Everyone Loves Tegan and Sara

With their latest album, the pop duo gains the success they deserve.


Published:

Pamela Littky

In 2013, we got a little bit “Closer” to superduo Tegan and Sara thanks to Heartthrob, their supercatchy hit pop album.

Three years later, the twin sisters have delivered an even more enjoyable experience with Love You to Death. Their eighth studio album, Love You to Death weaves a tapestry of the sisters’ relationships—with previous and current lovers, with friends, and with each other. The “you” of the title is ubiquitous and anonymous throughout the 10-track record, appearing in song titles like “B/W/U” (Be With You) and “U-Turn.” The “you” is a composite; it’s everyone, including you.

“We love Curve,” Tegan says with excitement at the beginning of our phone interview. Both she and Sara glow with pride when they recall being on the cover not just once or twice—this issue marks the fourth time they’ve been on the cover. “We’re grateful for the covers, and we’re grateful for support from the queer community in general,” Sara says. “At times, it can be challenging to be a visible minority, because sometimes people have expectations of you,” she comments. “You don’t want people to feel like you’re the only representation for them. Our fan base, which has followed us over the years, has changed and evolved, but overall we still have a really strong, central queer fan base.”

Like all their albums, Love You to Death tells a story. “Each record is a chapter in the story of Tegan and Sara,” Sara says. Each one is “like a memoir,” she continues. “I love the idea of telling a story with a record. I think that with us, 10 songs, or 35 minutes, is a good amount of time to tell the next part of our story.”

This time around, the story begins with the first single, “Boyfriend,” which, Tegan confesses, is one of Sara’s songs about falling in love with a straight girl. The chorus echoes the heartache of countless lesbians who have been through the same cycle:

You treat me like your boyfriend

And trust me like a . . . like a very best friend

You kiss me like your boyfriend

You call me up like you want your best friend

You turn me on like you want your boyfriend

But I don’t want to be your secret anymore

The day the Quin sisters chatted with Curve is the day they released a pointedly tongue-in-cheek video for “Boyfriend.” They called on some rad queer women to help out: Clea DuVall, who has been friends with the Quins for about 10 years, directed the video. “We trust Clea’s eyes and her vision,” Tegan says. Designer Rachel Antonoff (sister of musician Jack Antonoff) was the creative director. “We’ve been talking a lot about hiring as many women and LGBT people as possible…and with Clea and Rachel came this incredible all-female camera team, and I’d say about 80 percent of those working on the set were female—it was an incredible creative environment to be in!”

Tegan and Sara have spent over half their lives performing together in a band. They are 35 now, but began playing together at age 15. At 17, the Calgary-native Canadians won a college battle of the bands and caught the eye of the Canadian music industry. Two years later, the twins signed with Vapor Records, the label founded by Neil Young and his longtime manager, Elliot Roberts.

The centerpiece of their lyrics has always been love and relationships. When asked about how their lyrics about love have changed over a 20-year period, Sara laughs and says she’s been thinking about this recently, too. “Right now, we’re reworking live shows, and, now, as a 35-year-old adult, going back and singing songs we wrote when we were, like, 22, or even younger, the blend of emotions can be confusing,” she explains. Reliving old songs is the equivalent of reliving old memories—and with them comes the recognition that you are no longer the same person you once were.

“What I realize more and more,” Sara continues, “is that I don’t know if our songs are as much about love as they are about relationships and the evolving ideas and experiences around those relationships. I still think of myself as being somewhat exploratory and somewhat, like, [this is] what relationships are and what they mean to me and how to get through them and navigate them. . . . Now I have a little bit more peace and balance in my life, and that allows even more space to further evaluate or even think about past relationships and new relationships, or just the nature of love and relationships in general. A lot of this record came from a place of calm, like, I wasn’t in distress or feeling like I was going through a breakup, and I wasn’t having some of the drama that inspired my music in the past.”

Sorry to burst the fantasies of a thousand lesbians, but this album isn’t a kiss-and-tell-all about Sara and Tegan’s romantic relationships. “This is a pretty vulnerable record for me,” reveals Tegan, “only because I was writing about two important relationships that are now over…[but] this record isn’t about them. It’s about me, and I want to be very careful about how I talk about those relationships, because I care deeply about those people and I’m not using them to sell records. I’m using myself.” So what is their dating status now? Sara was dating someone new while writing Love You to Death, but she’s no longer with that person, and is dating someone else. Tegan is also dating, but it’s “very, very new. But we’ll say that in the last six[this is ] months I can see it sticking." However, don’t get ready to throw the rice just yet. If you listen to the lyrics of “B/W/U," you’ll hear Sara “declaring she’s not going to get married,” says Tegan. While that song expresses Sara’s feelings, Tegan admits it’s a sentiment that she can also relate to.

To those of you content with visions of the lesbian twins unmarried but together, it might come as a surprise to find out that for most of their career the Quins rarely wrote music in the same room. In fact, until last year, when Sara moved to Vancouver (and, conveniently, into the same neighborhood as her sister), they would use the magic of the Internet to collaborate during the writing process. “Technology, and just the nature of our songwriting, has made living on different coasts totally acceptable,” Sara concisely puts it. “In the past,” Tegan explains, “when we were preparing a record, we would send songs back and forth, and I would get the shape of the song and send it to Sara, and she would give comments, and then we would just do that back and forth. Then, when it’s time to record, one of us would displace herself and live in the same city as the producer.” Instead of feeling cramped by their newfound proximity, Tegan finds relief: “This time we live in the same city. We still wrote in the same way—sending music back and forth—but then we’d go have dinner. It took a lot of the stress off. It allowed us to take longer to write. And, it allowed us to take longer to record, so we were able to really hone certain things. We collaborated on almost every song. It just gave us more freedom.”

Love You to Death marks a certain level of sophistication, awareness, and maturity for the Quins. “I don’t really subscribe to the idea that you have to be traumatized, or be having a really shitty experience, or be broke and struggling, or unsuccessful or ignored, to make your best music,” says Sara. “Different people have different motivations. I know that for myself, this was one of the most balanced periods of my life to write a record in. I felt like I had a prolific splurge because I was sort of anchored and really calm.

I was able to let myself go a little further out into the place where I could explore things and be thinking about things. I think that sometimes when you’re suffering that can be a really vibrant place to write from, but it can also be very surface—you know, like, This is whats happening right now! I feel like this record is a little more reflective, and that’s exciting to me because I feel like it’s a different place to be writing from.”

For many artists, whether or not they’re musicians, emotional distance is imperative to the creative act. Sara elaborates: “When you’re writing about things from a distance, your memories and your re-imagining of them are sometimes more interesting than how they actually happened.”

With age, Sara believes that their songwriting skills—like wine—have improved. The lyrics for Love You to Death are full of complexity and depth, to the point that on this album, perhaps for the first time, Tegan and Sara explore the dynamics of their own siblinghood without remorse. For example, the heartbreaking piano ballad “100x” revisits the darker times in their relationship. It’s quite a feat to blend sibling love and work. “There’s just a risk in being in a band with your sibling,” Tegan admits. “Because there’s this volatility that’s hard to explain. People say, ‘Oh, I could never be in a band with my sibling.’ But we didn’t have a choice. We just were.” Perhaps referring to “White Knuckles” or “100x” she says, “There were insanely awful periods when I truly didn’t want to be in the band, or Sara didn’t, and one of us didn’t like the choices the other one was making. And, yes, there was a risk in writing about it.” When was this rough patch in their relationship? “It didn’t happen last year,” reveals Tegan. “It happened in a period of time that is six, seven years old . . . It was a really fucking awful time.”

I need out on my own

I don’t want to live this way,

I told you . . . I needed out, and I

I swear I tried to leave you,

At least 100 times a day.

While the autobiographical elements in Tegan and Sara’s music are apparent, it would be a mistake to reduce their music to autobiography. The songs often deal with love and desire, states that reveal a raw emotional truth. For example, “Stop Desire” is about the early stages of attraction, when sparks fly. Tegan explains, “For me, the song is about that uncontrollable [urge] . . . it’s bungee jumping. You cannot stop mid-jump. It’s done, dude. You jumped. The sort of train car of desire. ‘Back against the wall.’ I got us here, you can trust me. Don’t abandon ship here, it’s worth it.”

This honesty extends to the sisters’ onstage presence, which is not a persona, says Tegan. “We are ourselves. We are truly us.” But, she confesses, she feels some frustration that critics have labeled the honesty in their creative output reductively—calling it “girl music” or “chick music” or “gay music.” “I found it so condescending and patronizing when I was young, when people were, like, ‘Is this in your diary?’ ” says Tegan. “I don’t write in a diary!”

She pauses for a moment to reflect: “I feel like there’s a fixation on our relationship. There’s a fixation on us being gay. And what’s interesting is that when you take away us being gay, and you take away us being sisters, would the music be as memorable or important? I don’t know.”

While Tegan and Sara now have the kind of career longevity that invites rumination and analysis, mostly they revel in the simplicity of just playing the music. “I feel pretty blue-collar about what we do,” says Sara. “I love playing music. It’s a thrill to me that we can still tour and put out records and videos, and the fact that we’re 35 and still making albums feels very cool, and I just mostly feel humbled by it. And I feel like if we disappear off the planet tomorrow, I don’t know if people will still be listening to us in 15 years. And you know what? I don’t really care. The most important thing to me is that while we’re around we sort of do our best to be good people and to be good advocates and to speak out about things we care about.”

Tegan completely concurs. “Tegan and Sara is about more than just Tegan and Sara,” she says, noting that the band employs nearly two dozen people, and that they are invested in advocating for societal issues pertaining to women’s rights and LGBT equality.

But make no mistake about the Quins’ ambition—something they’ve taken flak for in recent years, with some fans and critics deriding their move into pop, most notably with Heartthrob. “I didn’t wake up one day and say to Tegan, ‘I think we should make a pop record,’ Sara says. “One thing I will say is that I really won’t make excuses for our ambition or our desire to be more commercial or to have more things accessible to us. And I like it that that’s OK in pop music.”

There’s an ongoing queer sensibility that decries success as “mainstreaming,” as “selling out.” It’s an easy—and misogynistic—way to keep women down. When speaking about it with Curve, Sara passionately talks about her childhood: “I grew up with a mom who was a single parent and going back to school and was bettering herself, and that upward mobility was really celebrated. In most fields,” she continues, “you wouldn’t have people talking about selling out. We make records. We’re still as DIY as we were when we were 15 years old . . . We have not changed. The infrastructure around us makes our lives easier, and it makes us able to have lives.”

Back in the day, Sara recalls thinking, This has got to get easier. We must become more successful, or else I’ll quit. “I was not one of those people who was like, ‘In the name of art I’ll suffer forever.’ No. I was like, ‘I don’t want to suffer forever.’ I suffered for seven years . . . I remember thinking, I don’t care if people think we sold out. I’m tired of sitting in a van with eight dudes and a cage full of gear in the back. I don’t give a shit. If it’s selling out then sign me up.”

She and Tegan began exploring pop sounds and rhythms in 2008, much earlier than Heartthrob, because they “had just grown a little tired of guitars and indie rock.” She elaborated that the move was in large part one to take full control of the band’s music. “I started to feel like I’m interested in the tools that are at my fingertips. I’m not relying on hiring a drummer to come in and play drum parts and me try to explain what I want,” says Sara. Tegan articulated this move into pop similarly: “We added the keyboard in 2004 and fans were super upset—but we were just so much better at writing shit down than at guitar.” She describes how she and her sister would have to rely on “six dudes coming in and playing guitar the way we were begging them to,” which made them feel that they were not “capable of creating the songs ourselves.”

With Love You to Death, Tegan asserts, “We just stepped more into what we are.” At age 35, the sisters are in charge of their lives and their music—which is noticeable in the complexity of their lyrics, in the boldness of their sound, and in the confidence of their voices. “We are more Tegan and Sara than ever before.”

teganandsara.com

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