It’s not always easy to tell Tegan and Sara Quin apart, but here is one way: Bring up Ace of Base. Tegan loves the Swedish pop group; her twin sister, Sara, does not. This distinction became clear a few years ago, when the Quins were trying to convert their longtime sister act from a rock band into a glossier pop machine. They decided to begin by naming some of their favorite Top 40 groups. “Tegan brought up Ace of Base, because she’s obsessed with music from our high school years,” says Sara. “That’s not what I’m into. It took a couple of years to get on the same page.”
The sisters, 35, were very much on the same page by the time they recorded 2013’s Heartthrob with producer Greg Kurstin, who would go on to work with Adele. A collection of sparkling, danceable, highly catchy tunes, the album hit Number Three on the charts, and Taylor Swift invited the twins onstage to sing the frothy single “Closer” at the Staples Center in L.A. (According to Tegan, Swift was “so obsessed with the second verse” that she asked to belt it out herself.)
Heartthrob was a shockingly successful makeover for a band that had begun 14 years before as a folk duo and later spent time as a pop-punkish outfit and a slicker rock act. “We went pop because I wanted to make music that sounded different from what we were doing, and Tegan wanted to be more successful,” says Sara. “I respect albums you have to listen to 10 times to get into it, but that’s not our band. Tegan and I walk into every room like the only way we’ll survive is if we talk and charm everyone. We’re not slow-burn people. I am a politician; I go around the room and talk to everybody. I think our songs do the same thing.”
The Quins’ new record, Love You to Death, refines their pop sound while re-infusing it with some of the heavy chords and acoustic riffs that defined earlier efforts. The result is their most sophisticated album yet. It’s also perhaps their most open, with songs that tackle some of the twins’ darker times together. More than once over the years, sibling rivalry threatened to break up the band, like when an argument about musical direction boiled over into a physical fight on tour in Scotland in 2008. “We were screaming, and we attacked each other, basically,” says Tegan. “We said we would play the show that night, but that we were done.” (They weren’t.)
Sara wrote the song “100x” about a period in 2003, when she moved to Montreal and found herself living in a different city than Tegan for the first time, and “White Knuckles” traces the ups and downs of the sisters’ relationship over the years. “When Sara started to talk openly about writing songs about me, I cried,” Tegan says, “because I still remember that low moment, and look at how far we’ve come.” Adds Sara, “Tegan and I always have to do this dance of figuring out how to live our own lives and also be together all the time.”
“I respect albums you have to listen to 10 times to get into it, but that’s not our band.” –Sara Quin
It’s a dance the twins have been working on since they were “latchkey kids” (as Sara puts it) growing up in a suburb north of Calgary, Alberta. Their parents divorced when the twins were five, and the girls shuttled back and forth between homes and learned to rely on each other. By their teens, Tegan and Sara were drinking, smoking pot, and sometimes dropping acid during the school day. But they also studied classical piano, taught themselves guitar and became immersed in Calgary’s punk scene. The sisters signed a record deal when they were 18 and soon put out their official debut, This Business of Art, a folky growl of an album that took cues from Liz Phair and Ani DiFranco.
As the sisters voyaged through their musical personae, they also had to navigate tricky issues in their personal lives. Both Tegan and Sara identify as queer. They’ve always been open about their sexuality, and their rabid fan base celebrates their candor. The Quins even took Rolling Stone to task for calling the band a “Canadian lesbian duo” in reference to their Oscar-nominated song “Everything Is Awesome,” which the twins recorded with the Lonely Island. Sara posted a rejoinder on Twitter: “Lesbian Canadian duo @teganandsara is honored to be included w/heterosexual trio @thelonelyisland.”
“There are moments we are still excited to educate people, and then there are times where you just have to put your emotional earmuffs on,” Sara says. “We could be on social media fighting with people every second of every day if we wanted to.” Tegan says the duo make pop as a political act: They want to be the first queer women to dominate the charts. “I want pop radio because there are no other queer women there,” she says.
The sisters recently decided to take a cue from Beyoncé and make a music video for every song on Love You to Death. “Our version of Lemonade is more condensed,” Sara jokes. “But we are definitely in full pop mode.”