Indie-pop duo Tegan and Sara don’t mind if you want to be like them, walk like them or talk like them

By : Jeremy Williams
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The Canadian indie-pop twins Tegan and Sara have maintained one constant in their 20-year career together: being true to who they are. That is what has kept them unapologetically honest with themselves, their music and their fans.

The twin sisters are both out and proud lesbians, write all of their own music and play dozens of different instruments. They are also as much known for their look and style as they are for their unique sound that began in 1997 with their first band Plunk.

Now, nearly two decades later, Tegan and Sara have released eight studio albums. The most recent one, Love You to Death, was released this past summer and has them on a worldwide tour which brings them to The Beacham in Orlando Nov. 14 and The Ritz Ybor in Tampa Nov. 15.

Before heading to the I-4 corridor, Tegan took a few minutes to chat via phone with Watermark about the duo’s latest pop sound, being gay women in the music industry and what it was like to sing for Meryl Streep and Oprah.

Watermark: Many times when an artist is well known for their style, they try to always keep the topic on the music. Do you wish that more attention was placed on the music as opposed to your style, or is it a total package for you?

Tegan: From day one we’ve said we feel this really deep connection with our community. Our audience is super awesome and that’s a big part of our career being reflected back to us. A lot of young people, college age people, a lot of girls, LGBTQ people; they found our style cool and wanted to emulate that; plus we were looking at them for [style] ideas too, and I think we accepted long, long ago that our music is great, but this is bigger than that. This is about personality, about the community around us. The people aren’t just there for the music for the most part. People constantly talk about the banter and the stories and the haircuts and the clothes, or how they met their best friend or their girlfriend, or they come to a Tegan and Sara show because it’s a safe space, so we’ve accepted all of those things. I mean, I totally understand bands that are like, “It’s about the music; I don’t want to talk about myself,” I totally get that. I just think, for us, we are bubbling over with a million other things, so we just don’t limit it.

You and Sara write your own music as well as perform. How is the writing process with your albums? Do you each write and then compare notes or do you get together over some drinks in a jam session and then bang the songs out that way?

It’s a little bit of everything. Early in our career, with our first couple of records, we wrote very much alone. By the time we got to the studio, the songs were pretty much already developed. As we have gotten into the second half of our career, I think we both make a big effort to try and collaborate. Even if it is just Sara making suggestions about lyrics or tempo or key changes, and I think that we both have recognized that the songs we wrote together turn out to be huge fan favorites and really successful. Writing is a very cathartic experience, so I find that I at least like to start the song on my own, but I can see that I really benefit from collaborating with Sara because she is a great editor and a really strong lyricist. So she helps me to get my thoughts out in a more articulate and poetic way.

Your 2013 album, Heartthrob, and your most recent album Love You to Death, have a more mainstream pop sound to them than your previous albums, which were known for their punk-rock style. What made you take your sound in that direction?

We grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and we have always cited those decades as being an influence, but I think the sounds of the 2000s were just much more guitar-driven, and I think we were making an indie version of that. As the late 2000s hit and EDM and hip hop started to influence popular, mainstream music, it made “pop music” a much more broad term. I think that umbrella became what pop is now and it fit us. It was less of, “We are going to make a pop record,” and more of, “We’re going to take the record and the songs that we made and turn it up a bit,” and to turn it up in our world just meant to make it more palatable for the mainstream.

With that said, I don’t necessarily think Love You to Death sounds like anything on the radio right now. We made a record that continued in the same vein of Heartthrob that we felt really attached to, but mainstream is much more dance and hip-hop sounding to me right now. It’s very different than what we currently sound like. We are just kind of out there pushing our creative mandate and if it fits with the mainstream it’s really exciting, but if it doesn’t then it doesn’t really matter because it ultimately comes down to what the songs are. We’ve always said that Bruce Springsteen is our career model, and every Springsteen record is different. You can’t really compare Born in the USA to Nebraska but when you strip away the production the songs are there. It is undeniable it is Bruce Springsteen. I think when Sara and I get to the end of our career; I would hope that no matter what record you compare to another record when you strip away the production that it will undeniably be Tegan and Sara.

You and Sara have many videos out now for the album Love You to Death, and I read that you are planning to release a music video for every song on the album. What made you both decide you wanted to make this a visual album?

We feel like we are living in a “singles” world right now, and it feels like people focus on songs more so than albums, and we put so much into this one that we felt like we wanted the entire album to get attention. We made a record, 10 songs, and it tells a story and we wanted to create visual pieces to compliment that story. I think with Love You to Death there is some pretty deep, amazing music – “100x” and “Hang on to the Night” – songs that are obviously not going to be released as singles and yet we thought they deserved to be heard.

We also loved the idea of finding 10 artists to collaborate with and we wanted that list of directors to be so diverse. We did not want to reach out to the typical music video director who traditionally tends to be white, heterosexual male, and we have worked with a lot of them, but we got excited about reaching out to artists from all different places and backgrounds. We have two videos left and they should be out by the end of the year.

You mentioned that the typical music video director tends to be a white, heterosexual male. That made me think of a quote of yours from another interview where you said, “Our industry is still male dominated and heteronormative in general.” Which avenue has been the most difficult to maneuver, being you two are not male and not heterosexual, in keeping yourselves and your music authentically you?

We have been really lucky, Sara and I, like with our management. We have been working with them for 13 years and they are wonderful men, but they are white heterosexual dudes. We spend a lot of time explaining things to them. Educating them about what we need, what’s happening in the world and they are amazing. They are constantly learning and constantly checking their language, pushing other people in the industry to check their language. They have been front line supporters of ours as we work with the LGBTQ community. They consider themselves activists as well.

We get a lot of support from our label as well, and that allows us to push on some of these prejudices still in the industry. The truth is, the more we keep pushing,the less resistance there is. I think often times people just don’t know. We are living in an age where we are all having to check our language and check our privilege. I’m resistant to say we have met much resistance, I’m sure we have. You can look back at how sexist and homophobic our press has been over the last 17 years, but from an industry standpoint, I feel like we have had a lot of support. I think ultimately we all want this industry to be better and stronger. There has been an incredible movement just in the time we have been in the industry to do that, and I hope we are doing our part.

Besides putting out your own albums, you and Sara collaborate with other artists on many TV and movie soundtracks, one of which earned you a trip to the 2015 Oscars where you performed “Everything is Awesome” from The Lego Movie. Were you nervous about performing on that stage knowing nearly a billion people were watching you from around the world?

Oh God, yeah I was. You know I wasn’t nervous about performing for the television cameras. I was nervous about performing in front of Oprah and Meryl Streep in the first row [laughs]. First of all, that auditorium is tiny. When we were finishing the song, and on TV it makes it seem so huge, I could see Meryl Streep’s pupil dilate. It was terrifying. As you might remember ,there was a lot going on on stage too.

Yeah, it was a pretty busy performance.

Yeah, it was wild. I was thinking the entire time, “Please don’t let me be kicked in the face by that back flipping opossum” [laughs]. I’m glad we did it, obviously, but it was terrifying. I will admit the two weeks leading up to it were my least favorite two weeks that I can remember. The scope of it was so massive, and we were so honored to be there, but a small part of me was hoping they would ask Channing Tatum and Steve Carrell to sing it instead. The second it was over though I was like that was fucking cool.

During the performance, they had cowboys and construction workers passing out Oscars made of Legos. Did you get to take one home with you?

It’s funny because I have been getting this question a lot, and apparently they did send us a couple of those Lego Oscars, but we never received them. It’s something I should put my management on [laughs].

Now you and Sara have opened or performed with some big names in the music world lately – Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift – of all the moments in the last few years, have any of them made been so mindblowing that you had to turn to Sara and say, “Can you believe this is our life?”

I have those moments all the time. The Lady Gaga show was in Quebec City and there were 86,000 people there. I don’t want this to sound cynical, but 86,000 people are not going to come together in Quebec City for a Tegan and Sara concert, so in that moment I just say, “Holy shit 86,000 people, take it in brain.” I mean, there was a time when we drove around in a car from club to club to play for 30 people, and even then that felt cool.

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