Tegan and Sara Transformers
Published Jun 10, 2016For 36 years, Tegan and Sara Quin have shared a face and a voice. They are two wholes but also two halves — a seemingly impossible math riddle to navigate and negotiate as people, sisters, musicians and business partners. In a world that romanticizes the unique, Tegan and Sara opted to double-down, selling their art and themselves as a package deal. It worked.
The twins' newest record, Love You To Death, is their eighth studio album, and their second unabashed pop star offering following 2013's Heartthrob. It's a long ways from being scrappy, 15-year-old Calgary punks, but after more than 20 years perfecting their songwriting and strategic building, near blow-ups and brilliant risk-taking, Tegan and Sara have crafted the all-too-rare third (but by no means final) act: mainstream pop stardom.
1980 to 1996
Born on September 19, 1980 in Calgary, to parents who are barely out of their teens themselves, Tegan Rain Quin arrives eight minutes ahead of her twin sister Sara Keirsten Quin. They grow up in the northeast corner, a more racially diverse and lower income part of the city. According to a 2011 Q&A on their site, Tegan says their parents separate when they are four and divorce within the following two years. They see their father on weekends, and maintain a close relationship with both, but there's still some complicated fallout.
"I think Sara showed signs of anxiety in more extroverted ways, like asthma and hypochondria, after the divorce," Tegan writes. "I was very extroverted with my anxiety as well but it came as a need to please everyone. I used to dress up as a clown to entertain my family when they were sad. We're like a bad indie movie script family. Ha. I believe divorce is normal and just part of what happens when two people fall out of love. I never resented my parents for splitting. In fact I can't imagine them together. I'm glad they made us, but living apart was best for us all. That being said, when you're 4 it feels very personal and very life-shattering. I remember having a lot of anxiety at night after my dad left. I felt unsafe alone in the house with my mom and sister. That sort of thing can't be helped though. We always say that some of the most damaged people we know came from homes where the parents didn't get divorced! Ha."
Their mother, Sonia, goes back to college and becomes a social worker who eventually works with at-risk teens. In a 2016 interview with BuzzFeed, Sara talks about the influence of her mom's post-secondary education and advocacy on the sisters. When their school tries to ban baggy pants because of the ridiculous notion that it leads to gang culture, the twins launched a protest. "Our mother told us, 'This is fucking fascist, and so what we're gonna do is sign a petition and we're gonna do a sit-in and change the infrastructure,'" Sara tells BuzzFeed. They gather 30 peers and discuss censorship, assembling outside the school office. "Our mom instilled that in us really young. We should understand what we care about, and we should participate and support the people that we do care about."
Music also begins to shape the sisters' lives, as Sara tells SoulShine in 2006. "Since I was a kid music has been everything to me. I used to plan vacations where I could shop at indie record stores. My walls were covered in posters of my favourite bands. I had subscriptions to Rolling Stone and Spin. My mom would drop Tegan and I off at gigs when we were in junior high and we would use our allowance to buy demo tapes of local punk bands. I lip-synced in front of the mirror when I was little."
At seven, they begin piano lessons and eventually add guitar into the mix, but don't start writing songs until they're 15. They are in the school choir but shy, never soloists. They discover punk, grunge and riot grrrl scenes, and attending local gigs with friends. "I had this instinct that if they could make music, then I could too," Tegan says in a 2013 interview with The Quietus. "I started composing on the piano, and I had been classically trained for eight years, so I didn't feel comfortable expressing myself outside of the classical genre. We had this guitar in our house and I started sneaking it into my room and writing, and Sara had the same instinct."
In a 2013 interview with Spin, Sara credits a fellow Canadian for empowering her to get up on stage. She sees former Calgarian Leslie Feist onstage with her punk band and realizes that "maybe normal people can make music. That people just aren't born Annie Lennox."
They call themselves Plunk, and, according to BuzzFeed, are "high-achieving burnouts" who drink, smoke pot, and drop acid, babysitting each other through their trips. But they're also making music. "We started to explore writing together and recording each other," Tegan tells The Quietus. "We let a few friends listen to it, and the response was really positive. We let a few more friends hear it, and before we knew it, we were making cassettes in our radio broadcasting class and selling them in the hallways between classes."
1997 to 1998
The twins' cousin enters them in "Garage Warz," a college battle of the bands in Calgary. They win and earn studio time, and the attention of the music industry. "People in the industry asked us to open for bands that were coming to town," Tegan tells Gay Financial Network in 2000. "We had no fear, even though we thought we sucked, and things just started happening. We were happy to be paid for it, and all of a sudden, we were flying to Vancouver to open for Kinnie Starr."
But, as Tegan and Sara tell BuzzFeed, their mom, Sonia, advises them to wait a year before signing anything. The twins are already skipping school to focus on their music, so Sonia challenges them to take a professional approach, driving them to coffee shops to sell cassettes and pass out resumes. They graduate but resist enrolling in university, Tegan tells The Quietus. "We were really unsure of ourselves and we didn't know what path we wanted to take. We came from a lower middle-class family, so university was a serious investment and we felt nervous about committing to it, so we asked our parents if we could take a year and play music instead. They were really resistant at first, but then they came around."
According to BuzzFeed, Universal Canada pays for them to make a demo and the girls record three tapes: Yellow Tape, Red Tape and Orange Tape. But a full record deal is proving elusive, so the twins ask their grandfather for a loan of $10,000.
The twins record their first album in their mother's living room and self-release Under Feet Like Ours as Sara and Tegan. It's a folk album with plenty of spiky attitude and crunchy, earnest social consciousness, acoustic guitar and heart-bursting harmonies. The songs aren't all perfect, but they are well-crafted. They hint at something bigger and better in their future. Vapor Records, the label co-founded by Neil Young and his manager Elliot Roberts, sign the twins, who change their name to Tegan and Sara and begin work on their studio debut.
The Quins also get a crash course in business, something that will help shape their whole careers, as Tegan tells Gay Financial Network in 2000. "My mom helped out, and we acquired management early," she says. "They got us an agent, got us playing, got us a record deal. The most important thing in this business is music and the art and that, to me, is the part that we should take care of. Not the money and the technicalities. But I found that, for a lot of people in the business, the art is secondary. So, we fired our management and changed a lot of things in our lives and got incredibly strong, all of a sudden, and sure about what we were doing. Fast forward six months to right now, and I would tell you that music shouldn't be the first thing, because it's the most vulnerable and the most honest part. You need to be strong first, and you need to be in control of the business and in control of the money, and you need to be in control of who you are."
2000 to 2002
Tegan and Sara record with Hawksley Workman and release This Business of Art in 2000. It features several tracks from Under Feet Like Ours, but is decidedly more folk-rock, a little more angular and aggressive, with a much bigger sound. People are intrigued by the optics — twins! lesbians! bandmates! — and immediately attempt to shoehorn Tegan and Sara into the queer, folkie, political girls-with-guitars scene. Ani Difranco is the artist most often name-checked, but Tegan tells Campus Circle in 2002 that until the comparisons started pouring in, she never even had a Difranco record.
"It's such a funny thing for people to bring it up because I feel bad; I don't wanna shoot it down," Tegan says. "Sara and I didn't grow up listening to Ani Difranco; I actually didn't get an album of Ani Difranco's until someone compared me to her, so I was like, 'Oh, I wanna hear what she sounds like.'"
They consider themselves "Bruce Springsteen wannabes," they say in a 2000 interview with Teen Wire. "We're inspired by lots of different artists, like Kinnie Starr, she's an amazing Canadian woman artist, and Sinead O'Connor. We're not trying to imitate any style when it comes to songwriting, though. It's just a fluke, and I think we're lucky."
They're also smart. The business side of their music careers continues to fascinate them, particularly Tegan, who discusses some of their plans with Music Today.
"This is what we are doing and this is our career," Tegan says. "Let's map it out and let's feel comfortable with what we are doing. We wanted to make a statement [by] saying that we chose to be exactly where we were, and that even though we muck around and whine and cry, at the end of the day, I am 90 percent happy with the choices we have made: going with Vapor and going with Universal. So, in ten years, you won't see us on Behind the Music, going on and saying this happened and this happened. We just don't want that to happen to us, so we're taking control and making it art. We can take responsibility. We're going to make mistakes. It doesn't matter how educated or how much we get ourselves involved in our business. At least we can say that we made it and we don't have to blame everyone. There are lots of things that a record company does that's annoying, but that's the way that they do it and it's not the way that I would do it."
One of those annoying things becomes a major wakeup call for Tegan and Sara, who, in the space of two years, will tour professionally for the first time with the likes of Neil Young, the Pretenders, Ryan Adams and Rufus Wainwright.
"We made a full band record, but the record label laughed hysterically when we asked if we could bring them on the road with us," Sara tells The Edmonton Sun in 2001. "They were just, like, 'No. We signed you because you're songwriters and you're going to go on the road and support yourselves.' That was terrifying! So there was this whole evolution where we became performers. We always wanted to be a band, and to be seen as a band and not songwriters. But they forced us to be seen as performers and develop our voices. It was like a second adolescence."
It also makes more financial sense and reinforces the business part of This Business of Art. "The music part is really fun," Tegan tells Music Today. "And we have a really good time doing it, but the business part is really interesting. There are lots of things to do with music besides playing. We're musicians, but we're taking it really slow and our record companies are taking it slow, because they see us making it on our third or fourth album, not our first album."
They make their first TV appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman in 2000 and, according to BuzzFeed, take out a second loan from their grandfather. This time the $20,000 goes towards CDs and merch for their first Canadian tour in 2001. They end the tour in the black, making $6,000 each, plus $6,000 for the business, and pay their grandfather back in full.
They also begin accumulating anecdotes and advice from their more famous mentors. In a 2009 interview with The Westender, Tegan recalls complaining about the press and Chrissie Hynde offering up some hard-earned wisdom.
"She told this really funny story about seeing Steve Buscemi at a press conference. Every question was stupid, apparently — just really terrible questions — and he kept giving really great answers anyway. And she was like, 'Oh, my God. They print the stupid answers, not the stupid questions! I want to go back in time 25 years and do every interview over again.' And I thought, you know, it's totally true. They print stupid answers, so it was really important to me, you know, with being a twin, being gay, being a woman in indie rock — we have fucking taken a lot of fuckin' shit over the years. Like, we have put up with idiotic questions and ridiculous comments, and I've just taken it all in stride. But everyone's still just doing their job, and if they're asking stupid questions and you're bored with it, there's still a way to get through it without acting like a jack-off, you know?"
Most of the idiotic questions Tegan and Sara face are rooted in the intersection of gender, twin stuff, and sexuality. In 2013, Sara tells Spin that being closeted was never an option.
"We seemed so gay, we knew we'd never be able to hide it," says Sara, laughing. That is not to say that they didn't wonder what being out might mean for their long-term career prospects. "I remember Elliot Roberts asking us, 'Are you gay?' We said, 'Yeah,' and asked him if he thought it would hurt our career and he said, 'What career?'" Tegan interjects: "We didn't have a lot to throw away at that point."
They thrive in their relative freedom, telling Music Today, "We're 20 years old and our music is changing constantly. We're just starting to play live consistently, which means that we are just starting to get it down and get our show down and get the flow down. If we were, like, Britney Spears, someone would have to come in to tell us how to play our instruments. I mean, we're not prepared to be playing stadiums yet, we're not ready for that, and we're not ready to commit years of our lives to music. We like going on the road for two months and taking a couple of weeks off, going on the road for three months, taking a couple of weeks off, and not being pressured all the time to be there and do this and dress this way and act this way. No one pressures us at any point in our career. No one has really told us what to play, what to wear, or how to be. Nothing."
Well, mostly. When they set out on tour with Rufus Wainwright, Sara tells Spin, the label gives them money for their first professional photo shoot. "We brought in the contact sheets and they said we looked like rugby players. I remember being confused, because I felt great about how we looked. I was just coming into my own about my identity, and I had just cut my hair short. And here was this 60-year-old man telling me I looked like a rugby player."
The twins are often asked to grapple with questions around self-esteem and identity, as well as comparisons between themselves and other young women musicians. Britney Spears comes up frequently in these early days, which hints, perhaps, at the pop future they crave, but fear impossible because of an unwillingness to sell themselves as sexual objects.
"It is so hard being 20 years old in this industry and being bombarded by the media," Tegan tells TechnoDyke.com. "You know I compare myself to Britney Spears. Why do I do that? She is the Phantom of the Opera; I am a singer-songwriter. So why do I do that? I am a strong, independent woman, I have good self-esteem, I think I'm a great musician, and I think I have a lot of potential. But still, for some reason, I compare myself to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. I don't know why."
Their frankness, and the positioning of Tegan and Sara as an alternative role model for young women, helps solidify their burgeoning fan base.
"We did a youth program and there were like 1,500 girls in the audience, plus it was on TV," Sara tells Teen Wire. "Our opening line was, 'We're not Britney Spears. You don't have to be her to succeed in this business.' We got so much mail afterwards from girls who said 'That's so awesome.' But there's a lot of pressure to do certain things and to be empowered and to be strong. But you are you and no matter what you do, as long as you feel good about it, you're doing the right thing."
2002 to 2003
The Quins hire the New Pornographers' John Collins and the Smugglers' David Carswell to produce a heavier sound for If It Was You, their second release through Vapor. Several tracks veer into more rock and pop-punk territory, a space that the twins occupied in their earliest incarnation at 15, save for the moody, banjo-driven "Living Room."
In an interview with The Windy City Times, the twins discuss their intentions for the album:
Sara: "Our main goal was to sort of do a record that pulled from our influences more obviously. The last time we were a little put off by how we were sort of put into this whole folk duo thing, this Ani DiFranco thing. It wasn't bad, but we just felt that it was a little suffocating. We knew that we were going to eventually want to branch out more, so it was a goal to focus more on doing something bigger."
Tegan: "When we first started playing music, Sara and I played in a punk band. We totally wanted to rock out and be loud. We played through crappy, old speakers and blew amps and knocked the hell out of my mom I'm sure, and drove her nuts and probably scared the neighbourhood. We kind of did the acoustic thing because that was easier for everybody and less expensive. When we signed a record deal, people were like, 'Introduce yourselves on acoustic guitars,' which was their way of saying, 'It's too expensive to take a band.' We were like, 'OK,' because we were young and 19. It got us comparisons to people that we didn't listen to, or people that we didn't think we sounded like. It got us in lots of doors though, because we would have never been able to do the Neil Young tour with a band, same with the Rufus Wainwright tour. He had so much stuff on stage we would've had to play on top of his piano. There would've been no room for Tegan and Sara. This time around we're going to try to expand a bit and I think that just happened naturally on our record. We just want to take up more space and we want to take up a little more memory in people's mind. It just came naturally and the producers we picked were like, 'Um, we listened to your record. It was good and stuff, but could we play louder,' and we were like, 'Of course.' It's been awesome."
The record is generally well-received, though the sexism and ageism levelled at the Quins is evident in both overt and oblique ways. The Globe and Mail's Robert Everett-Green writes that "they're still singing to their diaries," which Tegan and Sara bring up in a 2003 interview with The Underground Magazine.
Tegan: "It was almost funny because we couldn't understand half of it. There were really big words, and we were like, 'Are we stupid because we didn't go to university?'"
Sara: "No, it has nothing to do with going to university. I had to get a thesaurus out because I didn't understand some of the words. It was stupid. It seems like too much work to use big words."
Tegan: "When people spend a lot of time writing emails like, 'I hate your live show, I hate your record…' And it's like, 'Poor guy, had to see us 25 times. Why don't you stop buying our records and reading our press and stop turning on the television when we're on.' I think it's hilarious. When I read bad press, I want to put it on our website. Everybody says no, but I think it'd be great."
Great interviews like this — funny, frank, a bit self-deprecating but still confident — are fast becoming trademark Tegan and Sara. This brief excerpt from Gasoline Magazine is among the highlights of the 2002 press cycle.
Gasoline: Who was the weirdest or most high maintenance artist you ever toured with?
Sara: "Ryan Adams was my most favourite tour ever because he was the only rock star we ever toured with. He was always drinking, and getting weird tattoos, and talking about famous people."
Tegan: "The weirdest was probably Rufus Wainwright. He did two-hour soundchecks, and then he would go and drink, and come back and play, which was kind of an oxymoron. Why practice if you're just gonna get drunk and be unstable on stage?"
That kind of self-destructiveness is also at odds with the twins' focus on the business of their music and interest in ensuring their collaborators are treated fairly and compensated properly for their talents and time. According to BuzzFeed, when Tegan and Sara recruited Collins and Carswell to produce If It Was You, they offered them contracts so they would earn royalties in the future. "We were still really stupid about the business end of it," says Collins. "Those two young ladies were completely operating on another level."
Tegan and Sara also decide to officially hire management in 2003, but, as they tell Spin, remain completely involved in the day-to-day operations, convinced that they know what's best for themselves and their fans.
"Most of the people working on our projects are straight, older, they don't have the same identity politics we do, and don't know our audience like we do," Tegan says. "It's not that our band is so different from every other band, but we know our audience intimately. The first seven years, we were selling our own merch and answering fan mail, dealing with so much."
It's also when some interviews start to get a little creepy, as male journalists ask Tegan and Sara out on dates or declare their crushes.
The Underground Magazine takes a couple of weird turns which the Quins handle deftly and quickly.
Underground: "I had the biggest crush on you guys when your first album [sic] came out. I saw "The First" video on MuchMusic and the next day I went to A&B Sound and picked [This Business of Art] up.
Tegan: "Good for you for going to A&B Sound. Sara worked at A&B Sound."
The interview continues and then this:
Alright. Last question. And if I don't say this now, I will regret it forever. Would one of you ladies like to escort me to a movie?
Tegan: "I don't watch movies or television."
Sara: "I go to movies. You mean as a friend?"
I don't care.
Sara: "You can be friends with us. I'll be friends with you."
Sara leaves Vancouver (and Tegan) for Montreal in 2003, where she will meet artist Emy Storey, her future wife and then ex-wife, as well as Tegan and Sara's future Creative Director. But the physical distance between the sisters exacerbates some of the more fractious aspects of their relationship. When Sara returns to Vancouver to record So Jealous, the twins enter therapy again (they had gone as kids, too, when their relationship became fraught.) On tour, Sara tells BuzzFeed, they even fought in front of the crew. "As women, we've also had to carry the burden that men are allowed to kick and punch each other. It was completely horrifying to people that we would fight."
2004 to 2006
Tegan and Sara's first big breakthrough comes courtesy of their 2004 release, So Jealous, an pop-rock gem (Collins and Carswell produce again) that earns them attention from major American press and international outlets. The White Stripes love the song "Walking With a Ghost" so much they cover it and release a White Stripes EP of the same name. It is also nominated for a Juno Award.
The songs are so focused on love, writes InPress, that the record company sent a note asking if they could sing about anything else. Tegan has other opinions.
"It's about emotion. It's about being involved," Tegan says of the album. "Songs like 'Where Does the Good Go' and 'Take Me Anywhere,' 'I Won't Be Left' — those are notices to myself and to anyone else who's listening out there. They're reminders to stay involved in your life, don't fall asleep at the wheel, don't go 50 years with someone you don't love and then wake up and you're 68 years old and you've wasted your whole life and you're going to die and have nothing.
"These are like pleas. They're not love songs so much as they're love reminders, to not waste your life, to not waste your time. A song like 'I Bet It Stung' or 'Walking With A Ghost,' there's some desperate message underneath it. Whatever that message is for anyone, for each person there are personal reasons why people connect to the songs, but for me I think our record is pretty desperate, very emotional. I think that's the one common link between our feelings about politics or about economic reform and music and the music industry, it's that we're very passionate people."
The album's complex emotional depths also prove a perfect complement for film and TV. "I think we used more than half [of So Jealous]," Grey's Anatomy music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas tells Spin in 2009.
So Jealous is also a pretty great glimpse of the future of Tegan and Sara, who will likely experience pretty vivid sense of deja vu in 2013, since many of the talking points regarding So Jealous will be repeated during the press cycle for Heartthrob. Interview upon interview asks the twins about embracing pop.
This interview from Out in the Mountains in 2004 will be repeated again and again in 2013 and 2014.
Tegan: "We're just trying to stay attached to our audience, 'cause that is our major goal. Write music we like. Write music our friends like. Write music our family likes. Write music our fans like. Write music our label likes. We do believe that our label believes in us — they have proved it by not dropping us when they really could have. So it is our job, Tegan and Sara, to make sure we don't alienate everyone who is with us right now. We are a pop band in an indie world, and we want to grow out of that, eventually, but not right now.
Sara: "You know, even if this just blew up tomorrow…"
Tegan: "...there would be a lot of strangers in the audience. Now at the same time, we run into people that say 'I never want you to get big and famous.' And I say, 'You are basically saying: I want you to be poor and live in a 400-square-foot apartment.' Please let us get bigger than that! But that doesn't mean millions of records and that doesn't mean Tegan and Sara with boob jobs on the cover of Maxim, even if we are giving the finger."
The critical reviews of So Jealous range from overwhelmingly positive to misogynistic garbage, sometimes within the same piece. Spin says that although they were once a "Wicca-folk nightmare," So Jealous is "indie pop bliss" and "a self-defence guide for smart girls in an emo boys' world."
Rolling Stone includes it on its list of the Top 50 albums of 2004, while Pitchfork gives it a 3.4/10. Among the choice lines is this summary of "Walking With a Ghost": "I suppose it's almost as catchy as the latest McDonalds jingle, but it's also utterly boring." NME wrote "they're quite lovely, even if they do hate cock."
In a 2005 To Hell With interview, Tegan and Sara talk at length about their increasing frustration with these kinds of reviews. The whole exchange is excellent, but this excerpt really stands out.
Tegan: "We never said we hated cock."
Sara: "I love penises actually, I just don't want one attached to a man. Seriously. That's the damn truth."
Tegan: "But when have we ever said that?"
Sara: "That's what it is, we get pigeonholed as what the male-dominated rock world's idea of lesbians is. And they're sexist. Here's the sexist, homophobic NME — they talk about us being lesbians, our hairstyles… oh there's one half-sentence that talks about the music, and then there's the thing about us hating cock. I mean there, that's pigeonholing."
They expand on these thoughts regarding the NME review in an interview with The Star Ledger after a San Diego morning show DJ asks the twins if they have sex with each other. With regards to the NME, Sara points out that it wasn't just the review that upset them, but the way their team reacted, saying, "They're jerks, just ignore it."
"Our label and management meant well, but that put it back on us, like it was our responsibility to just deal. Fuck that. It's not just the targets of misogyny and homophobia that should be offended. Everyone around us should be just as angry and horrified as we are — that behaviour lowers things for everybody. And apathy contributes to the problem."
Regarding the radio host, Tegan says, "When she made that comment about us hooking up, you could probably hear me gasp. I didn't know whether to cry or to bludgeon her."
"Because we're gay, somehow it's a given that we're perverse," Sara says. "Our managers turned white, but do you think that woman had to apologize on air for joking about incest? There is no accountability. It can be lonely out there."
In an interview with Australia's Star Observer, Tegan says, "It's not like anyone's ever written, 'Oh, I really like this record but I hate them 'cause they're gay.' They objectify us, they talk about the record in such a sexual way that it takes all the relevancy out. We've had people write, 'Oh, I love this record, but you just really want to fuck them.' It's like, how can you say that in one sentence? It's just a different world that men and women live in."
At the end of an interview with Beat Magazine in Melbourne, the male interviewer casually asks if he can tell his roommate that he and Sara have a date for the following night — because he's going to their show and she'll be on stage.
2007 to 2011
Tegan and Sara remain with Vapor, but also sign to Warner Bros., releasing The Con in 2007 with Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla on board as producer. It's a more melancholy, contemplative pop affair than So Jealous, but overall the songs are stronger, with more emotionally complex themes and arrangements.
Tegan is grappling with the end of a five-year relationship (the wistful heartbreaker "Call It Off"), whereas Sara is coping with immigration issues with her partner and Tegan and Sara's creative director, Emy Storey (the sweetly hopeful "I Was Married"). According to BuzzFeed, the twins are also grieving the death of their grandmother, who had helped raise them.
Sara tells MTV that she "feels much more confident with the new album," that it's a more dynamic and cohesive effort than So Jealous. And for the most part, critics agree. The Observer gives it five stars and review aggregator MetaCritic scores The Con at 80/100. But even reviews that are mostly positive still skew terribly weird, such as famed critic Robert Christgau's writing for Rolling Stone. The album receives three-and-a-half stars, but begins: "As lesbians who never reference their oppression or even their sexuality, Tegan and Sara don't have men to lash out at, put up with or gripe about. This may be why their uncommonly detailed love songs are so short on drama — a riddle worth pondering, because their keyboard-heavy, New Wave-ish music is also uncommonly catchy." He seems to believe that the twins' songs are absent of drama or conflict (they aren't) because they are lesbians.
Of course, The Con is chock full of drama, but aside from that, Tegan and Sara are songwriters. Not every song is specific to their lived experiences. And as musicians, as storytellers, all Christgau reveals in this review is the fact that he's always going to put "lesbian" before music.
Descriptions that are jarring, kind of desperate in a desire to be controversial or shocking or "funny" are not the exclusive domain of male rock critics. Pitchfork's review, written by Jessica Suarez, opens with "Tegan and Sara should no longer be mistaken for tampon rock, a comparison only fair because of the company they kept." Sara tells Exclaim! in 2009, "I was like, 'What, because we have lots of girls in our audience we're tampon rock?!' It was so offensive."
The sisters' lifelong activism comes to the forefront as the debate about marriage equality in America gets louder and louder. They are both strong advocates, for whom the political and personal cannot be separated. That's something Sara's wife, Storey, reflects on via a 2007 email interview with The Coast. "On a day-to-day level I would tend to say it's not a terrible struggle being in a same-sex relationship," Storey writes. "Especially in indie rock/pop. However, there's a lot of education that needs to be done. In a small way, we are challenged by helping friends and colleagues unlearn sexist and homophobic behaviour they don't even know they have."
In 2008, things begin rapidly breaking down for Tegan and Sara, and Sara and Storey. The newlyweds are separated by the time the Quins tour Europe that winter, "and I was totally alone for the first time in a long time," Sara tells BuzzFeed. There are three bus accidents during the tour, and on February 29 in Glasgow, the sisters have a physical fight. Sara says they have hit "rock bottom. That was screaming, fighting, pushing, punching: Band's done. I feel ashamed of how badly Tegan and I treated each other. We were totally without the tools to get through what was happening to us."
In the fall, they go to New Orleans and attempt to write some songs side-by-side in the same room for the first time. Previously, each had worked on their own songs and sent demos either via email, post office or leaving a package on the other's doorstep. "It was messy," Sara tells Exclaim! "The music was way darker with just Tegan on drums and me on electric guitar."
The resulting album, 2009's Sainthood, is its own time capsule. The massive transition in their personal lives — endings and beginnings, upheaval and success, their own near implosion — is catalogued here.
Tegan tells Exclaim! that while The Con was her break-up record — she was largely singing about a girl who dumped her — Sainthood gave her some space to analyze the past. The inverse is true for her sister. "For Sara, Sainthood is her present. This is her Con in a way, her very ripped-apart, analyzing record." The record is meant to offer a "snapshot of crazed romanticism," and Tegan and Sara feel like they've delivered.
The album's urgency comes from an organic place, too, with Chris Walla back in the producer's seat, alongside Howard Redekopp, spurring Tegan and Sara into a sort-of disciplined, repetition-induced madness. A 2009 Exclaim! piece breaks down how Sainthood became as much a Walla record as a Tegan and Sara one:
"For Sainthood, Walla took control. He wanted the album to be more organic and collaborative, in the vein of their New Orleans experiment, retaining the intimacy of The Con but with an in-the-moment spark. He insisted Tegan and Sara play their demos with a band, live off the floor, 50-plus times, letting them evolve into true-blue band songs.
"It was the first time Tegan and Sara recorded as a five-piece, singing and playing on each other's tracks. Both twins coped differently. According to blog posts, it was common for Tegan to wear a bat mask and call herself 'Bategan.' One post had Sara discussing her latest read, J.M Coetzee's Diary Of A Bad Year, where she quoted a telling line: 'Rene Girard's fable of the warring twins is pertinent: the fewer the substantive differences between the two parties, the more bitter their mutual hatred.'"
They don't actually end up using any of the New Orleans songs on the record, but it seems to open up a new world of possibility for the twins.
"I was like, 'Fuck, we should be doing more of this!'" Tegan tells The Westender. "We should write for other bands and with each other. Sainthood's by far the most collaborative record we've ever done, and that's really exciting."
It also, arguably, receives their least polarizing reviews. Spin gives it four stars, CHARTAttack awards it five stars, and it receives A- ratings from the AV Club and Robert Christgau. It is also shortlisted for the 2010 Polaris Music Prize.
These five years are also marked by other professional highs and lows together and apart. Among the lows: NOFX's gross 2009 song, "Creeping Out Sara," which finds Fat Mike singing, "That's when I creeped out Sara or maybe I just pissed her off / When I asked her if her sister and her had ever had a threesome? / Where they both ganged up one girl, a forgy or a fivesome? / Do they think strap-ons are groovy, and had they ever seen the movie / Bound and did they like Jennifer Tilly, did they like Jennifer Tilly?" Among the highlights: collaborations with DJ Tiësto, David Guetta, Sara Bareilles, Margaret Cho, Against Me! and Carly Rae Jepsen.
2012 to 2015
When Elliot Roberts first signed the Quins to Vapor Records, Sara told Beat Magazine in 2003, he gave the twins some breathing space. "We were 18, and he told us that he didn't think we'd be making our best records until we were in our 30s, and I remember feeling this great sense of relief thinking that I had all these years to get myself together. That was exactly what we were looking for, we wanted to have an organic growth, we didn't want somebody to come in and style us up, and put us in the studio with really fancy producers and then not be ready to do it. I think that the best records are made when it's time to make them."
Fifteen years later, at the ages of 32, Tegan and Sara have their biggest mainstream breakthrough yet with Heartthrob, a propulsive, pure, pop record with shiny flashes of '80s glam, giant choruses, and huge dance party potential. The lead single, "Closer," is released in September, 2012, four months before the album's release in January, 2013, and is everywhere. The twins are suddenly on stage performing their hit with Taylor Swift and opening up for Katy Perry. It's a massive reinvention that's been methodically in the works their whole careers.
"God, who would have thought 14 years into our career that something new could possibly happen to us?" Tegan says in a 2013 CBC Music interview. "It's remarkable that we're able to draw a fresh vibe to our band. It's a testament to the people flooding towards us right now. It's really nice."
Even Top 40 radio play in an anomaly they still can't quite believe is real. Sara tells CBC Music about a road trip with friends and the countdown announcing Demi Lovato and One Direction, and then "Closer" came on. "I was like, 'Okay guys, don't put on our record, don't do that.' And they were like, 'No, that's you! You're on the countdown. You're next. You're the next song on the countdown.' I was like, 'Oh my god! It's really happening! I'm experiencing the bewilderment of hearing our song next to One Direction!' It really happened for the first time, because really, it's all just sort of on paper for me. Like, cool, we're getting more radio spins. But I don't actually experience it very often, but it happened and it was embarrassing to me."
For Tegan, it's as embarrassing as it is weird and exciting to get on stage with Taylor Swift. "I wasn't on stage being like, 'THIS IS AMAZING!' I was on stage being like, 'Don't fall, don't fall, don't trip. Try to sing in key. Yes, jump up and down. Don't look like a weird, old blob next to Taylor Swift. Try to be cool.'"
As for the haters who smirk that Tegan and Sara have sacrificed something in going from a band championed by Neil Young to one championed by T-Swift, Sara has a counter-argument at the ready.
"This may be blasphemous," she tells CBC Music, "but I don't think there's a huge difference between what has prompted both of those artists to support us. I think certainly with Neil and his manager, when they saw us, and we were just barely out of high school, and signed us to a little indie record deal, they saw the promise of songwriters. That was their pitch when they were signing us. Elliot, who has managed Neil for decades, said, 'You know, what I see in you are songwriters and you have a voice that represents a part of your generation and you're going to make a connection with kids your age and as you grow older, your audience will grow with you and you'll be representing a lot of their stories and a lot of things that are going to happen in their lives and that's such a unique thing.'
"He really articulated for us what we have but also maybe what we may become. Taylor's a great songwriter, she really is, and I think that even though she's this massive pop star, I would argue with anybody that she's also one of the better songwriters today working in music and has that same ability to connect to a lot of of her peers and tell stories that people can draw parallels with. So to be recognized by both of those people, although they're entirely different, to be recognized by them for our songwriting abilities is such an honour."
A 2013 Spin story asserts that they've earned the right to stardom, and it's true. "We aren't these self-loathing, self-deprecating, mid-20s, indie rock twins from Canada, we are not that," Tegan says. "We are actually really successful, really confident, very talented — and we know that. On our first day in the studio [Heartthrob producer], Greg Kurstin spun around in his chair and said, 'I'm going to take each song to the edge. And then pull back a bit.' And I thought, 'Nah, just toss it over the edge.' We decided to go for it."
They work with three producers on Heartthrob. When Tegan meets Kurstin, she tells The Quietus, she immediately calls Sara and says they, too, have to meet.
"He was working on the Shins record, but he's also worked with Kelly Clarkson and Pink and Ke$ha and Lily Allen and Kylie Minogue, and he's got all this female pop vocalist experience," Tegan says. "But he's also worked with Beck and Bird & the Bee and Ladytron and all this amazing stuff. I thought, why on earth have we limited ourselves to someone who's only worked on indie rock? We should embrace this world. Sara agreed to meet with Greg, and she claims within five minutes she was sold. He talks about music, especially pop music, as something that was a living entity, and it really inspired Sara and I, and it made us feel like we could trust him with our songs."
Kurstin is only available for eight songs, so they also sign on Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre, Regina Spektor, Mastadon) and Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who is riding high on the success of M83.
"And they had all played with Beck," Tegan says. "That was this really strange thing they all had in common. We've got these three awesome people and they all know each other and they all respect each other; they're all going to listen to each other's songs and we're going to make a cohesive record, and that's what we did."
And even though there was some talk about selling out (from fans) or sacrificing indie cred for mainstream success (fans and critics) or lamenting the new pop chic of good-for-you ear candy, Tegan tells Rolling Stone, "I see this as some of our darkest material, but I didn't want to put out a dark record. I didn't want something that sounds like what we've done in the past."
Heartthrob is the most commercially successful record of their career. It debuts at number three on the Billboard 200 chart, wins four Juno Awards in 2014, including Pop Album of the Year, a GLAAD Media Award for Best Music Artist, and is shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize. Heartthrob also makes plenty of year-end best album lists including Rolling Stone and Spin.
The next-level success continues with the twins' collaboration with the Lonely Island (Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone) on "Everything Is Awesome," the theme-song for 2014's The Lego Movie. The high-octane, impossibly hooky, sugar spike of a tune is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Tegan and Sara make their Oscars' debut performing the song at the 2015 ceremony.
Tegan and Sara's eighth album, Love You to Death, is set to drop June 3. The first single, "Boyfriend," is released in April, inspired by Sara's girlfriend. She tells Beats 1 that she was seeing a woman who had never been with another woman before. and who was also seeing a guy from time to time; Sara joked that she was being treated like her boyfriend and wanted her to make it official with her. On first listen, the track sounds like bubble-gum pop, but it's also meaningful, emotional, political and slyly subversive in that it offers up a non-hetero-normative relationship, which we don't hear much of in mainstream pop music on the radio.
The entire record contains those kinds of surprises — sparkling pop on top and untold depths revealed with repeat listens. This time, Kurstin is the sole producer. He's been busy, too, between Heartthrob and Love You to Death: he co-wrote and co-produced Adele's "Hello" as well as songs for Sia, Ellie Goulding, Lana Del Rey and Beck.
"Working with Tegan and Sara, it just feels so effortless," Kurstin tells BuzzFeed. "It's one of the few bands that I would wanna do a whole album with."
Effortless hasn't always been a word used to describe the relationship, working or otherwise, between Tegan and Sara, but they seem to finally be in a great new place, perfectly positioned for the potential fame that Laura Snapes predicts in her excellent BuzzFeed profile of the sisters. In the piece, Snapes writes about how this is the album in which the future finally catches up with Tegan and Sara — a future they have designed on their own terms, and patiently and purposefully cultivated as business women and creative geniuses. By rights, Love You to Death should be the album that allows them to explode since this is the record they've always wanted to make. It's also, Snapes writes, the record, and era, that captures the sisters at their best and worst in relation to each other.
"Love You to Death is the first time Sara has written about the darkest era of her relationship with Tegan, which almost broke up the band just as they were first making commercial and critical headway. 'It was cruel of me to do what I did to you,' she sings on ballad '100x.' 'White Knuckles' is gothic-tinged synth-pop. 'I made us feel unlucky too,' she sings, stretching each word. 'So, luck be damned / Break that mirror in two.'
"[It's] the first album where Sara's felt comfortable writing about her struggles with her sister. 'In the years where I wasn't secure in our relationship, I knew that was the one completely untouchable topic,' she says, speaking rapidly. 'I have left Tegan as a very protected thing — the only protected thing — and I think it's because I was most afraid of it. Now that we're good again and things are so strong between us, it's really much safer for me to start to analyze it.'"
For the first time in ten years, the sisters are living in the same city, having bought apartments three blocks from each other in downtown Vancouver last year. Tegan and Sara also have grand plans for this tour. According to BuzzFeed, they've booked 4,000-seat venues in major U.S. markets, as well as Canada. But Sara's looking beyond that: "By 2017, can we be one of the top headlining tours in the States or internationally? Can we be one of the top-billed artists at festivals in 2017? I would love to be up there with our peers, Arcade Fire or Vampire Weekend. Maybe we can reach enough people that we can sell out a Madison Square Garden or an O2 Arena at some point. I want to believe that."
Essential Tegan and Sara
So Jealous (Vapor / Sanctuary, 2004)
"I feel like I wouldn't like me / If I met me," Tegan sings on "You Wouldn't Like Me," the opening track to their first breakthrough album. It's a deceptively upbeat song about self-loathing and heartbreak with beautiful harmonies. It vibrates with energy and emotion and sets the stage for their "new" indie pop makeover. Early standouts like "Walking With a Ghost" and "Speak Slow" and "Where Does the Good Go?" still hold up, but the entire record is a jolt — of adrenaline, revelation, observation — without ever crossing into needlessly aggressive territory. And is there a band in the world that does repetition as well as T & S? Insistent, urgent, lost — each word and phrase takes on a new shape, carves out a new space. Personal favourite: the slight key change in "I Know, I Know, I Know" still sends a warm thrill right up my spine.
The Con (Vapor / Sire, 2007)
There's something so tender and fragile and hopeful about "I Was Married," The Con's simple, short, stunning opener. The piano, Tegan and Sara's voices almost like an unconventional two-person round, church bells trading hollow rings. The record moves in and out of love and wistfulness, skipping back and forth between chaos and desperation ("The Con", "Knife Going In," "Back In Your Head", "Hop a Plane") and a few tentative steps towards happiness ("Floorplan", the aforementioned "I Was Married"). There's something about the power of group therapy through a pair of headphones, the spark it makes in the darkness to feel understood, or that comes from the realization you are not alone. The Con closes out with "Call It Off," all broken confessions and simple, brilliant vocal performances. It might just be the best damn Tegan and Sara song ever written. So far.
Heartthrob (Vapor / Warner Bros., 2013)
Tegan and Sara know how to start an album. They don't get enough credit for that. But "Closer" — their coolest, most buoyant, best dance party yet — is just a phenomenal party starter. It shimmers and shifts, sophisticated but still super fun. Its influences run rampant from Blondie, through the '80s, right up to No Doubt ("Goodbye, Goodbye" is a song Gwen Stefani wishes she wrote). "I Was a Fool" is the perfect piano-driven power ballad (and its accompanying video plays up the vibe with a charmingly cheesy music video that belongs in a karaoke bar). The whole record is as smart and as powerful as anything else they've ever done; Tegan and Sara stayed true to themselves while transforming into total, proper, pop stars and heartthrobs of the highest order.