A few years ago, Tegan and Sara made a bold decision: They became a full-on pop group. After more than a decade of making indie-rock hits, the Canadian twin sisters largely traded guitars for synthesizers, focused on hooks and became even more of a success. Their 2013 album, Heartthrob, subsequently made it to Number Three on the Billboard 200 and the single “Closer” topped the dance chart in the U.S. Then, the next year, they anted up and recorded the family-friendly pop explosion “Everything Is Awesome!!!” with the Lonely Island for The Lego Movie and earned themselves an Oscar nomination in the process.
But for all of the ways they refigured their sound, the biggest lesson they learned was simplification. Earlier this year, Sara Quin told Rolling Stone that after working with several producers and songwriters – including Jack Antonoff, Rob Cavallo and Mike Elizondo, among others – they realized they had invited too many cooks into the kitchen.
For the duo’s new LP, Love You to Death, the sisters worked only with producer Greg Kurstin, whose credits include Sia and Adele and who worked on the lion’s share of Heartthrob. Together, the Quins and Kurstin crafted strong, thoughtful, catchy songs like “Boyfriend,” “100x” and “U-Turn,” all of which explore various forms of relationships, from romantic ones to their own sibling dynamic. Here, Sara tells Rolling Stone how taking risks has strengthened the duo both as songwriters and as sisters.
What would you have done if Heartthrob tanked?
I don’t know what we would have done. I don’t think we would have said, “I guess we have to get the old electric guitars out again and write more indie-rock songs.”
You worked solely with producer Greg Kurstin, who worked with you on Heartthrob, on this one. What did he bring to the album?
Tegan and I work best with producers who work almost like editors. We put a lot of work into our demos. Some of them may already have 60 tracks [of instruments] on a song. We really need someone who can dig through all of that and pick the strongest parts and elevate them. He might ask us to play something in a different key or faster. Greg helps us workshop our ideas.
Your first single is “Boyfriend.” How did he help you with that one?
When I brought that one in, I thought it would be scrapped. When he stripped back the demo, I realized it had a really strong arrangement and a strong melody, and the lyrics were great. Like, holy shit – this could be a single. It might have been on the cutting block otherwise.
How did the single “Boyfriend” come about?
I wanted to write a classic pop song. It’s about the early days of dating someone, where you really like them and you want to make it official. But you have that fear that you’re going to be rejected. It’s about a relationship that I had had, but I wanted it to be broad enough that you didn’t have to be in the same situation as me to relate to it.
Another standout on the album is “BWU,” which you sing as “Be With You.” Is it an anti-marriage song?
[Laughs] I like to think of it as more of an anti-wedding song. It’s another example of me attempting to write a song that’s supposed to be a sweet pop song but ends up darker, like “Boyfriend.” When I write pop songs, I tend to want them to be a bit more cerebral. They’re not just love songs; they’re songs that address my anxieties and my cynical attitude approach to relationships and life.
“Be With You” is interesting because Tegan and I were such big advocates of the same-sex marriage movement in the United States and in Canada. But the twist is that I, personally, don’t want to be married. I don’t have any interest in that sort of social hierarchy, where if you’re not married then your relationship is not as significant as people who are. I hate all of that. Now that I’ve fought for the right, and we’ve had success with the Supreme Court, I feel like it’s important for me to be honest, too. There’s strength in saying, “I don’t need a piece of paper or a ring or a wedding or photos to show how significant my commitment to a relationship is.”
I think that’s still true to marriage equality, though. You have the option.
As I’ve gotten older, because I’m queer and because it’s suddenly really apparent how deeply unfair it was that gay people couldn’t get married, I’ve had to reassess my feelings about marriage. My family didn’t put a lot of emphasis on marriage. My mom and dad got separated when my sister and I were very young. So now I’m asking, “What does it mean, historically and culturally?” I feel so torn about it, because I don’t want to seem like a jerk.
I can just see the headline: “Sara comes out as hating weddings.” The irony is that I’m the best wedding person. I’m the one who dances ’til they’re like, “Please, for the love of God, leave.” I cry at every wedding. I have the best time. I’m all for having a party. I just personally don’t want anything to do with the ritual.
You’ve said previously that the album takes cues from “dramatic nonfiction.” What do you mean by that?
Some of the songs blended fiction and nonfiction. I was working from a period of time in my own life that involved an ex-girlfriend I was breaking up with. And it was around a time when Tegan and I were having a ton of conflict. I moved from Vancouver to Montreal. I used a lot of what was happening with those two people in my songs. When we finally began working together on songs, we started talking about the idea of “What is fiction and what is dramatized nonfiction?” We got nerdy about it.
What kinds of conflicts were you having with Tegan?
We have conflict like most siblings. I think it’s aggravated or heightened because we spend so much time together. Right now is honestly a really good time for us. I’ve been thinking about how I never really write about Tegan; it’s a private thing when you have such a public relationship. I think because things are good between us right now, it’s easier to look back at times when things were bad and it’s an interesting topic to write about because I haven’t done it often.
“White Knuckles” and “100x” on Love You to Death are about your sibling relationship. How did those songs come about?
With this whole record, I was looking into who I am as a person. It really started 12 or 13 years ago, when I moved up to Montreal. It was the first time in my life that I’d ever lived without Tegan. I made friends and started a romantic relationship. It was my first real adult life. I wasn’t just Tegan’s sister or a twin. It was crazy to think of myself as an individual. A lot of this album is thinking about that time: who I was, what it really meant to be on my own, the insecurity that came with it.
“I think about death all the time.”
Another song that deals with relationship insecurities and feeling helpless is “Hang On to the Night.” What inspired that?
It’s a similar sort of thing. I’m in my mid thirties, and I’m starting to think about mortality a lot. We’ve lost a lot of people in the last few years. I think about death all the time [laughs]. I have insecurities about our career. What happens if people stop liking us? Am I a freak of nature now because I’d just spent 17 years touring? Is it even possible for me to have a normal life? I think about these things all the time. It can be intense.
Sometimes being off the road for a year is like a non-stop anxiety train, where I feel calm and relaxed, and think, “Oh, my God. Do people think we’re dead? Are they going to forget about us? Holy shit. Should we be working? What if we never work again? How will we survive?” There’s definitely a lot of time to think about it when you’re not hurtling down the highway from one city to the next, playing shows and doing meet-and-greets. When you’re just alone with your cat all of a sudden, it could get pretty fucked up.
How did the album art come about? It has shades of David Bowie and Roxy Music.
We’ve been working with our art director for over 10 years and I have always been sending images back and forth of things that inspired us. Tegan was sending, like, 10,000 pictures of K-pop bands with a very modern, futuristic look, and then we talked about the bands and personas of the Seventies and Eighties like Bowie and Siouxsie and the Banshees. We decided we could marry those two things together.
One of the things that happened naturally in the photo shoot was that the makeup got a little more embellished than usual. It was like wearing a mask or playing a character. We just loved it. And we really wanted something that played with the idea of gender and identity. Makeup has been an evolution for Tegan and I. When we started, we really didn’t want to wear any. But now I’m 35 and I’m much more comfortable with the idea. Tegan and I have been writing together since 1994. If we don’t reinvent ourselves or our look or our stage, we’ll go crazy. Like, how do we inspire ourselves again?
You were 13 or 14 when you started. Isn’t it funny how with age you can reevaluate your ideals from back then?
[Laughs] Yes. This morning I was talking to a guy I work out with who used to be the drummer in Godsmack. And now he’s, like, this zen yoga guy. He’s the best. But we were talking about how Tegan and I were in the process of hiring backing musicians for the live shows and how I felt about backing tracks. My attitude used to be if a human being doesn’t play literally every note, people would think we’re no good and it would devalue the music. But it’s the norm now that people augment their sound with tracks. There’s a relaxing of these old-fashioned ideas.
Well, also it’s still a performance.
It’s true. At the heart of this, I think audiences want to hear music played a specific way. That’s fine. But what I think a lot of people are there for is a performance. So our goal is to make that performance feel and sound as good as possible. It’s what I want in a show. I hate going to shows where I’m like, “Uh, this sounds terrible.” Or “Fuck, this doesn’t sound like the record.” Because there are only four people onstage making it, where the record has a hundred tracks on one song. I actually appreciate a mix of both of those things. Now I’m like, “Fuck.” If I could just get up onstage with just an iPad, I probably would.