Tegan and Sara
That said, it’s a breakthrough that almost didn’t happen, says the punk-influenced, wild-haired Tegan, who does interviews separately from her sister. “We probably can’t stay in the same space for very long, our organs shut down,” jokes Sara, as they pass each other in the lobby of a Phoenix hotel. While the sibling animosity is funny now, when they sat through a “five hour therapy session” nearly two years ago at the home of Warner Bros. chairman, Rob Cavallo, they “realized we were not aligned on anything,” recalls Tegan. “Sara wanted to write more pop music and was listening to more Alicia Keys and urban music and I was a raving punk rocker in high school and the one who listened to more electronic music and pushed for [collaborations with] Tiesto and Morgan Page and David Guetta.” When Cavallo suggested they were almost like two different bands Tegan thought, “Oh my god, this is the moment we break up. This is the end of our band.” Rather than forcing them together, the label encouraged the sisters to approach their ideas separately—Tegan lives in LA; Sara in NYC—and as a result they actually collaborated more to great effect. “Every song makes you groove” says Tegan. In addition to opening up for The Black Keys stateside and The Killers in Europe, the 32 year-old twins are gearing up for a revamped solo show with a new touring band (musically directed by Katy Perry’s keyboardist), which gets a test run tonight at the Bowery Ballroom. “We’re not up there being pop star sex symbols,” says Sara, noting while there won’t be dance numbers or synchronized hand gestures this will indeed be “the pro show, but we’re not that pro, so we’ll still fuck up constantly.”
For two girls that got signed by Neil Young this is a big departure. Had you secretly always wanted to make an album like this?
SARA: Not really. Straight up I feel we kicked our way out of the folk corner almost immediately because that wasn’t my world. We knew where we wanted to be so we made the records we wanted to make so we would fit where we wanted to fit at that time.
So how did you arrive at this new sound?
SARA: I don’t think we would have ever thought we would end up making this record but I also didn’t know we’d make The Con, so I think you just get there. We still wanted the record to feel like it was rooted in the things we understand and know and care about, but I didn’t want the record to feel like a dance record, either. I wanted it to feel like we would still be servicing the parts of ourselves that still want to rock out. Tegan and I love to play with rock bands but I feel like we could easily play at 10 o’clock at a festival and have a dance crowd.
SARA: I do a lot of writing in Montreal and my goal with this album was just to write pop songs and pretend I had just been hired to write music for pop people. There was one song “How Come You Don’t Want Me Now” and when I wrote the lyrics I was like, “This is absurd.” The language felt awkward, but as soon as I started coming up with a melody I’m like, “I’m going to sell this.” I don’t want to say it’s cheesy, but the language is not how I would talk to someone, it’s not how I would word something for Tegan and Sara, but I wasn’t writing for Tegan and Sara, in my mind I was writing for a pop star. Tegan still knows how to lay it down straight, but I still have a hard time.
Well, that makes sense because these seem like badass songs as opposed to those on The Con or Sainthood which are generally low and sad.
SARA: I think Tegan and I have such a different vision for what this record is. For her Heartthrob is this confident, puff your chest out sort of vibe and my songs are just really sad again, but I think with the production they sneak under the radar and fit in the landscape, but my idea of a heartthrob is much darker, and much more about longing. For me it’s that we all long to connect with the heartthrob. Do you want to be the heartthrob? Do you want to be with the heartthrob? Do you want to just chill with the heartthrob? I don’t know. The idea for me was that we project these ideas on these people and elevate them to this status and there’s some sort of feedback loop of longing and self-loathing.
You have these intense fans and the second single is “I’m Not Your Hero” so it seems like you’re also dealing with being the heartthrobs.
SARA: Maybe it’s a loose comment on the culture we’re a part of musically and socially, this idea that we project this status as people on stage, and the audience is there to objectify us and then the irony is that I don’t feel that way at all, so to be the object is very uncomfortable for us. We both struggle with that idea and that’s reflected in our personal lives where we always cast ourselves in this role of the people that were always rejected and we’re the ones that are always in pursuit of this unattainable thing and that’s The Con and Sainthood. It’s funny because we write songs about being losers but we’re the ones on stage in a very powerful, sought after position and yet we diminish ourselves so much in our personal lives. It’s interesting.
Is it a big gamble to court this bigger audience?
SARA: It is a big gamble. We talk about it all the time. It’s funny I saw something on TV — not about love, but about smoking — this idea that to stop feeling bad or eating bad or not drinking or smoking is harder than feeling good. I feel like that is the mission statement for my life. I have nothing to feel bad about in a lot of ways, I’ve had a great career, great family, friends, really satisfying relationships, I think I’m relatively likeable, but it’s much easier to focus on the bad than enjoy being happy. We have a very modest career on the Justin Bieber scale of careers and yet I own a house and I’m happy and I travel and I could be happy with that, but I’m not. I want to be bigger, more successful. Tegan even more so. When we set down to write our goals for this album Tegan was like Let’s sell a million and I’m like let’s sell 500,000.
"Closer" by Tegan and Sara
Tell me about the process. Was it different on this album at all?
SARA: It was a little more collaborative. “Closer” is a great example. Tegan had written about 75 percent of that song and when we got into the studio and started working on it we decided we wanted a whole new chorus and so we wrote the chorus together and that was one of the first times we’d ever done that. There was music and some melodies that were sort of implied, but what it really came down to was spending eight hours trying every idea I could think of, every idea she could think of.
How did it start out?
SARA: We were really wanted to do something soaring and pop chorus. There was always the four on the floor vibe to the whole thing but for the chorus we ended up landing on was a sing-a-long chant, that sort of staccato, the “typical” and “physical” — more melodic, but we wanted the syncopation to feel like a hook.
You could work it to it?
SARA: Fuck yeah. I won’t work out to it. That’s weird. But you could definitely work out to it. I think there’s also something about the word “physical”. We spent a lot of time in the studio watching [Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical”] video for inspiration.
It seems like you two worked from different spaces on this album. How did the process start for you?
TEGAN: Almost immediately after touring two years ago I started writing and sending songs to Sara and my managers but it just sounded like everything I always do, just guitar-driven songs, then Sara and I had a writing session together in New York. We rented a rehearsal spot, this Upper West Side dance studio and we just danced the whole time. [Laughs] But we literally lasted four hours and were fighting and Sara wrote me this really amazing email afterwards saying I’m not ready to write and tour, I just want to be home and be normal, can we just be sisters and hang out in New York for a week? I’m like, Sure, but it was hard for me because I wanted to write.
What was the first song you wrote?
TEGAN: The first song I wrote was a romantic love song. It doesn’t sound very political or scary or whatever, but I’d always written these emotional, intense, sad, heart-wrenching songs and I was like I want to write about a moment in time where you didn’t worry about student loans or jobs or cancer or your career, when you were just enraptured with someone. And you can’t feel like that as an adult anymore because it’s youthful love.
TEGAN: Seventeen, even. I was like, “Was that the last time I was happy, because I haven’t felt that way for a long time.” And it was a real mindfuck because that was one of the most miserable times in my life because my parents split up, Sara just came out, it was traumatizing, and yet I remember it with fondness because you’re on the cusp, and you’re just in love with the world and someone and you just tell them because it doesn’t matter, you just want to be close to them. Everything I wrote was about that moment.
What about Sara?
TEGAN: It’s funny because “Now I’m All Messed Up” and “How Come You Don’t Want Me Now” are Sara’s side of the album, and she talks about heartbreak and all this stuff, but I feel they’re the most powerful songs she’s written.
So are you the heartthrob of the group?
TEGAN: [laughs] When I came up with the title I thought about that feeling I had about that point in my life. Before that it was when you were in love with some TV star like Claire Daines or Jared Leto on My So-Called Life. That’s a time in my life I also really romanticize. Our first love really is our heartthrob, this person you really imagine is perfect. For Sara, and I’ve done this too, the second she meets someone she immediately puts someone on a pedestal and idolizes them. She treats them like the heartthrob. Early on in the writing she told me this heartbreaking story about this girl she met at this hotel in New York in the lobby and the girl came in and looked like a model and everybody in the place looked at her and Sara thought, “She’ll never want to be with me, I’m not enough.”
TEGAN: It was this horrifying story because we’ll always put that type of love above us, so Heartthrob really made sense for both of us. That’s why fans are going crazy for “I’m All Messed Up” because Sara’s standing on stage screaming at the top of her lungs “Go!” because that’s when you feel most empowered in a relationship when you’re like “Fucking go.” I feel jealous of her because it’s like this expelling of some demon inside of her every night, it’s super romantic and big and bold then she’s got this devastating song “How Come You Don’t Want Me” but then the bridge is amazing, it’s like Madonna, then the bass comes in and she sings “One day soon I won’t be the one who waits on you.”
So you guys have this musical director. What’s the idea behind that?
TEGAN: His name is Max Hart. He plays keyboards for Katy Perry and it’s funny because bands like us don’t really have musical directors but we only had two weeks to get ready for playing the Staples Center and Conan and I really wanted it to sound good. He takes the actual session of the recording, for something like "Closer," which is 140 tracks, and he breaks down the song so you get the electronic feel and live feel. The show just sounds so much better, it’s more professional, but pretty much every night, at least in one song, I trainwreck it. Last night I made a joke about doing mushrooms at Disneyland and I couldn’t stop laughing during “Nineteen” because the first line is “I felt you in my legs.”
Did you ever take mushrooms at Disneyland?
TEGAN: No, but I couldn’t stop laughing.
But that would probably be pretty amazing.
TEGAN: Oh, my god.
Portrait: Lindsey Barnes