Tegan And Sara On ‘Love You To Death’ & The Challenge Of Changing Their Sound: Interview
Three years ago, sibling duo Tegan And Sara ventured into synth-pop territory with their seventh studio LP, Heartthrob, and in turn picked up three Juno Awards in their home country of Canada and landed their first stateside Top 10 album. (It even landed on Idolator’s 10 Best Albums Of 2013 list — the ultimate honor!)
The Quin sisters clearly found their pairing with hit-making producer Greg Kurstin (Adele, Pink, Kelly Clarkson) worth exploring further, as they’ve again wrangled him in, this time to produce upcoming album Love You To Death (out June 3; pre-order here). Between lead single “Boyfriend” and buzzy cuts like heartbreaking ballad “100x” (don’t miss the super cute, canine-filled video!) and ’80s throwbacks “U-Turn” and “Stop Desire,” it’s obvious that Tegan And Sara’s ability to marry addictive melodies with introspective lyrics remains stronger than ever.
“The one main thing with [Greg Kurstin] that is super important is the trust factor,” Sara explains on a sunny day in May, in the New York office of the duo’s label, Warner Bros. “We trust his instincts. We like the choices he makes. We like the sounds that he’s gravitating towards.”
The sisters are in the Big Apple having just completed the last of four small shows showcasing both material from Love You To Death and reworked versions of past fan favorites. And they’re eager to hit the road on a much larger headlining tour, beginning with overseas dates in June and July that segue into North American dates in September.
Below, catch our full one-on-one — er, make that one-on-two — with dynamic sister act Tegan And Sara.
You performed four intimate shows this month, between Los Angeles, Toronto and New York. How are you feeling about them? SARA: I think we were excited to blow the dust off and do it in a way that we knew that we would have lots of diehard fans. We just hired some new musicians to perform with and we’re trying out some new arrangements of songs, so it’s a sensitive place to put yourself on blast, I guess. You can’t be blowing out of the gates at these big venues when you haven’t tried any of the material out. In a weird way it’s been super relaxing and very comforting to be in front of 500 diehard fans that want to see you and take some risks and try some new things.
TEGAN: They can also be the biggest critics, so it’s amazing that we tried out all those new arrangements on the old songs and they loved it.
SARA: Which, we appreciate it. If we were like, “Oh, people really seem to hate some of these new ideas,” I guess now we have time to adjust before the big tour in the fall. I thought it went really well. The new material has been quite easy to translate live, and that’s due in part to the musical director we hired, who helped us put together the live show in a way that we could physically do. I think last time we tried to recreate too many elements from the album, and he’s helped us sort of streamline.
TEGAN: We said we want to still be a real band. This whole obsession with show and performance and costumes that’s in the pop world — that’s for a specific type of artist who’s putting on a real show. But what if you’re still playing to a thousand people? How do you do the pop show and still be what we are, which is 17 years into a career about songwriting and artistry. [Our musical director] said, “Well, what you could do is take about 50 percent of what’s happening on the record and turn it off, because you don’t need that in a live venue.
SARA: It opened space for our live vocals.
TEGAN: Yeah, and he was like, “And also you can sing — so sing! Don’t turn 50 backing vocals on that are on the record and tuned. He kind of gave us live show therapy, like we’d lost our way in the first of what does it mean to be a pop artist. What does it mean to be an indie pop artist, right? He helped us find our way. It was like these four shows felt a little bit like a trial run, being the band we are and the band we want to be — and also take with us all of the fun stuff we used to be able to do in the past, which was talk and tell stories and have fun and laugh and look our audience in the eye and feel good about what we’re putting out there.
People seeing you live for the first time are always in for a treat when they encounter your on-stage banter. SARA: I think think there’s something nice, too, about not always having to do it. To me, it shouldn’t become a gimmick. Sometimes I’ll feel like I just want to play the songs. Especially as we get later into an album cycle, there’s a real flow of just staying in a musical place. And there’s times where it’s almost the opposite; there’s something cathartic and fun about just chatting it up with the audience. Now that we have a body of work that is quite large, there’s more emphasis on making sure that the music is heard and that people get to listen to the songs they love.
TEGAN: People are like, “We’re tired! Stop talking!”
Have you gotten to the point where you’re thinking about opening acts for your fall tour? TEGAN: We’ve definitely started to look at options. We had honed in on who we really wanted, but unfortunately because of scheduling we had some issues. Sara and I have been very particular about where we wanted to play and what we want to do with the live show, so it took us longer to get the dates put together. We just focused on that rather than the support. Support is so important, but we’re also putting the final pieces together of what our production is going to be. You don’t want to invite a six-piece band out and then be like, “Actually, you’re not going to fit on the stage.”
You worked with producer Greg Kurstin on your previous album, Heartthrob. What led you to enlisting him again for Love You Do Death? SARA: You know, it’s interesting — somebody pointed out that we always work with people twice. I think it’s funny, because obviously there’s the twin factor, and Tegan and I, we are a “two.” I think for me, when you start working with somebody, you’re figuring each other out. And I almost think it’s nice to do a second record with somebody where it feels like you have a lot of things established, and now you can be deeply creative with one another. That certainly was the case with Chris Walla; The Con was just figuring each other out and figuring out our process. And then it was kind of, “Now we trust each other so let’s go a little bit deeper and go outside our comfort zone.” I feel that way with Greg, like we were just establishing something really special with him, so by the time we started talking about Love You To Death, it was it was obvious we had to pick back up with Greg. He makes a lot of space for what we do in the music and the production, and he lets our intuition and the things that we demo and we record ourselves in the early stages inform where the songs eventually go.
TEGAN: Our situation is so unique, because we work with artists and hear about these [writing] sessions, and we don’t have to do that. It sounds really stressful and the exact opposite of who we are. We’re both outgoing and I would say we’re both socially extroverted, for sure. But when it comes to our music, we’re both introverts. We both like to be alone in our process. What’s great about us and working with Greg is that we came in with the songs already written, so it takes away some of the intimidation of, “Okay, I’m here and I’m on the spot and we have to write a hit with you!” I think as artists we appreciate that it is good to feel uncomfortable sometimes and it is good to put yourself in a new scenario where you are pushed outside of your comfort zone. Greg does it in a really delicate way.
Were there songs you worked on for Heartthrob that you held over for this album? TEGAN: “Stop Desire” I wrote while we were touring Heartthrob. We had a break right before the fun. tour that we did, and I remember I came out and played it for Jack [Antonoff], because he was working on the Bleachers record. I was subtly being like, “What do you think of this song?” We don’t usually use material that we write while we’re on the road. It’s very rare that we pick anything from that era, so it will always be when we get off the road, the songs we write will be the ones we end up recording. There are always these “cousins,” we call them — they’re not your children, they’re the cousins in the middle of the record cycle that you work on that just end up getting cast aside. But “Stop Desire” kept floating up to the top. I was like, “Maybe we can give it to another artist?” But our managers and publisher were like, “It sounds like A Tegan And Sara song.” My demo was a lot more rock, and Sara was like, “We’re working on pop songs. I don’t know if it will work.” And then I was in working with [Greg] on something else and he said, “I like this song. Why are you giving this song up?”
A real standout on the album is the song that kicks the whole thing off, “That Girl.” TEGAN: I was in Palm Springs and I wrote “Faint Of Heart” on acoustic guitar the day before. I was in a house. You know, I’ve lived in an apartment since the day I graduated high school except for the six months I wrote The Con, so it was so nice to be in a house and play guitar and be loud. I’d spent the whole day with an acoustic guitar, and with “That Girl” I wanted to do something that was very electronic feeling. I actually labored over it. I found I wrote the melody for it pretty quickly, but I was unsure of how to produce the actual arrangement of the musical instruments. Do I want it to be electronic? Do I want it to be dancey? I sent it to Sara in the afternoon and she wrote back and said it was cool. I wondered if it was too “remix” feeling, because it had so many dance elements to it. The truth is, Sara was like, “I really like it. It feels addictive, like something I want to listen to over and over again.” And then when we got into the studio, Sara and Greg really helped me make it more into a traditional pop song. We wrote the bridge in the studio together, Sara and I, and gave it more structure. And the idea itself for the song, I was just having one of those moments where I was in a new relationship and I was reflecting on an old relationship and the pattern I was starting to see form. I was like, “Oh, god — I’m that girl! I’m that person who’s putting up with certain behaviors again and again and again.”
SARA: From the moment I heard it, I was like, “This should start the album.” I always feel like I know what should open and what should close our records, and I feel strongly that there should be a certain tone set. One thing I really liked about “That Girl,” regardless of what it means to Tegan, is that the song is more about self-reflection. It’s not necessarily about a relationship. And I liked the idea that this was setting a tone for the album. On the surface, people are always going to hear, “Oh, these are songs about love.” But I really think that the record, at least from my perspective, is about identity and about how we see ourselves in any kind of relationship, whether it’s our sibling relationship or our parental relationship or our romantic relationships, our relationships with the world, our queer identities or our relationships with gender. Those are a lot of the things that are spinning around our world right now, and I liked that the song was very clearly about identity.
One thing that’s so great about being a listener of your music is that you don’t shy away, lyrically, from the realities of relationships. TEGAN: I agree with Sara that on this record it’s a lot more about looking at our own behaviors and our own relationship to all these things. It’s been really interesting getting into this record cycle because for the first time ever we talked about how we’re going to talk about these relationships. Maybe this is just age and growing up, but I don’t want to sell my heartbreak or my past relationships. I don’t want to sell out those people, because it’s not about them; it’s about me. It’s about the fact that I’m growing up and looking at my own behavior, and the reality of the situation is that I’ve played myself off as the victim and been sad and hurt, and felt that people have rejected me — and that’s untrue. I’ve rejected people. I’ve broken hearts and I’m the one that leaves. I’m the one that’s set the parameters of all my relationships. It’s important to us — because we’re also talking about our relationship — that we also declare the boundaries around what we’re sharing. It’s not about sadness, it’s about reality. And reality is heartbreaking. It’s also really exciting to do that over poppy music! [Laughs] It’s really cathartic.
During your recent show at Le Poisson Rouge here in New York, you thanked fans for sticking around during your move into more synth-pop territory with these past two albums. What has the feedback you’ve received on these two albums been like? SARA: I think that it’s important to know that when we started, our first email for Tegan And Sara — one of the very first things I ever received…
TEGAN: In 1999.
SARA: …was negative. Human beings love to express when they don’t like something. It’s like, as a baby, they put the broccoli in your mouth and you spit it out. This is one of the first instincts we have, is to say when we don’t like something. And so it’s important to note that, yes, there have been some serious critics in our fan base when we have made substantial changes. But I also think that sometimes the loudest voice is the voice that doesn’t like the thing…
TEGAN: But it isn’t representative of the majority.
SARA: So, in all fairness, like I said, in the very beginning of our career when we barely had an audience, there was already someone going like, “You suck!” or “I hated that video!” or “I don’t like the way you talked about that thing!” It’s something that we learned really early on to process with a filter. One thing I’m taking away from Heartthrob, which was definitely a different sound and a different approach, was that because of production and the scale and ambition of the album, some people felt like the songs didn’t resonate as deeply. There was an emotional intensity that they didn’t feel as much. I remember thinking initially that was so wrong to me, because some of these songs, especially some of my songs, like “Now I’m All Messed Up” or “Shock To Your System” — these are some of the darkest songs I’ve ever written, or the saddest songs I’ve ever written. But I was like, okay, fair. Sometimes production can smooth some of the roughness that was present in a lot of our older material. This is a long-winded way of saying that piece of criticism led me to think about something that I once heard — and I’m going to blank on the actor’s name; he plays Brody on Homeland — I once read something [he said], where when you’re on film and TV, you have to think very strongly about how you want your face to register certain emotions. But if you were to be too emotional on film or television, you’d be over-acting. That was something he really had to learn, because he had grown up on stage, over-emoting to show the people at the back of the room what he was feeling. And in a weird way, sometimes when you’re making pop music, you have to over-emote to really hit home a certain emotion, because certain production maybe makes it harder for people to pick up on that. I’ve actually found that to be a quite constructive and important criticism from some of our fan base, and I think we did a better job [with this album] translating the emotional nucleus while still allowing the production to be muscular and big.
TEGAN: And we know some of the critics of Heartthrob, and they’re still diehard fans and they’re awesome. They’re already saying this album just feels more like Tegan And Sara. A friend actually described to me the other day that it’s got all the pop sheen that everyone loves, but it also has the edge of Tegan And Sara that was missing on the last record. We talked a lot about vocal production. Obviously we want to compete on mainstream pop radio still, so the vocals need to be perfect. But is there a way to make it feel like us singing? Because we can sing. So we approached the production differently and I think we were able to still keep the heart and soul of Tegan And Sara in there.
Tegan And Sara’s new album Love You To Death will be released on June 3. Pre-order now on iTunes.