Tegan Quin on being queer and female in the music industry then and now ahead of 11/9 show at The National
For years, it felt like not more could be said about Tegan And Sara. They were two powerful songwriters that had built a diverse and passionate fanbase, all the while having detractors constantly belittle them for whatever reason.
They were lesbians. They were women. They were too frank. Too depressing. Too this. Too that. The two had risen above it far before the industry realized it, but it still left their story predictable and repetitive. But in 2013, with Heartthrob, the duo forged a new path in the career and allowed a new story to emerge about the band. The duo embraced pop music as fervently and candidly as they did rock music, opening their songs up to a whole new audience and giving new depth and meaning to their words.
This past June, the duo’s eighth record Love You To Death was released and continued that new direction as well as the story started in 2013, though with a slight adjustment that seemed more in line with the frank nature of their music.
They’re still raising their stock in the world of music and as the industry continues to move past its misplaced misogyny, the two stand tall at the prime of their career. As fate would have it, they’ve got company in dozens of exalted female artists and producers getting the high praise and respect the two Canadian sisters were denied for so long.
We caught up with Tegan Quin before her show at The National next Wednesday in Richmond for an in-depth conversation about the band’s path to this sound and success, as well as their philosophy behind what Tegan And Sara should always be. It was eye-opening to say the least, but as anyone who has felt the pair’s words over the years, it shouldn’t be any more surprising than news that their latest music is great.
Much has been said about your departure from rock music and how only one guitar appears on the new record. Obviously any artists is going to want to try something new, but did this whole shift more come from a lack of inspiration from rock music and guitars?
Honestly, the way you just said it, kind of. It wasn’t just like this record for us. When we were making Sainthood which we made in 2010, four of the songs on the record — “Alligator, Night Watch, Paperback Head,” and one other one I’m blanking on right now — we didn’t use any guitars. Sara was mainly writing on keyboard by that record. She was just uninspired for the guitar. The record went over so well that when we started writing for Heartthrob which we put out in 2013, Sara was like, “Fuck it. I’m done. I’m not going to write on guitar anymore.” And she only wrote one song on guitar which was “I’m Not Your Hero.”
I remember sending her guitar songs and two days would go by and then she would say, “Yeah that’s cool,” which I thought was annoying and rude. Then I sent her a song called “Closer” which I wrote on keyboards in about three minutes and she was like “I love it” two seconds after I sent it.
Then I sent her a piano ballad called “I Was A Fool” and she was like “I love it,” so obviously Sara hates rock music right now. We put out Hearrthrob and the reaction was great. A lot of our fans came over to us from Paramore and from our EDM collaborations with Tiesto and David Guetta. At that point in our career in 2013, our two biggest songs were “Back In Your Head” with Tiesto and a song called “Body Work” with a dance artist called Morgan Page that went double platinum.
A lot of our fans had already heard us in that electronic pop world and so we just went, “Fuck it, we’ll just embrace it.”
For the new record Love You To Death, I wrote all of my songs for guitar, but I work in (music editing software) Logic. I build my songs and as I layered things, I would just use guitars cause I liked the way it sound. There are quite a few more guitars than one guitar on this new record, but they play an ancillary role.
They create emotional peak and valleys. They are not the strumming rock guitars for sure. Going back to what you said, yeah, I think pop music is super interesting. Sara and I grew up in the ’80s. We love pop music. I love that so many genres are so mixed up right now too. Lately, I’ve been calling it the mixtape era.
It just feels like fans want to listen to Drake, and they also want to hear Grimes. They want to listen Paramore and Tegan and Sara, but they also want to go to the new Guns N Roses tour. I just think people are doing what they want right now and I think artists are allowed to have creative freedom.
Do you think you’d be making this type of music if Tegan And Sara came out today instead of in 1999, or did you just have to work your way to it?
Absolutely. In 1999, the fact that we were outspoken, queer teenagers led to us being sort of discredited. We weren’t taken as seriously as our male peers and I think it took us a long time to not only develop our career, but to also be taken seriously. I think there was a level of sexism in the indie rock world where it was like, “Oh, your girls and twins and you’re young? You probably don’t write your own songs. Oh, you write your own songs, but you probably can’t record them. Oh, you do record your own songs? You probably wouldn’t be able to produce them, you’ve got some guy. Oh, you do produce your own stuff?” It just took us years for people to take us seriously.
I think that would be different now. Women come out now and are powerhouses. Again, look at FKA Twigs or Grimes or Hayley from Paramore or even Shura who is blowing up internationally. These women are fuckin’ bosses. Even go as far as Katy Perry and Taylor Swift.
They are women who are running their empires. Rihanna too. Highly, highly intelligent, highly business savvy women who know exactly what they want to do. They are in there writing incredible songs. I just think that with women, people are naturally suspicious. What’s behind the curtains? I think when a man puts out a record, there’s no doubt and everyone’s just shouts “genius!”
When the industry started to take you seriously, did you think it was due to not being able to ignore your discography, or just the changing guard?
I think all of the above. I think we proved ourselves. Which is fine. I’ll be honest: Thank God we were only successful well into our career. It takes a lot to withstand the criticism and ridicule and the hard work and the actual physicality of being in a band as long as we have.
I’m glad we had the development time we did. That’s why we chose the record label we did and the path we did. Sara and I wanted to develop as songwriters. We were interested in songwriting and not in being famous so we chose a path that was a little more difficult and arduous, but it included an education which was important to us. I think we worked really hard until people started to take us seriously. But I think we also we learned our sound, our voices, and learned how to do what we do.
It’s not like Sara and I are natural singers. We are not Jennifer Hudson or Lady Gaga. We don’t have those kinds of voices.
We’re songwriters. We learned how to write songs that worked well with our voices,. We learned how to create hooks. We learned how to tell stories that felt universally. We learned how to market ourselves so people understood what we were and who we were and I think that just took a ton of time.
I don’t think it was always fair. We were told time and time again, not only by the industry, but bands. Male rock stars, huge rock artists, who would come and see us play. Huge fans of the bands over the year like Anthony Kiedis and Eddie Vedder and Neil Young and these people who told us we were great songwriters.
I remember Matt Sharpe coming into the studio and being like, “God, these songs are so god.” Hearing “Walking With A Ghost” or “Where Does The Good Go,” he told us if we were dudes, we’d be huge. People have a hard time not making girl-music about girls. We’re not girl-music and we’re not just about girls. It took people a long time to just realize this was relatable.
To just being okay with being a guy and just saying you can relate.
Is it gratifying to see women musicians held in such high regard the last few years?
Absolutely. It’s great and we’ve seen the wave a couple of times, but it’s awesome. I love how serious people are taking female artists and producers. I think there’s a trend towards equality in our business which is awesome. It extends beyond frontwomen and songwriting.
Sara and I are starting to see a lot more production people and engineers being women. We’re out on tour right now and 10 of our 15 staff are women. All the technical positions are women. Audio, video, lights, production manager, tour manager — all women. That’s because there’s so much more diversity in the business, but also because we worked harder to find those women because those are the highest paid positions on tour and they should be held by a variety of people.
I love the idea of trying to find women. I think the business is changing and there is more respect for women. People are starting to realize this isn’t just for men. The antiquated idea of ’60s/’70s rock where the men are rock stars and the women are groupies is over. That’s been demolished and I think we’re giving men a run for their money.
Any parallels between that being demolished and people thinking rock music has one foot in the grave?
I don’t know. At this point, I’d be talking out of my ass cause I don’t pay much attention to what’s popular or playing on radio, but I’d say, in the last ten years, there’s been a fusion of so many different genres. EDM influencing pop, R&B and hip-hop influencing pop, and pop influencing all of those.
Everything is getting mixed up a bit and it’s made all of those genres a power category where now rock is just a genre. It’s just part of it, but it used to be you were this or that. I think things are less segregated in our industry now which feels really cool. I also feel like this is a response to the testosterone of the late 90s and early 2000s.
When we put out our first record, the most popular artists where Britney Spears and Nickelback. Extreme glossy, almost manufactured pop music and pissed off, testosterone exploding rock music.
I think from that came electronic and indie pop and indie rock and all these little subgenres got more popular cause people were exhausted from the manufactured pop stuff and the testosterone. I think it was just overwhelming. From that came this incredibly beautiful movement and all of the sudden, all this other music, that had been there all along, started to float to the top because people were exhausted from being force-fed this other stuff. I think we’re living in a time now where rock music is still relevant.
I still listen to rock music. There’s some great stuff coming up. I just think there is more diversity. Having said that, every time I turn on the radio, I scream, “What is this? Why does every song sound the same?” It’s crazy. It’s a weird time. The internet is fucking everything up, but it’s also making it all better.
When you made the decision to go in this new direction, were you concerned at all that you were going to wipe away all of the respect you had earned over the years?
The truth is that our audience has always been so diverse and eclectic and has come to us from such an eclectic assortment of places. Really, other than 2005 when “Walking With A Ghost” did well on alternative radio, we never had any mainstream success. When we made the choice to shift our sound with Heartthrob and go with a more pop production, the truth is at that point, the only other thing that had garnered us any success had been our collaborations with dance artists. We had a minor alternative radio hit in 2005 and then a string of EDM hits from 2008 to 2012. I t was like “wellllll…” We hadn’t had any success in the indie or alternative world in like eight years.
I didn’t feel worried. Making Heartthrob, these were undeniably good songs, the production is awesome, and it’s fun. Everyone is kind of making some version of pop music. We also weren’t making just pop. We were doing ’80s pop so I didn’t feel worried. I would never ever have done it if I thought we were doing something people wouldn’t like. It was really sincere for us and we were smart about it. We set things up in a way, like this is Tegan And Sara in our Bruce Springsteen Tunnel Of Love phase. People just went, “Okay, sounds good.” Production was amazing for them and the songs were just the songs.
With Heartthrob being so well-received, did that allow you and Sara to be more comfortable in the new setting?
Absolutely and one of the takeaways from the Heartthrob cycle was that we could lighten up on some of the sheen we had used on “Closer” and some of the sheen we used elsewhere that fueled Heartthrob and the pop sound. We talked a lot with our producer Greg Kurstin and he told us we could take a more organic approach to our vocals. We didn’t need so much layering and tuning. A song like “100x” and “White Knuckle.” These are heart wrenching songs.
The production should take a backseat. Let’s not get in the way of the songs. He tried to expose more of the vulnerability in the songs themselves so they could be like, “Oh shit, this is a Tegan And Sara record.” I think yeah, we just went into it knowing that people are now associating us with this sound now.
I do think it’s important to always throw an asterisk on anything to do with production and say I don’t think people give a shit. You either care about this stuff or you don’t. I think most of our fans probably have no idea what we’re talking about or read these articles and care. I think for them, the question is was the integrity there? I think our job is to ensure no matter what the record sounds like, the integrity is right there up at the top.
We’re a real band. We make all our own decisions. We pick the songs on the record. We pick our producer. We make the record and hand it in. We are the one who approve the mixes. We make the artwork. Everything from our Facebook ads to our shirts to what venue we play to the price of the tickets — it’s all Sarah and I. It’s our own business. The major label is a distributor for us. I think as long as we keep that at the forefront, people will realize it’s just Tegan And Sara. There’s no puppet here.
Tegan And Sara play The National in Richmond on Wednesday, November 9th with Torres opening the night. Tickets are $24.50 in advance and $28 the day of the show, with the doors opening at 6:30 PM. For more information on the show and where to buy tickets, please click here.
Photo Credit: Pamela Littky
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