, especially producers, who need a lot of alone time to get to their ideas. Adding, deleting, tinkering, trying things out until they’re ready to share with the class, and that’s very much my style. I always want to be able to try 40 different versions of a guitar solo by myself. I’ve always done the demoing and writing myself, then I take things to the group and we figure out a live version from there. In this case I did sort of the same thing where I brought pretty fleshed-out demos to the band, but what was different was then we spent three months rehearsing together, and things change when you bring them into the group performance environment. The song structure doesn’t really change and the basic arrangement doesn’t change, but there are micro-changes that can make a big difference in feeling. So that’s where my bandmates bring their perspectives and their personalities as players and writers to the project.
But even when I work with other people on co-writes for things outside of Speedy, I have to do all my s--t alone. “Here’s 20 ideas, tell me which one you like.” I don’t really do well in the group writing environment. I have to go into my private hole of studio hell.
What was it like working at Rancho de la Luna? I know David Catching has one credit on the album, but was he involved in producing?
He didn’t have a technical role except for playing lap steel on one of the songs. But as the person who runs the studio, he only takes sessions that he wants to attend, so he was there for the full session. He was not producing or engineering, but he was just as important as if he had been. Everything you’ve heard about him—assuming you’ve heard that he’s lovely—is true. He’s just dedicated to art and community, and he brought so much joy and positivity to the session.
There are plenty of studios that are capital-N Nice, and yet half of their stuff doesn’t work. Whereas Rancho is very much a house: the room with all the amps in it is also the room where David sleeps between sessions. And yet every single piece of equipment is in pristine order because David makes sure that it is. [Those sessions] were some of the first things we did post-Covid, so to go from not leaving our homes to entering David’s home where everything is focused on creativity and art and friendship, that was an incredibly inspiring experience.
Lastly, I know you’ve toured with Stephen Malkmus, and I remember reading that you were once in an all-female Pavement tribute band.
We played two shows, yes.
So with that background, what was your response to the scene in Barbie this summer, where the patriarchal takeover of Barbie Land sees the Kens giving long lectures about Slanted and Enchanted?
Well, the joke there is really the mansplaining invocation of Pavement. I think Greta Gerwig is a Pavement fan and that’s how that wound up in there. I certainly don’t think the joke is that only men love Pavement. At least I don’t think it is.