These twin singer-songwriters may be Canadian, but they've toured the US north to south, east to west. Tegan and Sara Quin have also released a series of acclaimed indie folk albums with driving rock beats —- but they've been hinting at a change for a long time. That change came with new single “Closer” from upcoming release Heartthrob. It's pure pop goodness, with an earwormy chorus that harkens back to high school crushes and young daydreams.
But Tegan and Sara are more than just new pop goddesses. Their songs are intricate and considered; their harmonies a perfect balance of quivering dissonance and fierce complement. Their live shows integrate stories from the road and their childhood, which have made them beloved among their fans — and their frequent Bruce Springsteen covers have made them beloved by me.
Before their Austin City Limits date, I spoke to Tegan about their search for the perfect producer for Heartthrob (they ended up going with three separate choices) and our mutual Springsteen love. Tegan also updated me on her work in the LGBTQ community — both twins are openly gay — since the 2008 election.
NUVO: Can you give me a little preview of what your album that’s going to be released next year will be?
Tegan Quin: The record comes out in late January; it's called Heartthrob. I'm not going to beat around the bush — it's really different than our last records. It’s definitely poppier than our past records. I think it’s actually a continuation of where we were going with the difference between you and ourselves. We pushed the keyboards to the front. We pushed our vocals to the front. Sara and I — we spend numerous songs on the record singing, the entire time, her and I. We collaborated with several people.
The first single, “Closer,” definitely sums us both up. I would say it’s definitely the poppiest song on the record. There's a wide range of types of song and diversity on the record. We tried to figure out how to make an album that would become a classic after multiple listens. You almost don’t recognize it initially, but [the songs are] undeniably good. You know, we wrote fifty songs for a year and a half on that record. I truly believe it’s our best work.
I know already people are like, “Oh, I wish you made a record like this record or I wish you’d sound more like this.” But Sara and I will never try to recreate our past work. Those records will always be there. We’re touring right now 20 songs and 16 of them are from our past three records. So, we’re always going to play a lot of our old music. It would be like ripping off our fans to make a record that’s already made. So, yeah, I’m so very excited, it’s new territory. But I think the depth and the emotional is all still there.
NUVO: Was any part of that going in a new direction in an effort to solicit a new group of fans?
Quin: It’s kind one of those funny things; when I go into making a record I only think about myself, you know. I think about what I’m trying to say, what I’m inspired by, what I’m feeling. In terms of writing music, I don’t write anything for anyone but myself. I don’t even write for Sara.
When we were picking producers, we definitely started talking about what our goals were. You know, my goals were not to just keep playing the same music for the same people. Those same people don’t come back every single time, and you can’t really tread water in this business. You have to move forward. People grow up, they get over you, they didn’t like the last record, or they move or they forget. So, you're right that we have a loyal, hardcore fan base. We also are more interested in seeing more countries and traveling more of the world, South America and Indonesia, Japan all over the world — they’re like, 'Come and see us!' And the only way we can really do that is if our record company can put our record out in some countries. We don't sell records in very many places. I think part of the problem is that we've never tried to make a record that would go great on the radio. When we started thinking about how to actually appeal to a wider audience, it didn't seem that scary. We still write our own songs and perform them. We just adjust things slightly and we'll have a bigger audience
We toured with Paramore on our last record, and I looked out at the audience. We had such an amazing time on that tour; we had such an amazing response from their audience. We sold so many records and so many t-shirts and we gained so many new fans and I like that. I was like, 'Oh my god, these people are awesome!’ They were a little more mainstream, but they were also young, they were teenagers, young adults, and I thought, 'You know, if Paramore got that audience from being played on the radio and they’re still keeping their integrity, and they still are outspoken, why don’t we do that?’
So there was a little bit from a production standpoint we were aiming a little higher. But we always start from the place — we write. It’s selfish, like 'What do I need to prove to the world? What message do I have to give?’ That always comes first.
NUVO: Can you tell me about the selection process for the producers for this. I know you were going through this tier of different ones that you’ve picked.
Quin: We met with a ton of people and the first one, Greg Kurstin,he was just a phenomenal — he just jumped on the Shins’ record and the Bird and the Bee and Tom Yorke. But then he works for like Katy Perry and Ke$ha and all of these pop females and vocalists. I felt like that was so weird, like how could you do a Shins’ record and then go and do a Pink record? How do you do that? He was so focused on music; all he cared about was the songs. He didn’t care about anything else.
When we met, he was very... not standoffish, but he was like, "Yeah, if I like the songs then I’ll work on your record, if I don’t then I won’t." It's not about money, I knew he was really busy and timing. I left the meeting kind of feeling rejected, like, 'Is that all you think about?’ I wanted him so bad. I wanted him to like me. I met with 12 other producers, just thinking, "I hope he does us," we wrote him a bunch of songs, and he was actually on vacation, and he called us from Hawaii and said, "I want to make your record. These songs are so good, just so weird and interesting and so great; this is what I want to do. You know, and I don’t want to worry about the Tegan and Sara fan base, I don’t want you guys to come in and make a record you've made before. I want to push this as far as we can."
And I thought, "Yes! This is awesome"
"Closer" by Tegan and Sara
So, that's how it came about with Greg. With Mike Elizondo, I wasn’t sure he would fit, because he's working in hip-hop and rock. He’s just another person who has this infective energy. All he cared about was music; he was just like, "I want to make songs that people want to listen to forever." I really appreciated that. Also all of the producers we worked with were songwriters too, so they worked with the music in such a neat way. Multiple songs on the record that are collaborations. They were all so invested.
Sara was so obsessed with our music and making it great, and so determined to never release a song we don't believe in. We are so amped on the songs; we wanted to make sure it was real; every word, we poured over it. We thought, "Is that really the word that would best describe this moment?" I'd lay awake. We really pushed.
The last producer we worked with was Justin Meldal-Johnsen. I loved all the records he’s worked on, and I loved that he played in Nine Inch Nails; I thought he was such a crazy character. He’s so animated in the studio. I think the two [songs] that made the record are really fantastic. One is very guitar-driven. I wanted to make something that dudes can put on in the car and roll down their windows with their girlfriends.
NUVO: I was reading through your awesome series on Spinner, where you did the a Laugh, Cry, Rage blog. You had a really affecting blog about Prop 8. It’s an election year again, and I know you’re Canadian, but are you doing any kind of campaigning before the U.S. election?
Quin: Yeah, absolutely. I feel very emotionally charged about trying to support the American election again, because we're charged up still from four years ago. Prop 8 being overturned; it was so upsetting to lose the right. I'm dating an American and I spend most of my time specifically in California. It makes me sad that her and I have been together for four and a half years and we can’t get married. The toughest part is that often times I’m surrounded by heterosexuals and they don’t understand the value of that right, because they learned to take it for granted.
In Vancouver, in Canada they just had that news story about how Vancouverites are getting married less and less every year. It's become something that's not even valuable to so many people. And yet, for us, it's not just about marriage, it’s just about love, and adoption and all sorts of other rights.
I do get emotionally charged about it. I try not to insert myself too much because I don't see my role as a musician as someone who gets to stand on stage and tell people what to do. Ultimately, I hope that people who listen to Tegan and Sara, if they've been ignorant or homophobic in the past that our music helps them transcend that ignorance. We are definitely a band that is very vocal about tolerance and equality and focus lots of energy on that. I just did a PSA in Washington because they're voting on marriage equality [Editor's note: This is Referendum 74 that Brandi Carlile mentioned as well]. We try to voice our opinions whenever we can, but I don't want to use the stage as a soapbox. We're definitely hoping for Barack Obama to be re-elected and we'll continue to fight for gay rights and marriage equality. We truly believe that we'll see that in our lifetime.
NUVO: I have time for one more question, and it’s definitely going to be about Bruce Springsteen. Are you as big a fan of Bruce Springsteen as it may seem from your covers and tour mentions?
Quin: Yes, we are! It's so funny. Just the other day a fan came up to us and said, "Do you feel like you're selling out because of 'Closer?'" And I said, "No!" We're outspoken, obnoxious fringe people. Any success that we achieve is good for people like us. If anything, we should be selling out because it will help alternative people.
Anyway, we got into this debate about music and commercial music. I always, always, always reflect upon Bruce Springsteen and what a political, intelligent, articulate person that he is, while still being one of the biggest superstars on the planet. Sara and I truly believe that growing up and learning to appreciate an artist not only for their music but also for the diversity in their music — Bruce Springsteen never made the same record twice — that's what influences us. He's who made me want to be a musician and made me want to stand on stage.
And that's the reason our live show is the way it is — we talk, we banter. That's directly because of how we grew up listening to Bruce Springsteen and his live records and the stories and the tales behind the songs. That's our bar. We think, "Would Bruce do this? Would he go there? Would he say this? Would he play this song? Would he play that show?" And if Bruce would do it, then we'll do it.
"Living Room" by Tegan and Sara