When we congratulate Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara on the creation and release of eight albums, she laughs. “Well, to be fair, I only did half of it.”
OK, so even if the younger of the twin sister duo was only responsible for half of their creative output, it would still merit an extended round of applause. Over one million albums sold; JUNO Awards, the Polaris short list, and Grammy nominations; recording with dance music heavyweights Tiësto and David Guetta; touring with Neil Young and sharing the stage with Taylor Swift; performing at the Academy Awards; and writing songs like “Walking with A Ghost” (covered by The White Stripes), the double-platinum download, “Closer,” and the shiny new hit “Boyfriend,” from the duo’s new album Love You to Death.
Back when Tegan and Sara first emerged from Calgary, signing to Neil Young’s Vapor Label for their 2000 debut This Business of Art, this country’s music landscape was as full of rock as the Canadian Shield, with the Our Lady Peaces and Tea Parties about to give way to the reign of Nickelback. So the duo’s acoustic guitar-based music was dubbed indie, then later, alternative. But from the beginning, Tegan and Sara were making pop music. It’s just easier to hear it as such now.
Love you to Death continues in the trajectory they set upon in 2007 with The Con, which kicked into overdrive with 2013’s mainstream breakout Heartthrob – completing the group’s transformation into a full-on, Top 40, dancefloor synth-pop act. One without guitars, even.
“I’ve always struggled with describing us,” Sara Quin explains. “We identified with indie rock for a long time. I think that just meant we were sort of in the underground and we play guitar. On our early records, I hear a lot of our punk influences. We were writing in this really choppy, truncated way: two minutes, boom-boom. Very aggressive. Then by [2004’s] So Jealous, we were exploring arrangements, and the textures of what our music and voices could do. The Con was an extension of that.
“Heartthrob was not as big a transition for us as it was for some of our fans.”
“We’re not trapped in thinking we can’t add things because it won’t sound like us. We have the benefit of having very specific voices, and the rhythms of our voices, that’s our signature. So Heartthrob was not as big a transition for us as it was for some of our fans.”
As it turns out, it’s great timing. Canada is now in a great era of pop music, from Justin Bieber and the Weeknd to Carly Rae Jepsen and Alessia Cara dominating the charts, both here and beyond. But a key difference between Tegan and Sara and their pop-minded compatriots is that when it comes to songwriting, they don’t work with a rotating team of writers, but almost exclusively with each other. [Notable exception: “Everything is Awesome,” theme song for The Lego Movie, on which they were brought in to sing.]
Over the years, that intense creative relationship has proven very successful, but also sometimes strained. In the new single “100x,” the lyrics “I told you that I needed out/ And I couldn’t stay / Couldn’t stay here one more day” will play as a straight-up relationship song, but it’s also about the times the pair almost split over wanting to go in different musical directions.
Of their unique writing partnership (and no, the twins do not possess telepathic superpowers), Sara explains how technology has allowed them to work more closely with less danger of interfering in their personal relationship.
“The process has definitely gotten easier,” she says. “Technology like Logic allows us to hone our craft without being dependent on studios. That process really hit its groove [for us] in the past eight or nine years – writing and recording ourselves before going into the studio.
“Also, computers actually allow us an intimacy. It’s never really worked for us to sit in a room and write together. [Now] I can write my songs, work on them alone, send Tegan the files, and then she can go in and add her own things, or even just take a crack at re-arranging or editing a part. It’s a much more effective collaboration.
“I think of it as fiddling with each other’s brains. I can see what’s she thinking – what parts she put in first, for example. And then I can tinker with it without hurting her feelings in person. When we first started out and we had to tell each other what we were thinking, it would often end in conflict. I think computer programs allow us to use our language, which is music.”
There’s one outsider who’s always invited into their creative process: the producer. In selecting this important member of the team, Tegan and Sara have consistently chosen producers who are also musicians. The debut was handled by Toronto singer-songwriter Hawksley Workman; Jon Collins (New Pornographers, Destroyer) and David Carswell (The Evaporators, The Smugglers) co-produced 2002’s If It was You and So Jealous; for The Con and 2009’s Polaris Music Prize-shortlisted Sainthood they enlisted Chris Walla (Death Cab for Cutie). Heartthrob’s team of heavyweights, including producers Rob Cavallo (Green Day, My Chemical Romance) and Greg Kurstin (Kelly Clarkston, P!nk, Sia) also used bassists Justin Meldal-Johnsen (Beck, Nine Inch Nails) and Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre, Eminem). But it was Kurstin, a graduate of the jazz conservatory, and co-founder of the ‘90s alt-rock group Geggy Tah, who became Tegan and Sara’s sole producer on Love You to Death.
“Greg, he’s a genius,” says Sara. “He’s out of this world, a phenomenal musician.”
He’s also the man behind Adele’s mega-hit single “Hello,” which he also co-wrote. We joke to Sara that it was nice of him to still take their calls. “We were in the studio with him, working in blocks of time, and I knew he was in London working with Adele,” says Sara. “When ‘Hello’ came out, I was like, ‘How are you staying focused on our record when you were working on this massive, amazing song?’ But he’s so good at that. He’s very disciplined.”
It was Kurstin, along with Tegan, who convinced Sara that she had something special in the song “Boyfriend.” The first single from Love You to Death is a perfect piece of bouncy, summer pop perfection, about being in love with someone who isn’t ready to come out and commit. “Kiss me like your boyfriend/And trust me me like a very best friend,” she sings, “But I don’t want to be your secret anymore.”
“I listened to the demo the other day,” she says. “I was so horrified! It’s not one of my best instrumentals. When Tegan and Greg heard it, they said this is absolutely a pop song and a single. I didn’t even know it would make the record. I was also worried that lyrically it was too obvious; silly, or something. I knew I wanted to touch on gender identity, but also the roles we play in relationships regardless of sexuality. So there’s that bridge about The Crying Game and spinning the bottle, and things people may pick up on, or not. I really like that some people are going to go deep with it and others will just think it’s a fun jam.”
Fifteen years into her music career, Sara, 35, feels pretty rock-solid about the state of affairs for Tegan and Sara, both as artists and as businesswomen. And about her own abilities to translate what’s in her head and heart onto a record and out into the world.
“I look back and I feel bad that there were so many years I felt so insecure,” she says. “So bad about what I was doing. In a way, I guess it allowed me to have a certain vulnerability. But I wasted my twenties, oh man! Now, I declare what I want, who I am, and what I need, all the time. I know exactly how to get what I need.”