2016 marks not just the release of Tegan and Sara’s eighth album, Love You to Death, but their 20th year as a band. By some metrics, their sound has evolved immensely, but by others it’s been remarkably resilient. Whether they're doing punky acoustic, polished rock, or their new sound today where you can’t hear a single guitar, Tegan and Sara write love songs and breakup songs that anyone can get into.
Over breakfast earlier this month, we used each of the new album’s 10 tracks as jumping-off points to discuss all sides of Tegan and Sara: politics and process, the changing industry and how they stay healthy, and, finally, the mutual respect and ambition that has enabled the sisters to, as Sara puts it, “elevate ourselves to satisfy each other.”
And in between their answers, hear four brand-new remixes of “Boyfriend,” debuting here today.
If it’s anyone, Hillary Clinton is “that girl” right now. How do you feel about her?
TEGAN: I think we're both pro-Hillary. As Canadians, there's an enormous amount of what Bernie talks about that resonates with us, but I do feel that Hillary is inevitable. We actually met President Bill Clinton couple years ago in Toronto — we did an event for him. When he walked up, he shook our hands, gave us hugs, and then he was like, "I'm so excited to meet you guys, my wife and I love Grey's Anatomy, and ‘Where Does the Good Go’ is our favorite song." After that, he thanked us for all the work we done in the LGBT community. There's something to be said for the experience, and something to be said for the Clintons themselves. I'm very intrigued to see what happens. We've always picked whoever's the Democratic candidate. You guys need to get it together down here. We're watching with deep fascination, and anticipation.
“Faint of Heart”
What did you used to be afraid of that you’re not anymore?
SARA: I think Tegan and I have always had a lot of confidence when it comes to the music business, but certainly now with our eighth record, and the industry especially down in the United States — I don't feel very afraid of it. I see a lot of the people that we work with as peers. Before, when it came to people at the record label, or journalists — people that we relied on to help spread the message about our band — often I felt like we were kids trying to convince people to take us seriously. We've garnered up enough respect now because we've been around long enough. I don't feel as intimidated when I'm in the States, taking meetings with people, and sharing our thoughts. When you start out in the music business, you feel a little out of control, and you're working hard to get people's attention and focus. Now, it feels really different.
TEGAN: Yeah, Sara's onto something. That's been a huge part of our twenties, and now early thirties: the transition from feeling like terrified, young girls having to prove ourselves.
SARA: And also anticipating the criticism of journalists. At the beginning of our career, there was a lot of homophobia and misogyny. I would cringe at the beginning of album cycles because I knew there was this onslaught of terrible things said about us. I think things have balanced a bit more. Things are a little bit less wild, and people don't say as horrible things about us. It's easier to find negativity in the comment sections, but the business-side has become less harsh. We barely existed on the internet at first; it was like the Wild Wild West. And a lot of the things on that were written about us, or said, there wasn't much accountability. Now it feels like a safer workplace.
Before you came out, did you have boyfriends?
SARA: I had my first boyfriend in the third grade. I always had boyfriends. I had serious relationships when I was a teenager, but after I got out of high school, I never had a serious boyfriend again. I came out, and I've only partnered with women since that point. But I definitely have always had very intimate relationships with men, and I think that's where those lines can be very blurry. For me, I've always approached my relationships with men almost as if I was a man. But that can be very disarming. You can have an intimacy that can be very confusing. Though I cherish the relationships with my guy friends, I've had to create a unique set of boundaries with guys as I've gotten older. Because I think at some point, it can be very challenging not to get feelings for people when you're so close to them, so it’s not their fault. But Tegan and I have these horrifying pictures of ourselves in third grade, on our first date with these two boys whom asked us out. They brought us each a flower, and then we went to Dairy Queen.
TEGAN: It’s also very funny because of we looked so much like boys. It looked like like our first gay man date.
SARA: I'd be very intrigued to know if either of those young men turned out to be gay, because there's something very unique, to me, about boys that age finding us intriguing as women — well, we were in the third grade, but we didn't look like women.
“Dying to Know”
There must be something you're dying to know about each other.
TEGAN: I have a lot of things I'm dying to know, but I can't say them on record. [Laughs]
On this song you rhyme “fire” and “desire.” Last year there was an article calling that pairing the laziest rhyme in songwriting history. What’s your defense? And do you have any old lyrics you regret?
TEGAN: The song itself is about that moment you meet someone, and you wonder if it's going to be a relationship or not. It is undeniable that there is a spark between you. And similar to "Closer," it's supposed to be cheesy. Love is cheesy. It disables a part of you that is very sensible and cool because you lose control. What's so great about having an overwhelming wave of desire for somebody to where you can of lose control? So the lyric itself is supposed to seem kind of funny. Rhyming itself is limiting, but necessary, because things sound weird when they don't rhyme. It's a miracle that we manage to find words that rhyme, and are able to emote.
SARA: In "Soil, Soil" there's that lyric where I don't say “buried,” I say "burried," and fans always make fun of me for that. I generally cringe with just the early records. I stopped cringing around "So Jealous," but really everything before made me cringe, rhyming or not. I think it was just about the delivery: we were still finding our voice. We were raised by a lot of British music, and I think we still do this, but it sounds cooler to say certain words as if we had a British accent, and I can hear a lot of it in our earlier music. There was an affect to our voice that we've lost, just playing over a thousand shows and writing hundreds of songs. Being a musician is like being an athlete. We've just relentlessly sang and wrote, sang and wrote, for decades now. Now we demo so much, too, and listen to our own voices so much, that I can do a vocal take 13 times and decide to sing my A's without sounding so British. It's a style choice. Sometimes you need to just dumb-it-down a bit to make a song more singable.
When The Con came out in 2007 I wrote a story about listening to it while getting in a car crash. Lots of white knuckles. Kind of weird jumping off point, but I feel some connections on this album to the attitude of that one.
TEGAN: I'm quite a literal writer, and Sara is more poetic and creates a lot of imagery in her work. When Sara sent me "White Knuckles," what I love about the song is how I imagined it then: I imagined fists, and I imagined the tension. When I was imagining the music video, I imagined Sara, and I are in a boxing ring, and the entire video is black-and-white, slow-motion, and we're hysterically screaming and crying.
SARA: But that's not the video…
TEGAN: But that's what I imagined when I heard the song, the tension, and the sadness. We never reach each other in the video. As the video pans out, slowly you realize we're actually being held from one another. It conjured up this intense emotion, and the truth is, it reminded me of when Sara began sending me songs for The Con. Something we're really excited about this record, is that we felt like the fans who loved The Con will love this record. The imagery, the lyrics, the themes, the darkness in this record is very parallel. This feels as if it’s The Con's twin.
This one also makes me think of, like, 100 reps in a workout. You mentioned how singing is like being an athlete. Do you have certain routines to stay healthy when you’re on the road?
TEGAN: I think we both have had different levels of routine. We've both gone through running stages, and I went through a yoga stage. There's definitely a desire when you're on the road to move because there's a lot of sitting around. But during our time off this year, Sara hired a personal trainer to sort of like — in the process of getting ready to make a new record and go into the rehearsal process and get ready for the road, one of us usually gets injured or both of us do. Somehow, a week into it, it's like “I can't move my neck,” or my back goes out. So Sara had the brainiac idea to —
SARA: Because I was injured.
TEGAN: Because she hurt her neck. I was in the studio working with Greg Kurstin, our producer, and Sara messaged me and was like, “You need to come to my house and help me.” She had bended over to get something and was, like, completely on the bed in tears, couldn't move, her girlfriend was coming to get her to take her to get adjusted. So she hired a personal trainer who worked in our industry, understands a musician’s body, understands how much strain — I think people underestimate how hard it is actually play guitar for eight hours a day. So we both spent a big part of our time off building a core strength from here to here. Basically like build your legs, build your stomach, build your butt cause you need those muscles. You need that core strength to sing, to project, to stand in a rehearsal spot eight hours a day without being injured. And I think more than ever before, we realized how important it is, even if it's for 20 minutes a day, to physically move our joints and stretch our bodies.
I had a fun time before I heard the song trying to figure out what the acronym meant.
SARA: I just didn't like how it looked spelled out.
TEGAN: I begged Sara, like, “Let’s call it a different name.” And she was like, “Nope, ‘BWU’ it is.”
SARA: Do you want to know what it is? When we are writing a setlist, we always shorten the song title. Like “Walking With a Ghost” is never “Walking With a Ghost,” it’s just “Ghost.” “I Was a Fool” is just “Fool.” And if something is like super long, like “Where Does the Good Go?” we'll just write “WW…whatever.” I tried calling this song so many different things, and every time someone would just be like, “How’s the mix sounding on ‘Be With You'?” I was like, “I don't like the way that looks. How would I write that on the set list? I would just write 'BWU.’” That’s it, its such a boring story. I always think how interesting it is how one person can do something and it’s cool. Like Prince could write “I Would Die 4 U, like very specific, but if Justin Beiber did that, people would be like, “What a douche.” Prince could do something kind of strange and it was cool.
TEGAN: I was able to talk Sara down at least, because originally the title was “B-W-U,” and I was like, “Please, no one is going for that. I don't want to do that.” So I convinced her to at least take the slashes out.
This is actually the one that gives me the most The Con vibes.
TEGAN: It's funny cause it’s going to be another one of those songs that people are like, “I got married to ‘U-Turn’ cause it's all about writing a love song!” And I'm like, That is one of the most dick-y songs I've ever written. I'm making fun of love. Like, OK, I'll sit down, and put my pride aside, and I'll sit there and fix it up. You deserve a love song—cause you never ask. But I know, people are just going to line up just to tell me how romantic it is, and how they got married to it.
My real questions is: obviously you’ve made a significant change to your sound over the past few years. People used to say, “Tegan is more punk, Sara is more pop.” Did Sara win? Was there a specific moment of compromise that got you to where we are today?
TEGAN: Sara put it really well the other day when she talked about the fact that there was definitely a point in the middle part of our career — like post-The Con, but it started even on The Con — where we started to kind to form into two separate bands. And I think there was a lot of emotional struggle around that time because we were allowing ourselves to be those two different bands. We were living such different lives, and we were in such different emotional places. But all of these things are what makes up Tegan and Sara, and without that struggle, without that independence, we wouldn't be the band we are. We wouldn't be making music.
I think we have grown into a more cohesive band because, instead of compromising, we are learning how to share and listen. I think we both love pop music, both love electronic music. There certain levels of production that we really love. And because we found all this common ground, it’s not a compromise, we're just attenuating and exaggerating the thing we both love rather than being like, “This is what I like and this is what you like and we'll just both do it cause we just that kind of band.”
When it comes down to who won, I think we both realized that we had to have some really big, intense, hard talks before Heartthrob. It felt like there were only two paths. There was a path where we both were happy, or there was a path where we quit. So do you want to be on the path where we quit, or do you want to be on the path where we are happy? And we're both on the path where we are both happy.
SARA: Some of the things we're making, it seemed to me anyways, that Tegan was a bit disappointed with the trajectory after The Con. It almost felt like Sainthood plateaued us a bit. We didn't see a tremendous amount of growth in terms of our careers, and Tegan has started to sort of see us being held back somehow. And we were. She wanted to be on the same level as some of her friends who were in bands that were bigger than us, and she was like, “Why can't we have a bigger goals, and why can't we be more ambitious?” And I think tended to hold us back from a lot of those things. It was just very specifically what I was interested in, and the type of opportunities that I was trying to achieve for us.
So in a weird way, the compromise was that I agreed to sort of be a more ambitious band and allow us to look at different things. But the compromise Tegan made was that I wanted to move in the direction of pop music, and I want to allow our influences of electronic music and pop music be on full display. And I didn't want to be the guitar band. I didn't want to be known in that world anymore. I didn't really care. I wasn't using the guitar anymore. And so in a weird way we both sort of elevated ourselves in order to satisfy the other. One of us wasn't wrestling the other.
TEGAN: The worst part was I wasn't mad. And it was very difficult to express it to Sara, and especially to our managers, that I was disappointed. I didn't want to seem ungrateful. Like I remember the show we had The Talk, it was in London and we were playing in front of thousands of people. It wasn't disappointing that it was thousands people. I wasn't like, “There should be 10,000 people.” It was just that we had always grown, every record, and I felt we had sort of, kind of, “OK, we sustained.”
What I realized was that we hadn't just plateaued or sustained with our audience. It was our sound. We hadn't really challenged ourselves. I would be standing on stages just playing the song that I wanted to write and the way that I wrote it. No one challenged me. No one pushed me to write a bridge. No one pushed me changed the chords. No one pushing me to sing better. Like, I was like, “I don't want to go on in-ear monitors, I just want to sing on monitors.” Nobody said no to me. Seven monitors around me just playing. I'm doing whatever I want, when I want. We became the bloated band, and that’s not good. That’s not good for your audience because your audience wants to see you challenging yourself.
“Hang on to the Night”
Last track on the album. 20 years in. Are you worried about the future?
SARA: Of course we worry about the future. I worry about it professionally. But what I know right now is that being in a band feels really good and playing the music feels really good. I can honestly say the confidence around what we do as performers and what we do as a business is at an all-time high. I don't feel as freaked out or as anxious as I've felt on other albums cycles or in other parts of my life.
When you're younger, things sort of live in this nebulous place where you haven't yet experienced it. Like, you have never been broken up with or you haven't had someone die suddenly or you haven't had the shock of parent being diagnosed with a disease or you haven't done these things. Tegan and I have had 17 years of adult experience where we have had to live through amazing highs and incredible lows. And it makes the future sometimes unsettling, but I feel less scared because I already know what those things feel like in a way. I know that doesn't sound like the more optimistic way, but for me that’s what “Hang on to the Night” is. It's just about hang on to the night, hang on to the people around you. Life is just a shit storm.
TEGAN: In terms of what happens next, we definitely have been feeling this confidence and we've been really good about where things are at, but we have also been feeling like — the other night when we played our show in New York, we opened acoustically and we closed it acoustically and it was really enjoyable. We don't play as much instrumentation onstage anymore, which allows us to sing better and sing more. But when we are playing instruments, we realize how fun it is, and how interesting it is.
I don't know what the future in terms of music will hold for Tegan and Sara, like I don't know what kind of record we will put out next, but I think that it feels really exciting to imagine, at this point, that there could be another shift coming. We could literally make another record that feels like — I feel like The Con was a response to a time period where we felt that we had to do a certain thing and all of sudden we rebelled and wanted to make a record the way we wanted and do parts backwards and add drums at the end. I can sense that maybe we are in another place where after this, we'll have a real desire to change it up again. That’s very similar to what Sara saying: you never know what’s going to happen, hang on. It feel like if you're a Tegan and Sara fan, you can really enjoy this next little bit of what’s about to happen because what’s coming after that is a really big question mark.