Tegan and Sara Know What's Best for You, Just Trust Them on This
Photo by Lindsey Byrnes
Once upon a time, like most teens with an inflated sense of self and an acoustic guitar their parents got them for Hannukah, I had my very own YouTube channel. It was littered with webcam videos featuring a 13-year-old Sasha wistfully strumming out despondent Tegan and Sara covers on her bedroom floor, and no, I absolutely will not show it to you. I've changed a lot since then (thank God), as have the Quin twins. Four years after their last output, Sainthood, Tegan and Sara have hung up their guitars and opted for instruments that go beep-boop on Heartthrob, the duo's poppiest, most effervescent release to date. As Heartthrob barrels towards its January 29th release and inevitable routine radio play, I caught up with Sara to discuss the new sound, not being so damn hard on yourself, and crying to Bruce Springsteen.
Noisey: Heartthrob is a pretty big departure from your last releases. You’ve spoken to the fact that you always want your fans to see you pushing yourselves forward, evolving, et cetera. How is it writing albums now, as opposed to when you first started more than 10 years ago and you were basically just writing for yourself? Now you’re writing with a fanbase in mind, knowing you have this loyal following that expects to hear a certain thing from you.
Sara: Well, I would almost argue that when I was younger and writing, I was thinking much more about the audience—not necessarily because we had one, but just thinking how do we get one? In some ways, I was more aware of how our music might be perceived. I was constantly thinking, “How does our band look? How does it sound?” Now that I’m older and have a better idea of what our project is or who our audience is, I think in some weird ways it becomes much more self-motivated—how do we push ourselves and take those risks that maybe we wouldn’t have on those previous records, when we were concerned with nurturing and servicing our core audience? Not that I don’t want to give our fanbase something that I think they’d love, but it’s more important right now to make sure that we’re pushing ourselves creatively and personally.
It’s funny; there’re definitely some truth in some of what you say, but more than anything, I think it’s actually flipped now. I’m thinking more about how I’m going to get to a different level and how I’m going to respond to the music, and then I have a trust in me that maybe I know best for the audience. [Laughs]
You have over a decade of building this…almost rabid fanbase. Is there a comfort in that unconditional love that affords you the freedom to take more risks—like a safety net?
It’s weird, I don’t know if I would describe it as a “safety net” because, in a lot of ways, your most loyal, rabid fans becomes the most difficult to please. They’re the people who know you so well that being really authentic and emotional and striving for your best, that’s the only way to continue to keep them invested. There’s a huge chunk of our fanbase that are a little bit less invested—“casual fans,” I guess—and those people are a little easier to please; they’re there because there’s a collection of songs from each record that they’ve heard and really love. But the rabid, invested fans are the ones who, if we were to regurgitate or try to duplicate something we had done in the past, it may be meaningful or interesting to them immediately, but I don’t know if it would be as substantial as if we were to provide them with something new to chew on.
Part of that comes from being a music listener and fan myself. Even if I’m really invested in a band, if I heard something new that sounds too similar to something I’ve heard before, that might make me not as invested in them, or I may just continue to be invested in the album that came before it. In some ways, even though, initially, it seems like we’re making something that might not be pleasing to our fans, in a lot of ways—it’s like the medicine, you know? "Here comes the medicine on the airplane." I’m like, “Guys! Long term, this is going to be better for you."
The other thing, too, from a business perspective, Tegan and I have been doing this for so long now that we’re not naïve, whimsical, “Oh, we’re just artists!” and hope that we keep having a fanbase. We work and strive everyday to continue to build a fanbase, because we know from the past that you just lose people. People grow out of you, they stop liking your music, they stop caring about buying your CDs, they don’t have money, whatever. So we sort of divide our time between really nurturing and caring about the people who are currently Tegan and Sara fans, and then we’re constantly thinking about how to stay relevant. How do we attract new people? To me, that’s the only way to have longevity.
You mentioned that you do sometimes get this pushback from older fans that might want to hear your old sound. How do you feel about your old material? You know, when you’re on tour and people are requesting songs off of Business of Art, are there certain songs that make you cringe?
I think that there’s definitely material that I feel embarrassed of, but in general, I feel really proud of our body of work. Sometimes, I’ll listen back and I’ll think, “Oh my god, why did we make that choice? Why did we use these instruments?” But I think it’s kind of like looking back at high school and thinking, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I had my hair like that” or “I can’t believe I wore those clothes.” The positive part of me wants to say, like, “Yes, I had terrible clothes and terrible hair, but I was a really nice kid and I volunteered and I had a job and I had friends and I was fairly successful as a teenager,” you know? I try to apply that same sort of gentle, forgiving heart to my music. I feel proud, in general, of what we accomplished. There’s definitely material that I feel strongly about that we continue to rework and integrate into our new sound and our new material. In particular, the records that are easy to do that with are So Jealous and The Con. Those are the records that I feel the most confidently about.
What I always feel really happy about is when we go to other countries or other places with people we work with at the record label, because maybe they aren’t as familiar with us, but they’ll come and see us play, and our fans are just notorious—once they’re invested, they invest it all, they’re not just coming in to see a song or a few songs off our last record, you know? It’s like, some of the oldest material that we have, we’ll play in the set and the kids will sing along and act like it’s the most exciting new thing that they’ve heard. I think that it’s important to honor that. It would be selfish of us to say “We get that you love ‘Where Does the Good Go?’ but that’s just not really us anymore, so we’re not going to play it.” We recognize that that song—which I actually think is a great song—is a fan favorite. So it’s like, how do we make sure that we serve the crowd but also make us feel excited when we have to play it?
Do those feelings come up again? Are there some relationships that you were writing about on The Con and So Jealous that you’re still unearthing things about on the new record?
There’s sort of a cast of characters and scenarios in my life [that I pull from] on each album. It’s not every night that I play a song and think about the circumstances that inspire the song; it’s not necessary. Sometimes, I’m thinking about things in my life that are happening now, or I’m using the emotion from what’s happening now in my life to feel the song, but it’s something completely different. It’s very rare that I’ll play something from the early 2000s—a song that I had written about a relationship back then—and I’ll think about the person. Usually, it’s when I hear the recorded material that I’ll think that. Right now, we’re in rehearsals and I’ve been listening to stuff off of So Jealous, and what I find myself thinking more about is the recording and the people who were my friends, and I think of the feeling of that time when I hear the actual recordings, but not really when I play them.
Photo by Lindsey Byrnes
You mentioned that this new album is your least self-deprecating album, kind of a response to the feeling of Sainthood, but still you have songs like “I Was a Fool,” “I’m Not Your Hero,” “How Come You Don’t Want Me,” “Now I’m All Messed Up”… I know your mom is a therapist. Does she ever read into your songs and try to parse out what’s “really going on?”
[Laughs] It’s interesting; the way that I saw myself on Sainthood was almost like this introverted martyr because of where I was in my life. I guess I sort of felt a bit sorry for myself, and I was pining for someone who didn’t want me. It’s not that the material is so different [on Heartthrob], I just feel like the position from which I’m singing is entirely different. A lot of the songs you mentioned I think are coming from a more empowered place. It’s less of a waiting-in-the-shadows-begging-for-someone-to-reciprocate-your-feelings and more of a “We’re in the final throes of a relationship.” And it’s not a relationship where my feelings weren’t reciprocated.
In terms of my mom trying to figure out where we’re at…. I’m very open with my mom—same with my friends. I’m not sure that people who are close to us read too much deeper into the songs than what we’ve already given them in our lives. We’re very transparent with our romantic lives. But sometimes, I think that that’s also a gift from the people around us, because there is something confessional, even in songs that seem vague. A few people I’ve spoken to about this record say, “Maybe it’s not as personal,” and I’m feeling humiliated sometimes at how personal it feels. Everybody’s perspective is really different. I think that the sound of this record is a lot more upbeat, so maybe the lyrics don’t feel as bare, but because I know what the songs are about and because I have to sing the words and I have to evoke that emotion when I sing them, I’m like, “Oh my god, this is so emotional and embarassing.”
I’m sure that almost makes it easier to be that much bolder, because there’s this buffer of the upbeat, electro-pop feel that gives you more liberty to dig deep lyrically.
Yeah, when I think about this record, I’ve been using the reference point of the music that I listened to in the 80s and early-90s—things like Cindy Lauper, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA—music that was upbeat. I really like using the reference of “Dancing in the Dark,” which is one of my favorite songs. It’s such an upbeat song; it really has a vibe to it. But if you take that song and you strip it down to an acoustic song or something like that, and you just sing the words and the melody, it’s such a sad song. I really imagine this character as this really sad, lonely dude whose life is just shit—I always imagine him in a basement suite. I completely project this onto “Dancing in the Dark”—something that feels relatable for myself. The only thing I can really hope for this record is that, however upbeat or “pop” the sound is, at the end of the day, people recognize that underneath everything, there's still this really melancholy attitude. That’s how we build a bridge between people who love The Con and who maybe became really into our band when it felt really intimate and like something you listen to in your bedroom on your headphones, and something now that’s a little more universal.
Sasha no longer has a YouTube channel, but she does have a Twitter - @sashahecht