(Editor’s Note: This story originally ran in Ghettoblaster Magazine, Issue #34.)
“I think in a broad sense, the physical sensation of becoming very interested in, obsessed and attracted to somebody that seems a little out of your league or unattainable was one theme that we were interested in,” Sara Quin, of duo Tegan and Sara said about their latest album, Heartthrob. “The idea that Tegan and I have put ourselves in a career we’ve become, in some instances, the object of someone’s affections or become an attractive figure to people that you’ve never met or may never know is part of it too.
“The cycle of writing songs about our hearts being broken or trying to attract unattainable people, and the fact that we’ve become those people to someone is an interesting concept to me,” she added. “So in a sort of tongue-in-cheek kind of way, the concept of a heartthrob – how they come and go and fade and how that attracts people – was foremost on our minds when we titled the record. It is a serious title, but it is also a little silly too.”
The Quin sisters have also spent 2012 at the mercy of fate, which ultimately worked to their benefit. At the end of 2011, Tegan and Sara announced that 2012 would bring the follow up to their sixth album, Sainthood. But Sara had other plans and it wasn’t until late November that details of Heartthrob, their seventh studio album that dropped on January 29 via Sire, emerged.
“Sara and I met in March 2011 in New York to write together for the new record. After a few hours of working, we decided to scrap the whole idea of the trip and just drink margaritas and hang out – as sisters. We had only been off a few months,” Tegan explained.
Moments of leisure are a rarity for Tegan and Sara, who began playing guitar and writing songs at age 15. Following the release of their first independent full-length album in 1999, Under Feet Like Ours, they caught the attention of Neil Young’s iconic manager, Elliot Roberts, who quickly signed them to his Los Angeles-based label, Vapor Records. Tegan and Sara’s first international release on Vapor, This Business Of Art, was followed by extensive worldwide touring, including opening slots with Neil Young.
If It Was You, which was released in 2002, showed the sisters establishing a serious foothold for their creative template and musical identity. Critics and fans responded in kind, and by their fourth studio album, So Jealous, the sisters were poised for a global breakthrough. And breakthrough they did. Six songs on the album were placed on then hit show Grey’s Anatomy, they scored a radio hit with “Walking With A Ghost,” and headed out on a run of North American support tours.
2007’s The Con, an album that was co-produces by Chris Walla, with members of Death Cab for Cutie, Weezer and AFI appearing in supporting musical roles, further established Tegan and Sara’s status as one of Canada’s pre-eminent musical exports. But it wasn’t until 2009’s Sainthood that the sisters received a nomination for a Juno Award (Canada’s Grammy equivalent), and one for the Polaris Prize.
The sisters were also recently caught off guard by a 2013 Grammy Nomination for “Best Long Form Music Video,” which resulted from a live CD/DVD combination package, titled Get Along, that contained three films: “States,” “India,” and “For The Most Part.”
“It was completely unexpected,” Sara admitted. “We were reading through the nominations and congratulating friends who were nominated. When we got to the bottom of the list, I was like, ‘I don’t understand what I’m seeing here…’ It was a very funny moment. Unfortunately, I think that we are going to be in Europe doing a tour so this may not be my year for the Grammys. ”
During months preceding the album, the sisters made the rounds on late night television, and the Calgary, Alberta, Canada natives spread Christmas cheer via performances of “Now I’m All Messed Up” and “Closer” for the gang from West Beverly on CW’s 90210 reboot (although conversation about whether they ever met original 90201 heartthrob, and fellow Canadian Jason Priestley has somehow been avoided).
At the core of Tegan and Sara’s decade plus career has long been their uncanny ability for bridging pop and indie worlds, which allows them to avoid being pigeonholed by the boundaries of any single genre. From being covered by The White Stripes, to collaborations with Tiesto, David Guetta, and Against Me!, to recent tours with The Black Keys and The Killers, the duo’s position as internationally-celebrated songwriters and artists has never been more solid.
And that’s what makes the direction the sisters assumed on their seventh studio album, Heartthrob, such an exhilarating ride. Rather than rest on the laurels and deliver another album of guitar-centric, self-deprecating tales of crushes and heartbreak, Heartthrob is a synth-heavy, arena-ready dance record that is as likely to find a home on a pre-teen’s school bus iPod playlist, as it is on college radio. As Tegan describes it, the record is a cross between Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River” and The Smashing Pumpkin’s “1979.”
According to Sara, Heartthrob is also sort of an answer to the concept behind their previous effort Sainthood, which she said represented the shy, shoegazing, self-deprecating side of the duo. And she confesses that she cringes when acknowledging the flipside; the thought of being a sex symbol makes her very uncomfortable.
“We’ve cast ourselves as the ‘losers’ in our songs a lot of times, but perhaps because we’re all grown up, it is easier to admit that we aren’t just these cuddly stuffed animals anymore,” Sara joked.
And the new album doesn’t just showcase a thematic shift or changing sound; it also represents the first time the sisters wrote the lion’s share of the output together. They also surrendered more control than usual in the studio, dividing songs between three producers (Greg Kurstin, Justin Meldal-Johnsen, and Mike Elizondo) and a handful of outside musicians to capture the sound they were looking for.
“We took a lot of meetings with producers to ensure that we were going to find someone that was the right fit,” Sara said of one producer in particular, Greg Kurstin. In addition to his past work with indie heavies like Santigold and The Flaming Lips, he’s absolutely no stranger to radio-ready pop stars. His credits also include work with Britney Spears, Jason Mraz, P!nk, and Kesha.
“By the end of our first breakfast with Greg I knew he was the right man for the record,” Sara confessed. “Though he’s known for what he’s done in the pop world, he is an incredible musician and he’s been in a couple incredible bands. He’s really worked with all kinds of artists. He was not the stereotypical pop producer, who comes in and changes your sound or diminishes the value of your music by making it shallow or stupid. It was not that kind of situation at all.
“His approach was so interesting and different. It was very easy to get caught up in the excitement of working with him. It was a joy to watch him coming up with arrangement ideas; it was a wonderful collaborative experience for us,” she added.
For all the superficial differences, Heartthrob, bears the true hallmarks of a Tegan and Sara record; the chemistry and camaraderie between the sisters, and a dedication to crafting shining moments of indie pop goodness.
“It wasn’t a calculated reinvention or anything like that,” Sara said. “We just had these songs and wanted to make them sound fantastic. It was only later that we realized that this was different for us.
“Overseas we’ve always had a cult status. So as press for the record has emerged, some people have called this our ‘reintroduction’ or a ‘reinvention.’ On the one hand, you could be insulted because there is 13 years of career to write about, but on the other hand, we’re like, ‘This is like being born again. We can start over without dealing with any of the stuff from our past. It is all about the future.’ There’s something amazing about that too.”
“Sara wanted people to hear the record and not even know it was initially us,” Tegan interjected. “She wanted the record to be unrecognizable but still undeniably Tegan and Sara. It’s our job to create, not recreate. We can’t go backwards and remake The Con or So Jealous or Sainthood. As a band and as writers, we have to keep pushing our music and ourselves to new places. I want people to hear that evolution.”
Though their music is not overtly political, both sisters are forthcoming about their lesbian sexuality and are outspoken advocates for LGBT equality, an issue that has been particularly polarizing the last few years in both positive and negative ways. Unfortunately, on the less posi-side of things, in 2011 Sara ended up in a faceoff with a rising indie rapper (Odd Future’s Tyler, The Creator) who was widely celebrated by music tastemakers despite misogynistic and homophobic language in his music.
“I’m a political person. And when I see something happening that hurts other people, even if it isn’t maybe meant to, or the vernacular doesn’t have the same meaning to someone as it does to someone else, then I do feel like it is important to stand up for and against certain things,” Sara explained. “It was really less about taking that artist to task as it was addressing the community that I belong to, the media, and people in the music industry. I was really in disbelief that I still had to face this type of language and that it was being popularized and given value.
“It will always be an issue for me and this kind of thing will always be polarizing in art, because people should be able to say what they want to say. But the way we receive that message, and critique that message has to change too. I believe in free speech, but I also believe that some of us aren’t interested in hearing it all.”
Sara also acknowledges steps forward happening in the art and music community, and that Frank Ocean’s announcement of his sexuality and Tom Gabel of Against Me!’s transition to Laura Jane Grace in 2012 put a musical spotlight on some of those issues.
“These kinds of things keep the movement afloat and picking up speed. These people, the people who have come before, and the people who will come after, adds to the general conversation for equality. We won’t probably see the stigmas disappear in this generation, but every step forward helps somebody. Certainly legalizing some things, and abolishing shitty things are important. Some days I wake up and I think, ‘This isn’t enough.’ Other days I wake up amazed at what has already happened.”