the return of tegan and sara: talking the new queer mainstream with the pop game changers
As the twin duo returns to the fold with a new album, we discuss the struggles of staying relevant, embracing the alternative, and maintaining satisfaction.
For nearly 20 years, twin sisters Tegan and Sara Quin have created some of the most assured, relatable, and profoundly loved music around. Their origins as a small indie two-piece brought with it cult status and multitudes of dedicated fans. Often heralded as the first of its kind, their fan base rabidly digested and discussed any morsel of Tegan and Sara they could, starting online forums in a pre-social media era and creating a unique dialogue between themselves and the band that still exists today.
However, in 2013 everything changed. While a transition to straight up pop had been brewing throughout the band's previous two albums -- synths and drum machines appearing sparingly on 2007's The Con and 2009's Sainthood -- the band's seventh album, Heartthrob, was considered a curve ball.
Produced almost exclusively by pop virtuoso Greg Kurstin, the record was a luscious experimentation of epically melancholic choruses matched with gloriously polished production. With renewed vigor from Tegan and Sara themselves, they achieved their highest chart position on the Billboard album chart, helping the band grow out of their cult status into a viable mainstream pop act.
"I think what's most exciting for us is there's a lot of flexibility in terms of what our records sound like because we're an atypical band," Tegan says of the transition when i-D talked to her last month. "So when we sat down to write our new album, Love You To Death, there wasn't a huge conversation needed between Sara and I. We acknowledged that Heartthrob was really fun and knew that we were going to continue down this path and keep challenging ourselves."
However, listening to their new album, which sees the band return to the songwriting superhero powers of Greg Kurstin, there is a shift; while Heartthrob was concerned with metaphors and universality, LYTD is more direct and unashamedly queer. Songs like, "That Girl," "100X," and "B/W/U," reclaim the rawness that made people fall in love with Tegan and Sara in the first place, while "U Turn," "Stop Desire," and "Boyfriend" embrace the fully-fledged popstars they yearn to be.
With the album out next month, we spoke to Tegan about the struggles of staying relevant, embracing the alternative, and maintaining satisfaction.
The album opener, "That Girl," has an honesty and self-awareness to it that's quite arresting. How important was it to make sure that the music remained both personable and relatable?
We felt that Heartthrob had a lot of honesty. But one of the pushbacks we got was that people, even the die-hard fans, missed the vulnerability of So Jealous and The Con. So with LYTD, we explored more of Sara and mine's tortured relationship from early on in our career. We were also talking a lot about the past; I'd had a pretty epic, long relationship that had ended. We lost two very important family members. Ultimately, we were really ruminating on this idea of love and the different kinds of love, and how even when you vow and promise to be with someone forever it doesn't happen. These were all important topics, but they're also easy to be vulnerable in. I feel like "That Girl" and "100 X" are the two that exemplify this most. I hope that it's a bridge to what we've done in the past.
You mentioned "So Jealous," and I feel that "Stop Desire" acts like the positive cousin to "You Wouldn't Like Me."
For me there are certain molds for songs, and I wanted something that was upbeat and rock, but also super poppy. I was trying not to write a cousin to "Closer," so I was definitely pulling a lot of inspiration from "So Jealous" in the way I was writing. In fact, that was the first song that I wrote for this record, although I actually didn't intend it to be for the album. I wrote it when we were touring Heartthrob. I don't typically write very much when we're on the road; there's no point, the songs never make the next record so why even bother? But I was diddling around in the studio and I wrote "Stop Desire." We were on tour with Fun and I played it for Jack Antonoff, who was working on a Bleachers record. He was like, "Oh, this is such a pop song you should pitch it to people." So I ended up sending it to our managers who told us we should hold on to it. I thought that it would never make a Tegan and Sara record; it was written too soon. But it was the first song that Greg [Kurstin] wrote back about. It's a funny one; it's the little engine that could.
I really like how direct the album is, especially when it comes to LGBTQ topics. Was it easier this time talking about those things?
Absolutely. I think it's two things: firstly, for a lot of our career we were hesitant to be super emotional or candid because I felt like sometimes, in the press or whatever, it created a sense that it was "girl music" or a page out of our diary. There was an era of Tegan and Sara where we tried to move towards metaphors and writing from a universal place because we really didn't want to be marginalized and written off. As we've become more confident we've come to realize that there's power in just saying how you feel.
Secondly, we'd never hesitated in talking about being queer, but I think there was a point where we realized that if we could somehow mainstream ourselves there was more power in that. There just isn't that many queer artists in the mainstream, especially women. I was like, "Why do I have to I have to be on the side lines? Why do I have to preach to people who are like me? Why can't I get up and sing in front of Katy Perry? Why can't I reach those people?" That was the shift with Heartthrob; I can write the music I write and be as queer as I've always been but also reach the mainstream.
How do you feel discussing queer issues has changed in the last few years?
We're talking so much more about the trans people, the gender spectrum, gender queerness, and fluidity in gender; it's so exciting. I think for a long time it's not mattered that Sarah and I are gay, but there's something to be said about gender. We've always been classified more as tomboys, but we really glammed up our image and there was a discrepancy. There was the feeling that if we started to look better and wear makeup then our music must be getting worse. No, why can't we be confident in our bodies? Why does us doing our makeup before we go on stage somehow now discredit the music that we're writing? We're really embracing the parts of us that are both female and male and pushing that. It's all very fascinating.
It must feel amazing finding this second wind, or Tegan and Sara 2.0.
You know what I say? We've never been concerned with being cool. So for a long time the mainstream was never like us and we were never going to be popular. But we felt good about ourselves and the music we were making was still relevant, it just wasn't relevant to a lot of people. But over the eight records that we've made, somehow the music that we're making has become accepted in the mainstream. I don't know whether we necessarily became more mainstream or the mainstream became more like us. But it's become more queer-friendly, more gender fluid-friendly, more alternative and more open to a certain type of person. That sort of revolutionized us, because we haven't really had to do much. Yes we upped the production slightly, but ultimately it just feels like the world became a little more like Tegan and Sara.
In the last couple of years we've seen acts like Troye Sivan and Halsey build audiences that they've cultivated online, something that you and Sara kind of started. In a sense it gives fans a sense of ownership over artists. But how do you think you cross that over into the mainstream?
You have to be respectful to the people that have been supporting you for a long time. We wouldn't be the band that we are without that diehard fan base that grew online. But we also can't just rely on those people. It's very boring, but inevitably you go out less, you buy less, and you don't go to concerts so much. And, ultimately, the mechanics of being an artist are that you have to consistently cultivate new fans. So it's a very delicate balance of supporting the old fans but also recognizing that we have to be current. I don't really care so much about being cool, but I do care about being relevant. I don't want to be antiquated. I don't want to be shelved. The diehards sometimes speak out about wishing we made music like we used to, but we don't. If we were making music like we used to make then we wouldn't be relevant and they wouldn't be hearing it because it wouldn't get any traction. It's our job not to worry too much about that but to continue to be creatively satisfied because that's how we keep our music going. We start with just making sure we're happy with what we're making because that seems to work the best.
You can tell when there's a disconnection between an artist and what they're trying to sell.
We've been doing this a long time and there are patches of our career that I look back on where I was very unhappy. It wasn't just because Sara and I weren't getting along or I was having girlfriend problems. It was literally like, "Wow, I'm on stage and there are thousands of people in front of me and I don't feel connected. I feel like I'm pretending." I can remember during Sainthood being on stage at these festivals in front of all these people and thinking, "I'd rather be on the bus watching TV. What the fuck? Why doesn't this feel good anymore?" As an artist you need to figure out what the problem is; it's a leak and you gotta figure out where all the energy is going.
You read interviews with people like Zayn Malik who say they didn't connect with the music. It's that dichotomy between being grateful that you're getting to do what you love, but hating it because you're not connecting to it.
It's very strange being an artist. It's the only industry I can think of where you're sometimes punished for being popular. If you start to succeed then people start to question the credibility of you and your art. It's like, if the masses like it then it can't be very good. In every other industry, you're rewarded on every level. But in our world it becomes a prison. Everyone looks at you differently, there's a lot more criticism, you have less freedom, you can't be flexible in the art you're creating and it's challenging. For Sara and I, if we're standing on stage or singing or hearing things back that I don't love or I didn't want to do, that's going to create a prison around us and I don't want that. We're human and we need to be satisfied.
Tegan and Sara release Love You To Death on June 3.