We caught up with Sara Quin of Canadian alt-rock siblings turned purveyors of unashamed pop pleasure Tegan and Sara as the European leg of their ‘Love You To Death’ tour hit Hamburg, Germany.
After more than twenty years together Tegan and Sara understand the importance of continually moving forwards, creatively and sonically, whilst also being respectful of their back catalogue.
2017 sees perhaps their most loved album ‘The Con’ turn ten, and Sara is happy to take a trip down memory lane and reflect and reappraise the material, even if some of the memories that album conjures up are less than happy.
“On one hand I can't believe it's ten years old, on the other hand it feels like it was twenty years ago - I don't know what that means,” says Sara. “I think that every artist wants to have an album... I don't want to say that defines them, but a beloved album and you don't really know which album that's gonna be or even if you are gonna get one of those."
She goes on to explain how the duo have come to accept "that there's always gonna be people who are into our older work or who actually hate our older work and love our new work, whatever, but I think that we've decided that ‘The Con’, probably is gonna be that beloved album.”
But why does ‘The Con’ still resonate so much with fans hard-core and fair-weather alike ten years on? “For a lot of people I think it's sort of that cross, that intersection- a lot of people who heard that record were sort of at the beginning of their adulthood, end of adolescence and I think it just impacted at the right time.”
Often acts that stop to reflect upon their career highs with a victory lap put their current creative activities in jeopardy, but for Sara the chance to re-examine the material is a welcome one.
“I'm proud of the album” she beams. “I think it's a great album and it makes me excited to celebrate it this year. We're gonna do some special stuff for it this year to honour the record.” While there are specific plans in place as yet 'The Con’s birthday won’t go unmarked by Tegan and Sara.
“We don't wanna blow our load yet, but we've put together some ideas and we're trying to get them together so we can announce something soon. “
Sara also believes that thanks to the current state of world affairs the anniversary comes at the perfect time and the prospect of playing the songs again is unexpectedly appealing.
“I hadn't really thought too much about playing the record. Two years ago we repackaged 'So Jealous'. It was its tenth anniversary and we did more of a multi-media approach. but after doing (Heartthrob) for four years and (Love You To Death) for a year, there's something about the idea of going out there and performing songs from 'The Con' and almost taking the opposite approach to where we are at this moment, on this tour. It feels suddenly appealing, and maybe even in terms of political climate, social climate it may be appropriate to go back to our roots and story tell and talk about what's happening in the world and have less of a pop show.”
Sara accepts that there is a certain irony about The Con turning ten as it contains a song called Are You Ten Years Ago.
“If you'd asked us during that era if we would be around for another ten years I don't know if we would have said that we would” says Sara, before frankly adding “that was a very challenging time in our career, potentially the most challenging time in our entire career.”
However, despite the emotional baggage surrounding that timeframe Sara Quin is grateful for the slow pressure emotional release that distance and time provides
“... when I think about that record and when I think about touring it. It was a very sad and difficult part of my life and there is actually some part of me that really gets excited about being able to think about the album - not from that time. Going down 'The Con' rabbit hole over the last couple of months, I've been like, “great, these songs don't make me feel manically depressed anymore.”
“I think when we were writing ('The Con') both of us where in pretty bad places... We were both not in the relationships we wanted to be in and both of us were pretty heartbroken.
“so it's funny,” says Sara reflecting on the joy other people get from songs born out of the most turbulent time in her life. “I meet people who are like: “oh my god that record Dark Come Soon. I used to listen to that and cry.” I think it is interesting when you talk to people about when they discovered music and what kind of significance it continues to play in your life. I have those records, I don't know if I'll ever have those records again. There's just certain music I'll just never get over, because it just happened right when something important to me was going on in my life.”
Jump forward to 2013 and Tegan and Sara engage in a David Bowie-esque manoeuvre with a major sonic departure from kooky indie rock, replacing guitars with synhs in a move that repositioned them as a mainstream pop entity. At least that’s how it looked from the outside in.
“In theory it sounds like that because we put out 'Sainthood' and then we put out 'Heartthrob' so people were like, woah that's a big change, but it was more gradual than that.
Most of what I wrote for 'Sainthood' was in Logic and programming beats and playing keyboards. Even some of 'The Con', I Was Married was written on the piano. I think we had already started to flirt with other genres and areas of production.”
“I think we were afraid that if we didn't pivot away from indie rock and a sound that people had come to associate with us that we were gonna end up not being a very interesting band in our later years” says Sara.
“It was certainly a risk to jump into pop music, but to me it felt like this is the only way we'll guarantee we don't fall into that trap of trying to be the band that we used to be."
“I've felt incredibly freed” by the process, Sara explains. “It's given us an opportunity to focus more on our voices and our stage presence. It's given us an opportunity to work with musicians who are a hell of a lot better at their instruments.
I felt like we didn't have to prove that stuff anymore. I know we're good; we're good business women, we're smart, we're good songwriters, and we’re proficient at recording ourselves and producing ourselves.
So, at some point it felt like: Do I have to prove that I can do everything? I don't, so let's just try hiring other people.”
However, the journey from ‘The Con’ to ‘Heartthrob’ was far from frictionless as each member of the group evolved at a different pace.
“There was a real struggle with 'Sainthood'” admits Sara who made the sonic leap before her sister Tegan did. “Tegan was going in directions like North Shore. She was still so into that punk rock, rock music and I'm showing up with Nightwatch and Red Belt and she's like, what's happening? What are these songs? It took us an album to get on the same page, but there's certainly something more harmonious about 'Heartthrob’ than there was about 'Sainthood' I feel like 'Sainthood' was as far apart as we ever got.
I didn't love 'Sainthood'. It's actually more of an interesting record to me today than it was when we put it out. I was annoyed by Tegan's songs and frustrated that I wasn't able to do what I wanted to do. It was not a great time, but now I can go back and go ‘oh I see where this could've gone...’ but I was already moving into another area. To find a way to bridge those things is not always easy but I'm grateful we were able to.
Any of us who have siblings know how hard it can be to survive Christmas together never mind navigating a high-profile music career together. Just ask Liam Gallagher.
“It definitely has its ups and downs. I don't really know what it's like to have my own identity,” says Sara on working with her twin sister Tegan for over twenty years. “For 13 years I lived on the East Coast and she lived on the West Coast and we were as far apart as you could be, but it's a very unique identity to know that you share a face, a childhood history and an adult professional history… There's something somewhat claustrophobic about it to me - maybe more so than Tegan - but then there's also something remarkable about our having someone who understands you and gets you, but also infuriates you. There's something very intense about it.”
Just in case the Gallagher’s are reading: What’s the secret to longevity?
“I think it's what is required so we don't go crazy,” says Sara “even sometimes within our own relationship I tend to be more of an introvert and sort of disappear a bit. I know that hurts her (Tegan's) feelings, but for me it's just it's unusual to spend this much time with a sibling; but it's just unusual to do what we do. Right now we are in Europe on a tour bus with 16 people. We travel the world, we have this sort of suspended animation life, there’s something very weird about it. For me there's a place I have to go mentally sometimes just so I don't go crazy.”
Once the hurdle of ‘Sainthood’ was overcome and the decision to pop the pop pill was made and work began in earnest on ‘Heartthrob’. “I was so relieved that we were doing something different”. However, Sara’s body definitely didn’t seem as enamoured with the pop project as her mind did as she was soon struck down with shingles. “My doctor was like: Are you under a tremendous amount of stress? and I was like: I don't necessarily feel like I am. And he's like: People who get shingles when they are 30 years old are usually experiencing a great deal of stress. And I was like: I guess I'm stressed out, but I don't know that it was at the surface level yet.”
Strangely Sarah regards being struck down with shingles as a sign that she was doing the right thing creatively. “I think if you relax into something too much that might be when you aren't doing your best work. But during periods of stress or getting shingles when you're 30, that's when you're doing your best work.”
Stranger still, it wasn’t one of Sara’s pop songs that became the shooting off point for the album. It was one of Tegan’s.
“I think when Tegan sent me Closer I was like, oh, this feels different. Sometimes when she sends me songs I'll sort of have to imagine where it will go - the many different ways we could approach the song - but Closer sounded like Closer, it just had that vibe and I thought well this doesn't sound like anything we've done before. And so to me it deserved an approach unlike any of our other albums."
We ask Sara were they worried that they’d have to convince their label et al that they weren’t insane jumping genres? And her answer was typically fearless.
"For me, it was more about can we convince ourselves? Yes.” says Sara. “Once we were telling ourselves that we could do this it was easy to make everyone around us go yeah, this is exactly what you have to do. If we'd have come in with a bunch of shit music I think the people in our lives would have said don't do this, but because we were working with Greg Kurstin (since this conversation Kurstin picked up the Grammy for Best Producer), there was a real confidence that what he was gonna do with us was gonna be; still Tegan and Sara, but definitely something fun.”
Mass media initially greeted the new Tegan and Sara sound with some suspicion, with some quarters more concerned about how many fans they would haemorrhage rather than whether their songs were any good or not.
"There was a focus when we released 'Heartthrob' and again with this record. Are your fans upset? Did you lose fans? But the truth is that for us we didn't focus on who didn't like it. We focused on all the people who liked it. There was something very exciting about that. It was like being reborn."
The sonic evolution within Tegan and Sara was also conducted in tandem with a lyrical revolution; songs from the standpoint of the jilted were replaced by tales of thempleasure seeker.
“I think there was a bit of that on this record” Sara agrees. “I think both of us were reflecting on times in our lives or deficits in our personalities (laughs) I don't think it's about making ourselves seem like villains, but there was a period of time where thought, wow we've been writing songs since we're 15 years old and most of the time they are about singing to a person who doesn't want you, who doesn't feel the same as you, who's hurt you.
We sort of cast ourselves into these roles of unsung heroes or underdogs and the truth is that we both do, just fine and have been the dick a lot of times. We've done our own share of breaking hearts and being unavailable in emotional relationships. So, on this record I think we address the other side of it where we're like we're not exactly innocent either."