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Tegan and Sara refuse to be your alternative

Melody Lau

Tegan and Sara Quin are nearing the end of a very long workday in Toronto. The twin musicians are in town to do advance press for their eighth studio album, Love You to Death (out June 3), a day’s worth of whirlwind events that included a 7:45 a.m. call time for a radio show, various on-camera interviews and off-camera sit-downs like the one they’re about to do — hopefully one of their last of the day.

As they walk over to the corner booth at the restaurant of their publicist’s choice — Quinn’s Steakhouse, which ironically almost bears the same name as the sisters — they look visibly tired, almost sighing, reaching for a quick moment of repose before hopping on to the next interview. It’s understandable why anyone would feel exhausted after eight-plus hours of non-stop talking and being “on,” but Tegan and Sara are genuinely amiable upon introduction and ready to dive into a conversation about their own record (after a brief aside on Drake’s recent release, Views; Sara’s take: “That record is so long!”).

Of the two, Sara is quick to open up about the contents of Love You to Death and the relationships — both familial and romantic — that informed the lyrics to her songs on the album, like the synth-pop lead single “Boyfriend” or the emotional ballad “White Knuckles” (the former about a burgeoning love interest at the time and the latter about Tegan). Tegan, who sits quietly with eyes often cast downward as Sara provides detailed breakdowns, even points out that Sara is prone to speaking “more openly about our relationship to the press,” drawing a contrast between herself and her sister.

While it's a small detail that distinguishes the two, boundaries and distinctions are paramount to Tegan and Sara’s relationships today — the one that they have with each other, the one they have with their careers, and the one they have with the public. That said, when asked if they are able to separate their working and personal relationships with each other, Sara shrugs and says, “I just think at some point we stopped trying to tease them apart,” because, to them, those two are symbiotic. “In a way, being in a band is a lifestyle, it’s not really our 9-to-5 job — it feels like there’s a delicacy that we have to approach everything with because it is us. It’s not a band, it’s not a persona; it’s truly our lives.”

“I’ve realized that it’s almost like sometimes people get to be in a movie, like a fictional movie and some people get to be in a documentary and in a way our band is in a documentary,” Sara continues. “We have to be very sensitive and I think that’s actually part of the fatigue of the earlier part of our career. I don’t think we were allowed to have any boundaries, and we’ve been in the industry for 17 years. We’ve hammered down some serious boundaries, it just makes it easier but I never lose sight of the fact that our working dynamic and our personal dynamic are so deeply entwined — there’s a lot of care spent there trying to make sure that we really don’t screw each other up.”

That earlier part of their almost two-decade-long run as a band definitely found Tegan, Sara, and everyone around them constantly experimenting with the limits of their privacy. They began shooting behind-the-scenes videos in the early 2000s, documenting the recording process of their 2004 album, So Jealous. That footage was compiled into a DVD called It’s Not Fun, Don’t Do It!, which showed the band coming together to write and record songs, but likewise falling apart in tense moments where Tegan and Sara openly fought in front of the cameras. Subsequent documentations — though they evolved in structure and production (2007 album The Con’s accompanying DVD featured set designs and fun segments) — would follow that blueprint of unscripted honesty, not unlike reality TV shows.

“Initially, it wasn’t about marketing ourselves or putting ourselves up online for fans to see, it was actually for our friends and family,” Tegan reveals. Back in the ‘90s and early '00s, the internet wasn’t omnipresent or portable so these photos and videos were their way of communicating with those back at home, the people they’d regularly lose touch with for months at a time. “When social media started to take off and people wanted more content, we were really comfortable with it but it was hard sometimes.”

Nowadays, it isn't just celebrities who feel obligated to offer up part of their personal lives to their social media accounts on a daily basis. It's a task that Tegan and Sara don’t mind taking on, but the other extracurricular projects started taking a specific toll on them.

“We were known as that band who revealed themselves and there was a slow unravelling and letting go of that,” Tegan explains. “There needed to be a line, we can’t constantly be ‘on’ like, we work 18-hour days sometimes and we saw the tension was rising up between us and it was because we never got time to turn off.”

For fans who loved following those special Tegan and Sara series — such as The Lost Forest Fones from The Con recording sessions, Reflections from their 2009 Sainthood tour or Carpool Confessional from the Heartthrob sessions — they might be disappointed to hear that the twins didn’t keep a camera rolling for Love You to Death. But they made up for it elsewhere, Sarah explains.

“For our last album cycle we would say, ‘Oh we didn’t put up as much stuff,’ but the truth is all across the board on social media, we put up a thousand times more stuff than we’ve ever put up during Sainthood or The Con.”

Those personal efforts and revelations are still there though, especially in their main product: the music. Love You to Death finds Tegan and Sara strengthening the pop foundations that were laid out with their mainstream entry, 2013’s Heartthrob. While Tegan admits that “some of the vulnerability of Heartthrob was lost in the production,” the goal this time around was to dig deeper into their intimate, confessional style of songwriting while boosting the potential stadium quality of their ambitious pop sounds. “I think we ebb and flow in our exposure of ourselves but I think on Love You to Death we’re definitely revealing very personal emotions and I think that resonates through the music.”

Included on this album are two songs written by Sara about her tumultuous relationship with Tegan (the aforementioned “White Knuckles” and the most straightforward piano ballad of the album, “100x”), using those memories as a way for her to talk about discovering her own identity.

“Specifically for ‘White Knuckles,’ I remember sitting down and thinking about my move to Montreal,” Sara says, of her many years living on opposite coasts from Tegan, who remained in Vancouver. On the piano- and synth-laden “White Knuckles,” Sara expresses this separation in the poignant line: “So, luck be damned/ break that mirror in two.”

“I was feeling incredibly nostalgic and reflective about that time because I was selling my apartment and moving back to Vancouver this year so I was thinking about what happened to me in those 13 years since I left Vancouver. The song started out as more of a song about identity and what it took for me to figure out my identity but Tegan played a major role in that.

“It definitely feels like a new theme or a new space to write from but I also hesitate to make it completely about a sibling relationship because I think those are emotions and experiences that a lot of people have in romantic or parental relationships,” Sara continues. “You know, separating yourself from your parents for the first time, or separating yourself from maybe a marriage or long-term relationship — I think there’s a common denominator there.”

Without knowing the context of those songs, they could be (and have been) perceived as break-up songs. But that’s the fascinating multitude of Tegan and Sara’s songwriting, and the grounds on which fans can continue parsing for personal tidbits and insights. On “Boyfriend,” Sara sings about a secret relationship of sorts with a woman who is dating a man (its use of gender pronouns is a breath of fresh air in pop music, a space that may celebrate queer love but with messages that are rarely performed by queer musicians). “BWU” questions the sanctity of marriage, and closer “Hang on to the Night” is an eloquent reflection on dealing with anxiety. The subjects here are more varied than any other Tegan and Sara album, but the music unifies it all, throwing a cloak of infectious dance rhythms over each track. This is the first Tegan and Sara record to not include any guitars, completing the transformation from folk/rock/punk to pop stardom.

While some critics have remained skeptical of Tegan and Sara’s transition into the mainstream, it’s been apparent since the beginning that crafting beautiful pop hooks was one of their many strengths. The only thing different now is the sonic package in which those melodies are wrapped. But also, yes, Tegan and Sara want a bigger reach — because they deserve it.

“We’ve earned the respect of fans, we’ve earned the respect of critics, we have a lot of good will in the industry so how could we make a change?” Tegan poses. “We started to look around and we didn’t see any queer women on the radio, no queer women on the pop radio or really anywhere. We thought, we had this really great opportunity because in the mainstream, people were starting to cite us and pop stars were saying how much we were influencing them so why were we hiding in the underground? Let’s get out there. For us, it became less about more money or more fame or record sales — we just wanted to reach more places we’ve never been.”

That strategy paid off: Tegan and Sara expanded tours to countries they had never before considered (Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines), gained more fans and, somewhere in the process, began sharing the stage with fellow pop peers Taylor Swift and Paramore. The songwriting, the personalities: it all remained the same. Tegan and Sara never had to change; it was the mainstream that had to change and catch up to them.

“We fought to be where we are,” Tegan adds. “I refused to be pushed on to the alternative charts anymore. Why are we alternative? We’re not.”