For the past 14 years lesbian twins, Tegan and Sara have been building a solid alternative fanbase with their ever evolving brand of music, but now they’re shooting for the mainstream, as Ciara McGrattan finds out.
From their early days as teen protégés discovered by Neil Young, to their years in the wilderness playing dingy venues to a dedicated, but tiny, fan base, Tegan and Sara have paid their dues in full, and now with the release of their seventh studio album Heartthrob, prepare to invade the mainstream.
Fans and critics alike will be aware of the fact that Tegan and Sara’s ‘sound’ changes with each album – from the earnest folksiness of early releases Under Feet Like Ours to introspective rock territory with The Con, to pop-rock with Sainthood; and now with Heartthrob it seems like the twins have finally arrived on Planet Pop.
When I mention to Tegan that Heartthrob is quite a musical departure for the sisters, she responds politely that the album actually signifies their arrival at musical destination long predestined.
“Every time we do a big round of press, they tell us that it’s a ‘departure’ from our last record. We always kind of giggle about it and don’t say anything. This time, I’m like facing that and going ‘each record is a absolutely a departure because it’s a new record!’
“But I think with this one in particular it fits the evolution of our band, we’ve been moving towards more of a pop sound in the last few years.”
This is unsurprising really, given that Tegan and Sara Quinn were born in 1980, at the beginning of a decade that was steeped in classic and hugely influential pop.
“I think our instinct in the last four or five years was leaning towards pop. When were growing up we listened to everything from Duran, Duran to the Pet Shop Boys, Tom Petty, Cyndi Lauper and Madonna. Then, when we started putting records out in 1999, Dave Matthews Band was the most popular band in North America, so things had changed a lot.”
Indeed, the musical landscape has changed beyond recognition again since the beginning of the Noughties. The popularity of soft rock acts like Dave Matthews faltered in the face of the Renaissance of hip-hop and rap, with artists like Eminem, Pink (at the time still under the thumb of record label Svengali LA Reid and being marketed as a hip hop artist) and Ludacris carving up the Billboard chart between them. It was this musically homogeneous atmosphere that pervaded the US when teenaged Tegan and Sara took their next tentative steps into the music business.
Happily, despite the depressing inclemency of the music industry at the time, Tegan and Sara took to the road and through long years touring, gradually began to build a loyal audience for their unique brand of folky pop-rock that still exists to this day.
“Nowadays it’s all about Katy Perry and Kayne, so I think musically we’re just on the same track that other people are on,” says Tegan. “Sara and I have always thought that we’re ahead of what’s cool – or maybe just on our own path doing something totally weird – and I think that inevitably we just got to a point where we wanted to push the boundaries of what’s ‘cool’ right now and I can’t think of anything cooler than trying to involve ourselves in the mainstream.
“I think the mainstream is the vehicle to spread what I believe is really great music, but what’s also ‘alternative’ music. I think we’ve found a way to write pop rock that could potentially be in the mainstream.”
Over the past few years the twins’ outspokenness on subjects like LGBT bullying, marriage equality and the prevalence of sexism in the music industry has also occasionally brought them to mainstream attention, like in 2011 when Sara wrote and open letter blasting controversial LA rapper Tyler the Creator for his “sickening rhetoric” and the media that ignored his “repulsive and irresponsible” lyrical content.
The response from Tyler – “If Tegan And Sara Need Some Hard Dick, Hit Me Up!” – ignited a Twitter storm, with fans on either side weighing in on the issue and media outlets reporting the latest celebrity Twitter feud. For the twins, it was “a bit of a blip – the media turned it into a fight”, a non-story blown-up by constant re-posting of social media mavens, but a still source of pride, nonetheless.
“I think Sara did a great thing,” says Tegan. “She wrote a letter to the industry, addressed to writers and journalists – it wasn’t to Tyler the Creator – about the idea that we have to take a step back and think just because an artist has free rein to say whatever he or she wants; if it’s hate language, it’s still hate.
“We received a tremendous amount of support afterwards. A lot of people in the media were like, ‘We’re not going to write about this guy, we’re not going to have him on our show because we don’t support that’. Ultimately it was a really positive thing.
On the very day of our chat, the Internet was ablaze with details of the latest Twitter feud – this time between gossip guru Perez Hilton and edgy, rapping bisexual Azealia Banks (who called Perez a ‘faggot’). The flurry of furious responses encountered by Banks after Tweeting the remark signify just how far society has progressed when it comes to challenging hate speech.
“It’s like you don’t even have to do anything anymore,” says Tegan. “Two days later Azealia’s making a public apology. Things have changed so much. People are really being policed by each other for hate speech. It’s pretty awesome.”
Tegan and Sara, with their move to the mainstream, fit perfectly amongst the other members of the new queer movement in pop – Gossip, Scissor Sisters, Adam Lambert et al. Since they first took to the road 14 years ago as newly graduated teens, the sisters have considered it of crucial importance to be open about their sexuality, regardless of its affect on their potential career prospects.
“I don’t care about any lack of success we might have had because people were homophobic or sexist or whatever,” says Tegan. “I think being out as gay was a sacrifice well made, because we’ve been a beacon of support and help and that that’s been super important to us. It has given us a lot of purpose.”
“It might come off as a little bit cheesy, but there’s literally not a day that goes by on Twitter, or at a show, or even just walking down the street, that I don’t interact with someone who has been positively affected by our music. And of those people, I’d say at least 50 percent tell me that they came out because of us, or that they found a connection with their parents because we talked about our connection with our parents. People have played movies for their parents of us talking about our parents and their support of us when we came out.”
As Tegan and Sara continue to plunge headfirst into the mainstream pop territory through their various collaborations with artists like DJ David Guetta and Alesso, their fanbase steadily increases, and with the release Heartthrob could very well propel the twins to new heights of pop supremacy. But are the sisters worried that people won’t like the new, thoroughly poppy album?
Tegan laughs. “People are constantly asking ‘Are you nervous about the record coming out?’ and I’m like, ‘Hell, no – it’s awesome!’”
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