The Tegan and Sara Interview
Quin sisters on pop evolution, advantages of having a lesbian sibling and why more artists should come out.
They’ve been on the verge of straight-up pop music for years, but Tegan and Sara are going all in with Heartthrob.
Don’t think they’re all happy and stuff, though.
“It’s our most heartbreaking record,” Tegan reassures. “It’s a great record for people who loved our past music. It’s just that they have to get past the sound.”
The sound she’s referring to was captured in all its heavenly bliss when their seventh album’s first single, “Closer,” instantly aligned itself with some of the best pop songs of the mid ’90s. We revisited that defining era in music – and even before then, when the girls were hanging New Kids on the Block posters in their bedroom – during our new interview with the Quin sisters.
Are your house parties anything like the one in the video for “Closer”?
Sara: We were reimagining our teen years when we were putting this video together. In middle school and high school, we loved house parties. Our house parties then would’ve been an R-rated version of this. We were fairly disgusting and doing things that I would be embarrassed to have on camera. I’m like an old woman now. A house party for me now means more than two people over and me going to the store to get wine. (Laughs)
Tegan: Our house parties have gotten quite a bit less interesting than they were when we were younger. I still think we can throw down a pretty mean shindig, but we don’t generally do karaoke. And I’ve never had a costume party.
“Closer” could really be the theme song to somebody’s first kiss. What songs remind you of your first?
Sara: There’s something about Björk, because this girl I had a crush on loved (Post), and if I hear it now I’m completely transported back to high school. I never could have told her that I felt something for her, that I had a crush, so whenever I hear any songs off of Post I immediately go there.
Tegan: I remember discovering Ani DiFranco and really embracing the side of me that liked girls. I was also really into Ace of Base and I would sit in my parents’ huge Jacuzzi tub in their bathroom and fill up the tub after school and sit in it and talk on the phone (with my friends) and listen to that Ace of Base record over and over again. It’s so weird that I was naked the whole time. (Laughs)
Was your first kiss with a boy?
Tegan: My first kiss was with a boy. If anything, I loved having boyfriends because I could talk about how much I liked girls with them all the time. (Laughs) In my teen years I dated boys but I didn’t hate it. I wasn’t like, “Oh, gross.” And then I kissed a girl and was like, “One’s not right and one is definitely awesome.”
For this album you really immersed yourself in ’80s and ’90s pop music. What was the first pop album you owned?
Sara: My first choice as a child was New Kids on the Block. We had all the records, sleeping bags and posters. Everything you could possibly have. Then I branched into punk, grunge, rock and indie rock. It’s only recently, in the last six or seven years, that I’ve gotten back into what I would now classify as pop music.
Tegan: New Kids on the Block was huge for us. That first cassette tape that came out in 1986 was, besides children’s music, the first music that we picked ourselves. It was very empowering. Around that same time, I remember really getting excited about Michael Jackson, because he was on the radio all the time. In sixth and seventh grade it was Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul and Ace of Base. I think our parents were slightly horrified because we grew up with U2 and Bruce Springsteen, so we were much more blue-collar than that. Then came dance music – as much as we were total punkers and really into hardcore music, we were really into dance music, too. And then we got into Nirvana and we’d go to raves on the weekend. We were very confusing. (Laughs)
Why didn’t a full-on pop album come before this one? Are you just at a point in your career where you don’t really care what people think?
Sara: We’ve been around now for 13 years, and you almost do stop caring what people think. If anything, you try to stop caring because you think to yourself, “We made some of our best music when we didn’t have an audience. We didn’t think anybody cared about us. So maybe it’s best to go back to when you’re trying to excite yourself and the band, and ultimately people will gravitate toward that.”
Tegan: I think we were self-conscious. We didn’t think we could just jump right in, and I’m so glad we didn’t. I think we would’ve alienated our audience – and I also think we would’ve just alienated ourselves from our genre, as well. We were so indie rock that if, all of sudden, we made a pop record, they would’ve been like, “What the fuck?” This gradual evolution has been necessary. I don’t think we would’ve existed if we had tried to do it differently.
Did you worry about the hipsters who can’t really appreciate anything beyond that angsty indie rock?
Tegan: No. It’s not necessarily hipsters, but there is a certain type of person who is really interested in what’s cool and being hip, but they don’t actually buy records. So when we sat down to make this record with Greg Kurstin, we talked about our fears. He said, “Don’t worry about your fans. You wrote great songs. Who cares if you put a bunch of keyboards on it? That is what you’re listening to; it’s what you’re inspired by. Embrace that part of yourself and don’t worry.”
Heartthrob is that record where I just want people who love that record. We’ll take anybody. I don’t really care. If people from the dance world like it, great. If people from the indie world like it, great. If it’s those people who like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, that’s fine, too.
Sara, feeling isolated within the queer community and not having LGBT role models is what inspired your song “I’m Not Your Hero.” But you had Tegan. Most people would think that would be the best kind of support. Is that not the case?
Sara: Certainly having Tegan in my life has meant that I feel inherently supported, because I have someone who is like me and who is going through a lot of the same experiences I am. My life would be entirely different if Tegan were straight. I’ve always had this person who reflects, for good and for bad, so much of me. We look the same, and we enjoy so many of the same things and have so many of the same ideas about the world. We have this band and we also share this culture and identity of being queer.
I can say all that now as an adult in my 30s, when I’ve built a whole language for myself around that identity – but when I was 15, 16, 17, I didn’t have any of that. In fact, I had no idea if I was really gay or if Tegan was gay. I didn’t understand any of that. I was astoundingly confused and blind about what was really going on, and there was lots of loneliness in that.
Talking about feeling isolated within the queer community is so hard. It’s hard enough when you just sort of exist within a community and sometimes you feel like they’re actually not representative of you or like that’s all you have. It’s complex, and there was a time in my life where I felt all of those things. It gets even more complex when you are a public person and now you represent both people. You feel sometimes there’s a burden there, and sometimes you feel proud and other times you feel like everybody is mad at you because you’re not saying the things they would say. It’s complicated.
Is it a double-edged sword to talk about being lesbians because you care about the gay rights movement but also because you just want to be musicians?
Tegan: I won’t deny that there have times in the last 12 years that I wish we never said we were gay. It overshadows the music, for sure. But honestly, and without coming off cheesy, every single day right now it feels like I run into someone who tells me a story about them or someone they know or their kids where they found comfort in that we’re different and we’re outspoken, whether it’s because we’re gay or because we’re women or because we have funny haircuts. (Laughs)
There seems to be people finding incredible comfort and inspiration and empowerment in who we are. We’ve had people be like, “Oh, they’re gay or “Oh, that’s gay music” or “I don’t like gay people,” but we gain so much from being out that it kind of neutralizes that. Like, I don’t care. There have been moments where it’s been dark, where someone is really homophobic, and I just wanna, like, run away and hide. Instead I just pick up a 2-by-4, metaphorically speaking, and bash through it and keep getting up on stage and being proud of who we are.
I know so many people who are closeted, and I make fun of them. I’m like, “You’re so ridiculous. What career are you protecting? You’re supposed to be selling your art. You’re supposed to be projecting this image, and you’re just clouding your image because you are not proud of you are.” You have to be proud. In the end, who cares if I was cool or not. Did I make change? Did I help the world? That should be more important.
What’s more challenging: growing up gay or a twin?
Sara: I would say being gay. I had no other experience to compare it to. I always had a best friend. I always felt like I had someone who was someone I could check in with. We always had each other. But I think being gay is so complex and I felt incredibly isolated in that, in not understanding my identity. The world at large is projecting an image of heteronormativity all the time, and you’re thinking, “I’m not like that. I don’t behave like that.”
Tegan: Being a twin, because we didn’t come out until we were almost out of high school. I didn’t feel weird about being gay, because we had gay friends and we had a really alternative group of friends and my mom was a social worker. Being a twin and just always being grouped together – always having to share same stories, the same friends, everything – it was so hard. That was way harder.
If you’re having a disagreement in the studio, who wins that battle?
Tegan: It depends on who wrote the song. If it’s Sara’s song and she disagrees with me, she ultimately has veto power – which is annoying, because a lot of times I’m right. (Laughs)
Sara: We’re fairly democratic in the studio. We’ve never really had a huge blowout over a decision about a song in the studio. We’ve had blowouts about a lot of things, but it’s not usually like, “Hey, I think this guitar should be like this.”
What’s your biggest pet peeve about each other?
Sara: She’s incredibly stubborn, and there’s this impulsive go-for-it attitude – and sometimes that drives me crazy when it seems like it’s going against me. But when it’s in terms of bringing us to the next level, I love that confidence and bold-headed stubbornness. That’s when I think, “Yes, go for it” – as long as it’s not directed at me! (Laughs)
Tegan: It would take me 24 hours to tell you all my pet peeves. We’ve been doing a lot of vocal work – lots of warming up and warming down – but she doesn’t warm up and warm down in her space or on her time; she does it right in the middle of the dressing room while we’re trying to talk before we go on stage. It makes me wanna tackle her.
Have you tackled her?
Tegan: When we were young. I haven’t physically attacked her in probably, like, 15 years. (Laughs)
Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com.