Feb. 27, 2013 - Issue #906: Tegan and Sara - Pop goes their world
Pop goes the world
Tegan and Sara branch out on Heartthrob
The Quin sisters have spent years cutting their teeth in the indie world, gathering an underground following and orbiting on the fringe. Bit by bit, Tegan and Sara have begun to creep into the mainstream realm with songs on the soundtrack of Grey's Anatomy, dance collaborations with the likes of David Guetta and now, with their seventh studio album Heartthrob, a full-on, toe-tapping pop album that's creating serious buzz not only for its catchy hooks, but also for its departure from the twins' indie roots.
But by no means does a pop shift entail a complete departure from the quirks and style that has defined the duo's sound. While Heartthrob is pop through and through, Sara maintains that this doesn't mean the lyrics have become insipid or trite—they still express emotions and circumstances in the same way the pair's earlier material did, but with a new style that's just as much a testament to the Quinn sisters evolving as artists as it is to their fan base growing right along with them.
"We were definitely recognizing that our fan base was open to the idea and that we weren't necessarily just drawing in an audience that was just there to see rock-band kind of formations," Sara explains over the phone from Vancouver, adding that the progression seemed like a natural one for the duo, not to mention a step in the right direction in order to achieve their next set of goals as musicians. "It's kind of boring, but we quite literally sat down and wrote out a list of things we still wanted to accomplish with this band."
An item that made this list was getting on pop radio. With validation they were capable of writing a successful pop hook through their more collaborative efforts, they decided to go full steam ahead.
"A pop record for us is not necessarily like a Beyoncé record, although, I love Beyoncé. For us, a pop record is a broader way of saying something that's a little more universal and a little less focused on the sub-genre of indie-rock," Sara says, noting that collaborating with producers and DJs to produce a pop album required the pair to step away from their usual protective instincts when it came to songwriting. "We had always written songs and that was what they were, and then you sort of protect them with your life. For the first time we started using these ideas and skills we were building with producers and collaborations we were doing."
Broadening their audience and sound was one thing, but Tegan and Sara weren't about to stop there—they wanted chart-topping hits and positive record sales.
Sara recalls very clearly at the precipice of releasing So Jealous in 2004 that their goal was to sell a modest 50 000 copies. At that point, Tegan and Sara had concluded that record sales were a thing of the past and they would rely on touring for their livelihood instead. However, after seeing singles sales skyrocket in response to their Tiësto and Morgan Paige collaborations, the Quinn sisters realized there was still an audience interested buying music.
"Some of it was straight up like, 'How cool would it be to see the record go platinum? How cool would it be to debut at number three on the Billboard charts?'" Sara says about the duo's aspirations. "We started to say, 'Hey, we don't have to be an obscure indie rock band, we can probably tackle some of these bigger mainstream things.' Instead of seeing ourselves as a band that plays Coachella, we started saying things to ourselves like, 'Hey, let's be a band that headlines Coachella.'"
Sara admits there was a time when these goals did not seem attainable. In the beginning she felt unsure of where the duo fit into the grand scheme of the music industry. She often felt apologetic for their endeavours, accepting that they just weren't one of those bands that was recognized for their songwriting—people liked them, but that was the extent of it. Never mind fitting into the industry, there was also a matter of paying the bills. Sara recalls coming home from tours at the beginning of their career that were less than lucrative, thinking it was time to head to university and get a "real job" because sustaining the musician lifestyle didn't seem like a viable career path if she ever wanted to own a home, start a family or even have a semblance of financial stability.
With goals clearly set, the matter of what Tegan and Sara wanted to say with this new album became the focus. Working from their respective homes, the sisters collaborated via the Internet and challenged one another to step out of their respective comfort zones. For Tegan, this meant branching out from hurt and heartache, allowing her lyrics to encompass a more fun and flirtatious side, resulting in tracks like Heartthrob's first single "Closer," while Sara was met with the task of laying her emotions bare without the aid of ambiguous metaphors.
"When I'm sitting down and writing the lyrics, I feel almost sort of embarrassed about how straightforward and confessional or whiney or begging they seem, but I think they really connect with people," Sara says of songs like "Now I'm All Messed Up." "When I'm not obsessing over looking sort of cool and aloof, I think the truth is there's a deeper impact when you're just being real."
Of course, working together for 14 years has helped Tegan and Sara draw out the best in one another musically, and the dynamic between the two continues to evolve along with their music. Sara says there were certainly challenging years with conflicts she attributes to the complexities of growing up and not having the distance most siblings have to figure themselves out. She and Tegan had came into their own for the world to see—for better or worse.
"So many people would make a big deal out of the fighting and the conflict, and I really resisted talking about it because I felt like that was playing into this idea that we were like a sibling rivalry and I didn't think that was fair. Of course we fucking fight ... we've been doing this together for 14 years," she says with a slight chuckle. "At this point, the fact that we haven't murdered each other is not the story: the story is not only have we not murdered each other, we've maintained a friendship and a connection that's quite deep and we've found ways to challenge ourselves individually and in the group."
This connection is one Sara holds in high regard, recognizing that revealing herself through her lyrics is that much easier when the push is coming from the person who has been at her side throughout her entire life. The relationship the pair has forged throughout the years continues to be one that is complimentary in all facets of their intertwined lives, whether it be professionally, personally or creatively. This doesn't mean they will always be just "Tegan and Sara," a sole entity incapable of branching out without the other—each has embarked on solo collaborations with other artists—but it's what fits best right now.
"I'm not going to say we're going to be in a band forever," Sara says. "But if we continue to feel the way we feel, I can't see why we wouldn't try at least to continue on. It's incredibly satisfying."
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