"You make me wanna leave the one I'm with, start a new relationship. . ." Speedy Ortiz's Sadie Dupuis is unexpectedly covering Usher during her band's soundcheck at Washington, D.C.'s Black Cat. There's a pale yellow electric guitar at her feet – right next to an amp with a shirt that says "GENDER IS OVER! (IF YOU WANT IT)" slung across it – but she's singing a cappella, and it's sounding pretty great. "You want me to keep going?" she asks as the club's sound guy watches, amazed. "I could go forever."
Dupuis likes surprising people. "Expectations have historically been low for female musicians, so I want to be really technically good onstage," the 26-year-old singer-guitarist says later, sipping bergamot-flavored iced tea backstage with her bandmates. "So I always write parts that are a stretch for me. Someone tweeted that I looked bored onstage. I'm like, 'I'm just focusing so I don't fuck up this guitar part!'"
That refusal to ever settle for anything easy has made Speedy Ortiz – Dupuis, guitarist Devin McKnight, bassist Darl Ferm and drummer Mike Falcone – one of the most exciting bands in indie rock. Their second studio LP, Foil Deer, is full of sneaky hooks and sharp turns, plus densely tangled lyrics to match the intricate instrumentation. Who else could make a line like, "I am not averse to getting salt in my face/Let me marinate a week and reevaluate" as catchy as Dupuis does on the new album's "Swell Content"? "The jagged music they make gives her room to sing these jagged, original words," says Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus, who brought Speedy Ortiz on tour last year with his current band, the Jicks. "That makes them special."
Dupuis has been writing songs since her Manhattan childhood, but she says she found her voice during the miserable year she spent at a "very strict" Connecticut boarding school around age 13. "I did not do well there," she says. "That was the first time I ever became depressed. And I thought, 'Oh, I'm sad. What can I do with my time?'" Soon she was demoing original compositions as an outlet for her unhappiness.
After that year, Dupuis' parents sent her to a public school in rural Litchfield County, Connecticut, which she notes is the only part of the state that voted for George W. Bush in 2004. She became a budding activist, volunteering for a marriage-equality campaign and attempting to found a gay-straight alliance student group at her school. "I got called in and talked to: 'That's not appropriate,'" she recalls.
Aside from that run-in, she flourished in her new environment. Academically, Dupuis – a self-described "real nerd" – was drawn to math and science. "There was a competitive thing, where the only other people who were into that stuff were boys, and I wanted to be better than them," she says. "And I was."
Outside of class, she wrote and recorded songs to post on MySpace ("I was really into Cat Power," she says), drew comics, and became an eager participant in theater, Model U.N. and the track team, where she made captain. She was straight-edge until her senior year, when she discovered Long Island iced teas: "Oh, wow, I'm really good at dancing now!" (Last summer, she quit alcohol again, along with wheat and coffee, for health reasons. "Ginger," one of the most anthemic songs on Foil Deer, is about braving a party armed only with a soft drink. "I'll have a little to drink now, but I don't really get drunk anymore," says Dupuis. "I was way cooler in high school. I'm just trying to get back to the height of my coolness.")
After high school, Dupuis went on to MIT to study pure math but dropped out after two years to pursue music and writing, eventually graduating from New York's Barnard College and earning a masters in poetry from University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Speedy Ortiz began as a solo project after the implosion of her previous band, Quilty – named after Humbert Humbert's rival in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita – and soon expanded to a four-piece lineup, winning more fans and critical raves with each release, from 2012's Sports EP to 2013's full-length Major Arcana to 2014's Real Hair EP.
By last summer, the stage was set for Speedy Ortiz to make even bigger moves. McKnight, a longtime friend from the New England rock scene, joined in May 2014 after the departure of guitarist Matt Robidoux, and he began playing shows with the band the next day. "I had to learn a lot of songs," McKnight says. "It was disorienting." Dupuis, who had left an adjunct teaching post at UMass months earlier, wrote most of Foil Deer that July. "I was trying to write three songs a day – 'How cool is it that this is my job now?'" she says.
The band recorded Foil Deer over three weeks at producer Nicolas Vernhes' Rare Book Room studio in Brooklyn, a step up from the four days they spent knocking out Major Arcana in 2013. "The songwriting called for it this time," says Falcone. They looked to reference points as disparate as turn-of-the-2000s indie rock act Enon and Aaliyah's "More Than a Woman," which Dupuis cites as "one of the greatest songs of all time." They also took full advantage of Vernhes' collection of guitars, pedals and amps. "I think I used a totally different setup on every song," Dupuis says. "Sometimes even within the same song."
With the new album, Speedy Ortiz have moved decisively past the Nineties comparisons that followed them early on – although the bandmates continue to hold strong opinions on the subject of classic indie rock. At one point, more or less unprompted, Falcone names Terror Twilight as his favorite Pavement album, a wild-card pick that he justifies with a complicated Beatles analogy. "They made three White Albums, then two Abbey Roads, and the last Abbey Road was superior to the previous Abbey Road," Falcone maintains. "No one is going to agree with me. I accept that." Dupuis, the voice of reason, chooses Wowee Zowee – a White Album analogue if there ever was one – as her top Pavement LP. (Malkmus, for the record, says that Speedy Ortiz remind him more of Helium.)
The making of Foil Deer coincided with another, less expected development. Some time ago, after a bad relationship ended, Dupuis swore off musicians: "I was like, 'No more inter-office dating.' But you can't have rules." Sure enough, around the time the band was mixing the new album, she fell for Cloud Nothings singer-guitarist Dylan Baldi. "Dylan's cool," she says. "He doesn't suck, unlike some other ones." She and Baldi went to Coachella this spring – a new experience for Dupuis, who says she generally hates music festivals – and they're planning to move in together.
Being back in D.C. reminds the bandmates of a house show they played nearby in January 2014, right as they were on the cusp of a new phase. They drew such a large crowd that fans ended up bribing each other for spots in the house. "People are still mad about it," Dupuis says. "For some reason, it makes us assholes to play a house show." Ferm shrugs in response: "Everyone is scraping for DIY street cred, you know?"
That will probably be a moot point this summer, when they will play some of their highest-profile shows ever, including choice festival bookings and a few dates in Oregon opening for Wilco's 20th anniversary tour. "We're having the best time," says Dupuis. "And we're playing an amphitheater in August. That's going to be weird as hell."