With a new album featuring a trio of “it” producers and a huge promotional push from their label, the indie-pop wonder twins make their ultimate bid for crossing over to the mainstream.
For their seventh studio album, the massively catchy Heartthrob (released this week by Warner Bros.), Canadian twin-duo Tegan and Sara have made the plunge from quirky indie-pop to a brand of slick ’80s-styled synth-pop suitable for only the hugest arenas.
They’ve had plenty of success over the past two decades, ever since forming modestly in their hometown of Calgary back in 1995. They were ’80s babies — influenced deeply by pop heroes like Phil Collins and Kate Bush — but their early albums were directly reflective of their era, with the duo harmonizing in their nasally croons over Lilith Fair-styled acoustics. Their sound has evolved considerably with each album, from the ragged emo-pop of 2004’s So Jealous to the art-pop sprawl of 2007’s The Con and 2009’s Sainthood. But with Heartthrob, they’ve returned to the sonic stylings of their childhood roots. Working with an impressive holy trinity of “it” producers (Greg Kurstin, Justin Meldal-Johnsen, Mike Elizondo), they’re sculpted their songs into towering pop achievements, making a major play for the Top 40.
We had the pleasure of speaking with both Quins, who discussed their writing process, the influence of their producers, fighting creative restlessness, embracing their inner ’80s pop queens.
BLURT: Obviously you write songs separately, for the most part, and I know you tried writing together – mostly unsuccessfully – on Sainthood, and that you finally made it work on this album. When you went into the studio, how finished were the songs, and also, how collaborative were they?
TEGAN QUIN: A lot of the songs that are mine — almost all of them actually except for one — Sara and I collaborated together on them. I’d help Sara write bridges or just assist with a chorus. I was really interesting in pushing the songs as far as I could, so leading up to the studio, I re-wrote a lot of the songs multiple times, which is something I’ve never done before. And I’ve been accused before, mostly by Sara, of writing too quickly. So I really slowed down my process this time and allowed Sara to collaborate with me, and was really open to criticism and changing of parts and that sort of thing. When we got to the studio, we were absolutely very collaborative with the producers. Our demos are not like a tape recorder — with us singing and playing into them with a guitar or something. With a track like “Closer,” there were probably 60 tracks that I recorded, with the keyboard hooks and the synth lines, the background vocals, the four-on-the-floor. All that stuff was all there, but it’s very rough and rudimentary. I use demoing as a blueprint for the producer, for the direction I’d like to go in or that I feel like the song should go in.
Our main producer on the record, Greg Kurstin, he would pretty much in the first few hours of each day, would take that blueprint, that demo, rip it apart, take out the parts he liked and throw away the ones he didn’t. We’d re-record all the sounds and parts that we loved and just start building from there. So it was very collaborative. In the case of “Closer,” we really wanted to change up the chorus, and we ended up writing a new chorus in the studio with the three of us together. It was definitely the most collaborative producer relationship we’ve ever had, but Greg isn’t just a producer. He’s also an incredible, incredible musician. He’s got The Bird and The Bee and he’s worked on so many incredible records, and he’d just finished off-and-on a year of recording with The Shins, so we felt really in good hands. I wouldn’t just hand over my song to anybody, but for the first time ever, I felt like every idea that came out of his mouth, I was like, “Yes, that’s exactly what I was thinking!” I was just like, “Oh my God, I love you! I’m gonna go home and watch TV—see you in a month.” I felt like we were all three in a hammock together. It was just really easy, you know? It felt really easy.
You can definitely tell his fingerprints are all over this — he has a really distinctive style of production. Obviously there’s been a lot made about this being a very ’80s pop-oriented album, but one thing that surprised me was the singing on this album. Were you consciously trying to be a little more in line with classic pop in terms of how you’re singing? On “Drove Me Wild,” the vocals are so dreamy — it’s kind of a new look for you guys.
Well, to be honest, it wasn’t conscious, but we realized very quickly that a lot of songs — like “Drove Me Wild” or “How Come You Don’t Want Me” or “Now I’m All Messed Up,” we were pushing our vocals to the extreme. Sara and I are not trained vocalists — we have funny voices in my opinion. I think our voices together create a really interesting sound, and I think no one would be claiming that we’re good singers, but there’s something very interesting about what we do. We’re not Katy Perry, not Justin Bieber. We’re not pop singers, but what we write and how we sing and the way our voices sound together, I know it’s very interesting, but with Heartthrob more than any record we’ve ever made, we pushed ourselves vocally on almost every single song. And I don’t know why we did it—I’m not sure what changed. The last tour that we did, we did two months with Paramore, and I was really inspired by Hayley (Williams) and her vocals, and how she could fuckin’ jump around for an hour-and-forty-five minutes and still sing so well. Sara and I really pushed ourselves to be more active on-stage. We were singing one rock song after another for forty five minutes every day in like 110 degree heat. I could really feel my vocals and my body becoming stronger. That might be the only answer really, is that we just got stronger vocally and felt like we could really push ourselves.
With “Drove Me Wild,” actually doing the vocals for that song was so painful, probably my lowest point in making the record because I was like, “Oh, my God, I’m a terrible singer.” It was so odd—I don’t do a lot of extension of notes. We’re very rhythmic singers, which is an extension of us not being that strong vocally sometimes. I was just in the studio, stiff as a board, so miserable, and the next day, I’d thrown out my whole left side. I literally had to travel with a heating pad for like two days. I was miserable because I was so stressed out doing that song. I just kept thinking to myself, “Oh, my God, they must be in the studio ripping their hair out!” But the vocals sound great, and I definitely think that intimacy that people hear on that song is basically just the singer about to cry the entire time. I was genuinely feeling a lot of emotion with that song. I think we’re really just intent on pushing ourselves vocally—it’s a very ambitious record vocally. And that’s the thing that people always talk about is the vocals and the hooks, and we really laid it on thick, you know?
We’ve talked about how this album is going in a general ’80s-pop direction. Is that something you and Sara talked about before you hit the studio, or is that something that happened naturally when you were in there with Greg and Justin (Meldal-Johnsen) and the other guys?
Definitely, with like “Closer” and “Goodbye Goodbye,” if I played you the demos right now, the template was there. We were well on our way to making that kind of track before the producers were there. But we picked producers absolutely based on what the demos were sounding like. We knew they could take what we were trying to do with our demos and make it sound genuine and strong and make sense of what we were trying to do. So I think that’s a reflection not only of us being raised in the ’80s (and I think all of our records you can hear the ’80s influence for sure), but musically right now, pop music—look at some of the stuff that’s been really popular, like M83. These are very ’80s, ’90s-sounding records. We’ve been so immersed in sort of the indie-rock culture for so long that I forgot there was a lot of other stuff going on, and this is just our attempt to swing ourselves away from indie-rock. Not because we didn’t love being indie-rock musicians, but we’re not really rock musicians. Our influences are not really rock. So we just wanted to distance ourselves from our past records—we’ve been around for so long! We’re so old! We’ve made like a million records. We were in the UK for four weeks, and every day it was like, “You’ve been around forever! This is your fourteenth year! This is your seventh record!” I was like, “Oh, my God, we have to change our bio!” And we have been around forever—it’s true! And to keep it fresh, we have to dig around! I have a huge record collection, and I’ve spent the last year listening to Kate Bush and Talking Heads and Genesis and Phil Collins, and I constantly have to inspire myself because if I don’t, there’s no purpose for me being on the road. I think we’d be ripping everybody off if we didn’t change it up. So I think it’s a combination: We went into it knowing what we wanted, but that’s also just what’s going on in music! I think we’re finally, for the first time ever in our career, actually in line with what’s popular! (laughs)
By the way, you just literally lined up five of my favorite artists: Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Kate Bush — all incredible.
That was our childhood; that was our upbringing! You put on a Kate Bush record, and you don’t hear Tegan and Sara obviously. But when you put on our new record and you hear all these interlocking parts and the backing vocals and the sampling of the backing vocals, Sara and I absolutely were attempting in a desperate way to emulate our influences for the very first time. But I also remember putting out So Jealous and The Con, and people would ask me, “What bands do you like?” And I would be like, “Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty,” and they’d be like, “Oh, you don’t listen to fill-in-the-blank band that we’re supposed to sound like.” We’ve never been good at sounding like what we like, but this time — well, obviously, I’m a better musician and better at crafting songs. And we were definitely attempting to emulate the things that we love.
Yeah, it’s crazy — you totally read my mind with those artists. What I love about your music and what I find fascinating about your catalogue is that each album feels like it builds on what came before it. Your songs are evolving sonically with every album — and in particular on the last four albums. You’ve gone from kind of folky confessional stuff to sort of emo territory to art-rock to new-wave to straight-up synth-pop. The evolution almost feels intentional, as if every album was building to this peak with Heartthrob.
I think with our past records, with a record like The Con, I think the reason it resonated so deeply with people is that it told a story. And not just because we told you it told a story, but it does tell a story, and the songs work in a way that it tells a story. And we kind of moved away from that with Sainthood, but Heartthrob tells a story. But if you back up and zoom out completely and look at all seven records, all seven records have begun to tell a story. And if two of the records sounded identical, it would be like two chapters being exactly the same, repeating the same concepts. It would be disinteresting. I feel like, yeah, absolutely, we’ve been building toward Heartthrob because — I won’t say we’re getting toward the end of our career, but we’re well into our career at this point, and I feel like Heartthrob is a very significant chapter in our story.
It does feel like a very important record, probably because you’ve been building toward it. And on the flipside of that: You guys do all these different styles so well, but now that you’ve gone in such a hooky, pop-oriented direction, does it worry you that people might be expecting that from you from now on? There’s a good chance this will be your most successful album, and it may narrow your audience in a way.
That chapter has yet to be written, so I don’t know. I don’t know what comes next, but I know it doesn’t make me anxious. Because if anything, if the record is more successful than any of our other records, with the way that Sara and I work, that will only afford us more freedom to do what we want. Because Sara and I are not necessarily motivated by money or sales, we can do whatever we want. We made this record because it made sense musically, it made sense in our career. We were ready for a change, and we were ready to reach more people. Because it really just comes from the songs—it’s the song that stick. We could make a really poppy track, and it could be over tomorrow. But it grows every day because of the quality of the songs, and no matter what the next chapter in our history is, the songs will be there. And as long as the songs are there, you can do whatever you want.
Also, I have to tell you this before we go because if I don’t, my wife will kill me — but I kinda feel a little creepy. Anyway, we named our dog, Tegan, after you. I felt obligated to mention that.
Awww, I love it! I’ve met a lot of babies, dogs, and cats named Tegan, and I appreciate every one!
Author’s note: What follows below is my conversation with Sara Quin. Apparently I misunderstood Tegan’s response about who wrote the material on Heartthrob. That confusion led me to ask Quin the following mis-informed question…
BLURT: So I talked to Tegan awhile back, and she mentioned that she wrote the songs for Heartthrob and that you helped flesh things out with a bridge or a melody idea here or there. I want to make sure I understood that correctly because that’s a big change of pace from how you guys usually write.
SARA QUIN: That would be accurate about her songs. We always write our own songs. Half of the album I wrote, and half of the album she wrote. But on her songs, she did demo them pretty extensively, and then I did end up collaborating a bit with her on bridges and some B-choruses and things. Sometimes we don’t do that — we’ll end up finishing songs on our own and maybe adding background harmonies and stuff like that. But I did have a little more involvement in some of the structures and melodies on some of the songs she wrote for the record, but I did write five of the songs on the record myself.
OK, I thought I must have gotten confused somehow. I thought, “Why is Sara no longer writing songs?”
“Why is Sara such a lazy bitch now?” (laughs)
“Are you depressed?”
“So how come you’re so lazy now? What’s going on with you?”
I’m really glad I asked that!
Tegan and I are always writing. Sometimes we’re writing stuff for other projects, or we write for other artists. And sometimes we’re writing just for the heck of writing. But I totally wrote for about a year, and Tegan wrote for about the same, and we ended up with about 40 songs. And sometimes we write with other people, and some songs become collages — take a verse here and a chorus there, so we always have a ton of material. We’ve learned over the years: the more you write, the better the songs get. And I’ve always thought, as much as I love each song I write, and I always feel really invested, it’s better to have a larger group of songs to choose from just because one song might not end up feeling like it’s cohesive in an album. These ten songs really work well together. Some of the songs that didn’t make the record are great songs — I just don’t think they aesthetically or thematically made sense in the whole. So it’s always good for us to have as much material as possible to select from.
It does really feel cohesive. Not that the others haven’t, but this one—production-wise and lyrics and everything, this one is extremely cohesive. And I know that can be hard to pull off, especially working with different producers as you did. “Shock to Your System,” is that one of yours? I love the production and the groove on that one — almost an R&B or hip-hop vibe. How did that one come together?
I think that song, even maybe compared to the other songs, ended up staying pretty close to the demo in terms of the arrangement and structure. I write a lot of instrumentals — I don’t always write songs on top of them. But this was an instrumental I was purposely trying to write something that would…sort of fall apart in the choruses. I didn’t want the choruses to build up, I wanted them to build down. So that’s how we sort of ended up with the orchestral kind of breakdowns. So it’s a little bit of an unconventional song, but I just always loved the mood. I kind of wanted it to feel like it could be in a film and maybe not immediately recognizable as a Tegan and Sara song. I was definitely trying to use my voice in a different way, and once we got into the studio with Greg Kurstin, he just really took it to a different level. But his addition was this kind of marching drum beat, and it did kind of feeling a bit hip-hoppy! I think some of the programming on the song wouldn’t be out of place on an entirely different kind of record, but it kind of fit well with the vibe. And in terms of the song, I wanted the song to not be from my perspective. I was singing the song almost as if I was singing to myself, sort of addressing the depression and kind of…I don’t know — the funk I was in for a number of years. It was like someone coming in and trying to knock me out of that.
The vocal quality on this album is such a change-of-pace. You guys sound much more refined and more classic-pop in terms of your vocal approach. Is that something you consciously went for?
The fidelity of this record — I think it’s a combination of being more confident performers but also working with a different kind of producer. Our past records — I’m so proud of them, but it wasn’t important to us that the vocals be perfect, or that they always be pitch-perfect. We were sort of going for more of an authentic live kind of feel, and the performance itself was important beyond anything else. But with this record, when you’re trying to write something that’s a bit more poppy and sit well, hopefully, on radio and broaden the appeal, that sort of sound of indie-rock or lo-fi-ness, we were cognizant that we didn’t necessarily want that to be the case on this record. We didn’t mind if we had to nip and tuck a couple vocals and tune it up or whatever. I’m not embarrassed whatsoever — like “Go in there and make it sound good!” So just like, we would get in and want a guitar or a bass part to sound perfect, at a certain point we realized that we wanted the vocals to sound human. We didn’t want it to sound super auto-tuned or whatever, but we didn’t want it to sound like we made it in our bedroom.
It feels more mature, more refined. There are moments where I have to rewind and ask myself, “Is this them?’ But it’s been interesting to follow your evolution album-to-album. Each one feels like a progression on what came before it. But you mentioned the general poppiness of this album, and it’s definitely built for radio. Any number of these songs could be hits. But before you hit the studio, did you and Tegan sort of discuss that you specifically wanted to go in that direction?
You know, we did! We actually really did. Even before we wrote the songs, we did. We always kind of sit down and have a long-term chat with each other after each record’s done. ‘What are our goals? What do we want to achieve? What do we want to still achieve?’ For us, we knew we had accomplished a lot in the world we’d been a part of, and we felt like we had added and contributed with our records on a certain level, but we definitely talked about feeling like we were hitting a bit of a glass ceiling, and we knew that in part was sonic and aesthetic, and we’d had some success with some dance music collaborations. And we talked about it and said, “We are very much a part of a genre that has its limits, and what is the signifier with us? When someone hears Tegan and Sara, what’s the first thing they think?” I think our voices and our harmonies — it’s a big one. We really started talking a lot about, “OK, lets’ try to make a record where we’re not afraid to push the limits of the aesthetic or the sound,” and knowing that the most important, significant part of what we do is our voices. So we definitely talked about it. But we also said, “Let’s not say that a song’s done when we think it’s done.” Let’s be willing to push these songs as far as we can go. “This is a good chorus, but maybe we could write a better chorus!” Those kinds of challenges, we knew that they would help make the record as strong as we think it is.
Tegan mentioned that you did re-write a lot of these songs in the studio, that you weren’t satisfied as easily.
With some of them for sure. With some, it was less about re-writing them, and more about adding things. For example, a song like “Goodbye, Goodbye,” the structure of the song was bit different. Actually, the A-chorus and B-chorus were kind of flipped, and the song used to be flipped around. And once we were in the studio and Greg started fooling with the arrangement, it was immediate. You think to yourself, “Wow, this is better! The climax is better.” So things like that — I’m not sure we would have been open to such extreme arrangement changes.
On our past records, we were more about the preservation of the original demos and the sort of quirkiness of the arrangements. But with this record, it was like, “Let’s just see what happens!” The worst thing that happens is that you turn it back the other way. It was really fun! I still feel like the songs are as good or better as they were in the demo form.