With two sparkling pop albums in 2014’s Heartthrob and this summer’s still-pulsing I Love You to Death—from which the neon-plated “Boyfriend” was a constant BBQ jam—Tegan and Sara have gone from the duo du jour of college radio playlists to Seacrest-worthy Top 40 phenomenon. That’s quite a feat 15 years into a long, but somewhat obscurely celebrated tenure, always trying to shed the label of coffee-haus Canadian exports.
Where Heartthrob was the identical sisters cramming “150 ideas” into one song at a time, their latest pushes that pop “experiment” even further. I Love You to Death retains the futuristic gloss, but is bigger, sleeker; if only because a less-is-more approach has left their songwriting leaner, and even more confessional and profound. I had the pleasure of discussing that sonic shift with Sara Quin from her home in Los Angeles where, among other things, we chatted about the duo as celebrated champions for the LGBTQ community and the definition of Canadian-ness.
For those people who haven’t been fans from the beginning, Heartthrob was described as your “big pop experiment,” but it was very similar to what you have been doing most of your career, just within different parameters. What exactly prompted that sonic shift?
As far back as to when we were wrapping up The Con, I remember saying to Tegan that I was really into the new Justin Timberlake record that had just come out. And I remember that it had all of these guitar parts that sounded really programmed and really straight forward. We became fascinated with that type of hip-hop and pop production and wanted to make records that sounded like that, but something that was still in our realm. For a lot of people it feels like it happened overnight, but it actually was years of moving in that direction. We both agreed that we were kind of bored with indie rock and we had the fans and the support to do what we wanted. We loved the challenge of making something that was pop. It was fun, it was exciting. It was pretty much refocusing everything in our career. After 20 years in the music business, if you don’t change, I don’t know how you survive.
Being out of the closet your entire career, 17 years, it’s never really been something that defines your music, though you’ve influenced a whole generation of artists and are celebrated by the LGBTQ community. I recently read an interview where you “feel a responsibility to really push ahead” and that there are moments when you “wish that there was more happening.” Can you expand on that?
We’ve always been honest and transparent about our identity, even at 20. I wasn’t going to spend my whole career being asked what my boyfriend thought about my music. We are personal, we aren’t going to hide our personal lives, how could we do that? It was never a political stance. I can respect the people who want to say ‘No thank you,’ to those questions and remain mysterious, but that’s not me. We want to be active, to promote advocacy, to be good role models for our audience. I don’t want to get married, but that pisses me off that that was withheld from millions of people. We can use our identity and our visibility to do our part.
For me, I think that people think that it’s bad to have to talk about this these days, or that it’s a burden to explain that identity, but I don’t feel that anymore. I like talking about my identity. I think it’s interesting, I think it’s unique. Most people, especially straight people, spend their entire lives talking about that life without ever having to justify it—but I do? In a way, it’s made me want to be more gay. I want to be more open and never make apologies for it. I’ve never had to say I love Radiohead, but it’s a stretch for me because I’m not straight? So why does someone who is straight have to stretch to identify with what I’m singing? I’m dealing with the same type of shit everyone else is dealing with, I just happen to be a girl who love girls. I just wish more people would talk about this. I want to hear more voices. I guess I’m just impatient.
Something else that doesn’t exactly define your music is your Canadian-ness. Seeing the celebration given to the Tragically Hip and their final show in Ottawa, many lauded the band’s Canadian identity. Do you think there is anything singularly Canadian about what you do as musicians?
It’s very similar to the question about how does being gay play into our music. I don’t know? I guess growing up in Canada and having support from the Canadian government with funding and grants has a lot to do with who we are. Who we are as people was really shaped by the social fabric of Canada. I grew up never worrying about health care or worrying about my future, even if I was raised by a lower middle-class single mom. I feel like I come from a privileged country where I was encouraged to be creative and artistic. It was also annoying that people always referred to us as being polite and kind, like it was a backhanded way of telling us that we weren’t cool. But then growing up I’ve realized that we are polite and humble and many of those things, and if that’s being Canadian I’m fine with that.
Well then, I must ask the most Canadian of questions: Who is your favorite Degrassi character?
Wow! I’m an original Degrassi fan. By the time the next generation came along I was well on my way to adulthood. I always liked the characters with the stupid names. Snake? Wheels? I haven’t watched in so long, but I loved Joey cause I thought he was cute; but I also loved the twins cause they got mono—the kissing mono—and I was disgusted, and that was real. Degrassi was real.
Tegan and Sara play Express Live! on Tuesday, October 25. Visit teganandsara.com for music and more information.