From the Heart
By Paul Rogers
Ironically, the very trepidation that may have reined in indie rock duo Tegan and Sara over its 18-year career is propelling them—thanks to a huge injection of belief from their record label and producers—towards headlining the very arenas they had long been an opening act.
The Canadian cult duo’s seventh studio album, Heartthrob, released on Tuesday, lashes lifetimes of doubt, heartache and nostalgia to a newfound self-belief and growing fascination with dance music to create a radio-ready yet utterly authentic electro romp which should have them finally gatecrashing the mainstream.
“It was a complicated year leading up to the making of the record,” says Tegan, chatting from New York City two days before heading out on tour behind Heartthrob. “There were a lot of heavy, very intense conversations about the future of Tegan and Sara and we both felt that we had been held back by our own insecurities about what we would be capable of accomplishing.”
Though Tegan says she and her identical twin never actually discussed quitting, they certainly seriously considered continuing as songwriters and producers for other artists rather than as a touring act themselves.
“We definitely talked about is this a project we want to put 250 days a year on the road into still?” the almost disarmingly frank Tegan admits. “We started to just be real—I mean, we’d just turned 30; we were absolutely having that clichéd moment where it’s, like, midlife crisis; what are we doing?”
While Tegan and Sara’s previous release, 2009’s Sainthood, had been critically well-received (including being shortlisted for the 2010 Polaris Music Prize), it had sold fewer units than they were used to (peaking at No. 21 on the Billboard 200).
“We were absolutely at a point where it’s like ‘I’m not 22 anymore; I don’t want to be in a van travelling around North America eating McDonald’s,” says Tegan. “I don’t have that spirit inside of me anymore. I’ve been doing this professionally for 14 years—I want to look up; I want to achieve more; or else I want to do something different.”
Drinking the Kool-Aid
Initially signed to Neil Young’s Vapor Records—an independent label with major distribution—in 1999, T&S now release records through the Warner Bros.-owned Sire label in the U.S. Warner’s relentless championing of the sisters has been central to both their longevity and the fresh wave of inspiration manifest on Heartthrob.
“We always felt incredibly supported,” Tegan enthuses. “I think Warner [Bros.] are our parents in a strange way. It’s like they literally love us.”
Tegan says they have never been told what to do, creatively, by their label, nor ever handed in demos for approval prior to recording an album. Indeed, until recently they took very little feedback from anyone, she insists.
“It created a monster in a way. Because we got to a point where it was, like, ‘Why aren’t our records going gold?’ ‘Why don’t we have a radio single?’ And [the label was], like, ‘Well, because you’re credible; because you’re awesome and critically-acclaimed, and you have a cult following.’”
Indeed, when corporate reshuffling at Warner Bros. a couple of years back resulted in some of its acts being let go, Tegan says she and Sara actually suggested that they gracefully depart for an indie label.
“They basically said, ‘Over our dead body—you’re not going anywhere’,” Tegan recalls. “And it was a really great moment, because I realized that they really do believe in us and believe that we can do more. And there’s something about knowing that they believe in us that really empowered Sara and I.”
“They’re drinking the Kool-Aid—like, they really think that Tegan and Sara should be on radio.”
Bring on the Keyboards
When T&S started discussing its hopes and fears for a prospective new album with senior Warner Bros. executives and Heartthrob’s eventual producers (Greg Kurstin, Mike Elizondo and Justin Meldal-Johnsen), the duo’s confidence and sense of sonic adventure continued to snowball.
“Everybody just kept encouraging us,” says Tegan. “They were just, like, ‘Stop being afraid; stop being so worried—just make the record you want to make. Reflect the music you’re interested in and rip back the layers and tell us something that you’re afraid of. Sing about all the things that you’re afraid to sing about and people will love it.’”
“It was after that point that we started writing the bulk of the music that made Heartthrob. And we just decided that we wanted to make a record that we’d never made before . . . in every area: We wanted to make a poppier-sounding record; we wanted better production; and we wanted a short record.” (Heartthrob’s 10 tracks clock-in under 37 minutes total)
Make no mistake, Heartthrob is an out-and-out, big and shiny pop record. In the four years since Sainthood the twins have been busy collaborating with dance artists including house music producer/DJ David Guetta, electro house maven Morgan Page and alternative hip-hopper Astronautalis. This informed Tegan and Sara’s move away from indie rock guitars and towards writing on keyboards (which, as classically-trained pianists they had always done to an extent) and recording with primarily electronic rather than organic instruments.
“We were definitely more embedded than ever before in what was happening in the pop, alternative dance, electronic world,” says Tegan. “I like the production and the instrumental storytelling that was happening in electronic music, but I still really missed [lyrical] storytelling, so when we got off the road and started to write Heartthrob I had been challenged by Sara and a few other people to try to write outside of where I usually write and not to write self-depreciating, self-loathing shoe-gazer music.”
Romantic and Nostalgic
Yet Heartthrob is as much about substance as it is style. In fact, Tegan and Sara were so keen to elevate their songwriting that they sought-out producers who are also proven writers: Kurstin, who produced most of the record, is a former member of hit alternative trio Geggy Tah and co-wrote Heartthrob’s first single, “Closer;” Elizondo has co-written songs for the likes of Eminem, Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg; and Meldal-Johnsen has co-written with Macy Gray and has been Gnarls Barkley’s music director
Heartthrob’s abiding sense of nostalgia—it’s a record staring off into space in the middle of the party—comes not just from its tales of lost, incomplete or unrequited love, but also from sounds evocative of another era in both music and in the sisters’ young lives.
“I kind of went back to a time before I had any of those issues—before I’d been rejected; before I’d experienced any loss or heartache—and specifically went back to the music I was listening to then. That was sort of mid- to late-’90s, so I was listening to a lot of Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys and Duran Duran and Erasure and Ace of Bass.”
Delving back even further into their parents’ love of Bruce Springsteen, Kate Bush and Tom Petty, Tegan says she aimed for a best-of-both-worlds combo of the storytelling skills of these artists with the fun and pure pleasure and their own ’90s influences while writing the songs for Heartthrob.
“Heartthrob is almost like two sides of a record,” explains Tegan of both the album’s sound and its title. “My songs are sort of romantic and nostalgic . . . And Sara’s side of the record is more about rejection and sadness and sort of heartbreak that she’s suffered, but also it’s like a very reflective tone—so she’s basically singing about being well past that.
“The commonality there is that we’re both singing about people that we were interested in and we both have this awful tendency to idolize the people that we like, and so I kind of love the idea of heartthrob . . . because I love the idea that we are not the heartthrobs; we are the ones pining for our heartthrobs.”
An “Everyone Band”
So deep is Tegan and Sara’s immersion in the world of dance music that this association is now perhaps partially eclipsing their actual songwriting and performance talents in the same way that their being twins and LGBT has in the past.
“For a lot of years when people didn’t talk about us being gay—back in 1999 through maybe 2003 . . . I felt like being twins overshadowed our music,” say Tegan. “Then from 2003 to like 2010, it felt like being gay overshadowed our music. And now all that anyone talks about is our production style and all the pop and dance collaborations that we do.”
Tegan is hoping that the release of Heartthrob, which was preceded by classically roof-raisin‘ yet oddly wistful “Closer” last September, will belatedly shatter the stereotype of Tegan and Sara as being just a “girl band” or “gay band.”
“Everybody’s looking for an angle,” she mulls. “[But] in a strange way I have more in common with straight men than I do with anyone else, because I’m singing about girls!”
In fact, Tegan hopes that Heartthrob will make Tegan and Sara an “everyone band.”
“We’ve spent a lot of our career opening for huge acts, and I like being on a big stage; I like looking out at 10,000 faces singing along—and I have never seen that as something we could do [as headliners],” she explains. “But all of a sudden I was like ‘Why can’t we have that—and be credible?’”
“So the challenge became let’s make a record that is absolutely heartfelt and real and credible and great, but let’s make it so that people hear it.”