Tegan and Sara ‘make things physical’
By Tim Anderl
Photo: Tegan and Sara perform Thursday, May 8 at The Madison Theater in Covington, Ky; photo: Chris Buck
The Quin sisters spent 2012 at the mercy of fate, which ultimately worked to their benefit. At the end of 2011, Tegan and Sara announced 2012 would bring the follow up to their sixth album, Sainthood. But Sara had other plans and it wasn’t until late November 2012 details of Heartthrob, their seventh studio album, which dropped on January 29, 2013 via Sire, emerged.
“Sara and I met in March 2011 in New York to write together for the new record,” Tegan Quin recalled. “After a few hours of working, we decided to scrap the whole idea of the trip and just drink margaritas and hang out – as sisters. We had only been off a few months.”
Moments of leisure are a rarity for Tegan and Sara, who began playing guitar and writing songs at age 15. Following the release of their first independent full-length album in 1999, Under Feet Like Ours, they caught the attention of Neil Young’s iconic manager, Elliot Roberts, who quickly signed them to his Los Angeles-based label, Vapor Records. Tegan and Sara’s first international release on Vapor, This Business Of Art, was followed by extensive worldwide touring, including opening slots with Neil Young.
If It Was You, which was released in 2002, showed the sisters establishing a serious foothold for their creative template and musical identity. Critics and fans responded in kind, and by their fourth studio album, So Jealous, the sisters were poised for a global breakthrough. And break through they did. Six songs on the album were used on the then-hit show “Grey’s Anatomy,” they scored a radio hit with “Walking With A Ghost” and headed out on a run of North American support tours. But it wasn’t until 2009’s Sainthood the sisters received a nomination for a Juno Award (Canada’s Grammy equivalent), and one for the Polaris Prize.
At the core of Tegan and Sara’s decade-plus career has long been their uncanny ability for bridging pop and indie worlds, which allows them to avoid being pigeonholed by the boundaries of any single genre. From being covered by The White Stripes, to collaborations with Tiesto and Against Me!, to tours with The Black Keys and Katy Perry, the duo’s position as internationally-celebrated songwriters and artists has never been more solid.
And that’s what makes the direction the sisters assumed on their seventh studio album, Heartthrob, such an exhilarating ride. Rather than rest on their laurels and deliver another album of guitar-centric, self-deprecating tales of crushes and heartbreak, Heartthrob is a synth-heavy, arena-ready dance record as likely to find a home on a pre-teen’s school bus iPod playlist, as it is on college radio.
According to Sara, Heartthrob was an answer to the concept behind their previous effort Sainthood, which she said represented the shy, shoegazing side of the duo. And she confesses she cringes when acknowledging how the flipside – the thought of being a sex symbol – makes her very uncomfortable.
“I think in a broad sense, the physical sensation of becoming very interested in, obsessed and attracted to somebody that seems a little out of your league or unattainable was one theme we were interested in,” Sara Quin said. “The idea Tegan and I have put ourselves in a career we’ve become, in some instances, the object of someone’s affections or become an attractive figure to people you’ve never met or may never know is part of it, too.
“The cycle of writing songs about our hearts being broken or trying to attract unattainable people, and the fact we’ve become those people to someone is an interesting concept to me,” she added. “So, in a sort of tongue-in-cheek kind of way, the concept of a heartthrob – how they come and go and fade and how that attracts people – was foremost on our minds when we titled the record. It is a serious title, but it is also a little silly, too.
“In the past we’ve cast ourselves as the ‘losers’ in our songs a lot of times, but perhaps because we’re all grown up, it is easier to admit we aren’t just these cuddly stuffed animals anymore,” she joked.
And the latest album doesn’t just showcase a thematic shift or changing sound; it also represents the first time the sisters wrote the lion’s share of the output together. They also surrendered more control than usual in the studio, dividing songs between three producers (Greg Kurstin, Justin Meldal-Johnsen and Mike Elizondo) and a handful of outside musicians to capture the sound they were looking for.
“We took a lot of meetings with producers to ensure we were going to find someone that was the right fit,” Sara Quin said of one producer in particular, Greg Kurstin. In addition to his past work with indie heavies like Santigold and The Flaming Lips, he’s no stranger to radio-ready pop stars. His credits also include work with Britney Spears, P!nk and Ke$ha.
“By the end of our first breakfast with Greg, I knew he was the right man for the record,” Sara said.
For all the superficial differences, Heartthrob bears the true hallmarks of a Tegan and Sara record; the chemistry and camaraderie between the sisters and a dedication to crafting shining moments of indie pop goodness. The approach has paid off; in March they claimed three 2014 Juno Awards.
“It wasn’t a calculated reinvention or anything like that,” Sara said. “We just had these songs and wanted to make them sound fantastic. It was only later we realized this was different for us.”
Tegan and Sara perform on Thursday, May 8 at The Madison Theater, 730 Madison Ave. in Covington, Ky. Also on the bill are Lucius and The Courtneys. Tickets are $35 in advance, $37 DOS. Doors at 7 p.m. For more information, please visit teganandsara.com.
Tim Anderl is the web editor and a contributing writer at Ghettoblaster Magazine, and maintains his own music blog at youindie.com. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Anderl at TimAnderl@DaytonCityPaper.com.