When Sadie Dupuis found herself in a Seattle museum in 2018 looking at German artist Franz von Stuck’s 1902 oil painting Saharet, she saw something she didn’t expect.
“It’s a just a portrait of a dancer, but there’s something very captivating about her expression,” says Dupuis, the Philadelphia singer-guitarist who has just released Haunted Painting, her second solo album as Sad13.
“It’s a beautiful portrait and she’s a beautiful person, but there’s just something very mysterious about it to me,” says the 32-year-old musician and poet, who also leads the indie rock band Speedy Ortiz.
“Part of the reason that I hadn’t worked on music in the couple of years leading up to starting this record was my dad passed away, and I lost a lot of friends to overdose,” she says.
“And just not knowing how to process that and obsessing over it, there was something about the way that portrait looked. I saw some of myself in it.”
In Saharet, von Stuck’s dancer is portrayed with ghostly pallor and an enigmatic smile. The gold-framed painting became the inspiration for the simultaneously spooky and quite catchy Haunted Painting (Wax Nine ***), an 11-song collection whose album cover is a portrait of Dupuis by her mother, Diane Dupuis.
“Having that moment of self-recognition kind of helped me find a way into working and writing my way through these obsessive feelings and thoughts,” says Dupuis. A timed-to-Halloween animated video for “The Crow,” one of Haunted Painting’s most powerful tracks, launched Friday, along with a new NPR Tiny Desk (At Home) performance video in which she and her bandmates appear in costume.
From New York City to Philly gritty
Dupuis grew up in New York, and studied math and music at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before transferring to Barnard College and going on to get a MFA at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
There, she wrote the poems in the 2018 collection Mouthguard, which she said at the time were written “as self-surgery, extracting darkness from myself before it grew, revealing my icky insides to myself.” (She now edits a monthly poetry journal, which she publishes through her Wax Nine record label.)
She also toured steadily fronting Speedy Ortiz, which released Major Arcana in 2013 and Foil Deer in 2015. Coming off the road and finishing grad school, she was through with the academic bubble: "It was time for me to go back to the city.”
Living in New York would have meant “my bedroom could hold my bed and that’s about it,” she says, and Dupuis needs room. On Haunted Painting, she’s credited as playing 18 instruments, including guitar, bass, organ, lap steel, glockenspiel, electric sitar, autoharp, theremin, and “toys, trash, and ephemera.”
So she gave Philly a try early in 2016, subletting a friend’s Fishtown apartment while writing and recording the first Sad13 album, Slugger.
“I had a lot of friends in Philly and I always enjoyed coming here on tour,” she says. “It’s just nice to be in a city where a lot of artists live, and I can have a little bit more space.”
She cemented her status as a Philadelphian during a 2018 Speedy Ortiz tour date at Union Transfer, opening for her songwriting hero Liz Phair, now a close friend.
Dupuis said her song “No Below” was “a love letter to Gritty,” the Philadelphia Flyers demonic mascot. “I’m officially dating him,” she proclaimed.
Memory, grief, obsession
She first saw the von Stuck painting when she was invited to Seattle for a poetry festival in June 2019. It gave her the framework for Haunted Painting songs like “Ghost (of a Good Time)” — about missing out on frivolous fun — that are peppy and playful on the surface with darker stuff bubbling underneath.
“Memory and grief, and obsession over those two things, is the through line.” she says of the album. She is donating $1 of every sale on the music site Bandcamp to Prevention Point, the Kensington-based public health organization and needle exchange.
“Those are sort of the big things, trying to work though loss and letting go and also engage with the past in a way that doesn’t have to feel completely hard. Sometimes it’s nice to sit in your memories of people that you’ve left behind.”
Dupuis worked up the songs at home, and then took them into the studio at various locales around the country, working only with women recording engineers.
“Men comprise 98% of engineers,” she says. “But I worked with six amazing women who engineer and mix and produce, and any one of them could helm a huge record. I wanted to work with friends and people I admire, but also start shifting that in my own discography.
"If I’m going to be hurt that only 2% of audio engineers are women or nonbinary, my own discography should make some effort to change that,” she says.
Dupuis wrote “The Crow” after a recording date in Los Angeles at the late songwriter Elliott Smith’s New Monkey Studio. The next day she learned that another beloved hero had died, the Silver Jews and Purple Mountains songwriter and poet David Berman.
“Who dares find joy in this terror?” a lyric asks. It’s written about a pre-pandemic personal loss, but one that resonates with the collective 2020 grief.
That’s particularly true this week in Philadelphia, Dupuis said, as protesters have filled the streets in response to the police killing of Walter Wallace Jr. on Monday, blocks away from where she lives in West Philadelphia.
“Sometimes it feels endless, and it’s hard to know whether art is a good use of time,” Dupuis said. “It can distract you temporarily. But yeah, it’s very hard to be in this world right now.”
With “The Crow,” Dupuis felt that making art was the one necessary thing she had to do to deal with her grief.
“I never felt possessed working on a piece of music before,” she says. “I was having trouble sleeping if I wasn’t working on it. I haven’t felt so engrossed in trying to get something done in my whole life.”