Tegan and Sara: ‘We couldn’t tell each other we hated being on stage’

Tegan and Sara’s relationship might be tumultuous but their music proved cathartic for many after the Orlando shootings. They explain why moving into pop has opened up new worlds

The day after the Orlando nightclub massacre, Tegan Rain Quin was walking with her girlfriend through downtown LA when an unusual feeling came over her.

“We were just going to the store and for the first time I was, like: ‘I don’t want to hold your hand,’” she says. As she recounts the story, her voice wobbles and her eyes fill with tears. “Oh God, I don’t know why this is making me cry now,” she says, apologetically.

It makes sense that she might feel scared, I say.

“It wasn’t that I was scared, but I was nervous. And then it went away really quickly. Straight away I was like: ‘Fuck that! What a wuss! We’re gonna hire security and go on tour! I wanted to get out there the very next day.”

This attitude won’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows Tegan and Sara’s music, which combines emotional vulnerability with a steely determination to do things on their terms. The identical twins from Calgary have been playing together since the mid-90s, releasing six albums of slowly evolving, earnest guitar music before an about-turn in 2013 led them to put out Heartthrob, an album of pure pop bangers that was apparently the blueprint for Taylor Swift’s own synthy reinvention on 1989.

The follow-up, Love You to Death, picks up where Heartthrob left off – 10 sparkling songs that tackle topics ranging from gay marriage (BWU features the line: “Save your first and last dance for me/I don’t need a white wedding”) to their own volatile relationship, which is documented in brutal terms on White Knuckles: “Black and blue now/Breaking each other like/Knuckles in a fight.”

The twins’ tumultuous partnership is no secret, but it’s the first time they have dared put it so explicitly on record. It must have been weird for Tegan to hear certain songs by Sara and think: “Oh, that one’s about me punching her.” Or maybe not ...

“The truth,” Tegan says, “is that I listen to Sara’s songs as if she’s a band that I like. So, when my inbox has a new song from Sara in it, I get excited, as if Beyoncé just dropped a track. It wouldn’t occur to me to ask what it’s about, because I immediately make it about myself, like any fan would.”

On White Knuckles, they sing about making “excuses for the bruises we wear”, which refers to one scarring encounter. So, what were their excuses? Sara thinks for a second. “Probably just not acknowledging that there were any bruises. We would look at people as if to say: ‘What do you mean? What are you talking about?’”

Tegan agrees: “We were often out on our own. And the second Sara and I had conflict, everyone would leave. It was alienating and awful at times. We’d look around at [other bands] and think, ‘You’re having so much fun,’ ’cos they were friends. Whereas we were out there and it felt like some weird punishment or prison sentence. But we couldn’t acknowledge it to each other. I couldn’t say: ‘I hate this, I hate being onstage, I’m uncomfortable in my skin, I feel scared, alone, broke.’ Because [Sara] could have just been like: ‘Me too, let’s quit.’”

The pair’s gradual rise has had the advantage of giving them the time to develop thick skins. When they started out, as a niche, guitar-based duo with minimal mainstream appeal, they had to rely on the indie press to reach their fanbase. This was often a less open-minded world than it liked to make out – a recent Buzzfeed profile dredged up one mid-00s NME review that concluded that the duo were “quite lovely, even if they do hate cock”. Elsewhere, they found themselves subjected to accusations that they were manufactured and even incestuous.

“The incest thing was actually two incidents,” says Tegan, breezily. “We were twins, I think people fetishised it. But there was a lot of homophobia and sexism. The indie community is primarily white, hetero males. And we’re not. So, we were lumped into that community and then written about by people who didn’t relate to us.”

Live on stage at Koko, London last week.
Live on stage at Koko, London last week. Photograph: Burak Cingi/Redferns

She says that moving into the pop world meant that “more women writers, more queer writers” could tell their story, while at the same time the world became more progressive and understanding.

“But then is it really that different?” Tegan asks, checking herself. “Just look at the fuss that’s happened with Sky Ferreira and LA Weekly! A whole article sexualising her!”

She’s referring to a recent column in which Ferreira was judged by a male writer almost entirely in terms of her sex appeal: “Bleached blond hair, translucently pale skin and killer tits,” was one of the writer’s observations.

“Men are gross,” Tegan concludes. “Honestly. And the media are gross. But some people make honest mistakes. We’ve met writers who would say, ‘I’m so embarrassed.’ And Sara was so brave – she would go against the wishes of our publicist and reach out to the writer and say: ‘What if this was your sister? Or mother? What the fuck is wrong with you?’”

These days, Tegan and Sara have an impressive social media presence and use it to foster a more direct relationship with their fans. It’s something they have developed since the beginning, when they were early adopters of internet forums and email lists. Sara says that even back in 1999, when it took an age just to load up your inbox, the archetypes of online personalities were recognisable as they ones we identify today: “There’s the person who tells you they hate you. There’s the overzealous I-want-to-connect-deeply-with-you emotional person. There’s the pervert. I think, as the band gets bigger, there’s just more of them.

Tegan and Sara.

More perverts? That sounds great!

“Oh, there’s definitely more perverts!” Tegan says, laughing.

Tegan and Sara have never hid their sexuality, and on Love You to Death, they’re comfortable addressing their love songs to other women without it seeming a big deal. Sara tenses up when I ask if she feels brave writing such lyrics for the pop mainstream. “I don’t feel brave because I sing about dating a girl or because I sing about not wanting to get married, I really don’t,” she says. “For me, bravery is being a doctor or a teacher or a politician and standing up against fucking guns. That is scary shit. Compared to that, I think what we do is pretty light and silly.”

Of course, it can be both brave and silly at the same time. Joyous and frivolous, yet reassuring and comforting, too. The sisters realised this soon after the Orlando attacks, when fans began tweeting the lyrics to Hang On to the Night in a show of solidarity with the victims of the attack and the under-threat LGBTI community. The song was written by Sara, reflecting on the “intimate, private experience of suffering loss in my life”, but thanks to her way with a relatable lyric, the words resounded.

“That’s the best part,” Tegan says. “When people can put themselves into a song.”

It only strengthened their resolve to not be afraid, and to take their show on the road. “We’ve been through ignorance and hate,” Tegan says, at the end of the interview, soon after the unexpected tears. “But actually, some of the most backward places we’ve played – and I mean backwards in terms of the least legislation and the least protection – have been the most incredible shows. Because people band together. It’s the underground. And you have to take care of each other.”

• Love You to Death is out now on Rhino.


Tim Jonze

The GuardianTramp

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