Shock to Your System: An Interview with Tegan and Sara

Tegan and Sara
Warner Bros.

The Canadian duo of Tegan and Sara kick off their seventh album Heartthrob with “Closer”, an infectious, hook-ridden single that is poised to introduce the indie rock veterans to a broader mainstream audience. While the band has built a devoted following in the indie world, centered on two critically acclaimed albums, The Con (2007) and Sainthood (2009), the band’s latest, since its release on January 29th, is generating the lightning in a bottle ubiquity that by way of example of say, the other day, sees them on magazine covers at the local newsstand, their latest music video to “Closer” mugging for attention along a whole wall of monitors at the Best Buy, and then being introduced on air by Jimmy Kimmel.

A mid-career shift from critical acclaim to critical mass is not without its risks, particularly in the case of a band with a devoted fan base, drawn to the band’s indie folk roots dating back to a 1999 appearance at Lilith Fair and bolstered by their major indie breathrough, the 2004 single, “Walking With A Ghost” (which was later covered by the White Stripes). Just ask Liz Phair, who had the gall to endure the wrath of a passionate fan base by daring to ring in the tenth anniversary of her ground breaking indie album Exile in Guyville with an audacious stab at pop stardom. Yet in an interview with PopMatters, Tegan Quin, one-half of the twin sister duo, seems to take the prospect of broader public attention in stride.

While Tegan and Sara have been known for undertaking stylistic and musical changes with each of their releases, the band charts a new course with Heartthrob. After achieving critical success working with producer Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie on The Con and Sainthood, the band works with a trio of producers this time out, including Greg Kurstin (one-half of the Bird and the Bee), Mike Elizondo (known for work in the pop world as well as collaborations with Dr. Dre and Eminem), and Justin Meldal-Johnsen. Tegan is circumspect in discussing the process: “If we had set out to make any kind of record, I would use Chris Walla or Howard Redekopp in a single heartbeat. But we were very specific about wanting to make a pop record. We wanted to work with a producer who had worked with a lot of female artists. We also exclusively were looking at producers who had written before. Not just people who would say, “Oh this is a great song”, but would really challenge us by saying, ‘I think the bridge should be bigger, let’s try something different. Go home and write a B chorus.’ When we were interviewing producers, those were the three things that we really focused on.

“It was a very conscious decision for us to work with Greg Kurstin. Greg obviously is an incredible writer. He has worked with almost exclusively female artists. He has had incredible success in the pop world with Pink, Kelly Clarkson, and Lily Allen, but also success in the indie world with Foster the People, the Shins, and Ladyhawke. All these different bands. I was like ‘You’re a Superhero, you can do it all.’ So I felt really comfortable in the studio with him, as he had those credentials.

“Mike Elizondo has done so much work in the pop world,” Quinn continues, “working with Mastodon and Regina Spektor records. Again, just an incredible catalogue and history. He’s incredible to work with in the studio, the kind of person who plays every instrument. All three producers that we worked with were savants — just incredible musicians from the time they were born.”

Heartthrob is a demonstration of how a band can remain true to its indie roots, while moving boldly in crafting a pop album that continues to garner praise from fans and critics alike. Synth-heavy pop hooks are infused with the complex arrangements and harmonies that first resonated with the indie world with “So Jealous” in 2004. The band’s devoted fan base will find much that is familiar: the duo’s signature hooks and harmonies ( “I’m Not Your Hero”, “How Come You Don’t Want Me”, and “”Love They Say”) and tracks that plumb complex emotions ( “I Couldn’t Be Your Friend, “Now I’m All Messed Up” ). A key to charting a new course, while avoiding a Newport folk festival style fan rebellion lies in working with a set of producers skilled in inter-operating in both the pop and indie worlds, extracting hooks while marshaling the band’s signature strengths.

Working with these producers turned out to be a liberating process. “Sara and I could just throw out any idea. Usually I’d have to be, like, ‘Well I kind of was thinking’, and then hammer something out myself. Instead, I would just say, ‘What about this idea, and sing something.’ And Greg would just run over to a keyboard, and be like, ‘What about this?/’ and just take the idea and run with it. It was so empowering. It just felt like they were appendages of ours, they thought and felt and emoted and created all these ideas that I normally couldn’t even get out of my head”.

A major shift on Heartthrob came in the sisters’ approach to songwriting. “This is absolutely our most collaborative record. Up to this point, on Tegan and Sara records, there have only been three songs we have ever collaborated on. On one, I just borrowed lyrics from Sarah, so we’ve only really written together twice. About four years ago, we would start writing together when writing for other people, such as Margaret Cho, Tiesto, David Guetta, and Morgan Page. So Sara and I really wanted to write with each other.

“I had felt in the past that my bridges weren’t interesting, so I would just leave them blank and Sara would be like ‘You write them’. So for Heartthrob, Sarah actually wrote all the bridges for my tracks on the record, and helped co-write the chorus for “Closer” and “I Could Be Your Friend”. We co-wrote “Drove Me Wild” and “How Come You Don’t Want Me” with someone else. For the diehard Tegan and Sara fans out there, I think this is going to a fun record for them because we basically sing together the entire record and then we also co-wrote with each other on more than half the record.”

Working together more closely on songwriting also saw the sisters learning from each other. Traditionally, Tegan and Sara would collaborating during the course of production, but generally bring their own work to the table, so much so that fans and observers could detect signature approach of the sisters. In the past, Tegan’s songs have tended to be perceived as more direct, more punchy, rooted in the band’s pop-punk roots where Sara’s songs have tended to be more introspective, layered and complex.

“We had a conversation as we started writing this record. I basically said to Sara, ‘You write more songs like “Back In Your Head”. Be direct. Write pop songs.’ And she did. And Sara had this conversation with me where she was like, ‘Take your time, spend more time on these songs, make the lyrics more deep, don’t just write a song in 20 minutes and be done with it.’ So we both made changes.

“We definitely are trying to change it up. We’ve been doing this for such a long time, it would be so boring if we just made another Tegan and Sara record like one we’ve already made. They’re already there. It’s funny. When we first put up “Closer”, a lot of the diehard fans were like, ‘Why won’t you just make another record like The Con?’ And I was like “Quiet! You wouldn’t want that! You already have The Con, and The Con still exists. It didn’t go away, we still play like six or seven songs from that live.”

Tegan is conscious of the willingness to embrace change herself as well. “As an artist, you have to remind yourself of that too. I have moments where I’m like, ‘I want to write “Call It Off” again, I want another sweet song from The Con.’ And then I’m like, ‘Wait, why? I want to play “Call It Off”. I don’t want to play another song like “Call It Off”. I already have “Call It Off”. I have to write something different.”

Forging a new direction, by working with a new producer has its risks, particularly for a band that has built up a fan base and crafted an identity, but it’s something Tegan and Sara did so without reservation. “We feel so lucky to be able to experiment with our sound. Ultimately I think we can do that because we focus on writing a great song that at its core, is still just a Tegan and Sara song. ”

Tegan and Sara’s work on Heartthrob also reveals their own experience collaborating with a broad range of artists, including turns themselves behind the producer’s chair. “Sara and I spent a year writing and demoing our own songs. So by the time we picked a producer and the tracks we were going to record, they had a template that they were building from. If I played you the original tracks, it’s very obvious they’re demos. You wouldn’t be like ‘Whoa, I can’t tell the difference.’ But the foundation for the songs are already there. My demo for “Closer” had 50 tracks. I was singing the melody lines, the hooks off the top, the keyboard line, a lot of it was there. But Greg just takes it and moves it to this whole new world that’s just so much bigger and much more involved.” With Greg’s work with Bird and the Bee including a celebrated tribute to another pair known for their harmonies, can we expect a Hall of Oates cover popping up during one of Tegan and Sara’s sets? “Ha ha ha, quite possibly”, chuckles Tegan.

If Tegan seems especially gracious in heaping praise on her collaborators, she seems very much a part of a DIY culture in which artists are comfortable interoperating freely across a variety of mediums. Aside from non-stop touring, the time between releases reveal a prodigious period which saw Tegan and Sara crossing over with a broad range of artists, from Against Me to dance artists to Margaret Cho to countless appearances on TV. With experience, comes an element of trust.

“I think as we have become more interested in production and in writing, and co-writing and working with other artists, we definitely become more empowered. I think I feel less like I need to have a producer credit on our own records because I’m the artist! I don’t feel like I need to say I was the producer. I didn’t decide what microphones to use. I didn’t edit the drums. I wasn’t influencing the final sound in that way and that’s truly what a producer does. I didn’t do any of that stuff. But a producer as this level also helps jump in and says ‘I think we should change the chords in the chorus’, and ‘I think we that should hire this drummer, and this is what I feel the drumbeat should be’. And Sara and I have really become less controlling in that way. I really trust the people we work with.” Tegan adds whimsically, “maybe that’s why, as a producer, I’ve learned that you need to trust the producer!”

2013 looks to be a big year for Tegan and Sara. The band got a sense of what broader appeal entails recently when they opened for the Black Keys and the Killers on a set of arena dates. “Yeah, it’s been awesome. I really like playing arenas. I’m sure I’d like them more if it was our arena show. It was a nice challenge to streamline the show a bit, to keep people’s attention by building a really great setlist that flows well. There are a lot of technical reasons why it’s become very exciting to get up on a big stage like that. Prior to starting our tour on this record cycle, we were like ‘OK, we’re going to be playing all big rooms — all arenas and festivals — we need a big show. We need to play basically play the hits, all the big songs, and work on our changes between songs.

“I’m definitely excited to be playing our own shows. Before every tour, we definitely look at where we’re going to be playing and what we’re doing, and try to build a set that accommodates that. When we go do a festival run, it’s like “OK, less acoustic instruments, because it’s a nightmare and we won’t get a line check”. Every tour we have to imagine, what the audience will enjoy, what makes sense, and what we will enjoy. But it’s so obvious now when we play those songs that they are so much bigger, and they are really making their mark. [“Closer”] is our biggest single to date. We’re thrilled!”

Tegan and Sara’s easy going manner is reflected in Tegan’s sober but optimistic outlook on the music industry. “It’s tough, I agree. Obviously we started playing music right when the digital age started to take over and internet downloading was starting to take off. It’s been very doom and gloom from the industry side, and the media really reflects on that, but I think from an artistic standpoint it’s been very exciting. Obviously it gives us a lot more room to grow and collaborate. In this day, I think because so many magazines and sites have popped up online, there’s a whole other community and musical journey. Even though we weren’t getting on the cover of Rolling Stone, we were getting attention on huge blogs on their site with a million views. I think as an artist of our size and stature, it’s been really great. Although the digital age and the internet have hurt sales, it’s helped us to expose our band to so many other people than we would have. It’s allowed us to be creative and alternative and be different over the last decade. I think a band like us, if we had started ten years earlier, I don’t know if we would still be around. We wouldn’t have sold records. So I think it’s allowed a lot of really great stuff to thrive, while also hurting the business because now people can download records for free. I keep up on all the blogs, all the stuff that’s bouncing around, I think record companies still have a long way to go to keep up with the movement online. We can continue to argue and be annoyed that people steal music and take it for free, and that they don’t seem to care. But they’re telling us something when they don’t want to pay for it. So we have to find creative ways, I think that’s going to be subscriptions. I think that’s just the way it’s going to be. We have to continue to be creative and we have to be ahead of the curve. That’s why Sara, I and the band are so diverse in what we do, in creating content, and why we tour so much. You can’t be a dinosaur. You have to stay after the kids.”

Tegan and Sara seem to revel in the creative possibilities of the DIY environment. ” I definitely love to collaborate. I love writing and I’m picky, I like to work with people who I think are great. I love the challenge working with artists from different genres. I worked with Jim Ward from Sparta on his solo record. We wrote three songs for a dance artist whose record is coming out soon, and I wrote two songs for Lisa Loeb’s new record. This year I think because we’ll be so busy with Heartthrob. We have learned so much from our collaborative relationships with other artists, I feel like we’ll continue to evolve that way.”

The girls seem poised to take the commercial demands associated with their newfound notoriety in stride, maintaining the easy banter they have with fans. The band kept fans updated on the recording process for Heartthrob in their own inimitable style through Carpool Confessional, a series of homespun online video vignettes that borrowed much from Aurora public access community programming than Taxicab confession. A Vanity Fair photo essay presented the band with an opportunity to showcase their practical sensibility and ever-present wit to a wider audience.

The sisters pop up regularly on Canadian TV and while making the major festival circuit, take pride in events as varied as the Winnipeg Folk Festival and the Sasktel Saskatchewan Jazz Fest. “Being from Canada and having our roots still very much here, and being embraced and supported by the Canadian population and industry I think it’s helped us keep our heads about us. We’ve had lots of support over the years, that’s really allowed us to be successful in other places, I think its super important for sure.” As the band prepares to hit the road, Tegan seems to be reveling in the next set of adventures. She’s at a bit of loss to pinpoint favorite locales. “Oh gosh, it’s way too hard to narrow down. Every country is unique, every city is unique. We look forward to certain things. Sometimes it’s a coffee shop, sometimes it’s a venue. But oh, we’re nomadic by nature so we just love it, we love it all!”