The aggressive circulation of manufactured, by-the-numbers pop has, unsurprisingly, gained the genre a bit of a bad rep. Sure it sounds light and cheery with its catchy hooks and upbeat tempo, but that by no means disqualifies it as beneath "serious" listening.
There's so much more that dwells within the realms of pop music that is too often overshadowed by their more commercial counterparts, and Tegan and Sara is a prime example.
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Identical twins Tegan Rain Quin and Sara Keristein Quin have been making music since their days of angst-driven adolescence. Enamored by the pop-punk of Green Day, and the grunge and grit of Nirvana and Hole, they attributed their desire to make music at the tender age of 15 to have stemmed from these early influences.
Now 20 years on from their days of independently releasing albums and having their first on stage presence as opening acts for Neil Young (no big deal), Tegan and Sara have cultivated a unique sound and message that has garnered them a following of devoted fans. Their fearless engagement with controversial issues and consistent support as outspoken members of the LGBTQ community have also lent these women a warranted legitimacy in the advocacy of social justice.
Seven studio albums later, the duo have come up with what might perhaps be their most commercially viable sound yet, Love You To Death comprising largely of easily digestible pop. But they affirm that they continue to push themselves with their songwriting to address weightier and ever more complex and personal themes — songs that translated excellently live when they returned to Singapore for a headlining show on July 29th.
We spoke to Tegan about the bands 20-year run, the processes behind Love You To Death, and The Lego Movie.
Hi! How's it goin?
Pretty good, how about you?
I'm doing very well, thanks!
So last year marked the band’s 20th anniversary. What do you feel has changed the most over the years?
*chuckle* That's funny. I mean, we've never had the intention... I wouldn't even say intention. We never thought things through, we just sort of went day by day and so I never imagined we'd get to this point. I'd never thought we'd make 8 records or travel around the world or be touring in Asia.
These things never even occurred to us, we were so young when we started and so I'm so proud of everything we've accomplished because it was sort of outside the realm of what we thought we could accomplish. So I'm really proud of the fact that we have a career and it's just everyday is so exciting because I feel so lucky that we still get to do this and it's been great!
Conversely, what’s something that hasn’t changed at all and likely never will?
I think one thing that we will never achieve, and I think at one point in my career I cared more about this but now I don't really care, but I don't think we'll ever be a massive band. I don't think we'll ever play to 30,000 people a night and fly in a private jet. There's definitely a level of success that seems not to be within our fingertips.
Why do you think that?
Well, there are just certain choices that we're not willing to make, or compromises we're not willing to make. I think we've chosen a less commercial route. Even though we're making more commercial music than we ever have, we're still not willing to sell a more sort of sexual nature. We play it more of the comedy and the character and the charm of our band, and there's a darker nature to our music that's less commercial.
We also really try to have a balanced home life, and we write our own songs, we pick our own producers, we make our own videos, and I think even though we're making commercial music, there's a DIY nature to what we do and I think that prevents us from reaching certain levels. But I think that's what makes our band interesting too.
Do you feel like the progression of your music and image have been more of a natural maturation? Or do you feel like you've had more deliberate decisions made at each step?
I always say it's exactly what it's like to be you or anyone else. I think as we've gotten older, especially because of social media and the internet and everyone having a smartphone, I just take more care in the way that I appear.
Like I went for a walk today and two people stopped me to take a photo. I've become more aware of the fact that on an average day I do get stopped and then that photo instantly goes on the internet. So I think I've got a certain level of vanity on my mind when I'm getting ready.
More so than in the past?
Back in 2001, it was rare that someone would stop me. And if they did they would have had like, a film camera and I'd never see it! But now, for example when we got to the airport at Hong Kong someone takes a selfie with us and it's on the internet 30 seconds later.
Have these "developments" impacted more than just your image?
I think it's the same as what we say and the music that we make. We understand how profoundly immediate everything is, so we care a little bit more. But with regard to image, I also think that as we've gotten older we've gotten more confident and I feel like I want to look good, I want to feel good. I want to wear cool clothes.
I'm really interested in fashion. I specifically really like Tomboy fashion and the fact that major chains like H&M and Zara are getting rid of their gendered-ness. They're not having "Men" and "Women"'s sections, and I love the political-ness of the removal of that gendered norm. So I really like fashion because I feel like there's almost a political-ness to it all. I feel like by dressing the way we do, by emulating the vibe of our band the way that we do we are able to sort of make a statement about what it's like to be female, and what it's like to be a female in this industry.
Tegan and Sara have always been known as an "intelligent pop band", as you were mentioning just now with the darker themes you guys grapple with. 2016 really seems to be a year where 21st century North American pop really matured, punctuated by strong, fearless and issue-driven records. What is your take on the pop landscape at the moment?
I find the pop landscape to be super interesting right now. There's definitely a lot of intelligent pop music being made. And I think that had started years ago, which is why we were so interested in pop music when we made our last record too, and it's gotten even bigger. There's definitely still that kind of immediate throwaway pop that nobody will care about in a year, but then there's also this massive landscape of really intelligent pop music being made.
Any particular examples of intelligent pop music?
Halsey, Carley Rae Jepsen and Robyn are a few. They're super progressive and they're singing about things that are really intelligent in a way that feels really real. I think Sara and I started moving in that direction a long time ago. There was a long time that pop music really sucked and felt really over produced and manufactured, and I'm really excited that we've taken that back.
I think all of us have become masters at taking the parts of pop music that can be really amazing and incredible but then kind of rejecting the parts of it that feel... gross. And I think the music we are writing now still has that depth and meaning and vulnerability and intelligence that our more indie-rock music had, just because I think that it would be really gross to put out music that didn't have that.
I turned the tables on myself with this record, and it's a much more self reflective record. It's about looking within and taking responsibility for the mistakes and choices that I've made."
- Tegan Quin on writing Love You To Death
Could you tell us a bit about Love You To Death? What was the process like in making it, and what goals did you guys have in mind this being your 8th studio album?
There's always a bit of pressure when you start to get into this part of your career, and I've heard other artists talking about it too. We've put out a lot of great music and we have a really wonderful fan base, and we really worry about alienating people. We really don't want people to not listen to the new stuff, but have them love it as much as the old stuff. It's important not to just reproduce what we've already done, and even though records like The Con and Heartthrob have become fan favourites and are beloved, we can't go and do it again. We have to create something that's really different.
So our approach for Love You To Death was still to stay in the pop realm, but we wanted it to be darker, we wanted there to be more meaning, we wanted it to feel thematically like we were covering new ground. So Sara wrote a lot about the early part of our career and our relationship and how much we struggled as siblings to find our own identity.
I wrote a lot about this concept where I've spent a lot of my adult life pointing the finger at other people. Y'know like, "you broke my heart!" or "you didn't give me what I needed" but I think that I turned the tables on myself with this record, and it's a much more self-reflective record. It's about looking within and taking responsibility for the mistakes and choices that I've made.
Are there any particular songs you feel best reflect those topics you were just discussing?
'100x' and 'White Knuckles' are the songs Sara wrote specifically about the early part of our career and the struggles that we had. And I sing most specifically about what we just talked about on 'That Girl' and 'Faint of Heart'. I think those are the spectrum of where we go on this record for sure.
Speaking of '100x', I was wondering what the idea behind the music video was? It was adorable and I loved it, but it seems very incongruous with what you were just sharing with me.
We decided really early on that we didn't want to make just 1 music video, we wanted to make 10. We wanted every song to have a music video and so we looked at trying many different kinds of music videos, and we didn't want them all to be literal or super serious.
So we thought the juxtaposition between something so funny and silly with something so intense and dark would actually play really well. And y'know we're always trying to get the video seen, so we thought if we chose that concept for that song it would make people want to watch it because it's just so different from what you'd expect.
And songwriting-wise, do you guys usually collaborate? Or do you usually keep to your own space?
The majority of our songs are written independently of one another, but then we'll collaborate later on. So the song 'That Girl' for instance, I wrote the majority of it myself. But once we were in the studio we really felt like it needed a B section for the chorus, so we ended up writing a piece of the song together in the studio. That's generally the most collaborating that we do. But like 'Dying to Know' for example, the chorus and the bridge of that song are actually pieces of other songs of Sara's, and then the rest of it was a song of mine that we liked a lot of, but it wasn't making the "Top 10".
So we took the pieces we loved from that song and then a couple of pieces of songs of Sara's, and Sara and I just sat at a piano and meshed them together and wrote 'Dying to Know' together. So we definitely collaborate with each other more than we used to in our past, but I think the main foundation of our songs are always created separate from one another.
One of our editors told me his personal favourite Tegan and Sara songs became his favourites because they helped him get over breakups. That being said though, do you feel any pressure to kind of recreate those themes? Or do events in your personal lives just keep driving your songwriting there?
What I think is really amazing about being a writer and getting to explore emotions and different themes is that you can write something that's so personal to you about one experience, and it can effect so many thousands or tens of thousands of people, and all of them are having their own experience with the song. I think to be a great writer, you have to be able to write something that many many different people can relate to even though we haven't all had the same experience.
For example, I think '100x' is the best breakup songs we've ever written, but it's not even about a break-up. But I think the majority of the people that listen to it will hear it as a break-up song. And I think that's important! There's certainly a portion of our audience who are interested in what we're writing about, but ultimately, good music, really good music, is able to connect with lots of people about anything that they're experiencing.
That is ultimately what we want to do as writers, to write something that you can relate to no matter what.
I’d like to ask about the Lego Movie. There was a general consensus amongst our writers that ‘Everything Is Awesome’ should have won that Oscar. How did you guys get involved with The Lego Movie?
Absolutely. We got an email when we were out on tour in Europe and we got an email from our manager saying that someone had written in enquiring if we would be interested in being involved in The Lego Movie, and they sent us a little clip and it had a demo version of the song in it. The song wasn't done yet, but they were looking for someone to sing it, so Sara and I recorded a demo that day. We were like in Poland or something in the basement of some club in Warsaw or something like that.
Wow, that sounds very much like the opposite of...awesome-ness.
Yeah, it was very strange. It was very dark. And we sent it off, and a couple of weeks later we heard back that they loved our version of it! So I went to the studio in Los Angeles with Mark Mothersbaugh from Devo, and you know it was 3 hours and I was done! Sara did some background vocals in Montreal and — it was funny — it was like months went by and then all of a sudden it was like "Oh here's the version of the song, Lonely Island wrote the rap in the middle," and we thought "Oh my gosh! This is so cool!" and then the movie came out! It was really exciting, I mean obviously once we had seen the clip with the song in it the movie itself looked really cool.
Was there any initial trepidation? The movie turned out to be hilarious and fantastic, but on paper, it was a movie premised on Legos, so it’s easy to dismiss as something that wouldn’t work.
I loved the idea of it, the concept behind it, and y'know Mark Mothersbaugh, we knew he was a really amazing writer and score writer and we liked the song and yeah! We had no idea how far it would take us.
We had no idea that it would take us all the way to the Oscars, and we were truly just kind of mind-boggled by the whole thing. It was really exciting, and we're really grateful and do not have an ounce of disappointment that it didn't win. We were just so thrilled that we got to perform, and it was a very cool experience.
Watch the official music video for Tegan and Sara's track Boyfriend from their latest album Love You To Death:
Special thanks to Warner Music Singapore for setting up the interview.