Tegan & Sara: Leaving a Political Record

Musicians Tegan and Sara, with their seventh album, Heartthrob, and a decade-plus experience under their belts, lead the pack of accomplished leaders in politics, sports, science, religion, and the arts named to our annual "40 Under 40" list.

BY Matthew Breen

April 02 2013 6:00 AM ET

Between albums, Tegan and Sara had seen surprising success in collaborations with decidedly non–indie rock artists, notably dance music producers DJ Tiësto (“Feel It in My Bones”) and David Guetta (“Every Chance We Get We Run”). The success strongly suggested their vocals were ripe for high-energy dancehall tracks.

Consequently, writing Heartthrob felt different. It was taking shape as a sort of super record. “We were writing these really bold, pop-driven songs,” says Tegan. “Sara was moving away from guitar almost completely, and I was really trying to write a great bridge, a great ballad, really trying things that I had not done well in the past, to push myself outside of my box.”

With a dozen songs written they partnered with Greg Kurstin (he’d worked with Kelly Clarkson, Pink, Ke$ha), a producer who fit all their requirements: indie and pop experience, and a track record of working with female vocalists. He encouraged them to make their tracks audacious.

The Quins are queer feminist icons to devotees who’ve been faithful since their earliest folk-inspired Lilith Fair fare. But whatever early trepidation there might been at the prospect of alienating their longtime fans has since evaporated. They’re are really good at making great, confident pop, and while they’ve grown in range, they haven’t sacrificed their signature melancholic vocals and kick-in-the-gut lyrics. “Closer” is the near-perfect first single on the tight 10-track album, capturing the rush and dizzy anticipation of first physical contact in electric synths. “Love They Say” is a paean to true romance — “The first time I saw your face / I knew I was meant for you” — with sincere lyrics that in clumsier hands would sound syrupy. The superbly sensational “Now I’m All Messed Up” veers traumatically between bipolar pushes and pulls, highs and lows: “Go (please stay) /  Go if you want / I can’t stop you.” The album debuted at number 3 on the Billboard 200 chart, and peaked at number 1 on both the U.S. Billboard Top Alternative and Top Rock Albums, and number 2 on the Digital Albums chart.

Since age 16, when they were writing alone in their bedrooms in Calgary, the sisters have mostly written songs in isolation, then sought feedback or a line of a bridge from the other — a practice they prefer. And each takes lead vocals on her own songs. But they’ve inched toward writing together.

Tegan says, “Sara actually cowrote on all five of my tracks — she wrote the bridge on three of them, and she helped me with two choruses. And because she’s changed the tone or direction of the song, it really feels like all of a sudden there’s a real left turn. Songs like ‘I Was a Fool’ and ‘Drove Me Wild,’ when the bridge comes in, it really feels like a different voice. I think this is something that is a big step for us. The songs have more depth, because they have two perspectives rather than just one. There’s something to be said for having been the person who wrote the song — in order to I think truly embed yourself in it, and really believe in it.… When I sing ‘How Come You Don’t Want Me’ with Sara, I am accompanying her, but it is her voice, it’s her song. It’s her experience.”

Rather than binge on a musician or a genre while writing this album, Sara describes mostly taking a break from music for inspiration, with a notable exception. “I was listening to a lot of music that focused on falsetto and a higher range. I do have a comfortable range…but when I pushed myself outside of what’s comfortable, I’ve ended up at a place that was really inspiring.”

The Heartthrob tour includes gigs through September throughout the United States, Canada, Australia, Indonesia, and Europe, and will doubtlessly include more meetings at pop music radio stations like a recent one they describe. The station director assumed at first glance that they were 20-something novices who’d purchased a pop track. But a few minutes talking to the Quins disabuses anyone of the idea that they’re ingenues.

“We’re women in an industry where women who are older aren’t necessarily taken seriously either,” says Tegan. “There’s sort of a natural trend where you see women [musicians] in their 30s drop off and have children. We really resisted [that idea] in our 20s when journalists would say, ‘When you get to your 30s, are you going to have kids and stop touring?’ And we were like, ‘Oh, my God, why would you ask us that? Do you ask men that?’ Then I got to my 30s and I thought we might start slowing down and having kids—”

Sara interjects, “It’s some weird fucked-up hormonal thing. You try to fight it, but you can’t.”

“It is! It’s biological!” says Tegan. “I think we’re actually probably going against the grain right now that we’re so ambitious now that we’re in our 30s…but we have decided to really aim for the stars.”

“Now I’m like, ‘Oh, no, now I’m in my prime. You can’t stop me now,’ ” Sara says. Both sisters express a sense of ambition coupled with a peacefulness they say comes from being in their 30s.

“Sort of by accident we fell into these adventures and achieving these astounding things that we had never imagined,” Tegan says. “If I step out the door tonight and get hit by a bus, I hope everybody knows I kind of did everything that I could have possibly wanted to do. Now is just icing on the cake."

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