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Behind Tegan and Sara's Big Night With Taylor Swift

'She walked us though the whole thing like an old pro.'

Tegan and Sara perform with Taylor Swift at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Christopher Polk/TAS/Getty Images for TAS
August 23, 2013 11:05 AM ET

When Tegan and Sara showed up Tuesday as Taylor Swift's surprise guests to sing "Closer" at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the Calgary twins had friends in the audience. "I was like, 'Be prepared. We pop out of the stage,'" Tegan Quin tells Rolling Stone with a laugh. Afterwards, she asked them in a text: "Was it a lot to see me jump up and down with 15,000 teenagers?"

Tegan and Sara Open Up About Sibling Rivalry, Leaving the Indie World Behind

If some of Tegan and Sara's hardcore fans were surprised (or alarmed) by their one-song collaboration with the multiplatinum pop princess, it was a comfortable fit for the Quins. Their latest album, Heartthrob, shows them evolving from indie singer-songwriter mode to something closer to pure, danceable pop, including the Top 40 single "Closer."

The day after appearing with Swift onstage, Tegan spoke with Rolling Stone about their visit to the massive arena production, and their shared commitment to bringing genuine feeling to pop music. "We always say we're emo — that's our genre," says Tegan. "And I think Taylor's emo. She talks about her feelings. She doesn't pretend or hide who she is or how she feels about things. We have that in common."

How did you meet Taylor Swift?
Yesterday was actually the first time we officially met. I remember hearing through the grapevine that she was a fan. I was like, there's no way!  Then her manager called a couple of months ago and said Taylor is obsessed with the record and she'd love to have the girls up. I made a joke that we'd change the date of the birth of our child to make it happen. We're such huge fans.One of the bands that inspired us to want to make a bigger record and cross over to pop was Taylor. She's flawlessly moved [between] genres and she has such integrity and depth in her music. She's proven you can make a pop record that still has an incredible feeling in it.

Was your first meeting to rehearse?
We came in the afternoon and we rehearsed. Her band is incredible. Taylor is the boss, man. You walk onstage and she's like, "OK, here is what's going to happen." She's like, "I'm obsessed with the second verse – I want to sing that." And I'm like, fuck yeah, you can sing whatever you want. She walked us though the whole thing like an old pro.

What was it in the second verse of "Closer" that she was obsessed about?
Initially when we put ["Closer"] out, we were defensive because people were just calling it a pop song. And I was like, "But it's got depth! Listen to the lyrics, look deeper!" On first listen, something like the second verse — "All you think of lately is getting underneath me, all I think of lately is how to get you underneath me" — can seem really throwaway. But I was writing about the idea of a love from a long time ago never coming to fruition, the idea of unrequited love. And even though it can feel really dark and intense and a missed opportunity, there is something fun about romance and looking back.

How easily did Taylor fit into that place?
The good news is that Sara does all the harmony parts, so it was pretty easy whether it was me or Taylor singing lead. When she was singing the second verse, she was like, "I'm gonna walk this catwalk and I'm gonna strut my stuff," and I was like, I would never do that! I've never even sung with a wireless mic before. I'm going to try not to trip and fall in front of all these people. . .I'll skip along next to you. It was her stage. We were just honored to be asked.

You have your own intense following. Did her connection with fans seem similar or something different?
I think there is a lot of crossover. She writes really heartfelt music, but it's pop music; and we've put out a record that's pop but still very heartfelt. She has a very passionate relationship with her audience. She's extremely candid and intimate, even her set design — her stage practically crosses the entire arena. She seems very intent on creating intimacy with all those people. They're so passionate about her, and she respects them so much.

Tegan and Sara fans are also very intense and committed. It's not just a night out.
There's definitely a culture in our band. There is a big part of our population [for whom] it's a lifestyle. I always joke we're the indie-pop Phish or the Grateful Dead. We have fans that see 30 or 40 shows a year. One of our first fans started a message board about Tegan and Sara in 2000 and she met her wife on that message board and they have two children together. So there's this whole culture around our band, and I think Taylor's fans seem 100 percent invested in who Taylor is as a person. It stretches way beyond music.

Do you think you'll be doing anything else with Taylor down the line?
She's an incredible talent. She writes great songs. She writes very emotionally. I know lots of people that have worked with her and they say she's really fun in the studio and has a billion ideas. Part of our goal with this record was to show off our writing, so I hope in the future we could do something with Taylor. I definitely will see another Taylor Swift concert in the future at a minimum.

Does the more danceable direction on Heartthrob indicate where Tegan and Sara music is headed in the future?
I see this as some of our darkest material, but I didn't want to put out a dark record. I didn't want something that sounds like what we've done in the past. The Con [2007] is a beautiful record and it's a lot of our fans' favorite, but it's a really dense, very dark record. Sara and I are still uncovering a lot of dark emotion in our past and through relationships, but I just felt that's not how I wanted the music to sound.

Even though Heartthrob comes off really poppy and upbeat, it's juxtaposed with this really intense darkness. That will continue to happen in the future. Our records are probably never going to be as dense and dark as some of our past work. We're very influenced by what we grew up listening to, and we grew up in the Eighties and Nineties, so pop music is going to remain important to us. I don't know what kind of record we'll make next, but for sure we'll continue to write songs we hope will resonate with a large audience. We want to make music that sticks with people for a long time.

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