Chatting with Tegan and Sara’s Tegan Quinn

Tegan and Sara play Cosmo’s Boulevard Pool on April 10 with Portugal. The Man.
Photo: Lindsey Byrnes
Chris Bitonti

Why did you name your new album Heartthrob? It was a tough record for us to name. We usually come up with record names while we’re in the studio or immediately following the making of the record, but we struggled with this one. We knew we wanted it to be one word, and we wanted it to be something very bold. We felt that we had taken so many risks—we changed up our sound a bit, and we sort of pushed ourselves to the edge—and we wanted something that reflected that.

I was actually going through a car wash and was killing time and I pulled out this old Filter Magazine and flipped it open and the first page I hit was a story about the producer of The Green. There was this huge title on this story and it just said “Heartthrob.” And I was like, (gasp) I love the way that looks. I just wrote it down on my list of potential names, and I sent it in, with just the basic idea that we would be literally speaking about the idea of when you’re in love or when you’re heartbroken, you feel like your heart is throbbing, like you just are so caught up.

The Details

with Portugal. The Man. April 10, 8 p.m., $30.
Cosmopolitan’s Boulevard Pool, 855-455-1055.

I also love the idea of reappropriating heartthrob, which is generally associated with men, for women. And the idea that Sara and I idolize the people we fall in love with and treat them like heartthrobs, and, you know, this is sort of like a weird coming-of-age thing where we all stop idolizing famous people and we start getting crushes on real people. A lot of this record was written about first crushes and first loves and stuff. The response back was that heartthrob looks like hard-on, and our art director was like, no. So, then like a month passed and everybody was fighting over the title again and Sarah and I just decided to go over our options, pick our favorites and just decide between the two of us. So we sent in Heartthrob.

I interpreted Heartthrob as a reflection on the change in your sound, more electronic throbbing drums, that kind of thing. Well, for every record that we’ve ever had, Sara and I blabber on about what the title means, but I love the idea that people just decide for themselves. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, there’s a section that I really love at the beginning, where Oscar Wilde is talking about true artists and how you shouldn’t see the artist in the art, you should only see yourself. And I kind of believe that great Tegan and Sara records hopefully create this open plain for you, the listener, to insert yourself in. And really, the title, the sound, the songs, all of it, really you should just make up the story for yourself. To truly fall in love with a record, I think it has to become your own.

When you started writing Heartthrob, were you thinking I want to make something totally different from our old records? Or was it just another evolutionary step? I think it’s definitely just part of our natural evolution. I mean, if you listen back to the record we made in 1999, and you compare it to Heartthrob it sounds like two separate bands. But I think even if you go back as far as our third record, you can hear Tegan and Sara. Same with our fourth record. And I think that was absolutely a natural evolution.

Sara and I moved away from the acoustic-rock kind of sound in our first couple records to our second, third and fourth record into a much more synth-pop, kind of keyboard heavy sound, but there was still tons of guitars. And then with [2009’s] Sainthood, we simplified and tried to make it sound like an indie-pop record. And now we’ve amped it up with Heartthrob. So, there was definitely no conversation like, “Let’s make a pop record!” But there was definitely conversation like, “Let’s pick a producer who’s worked with a lot of female vocalists. Let’s work with a producer who has worked in the pop world but has also worked in the indie-rock world.”

We had all these conversations like, “Let’s write songs that don’t just reflect bad parts of breakups and sad parts of breakups, but instead the empowered, nostalgic, romantic parts of breakups.” We had all of those kinds of creative conversations, and the first producer that we met with was Greg Kurstin, and he was in the middle of making The Shins’ new record, but he also was working with Pink. He could not have been like a more perfect, exact what we were looking for. He had all these amazing chops from the indie world, but he also had all these huge hits on his hands and he loved the songs. And he didn’t hear an acoustic-indie-rock band. He heard pop songs. He was like, “Yeah, ‘I Was a Fool’ and ‘Closer’ and ‘Shock to Your System’—this is a pop record.” And, I just got on board.

I was like, you know what? Our band is ready to go to the next level. I felt like we had been treading water for a few years. We were very anti-establishment and anti-record label when we started, and we created what felt like a family with the people who worked with us and the label. And I just felt like I really trusted everyone’s input and vision and we were off. So it was kind of like a very, very long process, over two years, of getting to the place where we could actually make Heartthrob. But once we were on that path, it was pretty tough to stop.

When bands make stylistic changes like that, they often get asked them if they worried about alienating their fanbase. I think of it more as a risk of alienating fans who like Tegan and Sara for what it represents—the anti-establishment, as you said. Did you worry about losing that aspect of your appeal? Well, I think it would be a lie to say that we didn’t worry about it. But, it’s a weird word, “worry.” Or “anxiety,” or “fear.” We didn’t act from a place of any of those things. We certainly were aware that it could happen, that we could end up alienating a lot of the die-hard fans or a lot of the community that supported us for a really long time or that supported us because we were anti-establishment and indie-rock. But what it really came down to, I think, is that the essence of Tegan and Sara was that they had a connection to us.

I actually don’t think that the average fan really cared that much about what our record company was doing or how much involvement they had or who was producing the record or what keyboard we used. I think that they just felt connected to the songs. So once we determined that what really makes up Tegan and Sara is Tegan and Sara. We’ve seen proof of this in all the collaborative stuff we’ve done with Tiësto and David Guetta and Margaret Cho—people embraced it, people loved it and when we really branched out and collaborated with rock bands, like The Reason and Against Me!, they love it even more. So I guess, okay, we can kinda do whatever we want as long as it’s good songs.

The quality of song and the quality of collaboration, that is what made it successful. So when we started writing Heartthrob, I really just believed in the songs. Once the songs were written, it was one of those funny things where it was very Field of Dreams, like, if the songs are good, people will listen. I couldn’t deny that the song “Now I’m All Messed Up” crushed my heart, and if people couldn’t hear past the production, if that was what was holding them back, or if they were worried that we were cutting our hair in a certain way and that was making it impossible for them to hear how great “Closer” is as a single, then maybe they weren’t the right people for Tegan and Sara to begin with.

So it was kind of like a whole process that happened, but the fans are just kind of awesome, and they’ve come to us from so many different places. We haven’t had a hit single ever, and we haven’t had a song on radio since “Walking With a Ghost” in 2004, and yet our audience has grown exponentially. I think that they came to us from so many different places, like the dance world and the rock world, they just seem to be okay. As long as it was us, as long as it was real us, we felt like they were going to be behind us, and that was pretty cool.

You mentioned Greg Kurstin, and listening to the album I think he did a great job toeing the line between pop and indie production. How did working with him alter your writing process? Well, the first big hurdle with Greg was getting over the fact that he only likes to work from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. He likes to work normal hours. He likes to take the weekends off. He likes to take a break between songs. And he put us on a schedule where we would work two weeks, then take two weeks off and then work two more weeks. And this is all because he felt that without proper space away from the songs, he wasn’t able to get perspective. He was like, “We have to step away from the music in order to know if what we are creating is good.” And, this terrified me because, although I’m a Virgo and I’m a perfectionist, I work really fast and I just like to get in there and finish it and be done. But once we got over that hurdle and we started to let the music breathe, we would come back after a weekend and listen.

I remember with “Closer,” it was such an important song to us, and it was so different, and we knew it was totally going to be a single. We worked on it a whole bunch, and we went away from it and we came back and I was like, “Oh, it’s totally wrong. We went in the wrong direction.” And before I could even say it Greg was like, “Yeah, I just don’t like what we’re doing here. I think we just need to start fresh.” It really started to make sense, the way he worked was like the way I write. When I get really excited about something, I put my guitar down and I walk away, because if it’s in my head an hour later then its good. But, if it’s not in my head an hour later then it wasn’t good enough. And he kind of produces that way. I really dug it.

So as you continue to progress, do you see you and Sara carving out songwriting roles within your band? Like, “You take the pop songs, I’ll take the heartbreak.” (laughs) That’s funny. I mean, I think we both have strengths in a lot of different areas. I don’t know what the future of Tegan and Sara looks like other than I do truly believe we’ll make more music of course and make another record. We’re doing well, and we’re feeling really great about everything. But, in terms of how we continue to spread our musical seed, if you will, I think that we are just going to approach it like we did in the past. If something really inspires us and excites us then we’ll get involved, and if it feels too contrived, if it doesn’t feel genuine or exciting, then we won’t.


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