As they approach a milestone most bands never see - 20 years of existence - Tegan & Sara are looking back and keeping an eye on the future at the same time, with a poise and sense of purpose that’s hard to comprehend. Indie stalwarts turned mainstream hitmakers, Tegan & Sara find themselves on a trajectory neither saw coming.
Sara Quin, one half of the ever-evolving Canadian duo Tegan & Sara, is just as surprised today as she was when it all started to change. “Yeah, I mean, it’s sort… it’s inspiring to me because I think about the challenges and the work that went into making a record like So Jealous, and I think about where we’re at now and it just feels so… established and professional.” She’s referring to what could arguably be considered their “breakthrough” album, 2014’s So Jealous, their fourth record.
“I can remember very clearly this sense of feeling overwhelmed in the early part of our career, like, ‘Oh, my God, this is so hard. I hope it’s not going to be like this forever,’” she says, the humor of those thoughts evident as she expresses her past feelings on being in a band. “I mean, everything, like having to sleep in the van, playing in shitty clubs at midnight. You know, making records was really hard. Finding the financial support to do a lot of the things that we were doing was really challenging. Really, across the board, everything just always felt really hard.”
Of course, things have evolved. Dramatically. With the release of Heartthrob, a change in both sound and style for the duo, Tegan & Sara made the leap into the spotlight and have been running full speed ever since. “I think... that to feel now that the business itself is a business, and it works and it flows, and there’s the right people in the positions who are skilled and great and who we learn from every single day. We actually have a good grasp of our business and how to make music and how to tour and how to be profitable… all of those things come from years and years of experience. To me, now, to think about where we are and where we were, it just feels very dramatic.”
Like their music, though, the world is… changing. We find ourselves in tumultuous times, with politics (of every kind) leaping to the forefront. So how do two icons in the LGBTQ community handle things now? “It’s a question I ask myself all the time, and I don’t know if there’s an easy answer. I think one of the things that is very unique about our situations is that Tegan and I are very political people, we are activists both in our personal life and our professional life.”
You can hear the mixture of passion, excitement, and frustration in her voice. As she continues, there’s a breathless quality to her thoughts, they almost tumble out. “I think one way for us to channel some of that emotion and some of those issues and concerns is using our social media, and starting our foundation and being more philanthropic and strategic about our giving and our redistribution of resources and money to organizations who are on the ground working on the causes that we care about,” she continues. “I think one thing that I’m pretty sure I understand - and, again, this is our band. If Taylor Swift wrote a political song right now, maybe she would have a huge impact - one thing I will say is that I do think that people come to our band for the music, and a lot of times what connects them to our music is about relationships, and about love. And I know that, and I think that’s important to note.”
She’s realistic about what is, shall we say, expected of them, though - implicitly or explicitly.
“I know we can have a certain type of impact talking about politics or whatever issue of the day that we’re talking about, like, I think that it’s really fucked up that the government is going to defund Planned Parenthood. Well, I can tweet about it, and maybe I’m going to get 150 retweets or a couple of likes, or whatever, but what I actually feel like I can significantly impact is when I’m organizing and working with people on the ground, and I’m talking to officials and when we’re making direct pleas to senators. I can see that there’s probably more impact by doing some of the work we’re doing off-stage and not on tape. So, I’m balancing that all the time.”
She pauses, a smile evident as she follows up that thought, “I don’t know that we’re going to release a “Fugazi record,” but I also think that there will be some social acknowledgement of what’s going on in the world. But it may just be through the lens of something a little lighter.”
That brings up something that’s kind of the crux of being a successful, touring band. Does success come from record sales, or does it start with the live experience? Or is the answer somewhere in the middle? “They both satisfy such different places inside of me,” she says. “I love touring. I love the camaraderie of a group of people setting out on an adventure, travelling. I mean, that routine is so familiar to me now since I’ve been doing it for so many years.” You can hear the miles in her voice, just barely. “I love getting up onstage and playing a show, obviously. It’s a very satisfying experience.”
That’s only half of the experience, though, for both the audience and fans, and for her. “There’s also something really beautiful about the solitude of writing. I think as a human being I need that time away. That introverted part of me that enjoys solitude, and being creative… there’s almost a sort of meditative state of spending a week, barely talking to another person and just really sitting and working on melodies, and constructing and composing. I don’t know… it’s sort of magical,” she continues.
But there’s a sense of, not necessarily melancholy, but realistic acknowledgement as she continues. “It’s not always possible. There’s lots of times where I sit down to write, maybe even months, and nothing’s really coming. It’s a very labored process. And then there’s other times where feels like it’s sort of out of your hands, and you’re just a conduit, like you’re just expressing, and it’s just coming. Day after day after day you’ll find that all of these great ideas are just kind of popping out. And you just gotta run with it.”
“So I really like both touring and writing. I think it’s one of the great gifts of this job that we have is that they’re so different, and we get to do both, you know?”
Maybe it’s their approach, maybe it’s their evolution. But the idea of there being a sweetness to their music, even when sad, or melancholy, was something to touch on. And, as was realized, maybe “sweetness” isn’t necessarily the right word. There’s something else to it. “I think that even though sometimes I want to be edgier, or cooler, or more radical or esoteric or whatever, I don’t know that that’s really me,” she starts, slowly, trying to figure out how to best phrase her next thought. “I push back a little bit on the idea that there’s a sweetness. I don’t know that we’re “sweet.” I think that we’re likeable, and I think that we’re approachable. And I think that part of the strategy in writing the kind of songs that we do is to be… connected.”
So, who then, is Tegan & Sara? “We sort of represent the underdog, or the person who was rejected, or the person who was struggling. And I think that there’s a connected vibe with the audience because of that role that we take on in a song.” A role or not, they connect, and in profound ways. It’s that connection that led to their own Tegan & Sara Foundation, which “works for economic justice, health, and representation for LGBTQ girls and women.”
Discussing the foundation, her excitement and pride were palpable. She starts excitedly.
“We spent about a year sort of educating ourselves and meeting with LGBTQ organizations and foundations, people who were doing research in the field, healthcare providers, other companies and organizations who work in philanthropy like The Trevor Project, and HRC, and GLAAD. Sort of introducing ourselves to the people who weren’t aware of us, and then also trying to figure where there was gaps that we might be able to help,” she says.
“We were really conscious of not duplicating any of the work that was already being done, and hopefully we may be helping connect some of the organizations with our own audience, with the audience that we have a relationship with.”
And while there’s a sense of wanting to leverage almost 20 years of listenership, during the process of setting up the foundation, there was a bit of an epiphany. “One of the big, significant things we’ve realized in the last year of doing this is that there’s a real opportunity within our own industry to significantly educate, but also have some things that are not going to the LGBTQ community, maybe they’re going to other philanthropic areas. Even our record label, for example, I think when we went to them and we started talking about some of the organizations and some of the opportunities, they had never really thought about participating in that before,” she says. “So even for us, just to be able to bring attention to some of these issues within our own community has been really rewarding.”
Again, her excitement and passion are almost tangible as she lists some of the goals of the Tegan & Sara Foundation: “Specifically focusing on LGBTQ curriculum in school, accessing and connecting women to health care and recognizing some specifics in our own community and making sure people are advocating for themselves and going to the doctor, and understanding what are some of the issues in our community.” She pauses for a quick breath. “You know, media representation... trying to help and connect kids who are looking for mentors, queer mentors, and have a LGBTQ mentorship and leadership camp. Writing grants to get more LGBTQ women and girls to run for government, work in government.” And with that, the scope of their foundation is laid out.
“We’re kind of all over the board. It’s fairly ambitious. But it’s been really, really rewarding and awesome.”
It’s been vindicating for long-time fans, and for those who have been listening for a while, the change in sound was a reasonable progression. She seems both surprised and at peace with the inevitability of that progression, but it’s certainly the surprise that initially registers as she talks about how things started.
“I think that if you’d asked me when I was younger if this would have been where I imagined us ending up, I would have not have seen it coming,” she says, with no trace of insincerity. “I will say that, you know, the learning curve for me was we started playing guitar and writing songs during a period of time where pretty much everybody played guitar and wrote songs that way. It took us a while to figure out that there were other available sounds,” she continues, speaking to just how different things were only 20 years ago.
“It sounds so limited, but it was the 90’s, it feels limited. We didn’t have the internet. I was like, ‘Oh, all my friends’ brothers have guitars, so I have a guitar. And I’m listening to Smashing Pumpkins, so I’m going to write songs.’”
There’s no sense of frustration, only, maybe, bemusement. “So when we started really digging into our career, we didn’t have any money. I didn’t buy crazy keyboards or gear, or recording programs. It was very basic. I had Protools, I had a guitar. I had this weird organ that I found on the street, an air organ that you plug into the wall. That’s how I wrote So Jealous. I didn’t have a lot of tools at my fingertips.”
“It was probably around the time that we started working on The Con that I started to experiment, and that I had more access to instrumentation and programs and programming, and I started to feel like that whatever skill level, whatever feeling I’d hit with the guitar, I could bypass that with music programs. I really started to see Logic, specifically, as an instrument.”
As Tegan & Sara are set to start their 10 year anniversary tour for The Con, it’s only fitting that this becomes the point in the story where things start to change sonically. Sara begins to talk about the process, saying, “The more I understood that program and the more I understood how to program drums and bass and ideas and whatever, I started to feel like ‘Oh, the guitar is holding us back, and now we can try all these different sounds, and these different ideas, and these different approaches. And it feels really natural, like it’s really working.”
The story takes an interesting, but not all that bizarre, twist. “And that sort of lined up with what I was listening to and what I was inspired by, and records that were coming out that I thought, like… One that’s jumping out for me is Robyn.”
“When I heard Robyn come out with that song with Kleerup, that “Heartbeat” song, I remember thinking, ‘Okay, this feels like some genetically mutated version of indie rock and pop music and electronic music, and I want to do that.’ And I just remember starting to feel like I didn’t want be limited by one genre, I wanted to be all the genres. You know, it’s an evolution,” she says, laughing. And, really, with that, everything to come after The Con now makes a lot more sense.
The writing process, as much as it’s changed, has also stayed very much the same for the duo. It’s impressive to think about the last 20 years and what they’ve accomplished, both together and separately. Sara says, “I think probably when we were younger, Tegan was more prolific. She wrote a lot more than me, and that had probably more to with the fact that she’s quite an impulsive, instinctive writer. She just will throw an idea down, and she won’t obsess or sort of labor over it.”
And that’s where their partnership comes in. “Generally she’ll send those ideas to me, and then maybe I’ll start to weigh in. Sometimes weighing in means giving a series of thoughts or critiques, and sometimes it’s me putting the song actually into my own recording session and adding ideas, or writing a different section, or contributing in whatever sort of sonic ways that I do.”
As for what’s changed? “I think we’ve evened out a little bit more as we’ve gotten older. Both of us write fairly consistently,” she says. But there’s more to it. “What has changed for us, probably, is knowing that every song doesn’t have to be a ‘Tegan and Sara’ song. Sometimes we write, and we just sort of have this catalog of music that we have at our fingertips if something unique comes up, or if someone wants to collaborate, or someone's looking for topline writers or whatever,” she says. And things have changed for her personally, as well. “Now I feel more disciplined about my songwriting, whereas before it was like, every song was like squeezing water out of a boulder or whatever the saying is. I was just like, ‘I don’t know if I’ll ever write again.’ And now I feel like, ‘No, no. I’ll write again. I know exactly what to do.’’’
Even touring and managing their health on the road has changed. Sara says, “I think there’s been a toll, for sure. Physically, there’s definitely a toll. I think we’ve been very, very lucky and we haven’t suffered any tremendous injuries or car accidents or things like that. Just the physical toll of travelling... sleeping on a bus, sleeping in a van, driving for ten hours a day, flying across the world all the time. My physical state is one that’s in need of pretty regular massage, chiropractic... acupuncture. I feel pretty banged up a lot of the time.”
Physical health and care is one thing. But mental and emotional health is just as important. “Emotionally… I don’t know. We’re sort of wired for this now,” she says. “I mean, I’ve been doing it since 1998, so I actually have found out that the more difficult integration has been to be normal, and live a normal life at home. That’s the time that I find that I have to almost be a different version of myself,” she says dryly.
“I’m probably more myself and comfortable with who I am when I’m travelling and touring. When I come home is when I feel like I’m an alien, and I’m like, ‘So people just do this, right? They just cook dinner, and then go to bed, and then wake up, and do the whole thing again, the next day in the same place?’” She laughs, good humor the undertone here.
“Whereas I think that’s natural for people, and for me, I’m like, ‘Weirrrrrd.’ I just feel so weird.”
Now & Then.
There’s a quintessential element to Tegan & Sara, no pun intended. And Sara gets to that in a bit of a roundabout way. “I think also, some bands… when you think of New Order, for example. New Order sounds like New Order. You don’t want New Order to put out a metal record, that doesn’t make any sense. They just sound like them. And when I think about our band, I don’t know that we necessarily sound like a certain type of music. I think our voices are very distinctive, and so I think that whatever genre of music that we’re sort of playing with, I think that what is the sort of throughline and the connector, is the sound of our voices. And that’s what our band sounds like.”
If that’s where their foundation lies, then they’re free to build on it however they like, right? Sara seems to think so. “We’ve been uniquely positioned to be more experimental in terms of what genre or what production style that we use. I mean, the stories, and the people, and the voice is always the same. I’m not saying that it’s seamless, we were definitely fans when we started making more pop music,” or, “a more pop kind of style of music,” she corrects herself, “but that as many people that were uncomfortable or didn’t like it, there was 10 times that who were suddenly discovering us for the first time because it was a different type of music and it was on radio and whatever,” she says matter of factly, no hint of frustration or defensiveness.
“We made the decision that it was more important to us to continue to challenge ourselves and do something different than maybe play it safe and make the kind of record that a few people would rather hear.”
Here’s to 20 more years.
Catch Tegan & Sara at The Madison Theater this Wednesday, August 2nd with the outstanding Japanese Breakfast (seriously, their new record is phenomenal).