How did ‘Slugger’ come together? Had you been wanting to make a solo record for a while, or did it happen more spontaneously?
“On the one hand, most of these songs come from voice memo ideas that had been sitting on my phone since 2013, but they were all things that didn’t really fit for Speedy Ortiz. So that had been been building for a while, but the desire to make a solo album was a bit of a last-minute thing. I had some time off in January – a whole month of no shows and nothing to do, and I had impulsively rented out a friend’s tiny bedroom in Philadelphia, so I thought, ‘Why not use this time to do some home recording?”
And you wrote it all in two weeks, right?
“Sort of. The way that I write songs is making a demo on the computer, and a lot of the writing I do happens via recording. So in those two weeks, I was basically making demos – I didn’t think they were going to be the final versions, but I was able to take the shells of these demos, re-do the vocals and add some live drums a little later. So whenever I had some free time for the rest of the year, I was putting in nicer vocals, or better guitars, or mixing and mastering it.”
Was there a particular impetus to make a record about consent and autonomy and male-female friendship?
“They’re about things I have to experience in my own day-to-day life. If I’m writing about something, it’s because it’s troubling me in some capacity. The record is about the things that it’s about because they’re the issues that impact my life most days.
About the single ‘Get a Yes’, you’ve spoken about how so many kids learn about sex from pop music, and how most pop musicians are terrible teachers – what were the songs that taught you about sex as a teenager?
“I remember being really into Christina Aguilera but ‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a song that has a conflicting message. It’s supposed to be this romantic, sexy song, but it’s about the protagonist’s mind telling her to do one thing and her body’s telling her to do something else; I just feel that there’s a lot of mystery and conflict inherent in mainstream depictions of sex, and less of a focus on healthy sexuality. So that was part of wanting to write a song like ‘Get A Yes’, where there’s no question of what it’s about. I don’t know that there many songs that are so explicitly about consent, which seems crazy to me! I mean, it should be a part of every sexual interaction, right?”
Does pop music have a responsibility to talk about this stuff, considering its audience?
“I don’t think it’s only pop music. Watching movies or TV, you’ll see sex scenes, but you don’t see what’s leading up to it. I don’t know that there’s necessarily a responsibility for every single song about sex to be like, ‘First I asked her if she was cool with this and she said yes…’ But I just so rarely see consent centred in the mainstream media, yet we spend so much time in the news talking about how vital it is, and how much education about consent would reduce the rampant rape statistics we’re currently dealing with in the US. We’re not lacking for protest music right now – some of the biggest albums of the year, specifically Beyonce, have been protest albums. But this one area hasn’t been covered as much outside of punk bands.”
You wrote, recorded and produced ‘Slugger’ on your own. Do you think people are still surprised, or even intimidated, by women who are musically self-sufficient in that way?
I didn’t do everything myself, but there are plenty of people who are producers, like Grimes, who don’t let anyone touch it. It baffles me, I guess, that people are still surprised that women are capable people with vast interests. I never understand that – people who immediately want to discredit women who work in technical areas of music, but it’s not surprising, I suppose.
Let’s talk about the song ‘Just a Friend’, because that’s another concept that needs to be normalised in pop music – the idea that men and women can simply be friends, without one party being ‘friend-zoned’…
It’s specifically a response to the Biz Markie song [1989’s ‘Just a Friend’] where he says ‘Don’t ever talk to a girl who’s just got a friend’. I have a lot of just friends! There’s plenty of close male friends of mine who, people I’ve dated have maybe felt threatened by those friendships, which is a) ridiculous, because it implies a complete lack of trust, and b) it’s very heteronormative, and I’m not straight! It’s only ever my male friends who come under this extreme level of scrutiny whenever I have a male partner. So it was a way of ridiculing that outdated ideology, that people should only have platonic friendships with those of the same gender identity.
On ‘Hype’, you sing about “Bait reporting borders boring: she’s moody, dark, insane.” Do you feel you’re sometimes misrepresented in that way?
There’s this book that just came out, Trainwreck, about how when a man acts up or is expressive about his own wild feelings, he’s a vanguard, and if a woman does it she’s a trainwreck. That song is kind of parodying the language people use to describe women who express emotions. I don’t know that I’ve been subject to that, specifically, but maybe.
The message of the song is ultimately positive and empowering, but was it difficult to write about the kind of abusive relationship you detail on ‘Tell U What’?
“Yeah, certainly. I was in an abusive relationship a few years ago, and it took me a long time to get out of it. I’ve tried to avoid writing about it, but I felt very helpless at the time, and it took a lot of strength to get out of it. I wanted to write a song that showcases the kind of strength and attitude you need to extricate yourself from a relationship like that. Often in an unhealthy relationship, one of the components is controlling behaviour: someone who’s not letting you be an independent human. That song is not entirely about any one thing, but that was certainly the impetus – having been in this abusive relationship and being better able to recognise patterns of control, knowing that no matter what I have to make space to be my own person. I know a lot of people who’ve dealt with similar relationships so I guess I was writing for other people to hear the song and recognise that even when you feel really stuck, there’s always a way to get out.”
On the album’s closing track, ‘Coming Into Powers’, you talk about “Building the me I want.” Was there a cathartic process to making this record? Were these songs something you had to get off your chest?
“Some of these ideas didn’t feel appropriate for Speedy Ortiz, or it felt easier to express if I was the only one behind the statements. So in a way, it did feel cathartic. To me, the songs all seem really positive. ‘Coming Into Powers’, for example, is about being who you want to be and hoping that the world allows you to do that. And it was also really cool to have Sammus on that song, who’s one of my favourite rappers, and favourite people. I saw her play at SXSW and I actually cried while I was watching her perform – I don’t think I’ve ever done that before.”
What’s next for Speedy Ortiz, is there a new album on the horizon?
“We’ve written a new album and it’s been demoed, although I don’t know when we’ll record it – hopefully by the end of this year, or early next year. Mike, the drummer in Speedy, has has own solo record coming out in November, so we’re both getting ready to tour those projects. Speedy also has some shows between now and the end of the year, but in general, we’re taking a little time off. For the past three years, we’ve been on tour ten months of the year and if you want to make time for other creative projects, you just can’t be on the road that much. So we’re taking a little much-needed time off this year.”