It's great paradox, right? Sadie Dupuis, songwriter and frontperson for Speedy Ortiz, has an MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts. She's been writing poetry for several years. Yet she insists on writing her song lyrics in prose form. They look like paragraphs. She even hates when anyone writing about her music transcribes her lyrics in verse form. "It really does drive me crazy when I see my lyrics reprinted in stanza form. I mean, I'm giving it to them right here. This is the way it should look!"
But it should come as little surprise that Dupuis treats song lyrics this way: her poetry writing and song writing have nothing in common. Her poems start with words and with an idea she'd like to write about, but her songs almost always start with a melody. Sitting down to write poetry and instead coming up with a song "would almost be as if someone sat down to create an oil painting and wound up choreographing a ballet instead," she told me.
Dupuis is the third songwriter I've interviewed with an MFA (Allison Moorer and Amanda Shires are the other two). She freely admits that her writing process is full of "compulsions," but I don't see it that way. In almost every genre of writing outside of songwriting, it would simply be called a routine. With the exception of a handful of the songwriters on this site, most admit to being notoriously undisciplined about their songwriting process. They rarely carve time out of their day to do it. Instead, they write when they feel like writing.
Dupuis is different. She can't write just anywhere: she needs a space dedicated to writing, free of distractions. She wrote Speedy Ortiz's last album at her mother's house deep in the Connecticut woods, and she wrote her new solo album in a room she rented from a friend that contained little more than a desk and a bed. And to further enforce that discipline, she's taken to giving herself a specific window of time in which to write a song by setting artificial deadlines. If that doesn't work? She heads to the shower, where she almost always comes up with a fully formed song (and yes, it's a looooong shower, as you'll read).
Speedy Ortiz is in the process of making their new album, but meanwhile Dupuis has a solo album Slugger due November 11 under the moniker Sad13. You can listen to the first single off the album, "Get a Yes," and then read my interview with Sadie Dupuis about her songwriting process after the video for "Raising the Skate."
How much writing do you get to do outside of songwriting?
Not too much anymore. I studied poetry as an undergrad then got my MFA in poetry from UMass Amherst, so I obviously wrote quite a lot then. People are always asking me about the similarities between songwriting and poetry, and to me it’s completely different. I'm very much in music writing mode now; we’re going to record a new Speedy record in the fall and I wrote and recorded a solo record in the spring. That’s about 30 songs, though I've written a lot more. When I'm in that headspace, it’s hard to be in poetry mode. If I'm writing poetry, I'm not really writing music, and vice versa.
Can you elaborate on that “headspace” idea?
When I sit down to write a poem, I'm intentionally writing poetry. It would almost be as if someone sat down to create an oil painting and wound up choreographing a ballet instead. It’s all about how I channel feelings into a specific creative product. If there’s some large, overarching event in my life or the world that I'm trying to channel into something, I might write a poem, or there might be a specific phrase in my mind that I want to use in a poem.
But my songwriting process often happens involuntarily. I might wind up with a melody stuck in my head when I wake up in the morning; I’ll make a voice recording of it and figure it out later on guitar. The lyrics come last. So it’s more that when I write a song, the music usually comes first. The lyrics are almost a “fill in the blank process” to complete the song.
Is there an ideal environment when and where you get your best writing done?
It’s been different at different parts of my life. I tour so often, and I can't really write on the road because I need a designated space for writing. I do come up with melodies all the time on tour, so I make a ton of voice memos. Some are melodies, others are words or phrases that I might want to use in a poem. That list will be hundreds of phrases or melodies long by the time I get home from tour. I listen to all of them and take notes on each one.
Once I've done that, I can get a sense of what ideas work well with each other. These are all melodies, even though they might be vocal melodies. It’s really about taking bits and pieces of 20 second voice memos to see what works best together. I might take four or five of them and put them into a song. Rough lyrics come next, then I go straight to making a demo.
When you are home, is there a certain room where you like to write?
My answer has changed since this became my full-time job. When I taught at UMass, I wrote all the time, but that was mostly for school. I was making one demo every couple of weeks, which is still pretty productive. But my songwriting really only happened after all my academic responsibilities. It was more a way to decompress at 5am, along with doing things like watching Law and Order for 14 straight hours and cooking mounds of Baba ghanoush.
But now that it’s my day job, I designate a certain block of time, like a couple of weeks, and try to write at least a song every day. For the last record, it was almost like a retreat. I came to my mother’s house in the middle of the woods in Connecticut. It’s secluded with no distractions other than my inability stop Googling stupid things. I wrote up to three songs every day for a couple of weeks. That environment was really helpful.
I had some time off at the start of the year and wrote and recorded a solo album. I rented a friend’s tiny guest room, which was little more than a bed and a desk, and I did that whole album in two weeks at that desk. So it’s good for me not to be surrounded by all my stuff. I'm a collector of things that are good at distracting me from working. So now I'm back here at my mom’s house to work on the next Speedy record. I need to be removed from distractions, which are usually friends and family.
Is there a time of day when you get your best writing done?
It’s interesting, the solo record was the first time that I created a record from voice memos. All those ideas had been kicking around for five or six years, and it’s a fun way to go. It’s more formulaic than what I was used to in the past, which usually involved just noodling until I came up with something. This process was more regimented: I had a set of musical ideas in front of me and had to figure how to connect them. Time of day doesn’t really matter. It’s all about how quickly I can solve the puzzle.
Songwriters usually tell me how lazy and undisciplined they are as writers, that they are usually unable to set aside a certain time of day each day to write.
Oh, I absolutely can. I have to.
Does that come from your life as an academic?
Less so from being an MFA and more so from my experience teaching songwriting to kids. The class was an hour long, and the goal was to write a song each class. So I'd often write a song for each class along with them. I'm very accustomed to giving myself artificial restrictions and deadlines. I think that setting deadlines like that can really help because it forces you to make decisions, and it can take you places that you wouldn’t have gone otherwise. I still sometimes write like that: I have friends who are songwriters, and sometimes we’ll be in a room and give ourselves an hour to each come up with a song about a certain idea. In this type of environment, like where I am right now at my mom’s house, I have to create some deadline or else I won't get anything done. I'll just go to the lake. Laughs.
How often do phrases that you hear or see make their way into songs?
Yeah, sometimes if I hear someone say something or if I read a cool phrase, I write it down in my notebook. Let me look and see right now (opens her notebook)…track me, the magic flu, cross rubicon, filled with love for my friends, I'm in league with the devil. All this stuff comes from books, magazines, even texts messages from my friends. So if I see or hear something cool, I'll definitely write it down. If I ever get stuck writing lyrics and need syllables in a certain place, I’ll consult this list to see if something fits.
How much revision do you do to your lyrics?
I do a fair amount. If there’s a line that annoys me when I first write it, I won't worry about it then because I know I'll go back and change it later. I don’t really like repeating myself and I don’t like stating anything in too obvious of a phrase. if a word is too obvious, I’ll try to find a more interesting word in its place as long as it still works melodically.
I often overwrite. I write way too many fucking words, which means I have to go back later and cut. Otherwise, I have to start rapping if I want to fit that many words in. Those lines often work in my head when I write them, but when I go to demo them I realize that I can't sing that many notes that fast. This is all a one day process, by the way. I let it sit for a while, then when the band goes into the studio, I have the lyrics in front of me. If a line is bothering me, I’ll change it then.
Do you use paper or computer for your lyrics?
The first draft is usually on paper but then at some point they make it to the computer, especially since I write lyrics in a rather unconventional way. I like them appear in paragraph form. It looks nicer that way.
So they are not in stanzas, but are written as prose?
Yes, and it drives me crazy when I see people online transcribe or reprint my lyrics in stanza form. It looks so ugly!
Do you put slashes where the line breaks should be?
Nope. They are written as full sentences to look like prose. I have all these crazy compulsions, but it really does drive me crazy when I see my lyrics reprinted in stanza form. I mean, I'm giving it to them right here. This is the way it should look!
Note: Here's the original lyric sheet to "Raising the Skate" (the video at the beginning of the interview), from the Word document that Dupuis sent me.
Since you do the artwork for the albums, is there every any overlap in the creative processes?
Not so much, but I'm a big believer in writing with the big picture of the album in mind. I do love doing the artwork, but for the new Speedy record we have about 8 songs that are good to go and we have 2 that need work. I’d like to write about 5 or 6 more, but when we get off the phone I'm going to plot out what the track listing might be given the songs that we already have. I don’t think we have a first track yet, since there needs to be an ebb and flow to how the songs go. I do like the artwork to encapsulate what the record means to me.
Is there an ideal emotion when you get your best writing done?
Yeah, the emotion related to the stress of a deadline. Laughs. There are some Speedy songs that people gravitate towards the most that I wrote when I was so depressed and I was crying when I wrote them. People seem to connect to the full on miserable songs the most, but I also like writing funny and playful songs.
What was the easiest song for you to write?
It’s hard for me to think about the easiest. This is going to sound like I’m not honed at my craft at all and that i'm lazy. . .Well, let me preface this by saying I don’t shower as much as most people. I’m not very sweaty, so I shower every four or five days. But when I do shower, I'm in there for like 30 or 40 minutes, and often I come out of the shower with a fully formed song. So I run to my phone and sing the melody into it. When that happens, I'm usually able to demo the song that day. The shower is my favorite place to come up with ideas. A lot of those songs on Foil Deer were done in an hour. One I wrote in a hammock and another I wrote in traffic. It was mostly about listening to my voice recorder for ideas, then coming home and making a demo. I really try to stick to that hour deadline once I start writing a song.
There’s one song on the last album called “Zig,” with a guitar part in the center. I’d been trying to work it into a song for a long time. It’s got a complicated finger picking part and a harmony that goes against it. I'd be wanted to use it for years. This was when I was writing Foil Deer and writing quickly, and I'd give myself a prompt to start writing. So one time I wanted a song with a structure such that it started with an A section, then a B section, then a C section, then back to B then A. That’s how I wrote that song, by putting the guitar part in that C section.
Who are some of your favorite authors? You knew I was going to ask that!
I did, and I'm prepared. When I was younger, Sylvia Plath was my big hero. I'm still a huge fan, and part of the reason I moved to Northampton was her connection to the place. I love Charles Simic, John Berryman, and Eileen Myles. Also Audrey Lorde, Anne Carson. Carson’s Autobiography of Red is one of my favorite books. I also really like C.A. Conrad and Melissa Broder
I’m also a big fan of James Tate and how he creates a fictional universe within each poem. I'm not really a narrative songwriter, but I do admire his ability to do that.
Do you try to read every day?
Definitely. I could read a book a day on tour. Last night I just finished The Girls by Emma Cline. Great book. I also like The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit. I went to Iceland last year, so that book really resonated with me.