Photo by Natalie Piserchio
Sad13 Details The Ghosts And Gear Behind 'Haunted Painting'
While the painting, which Dupuis saw one evening at Seattle's Frye Art Gallery, immediately gave the artist the name for her second solo album, the rest of the work would fall to her. Fortunately, as the creative center behind the Boston indie rock outfit Speedy Ortiz, Dupuis is well-versed in the D.I.Y. musician’s life.
While 2016’s Slugger contrasted with Speedy’s sound as a more pop-forward vehicle for Dupuis, Haunted Painting (out Sept. 25) takes the project to another level entirely. As Sad13, Dupuis has already proven it’s possible to write a feel-good bop about consent in "Get A Yes," so perhaps it shouldn’t come as a shock that "WTD?" manages to blend shimmering synths with a message decrying eco-fascism.
Yet it isn’t one standout but the quality of the album as a whole that solidifies Haunted Painting as one of Dupuis’ most significant releases to date.
From the mischievous and prescient "Ghost (Of A Good Time)" to the sweeping, contemplative "Take Care," this record finds Dupuis working towards what she’s previously described as her "most maximal" work yet. In part, Dupuis credits her mode of songwriting to the late David Berman, whom she noted was a master of walking the line between bouncy and bleak.
"I think that with both Silver Jews and Purple Mountains," Dupuis said, "as well as in his poetry; David Berman rode that line really, really well. Some of his saddest work is also his absolute funniest. As a guiding figure for me in my writing, I'm always trying to be conscious of that line. If a song feels like heavy subject matter, I'm trying to bring levity where it's possible, because I think the art that I admire most tries to strike that balance."
Striking a balance is nothing new for the 32-year-old, who in addition to touring relentlessly prior to onset of COVID, also runs her own music label, Wax Nine, as well as a poetry journal of the same name.
Though she may have a lot more time on her hands these days, last summer, Dupuis found herself booking local studio time during off-days from touring with Speedy to get her next solo project done. Never one to arrive unprepared, she also wrote every song on her new album specifically for each studio's gear list.
Prior to a session at San Francisco's Tiny Telephone, for instance, Dupuis wanted to be sure she could make full use of the studio’s legendary synthesizer collection.
"They have one of the more insane vintage synth collections of any studio I've worked in," she said. "My first instinct is piano, but I'm not good at it and I haven't reliably played it since I was a little kid. I knew there were all of these expensive synths at Tiny Telephone that I wanted to get on the record, so in the time leading up to being there, it was me just sitting at home with a little tiny practice keyboard, trying to be able to play those parts correctly."
Commitment to vision is another thing Dupuis takes quite seriously.
After hosting a panel for Sonos focused on women in audio engineering, Dupuis went through her own album credits and realized that she was the only woman credited as a producer on her work.
"I had this awareness of all these awesome engineers," she explained, "but I hadn't worked with any of them, so that was part of the reason for me wanting to hire strictly women on this project."
As a result, Dupuis worked with only female audio engineers on Haunted Painting—eight in total—including Emily Lazar, Sarah Tudzin and Lily Wen. The latter of the three was actually once under the care of Dupuis when the artist worked as a summer camp counselor. Last year, the two joined forces at Figure 8 in Brooklyn to work on new Sad13 tracks featuring woodwinds and strings.
At Elliott Smith’s New Monkey studio, Dupuis teamed with Tudzin—who records and releases music as illuminati hotties—to figure out a way to sample Smith's microwave as means of incorporating his spirit into the recordings.
"When we were at New Monkey tracking ‘Oops...!’ and ‘Good Grief,’” Tudzin recalled, "we were perpetually in search of any instrument or sound that was unmistakably Elliott. There are a lot of beautiful instruments and pieces of gear there that belonged to him, and after pestering the staff about the story of the studio, we learned that even the furniture and decorations were his, including an essentially non-functioning microwave that no one wanted to get rid of."
The two joked about sampling the decrepit appliance before actually deciding to give it a shot. The final result, pitched as a synth, can be heard in the melody that ends "Good Grief."
The ways in which the experience of creating Haunted Painting are reflected in the finished product don’t end there.
Upon arriving at La La Land (an analog-only studio in Louisville) following a gig in Chicago, Dupuis discovered a block party borrowing power from the building had caused a fire to start. As a result, she altered some of her lyrics for her sessions there to refer to smoke. At Tiny Telephone, a broken harpsichord required Dupuis and engineer Maryam Qudus to "layer chains and ping pong balls on piano strings" to create a worthy substitute.
In one key area, however, Dupuis opted to cede control. Though she has done her own artwork for all her releases to date, she tasked the design of Haunted Painting’s cover to her mother.
"My mom, for most of my life, was a portrait painter," Dupuis explained, "but she stopped doing it as her main work after her car was hit by another car maybe a decade ago. She has chronic pain from that, so it's difficult for her to do portraiture, which is so detailed and time-intensive. She does plenty of other kinds of art, but she hadn't done a portrait in like a decade. The fact that she was even able to do this one, let alone that it looks so incredible, after 10 years away, is amazing. I think the world of my mom. She's a really cool artist and I probably wouldn't be doing any of this stuff if I hadn't had her as an example of someone doing creative work, so it's really nice to have her involved."
From sampling Elliott Smith’s microwave to teaching herself how to compose for strings and woodwinds (again), Dupuis’ emphasis on Sad13 as a project solely of her own creation is undercut only by a seemingly inextinguishable desire to give back.
Be it writing artist bios for projects from Tudzin and Qudus as they worked with her in the studio or also finding the time to put together a heartfelt compilation honoring the late Adam Schlesinger earlier this year, Dupuis has often used any focus on herself as an opportunity to refract attention onto those she cherishes.
This time, however, the spotlight shines solely on her, and with good reason. In trying to summarizing all the countless elements that came together to create Haunted Painting, Dupuis once more turns to von Stuck, the painter who started on her on this project.
"One of the cool things about him," she recalled, "is that he would build the frames himself and that he considered the frame as part of the artwork. As someone who likes to play all of the instruments and use production as part of the song itself, I can relate to a perspective of wanting the whole thing to be one product."