“I’m wearing fabulous shoes, and nobody can see it,” laments Sara Quin from onstage at Le Poisson Rouge in downtown Manhattan. She and twin sister Tegan are in the midst of their first New York gig to promote their upcoming album, Love You to Death, and tomorrow night they’ll make their debut appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. The ladies are dressed for the occasion, Tegan in a too-cool leather jacket and Sara in a razor-sharp blazer, but the venue’s set-up is too intimate: The crowd is encroaching on the stage, so no one in the back can see the lower halves of the duo’s (presumably) stunning ensembles.
There are benefits to the gig’s spacing, though: Tegan and Sara are close enough to have a conversation with some superfans they’d noticed earlier on Instagram, who found a couch to sleep on overnight while waiting on line for the show. After some good-natured ribbing with the couch-inhabiting fans (Sara: “I have a bit of a hygiene thing…”), Tegan turns sentimental for a second. “There are so many good things about being in a band,” she raves. “The moment we’re having right now is probably at the top of the list.”
“Unless we get bedbugs,” interrupts Sara, with innate comedic timing.
Tegan and Sara have been doing this for a long time. Over two decades and eight albums’ worth of recording and touring, the 35-year-old Canadian sister act has built up one of North America’s most devout cult followings. But in another sense, they haven’t been doing this for very long at all. After a gradual unveiling of their pop chops over ten years of increasingly accessible releases, the once-indie-folk duo officially crossed into the mainstream world in 2013 with Heartthrob, the top-five-charting album whose dazzling synth-pop confessionals endeared them to such megastars as Taylor Swift (who performed their hit “Closer” with them on stage in 2013) and Katy Perry (who invited them to open on her 2014 Prismatic tour).
Credit: Krista Schlueter for SPIN
It’s why the duo make comments like, “This is our eighth record, I mean, our second record,” when introducing songs from Love You to Death, whose emotive new-wave glitterbombs double down on the Top 40-courting gambit of Heartthrob. It’s also why they’ve reinvented their live show (hiring a musical director and auditioning professional musicians to support them), even inverting old favorites like breakthrough 2004 hit “Walking With a Ghost” to fit their current turbo-pop mold. “We had always been told that our 30s would be super-fun and that your 20s are kind of awkward,” Tegan explains to me two days after the LPR show, at a bar near their midtown hotel. “You’re so much better and confident and you know who you are. So when we turned 30 [in 2010] it was like, ‘Alright, this is a new chapter for Tegan and Sara.’”
And it’s a book more fans are reading than ever — the duo have managed to add on scores of new admirers by embracing the pop world, without loosening the hold they had on fans who date back to when they sounded more like Ani DiFranco than Ariana Grande. Walking through Central Park, we even run into one of the couch-girls from the downtown gig, who raves about the performance and insists on getting a picture. (Whether or not it’s a coincidence that she had a chance encounter with the sisters blocks away from their hotel remains unclear.)
“What are the odds?” I quip to the Quins’ manager. “Better than they were a couple years ago,” he responds.
What follows is the discussion I had with Tegan and Sara at the bar near their hotel, about their relationship with pop music over the years: their memories of growing up with it, their approach to writing and playing it, and their feelings on now formally being a part of it. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You mentioned at the Monday show that New Kids on the Block was your first-ever concert. What was that like?
Sara: We we were in the fourth grade the year that the New Kids came. And it was a short period in between when we discovered them and the show, but an intense period, and we kind of went crazy learning every song on every cassette. And we had both already picked our favorite, like Tegan loved Jordan and I loved Joey McIntyre.
Tegan: And I felt very overwhelmed, because we hadn’t been to a lot of concerts or experienced pop culture in a way that maybe some young kids had. I felt very scared to go to a concert. I remember feeling fear.
Sara: And then complete astonishment when they came onstage. When the New Kids on the Block came out, just the volume of that sound, I had never heard. I had never been at a hockey game or anything like that. It was the first time I heard that many people cheering for something. And I remember the sensation of wanting to cry. Not because I was scared but because I was just overwhelmed. I’ll never forget my first thought was just, “They’re real.” It was the first time that I had experienced probably what a lot of people experience, which is you look at something and you listen to something and you know that they’re real, but then you see them physically and think, “Holy s**t, this is a real person.”
How long did that phase last, and what was the next musical infatuation after that?
Tegan: Well, Sara and I were weird teens. We listened to Supertramp and Bruce Springsteen and Led Zeppelin. We listened to what my parents listened to. My stepdad had a huge vinyl collection, but he was also like the most avid collector of all things. So as soon as CDs became popular he also collected compact discs right away. We were allowed to use the CDs, and we became obsessed with all that music. I mean Phil Collins, Michael Jackson, that was probably the first pop we ever listened to. While my friends were listening to Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul, we were really into rock. Like Chris de Burgh. It was weird.
And at the same time that that was happening, it wasn’t so much that we wanted to be in a band, but I think we both would spend a lot of time listening to music and imagining ourselves singing the music as men. Not wishing we were men, but imagine singing it like them. I think we related to male music very much. And our stepdad was such a big influence at that point, and joined our family and moved in with us. And he loved Bruce Springsteen and U2, and idolized Bruce Springsteen and had photos up of him up in the house. So I think we learned fan culture from him. It was then I realized how important the relationship between fan and musician was.
Do you remember the first pop songs that you sensed queerness from? Where it was like, “This seems like it’s coming from a queer perspective?”
Sara: No. It’s so weird, I don’t. There weren’t really any queer influencers that were in the music we were listening to, like, in a traditional sense. Obviously Kurt Cobain talked a lot about it.
Tegan: Grade seven, grade eight, and grade nine was where [our listening] went from Erasure and Ace of Base into grunge music. And we were a little young to be listening to it, but my mom embraced it. Kurt Cobain was the gateway drug to Courtney Love, which was the gateway drug to the Pacific Northwest Riot Grrrl movement, which was probably our gateway drug to starting to lean towards queer music like L7, Babes in Toyland. But that was late for us. It was 14, 15. It was old.
Did you guys go through the “f**k pop music” phase of teenagerdom?
Tegan: Yeah, I mean later, though — 16,17. That’s when we discovered Ani DiFranco.
Sara: I think we stopped listening to the mainstream radio probably in middle school and high school. We listened to the alternative stations and stuff.
Tegan: There was a time where we took over — it was like a takeover in our household — and it was like, “Now we want our music,” and our parents had to get on board with music we were listening to.
“That  version of me who would’ve maybe been stressed out by pop music,” Sara says, “that person now would be like, ‘Oh good, things got way better.'”
So did you have a new relationship with Top 40 music at this time?
Sara: I think it was a strange time because there was a lot in the Top 40 that we listened to. Like, I would’ve considered Smashing Pumpkins or Nirvana to be Top 40 at the time. They were probably the most mainstream of what we were listening to at the time.
But when I think of pop music, I don’t really think of what was popular then. I think probably what became pop music for me was right when we were getting out of high school, and in our first few years out of school. Pop music to me was like Backstreet Boys and ‘NSYNC and Britney Spears…
The megapop years.
Sara: MEGA-pop. Where things were just going crazy. There was lot of stuff on the radio that wasn’t necessarily interesting to us, but it was really when we got out of high school and that late-‘90s, early-2000s megapop happened and I remembered thinking like, “Not for me. I’m gonna go turn my ears off and listen to the super-alternative, left-of-center kind of world.”
In 2007, I started listening to [mainstream] pop music again. There were a few records that really snuck through for me. It was “Umbrella,” Rihanna. FutureSex/LoveSounds, that record for Justin Timberlake. Really loved that first Dream record, Love/Hate. Those were the things that started to pull my ear again, where I was like, “I really like what’s happening,” and I started listening to a lot of electronic music and hip-hop and Robyn and all these things. It was like my ears stopped wanting to hear guitars, and I was starting to really feel quite bored of what was happening musically in the world that we were in and in the music we were making.
Looking back now, since you’re playing more Top 40-geared music, are you like, “Now I understand it better?”
Sara: Yeah. And if I look back at some of my “pop blackout” period, a lot of what was really powerful in that period was female. It’s not that different from this period, it’s just the agency of those stars was different, and the sexuality of those stars was very different. We were still in a response to, I think, the freedom and sexuality of the ‘80s and early ‘90s.
When you really think about it — Prince, Madonna, and Bowie — they seem goddamn futuristic compared to what was going on in that prudish, square late-’90s, early-’2000s. We were in the most heteronormative, “Women are like this, men are like that” period of music. And I think I was also turned off by that, whereas I think a lot of what was happening in the mainstream when we were growing up was really gay. I didn’t know it. Like when you asked, “Do you remember thinking something was queer?” I didn’t, but a lot of that s**t was queer. When you compare that to the angry rap-rock stage, no wonder we turned the radio off.
Tegan: Now that we’re eight records in we can comfortably say this, but it’s not just that our pop influences are coming through, it’s that popular music is pop music right now. And I feel like the way music evolves and what’s popular, I hope we’re always hitting the pulse, but sometimes we’re probably not going to. If we hit a male, white, rap-rock time again we’ll probably become unpopular again.
Credit: Daniel Topete for SPIN
You just alluded to this, but your timing really couldn’t have been better in terms of evolving in the pop direction, because the national interest is moving away from rock, even in the underground. Were you conscious of that as it was happening?
Tegan: I don’t want to say that we knew this, but when Sara chose John Collins and Dave Carswell of the New Pornographers to produce our next record, we started to think about keyboards and pop music and synth-pop in 2003. I don’t think we thought, “Oh, the end of guitar is coming.” What we thought was, “We’re bringing back ‘80s synths.” So it was basically that we saw people were moving towards adding keyboards. We didn’t think of it in terms of “no guitars.” I love the guitar. I learned all our new songs on guitar. I wrote a couple on guitar.
Sara: I think when you’re worried that the thing you do or the thing that you like is dying you make a big fuss about it. You put a big glass case around it, you put a rope around it, and then you give it a bunch of awards and you do whatever. You fossilize it. And to me what’s so beautiful about music is that it’s a living organism and it should always change. And to me the guitar is just one instrument that makes notes. It’s just one instrument among many.
Tegan: This is a weird side-note, but someone brought this up to me. On The Con is a song called “Are You Ten Years Ago.” Beloved fan record. And “Are You Ten Years Ago” is a GarageBand beat that we constructed using real drums, but basically a GarageBand beat, synth, bass, and a bunch of keyboards. And it’s interesting to me that people overlook that part when they’re like, “We don’t know where this no-guitar thing came from.” I just go through our catalog… there was a movement happening. It’s not about “no guitars,” but variety. We played 14 songs the other night, four of them had guitar.
I saw that on Monday with “Walking With A Ghost.” You guys completely reinvented that song. Is that a way to escape being Bon Jovi, always having to play “You Give Love A Bad Name” the same way?
Tegan: It’s a way to excite our brains and making them feel like we’re doing something new. I’m thinking about “Walking With A Ghost” for the first time in probably eight years. Because I have to think about what I’m doing with my new instrument. Our musical director has me singing double on the entire song, so now I know the lyrics.
Sara: Uh, if you didn’t know the lyrics to “Walking With A Ghost,” you need to very seriously check yourself. There’s about seven words in that whole song. That’s not a hard one.
I’m sure your fans would be happy to get up there and sing it for you.
Tegan: It’s so complicated. They wouldn’t be able to do it. There’s so many sections repeating in different ways. To quote my manager — this is not something I would ever say — “Our songs are deceptively simple.” They’re not actually simple. Halfway through “Walking With A Ghost,” Sara shifts it. So halfway through the song she starts to sing the verse over the chorus and then when she goes back to the chorus, she sings over the verse. I’m not trying to say like, “Woahhhhh,” but really when I’m playing these songs, I feel like I have to use my whole brain.
A lot of your signature songs are sort of tricky like that. Like with “Boyfriend,” the chorus jumps halfway through, and in “The Con” the measure lasts a couple of beats longer than you’d expect it to.
Tegan: But only twice! These things come naturally to us. They’re instinctive choices that we make. I think that’s why we got along with [Heartthrob and Love You to Death producer] Greg Kurstin so well. He made me feel like it was a triumph that we had done that. He was like, “You guys are strange. How you do things is strange. You make choices that a classic pop writer wouldn’t make. And it’s really cool. It makes you really different.”
What do you think 1999 Tegan and Sara would think of 2016 Tegan and Sara?
Sara: I honestly think that we would like us. And you know what’s weird? I still feel like that version of me. When I look back at 1999 me, I was so insecure. I didn’t want to be in the band. I didn’t want to live near my family. I was afraid of my identity. I was so unsure of my future. I was in a super-volatile relationship that was really stressful. That version of me who would’ve maybe been stressed out by pop music, that person now would be like, “Oh good, things got way better.”
I don’t think that I knew there was a future in which I could be successful, satisfied, and work, not just in making songs and touring in a band, but we songwrite, and produce, and did a score this year. We’re able to help our friends and family. We have this wonderful, nurturing group of people who have been with us for, like, 20 years. We’ve had the same managers for 13 years. We’ve had the same label for most of our career. All of our relationships are intact. I don’t regret anything that happened in my past, but I feel much happier being here than I did back then.
Is it strange to be at this point in your lives and playing music that feels very visceral, and that people associate with teen angst and growing up?
Tegan: No, because again, it’s like you enter this new era where you’re completely new insiders. You’re angsty, you’re a teenager, you’re vulnerable. This is where we understand it. You get to look back on that time, and you get to speak to that time with new insight.
I think that’s why this new era of Tegan and Sara feels like a new era of Tegan and Sara. It’s not a continuation of what we’ve done. We’ve started a new phase of our lives.
“I was like, ‘Look, straight-up,'” Tegan says, “‘pop’s been great to us.'”
The cover story you did with us in 2013 ends with a quote where you say something like, “If people hate this album, we’ll definitely do it again.” But people obviously liked the album a great deal. Was there anything about the reaction to Heartthrob that made you say, “Okay, we’re going even further on the new album?”
Sara: I don’t remember thinking anything on the last record was going to change our course. I think if anything it just reinforced that the choices we made were the right ones for survival. The band felt more relevant and vibrant and exciting. And even when there was criticism… I liked the criticism on our last record the most.
There’s been some pretty terrible stuff.
Sara: Oh, brutal. I know it sounds weird, but the worst things people said about our other albums don’t even remotely compare with the worst things people said about our last two records. Back in the day, it wasn’t always easy to be in this band. It was partly a reflection of the times, and how it was a bit of a wild wild west, and people could still say really misogynist, homophobic things about us. People could write us off or underestimate us in a way that would be devastating sometimes. So now if someone’s just like, “I don’t like the way you sound now,” I could care less.
Credit: Daniel Topete for SPIN
How do Taylor Swift superfans compare to Tegan and Sara’s?
Sara: They all seemed lovely. If Taylor likes something, they like it, so it was fine. We got a little grumpiness from a few of our fans like, “Shame on you. What does Taylor represent?” I thought that was really unfair and actually sexist. Here is this incredibly popular, powerful, influential person who has decided to accept us and like us based on exactly who we are. We didn’t change one thing. We’re opinionated, a little left of center, and we’re gay, and we’re political, and Taylor liked us just the way that we are. So why don’t people like her just the way that she is? Just everyone shut up.
I was Googling something about you guys and Taylor, and I came across an article that said, “This is the album that made Taylor Swift’s 1989 and Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION possible.” And it was about Heartthrob. Did you feel like you were ahead of the curve on that?
Tegan: I don’t think that while we were making Heartthrob we thought about it in terms of wanting to influence people or do this or do that. I think at that point we felt a deep respect from the industry, which is why we made the record in the first place. Very close friends in the industry, other musicians, pop people, had said, “You write really great songs you shouldn’t limit yourselves.” And that was the theme leading up to going into the studio with Greg Kurstin. People were like, “Stop apologizing for writing the songs you do.” And we kept saying, “There’s a ceiling. There’s a ceiling.” And everyone was like, “You’re creating the ceiling. Trust yourselves.”
And so over the course of that record [cycle] lots of people were like, “Oh, this sounds like this. It’s obvious that this person’s trying to sound like you guys.” And then it was interesting because I know [writer/producer] Jack Antonoff talks all the time, because he works with a lot of those artists, about how they highly respect us and would cite us as references of what they wanted to sound like in the studio. The day Heartthrob came out, it was Katy Perry who tweeted that she loved “I Was the Fool.”
The first thing that happened wasn’t like, “Oh, look how influential we are.” What first happened to Sara and I was we went, “Wow, we finally belong somewhere.” Because we spent almost ten years in the indie-rock community and our peers, the bands we looked up to, never cited us as a band they were looking up to. It was an exclusively white, heterosexual male community and I think maybe it would’ve been weird for them. You know what community really embraced us during that entire period that we were indie rock? Metal, emo, pop-punk. Paramore, New Found Glory, Cancer Bats, those were the bands speaking out, saying they loved us. They didn’t sound anything like us, yet they were saying we were influencing them.
Meanwhile our peers in the indie-rock community, they weren’t. And I think when Sara and I started to embrace our pop sensibility and made Heartthrob, it was hilarious.
Sara: We, like, found our people.
Tegan: Yeah, the pop people were like, “Uh, hello.” So for us it’s really great when we meet young artists. Sara was like, “Look, Lorde tweeted the lyrics to ‘Back in Your Head.’” And I was laughing because I had just met Lorde a couple months ago. She was very nice. But the thing is, we didn’t talk about music.
So when Sara showed that to me I was like, “Look, straight-up — pop’s been great to us. And we write pop songs.” And we knew that for a long time. We’re working really hard to make music we hope influences people and excites people. I’m glad people are into it. I’m glad people are influenced by it. It’s nice. It makes you feel like you’re doing something good.