Pop Sisters Tegan & Sara Break New (Queer) Ground

Tegan Sara

Photography by Benedict Evans. Styling by Alison Brooks. Tegan (left) and Sara Quin. Sara: Shirt by Tony Ward available at Church Boutique LA. Jacket by Marc Jacobs. Tegan: Shirt by Tony Ward available at Church Boutique LA. Jacket by JET available at John Eshaya. Left: Tegan: Shirt by Rag & Bone.

Forging a career that transgresses the boundaries of alternative rock and dives into infectious pop is new ground for Tegan and Sara. Often pegged to their labels — lesbians, identical twins, Canadian — the duo have spent nearly 20 years eclipsing what’s on the surface by focusing on their sound and message, gradually progressing from bedroom four-trackers to moody indie blowouts to their most ambitious incarnation yet: candy-striped, ’80s-indebted, queer-leaning New Wave that, instead of fetishizing sexuality, normalizes it. On their eighth album, Love You to Death, the duo take the rocky experiences from real-life relationships and send them up the flagpole in the hopes of finally cracking the mainstream.

Though they’re the most prominent contemporary gay female act to scale the charts (their 2013 album, Heartthrob, debuted at number 3 on the Billboard 200), the 35-year-old songwriters have still spent most of their career as outsiders. But proud ones. Female artists such as Lady Gaga, Halsey, and Nicki Minaj have bent the spectrum of sexuality in pop culture but limited it to just one facet of their public persona. Tegan and Sara Quin have become torchbearers for
post-’00s queerdom in music.

Where the Calgary, Alberta, natives have excelled is in their readiness to take anecdotes from their personal lives and push them to the forefront, something they’ve done since signing to Neil Young’s Vapor Records in 1999. “A lot of our career, it felt really natural to be open about the fact that I was queer,” says Sara. “I don’t have to think very hard about relating to a song about a straight man. I don’t understand why the world can’t relate to a song written by a queer woman. I’m writing about the same shit everyone is writing about. I just happen to be a girl who identifies as queer.”

With Love You to Death, out June 3 on Vapor/Warner Bros., their openness takes on added dimensions. Having invited superproducer Greg Kurstin (Adele, Sia) to partake in the recording process for the whole album — a first for the pair — they tackle a complex kaleidoscope of relationships, particularly the one they share as twins. Until now they’ve been relatively private about the friction between them, which nearly tore the duo apart around the release of 2007’s The Con (their fifth album and first to chart) and led to literal blows and long stretches when they wouldn’t speak to each other.

“I think Sara and I spent a lot of years compromising, and I think that fueled a lot of the anger and resentment and frustration and isolation that we experienced in our band,” says Tegan. The song on Love that addresses the ripples in their sisterhood most explicitly is “100x,” a stark piano ballad written by Sara: “It was cruel of me to do what I did to you / It was wrong of me to hurt such a big part of you,” they harmonize.

Tegan Sara
Pants by Veronica Beard available at Saks Fifth Avenue. Jacket available at Church Boutique LA. Sara: Shirt by Rag & Bone. Pants by Sandro available at Bloomingdale’s. Jacket by Mossimo for Target.

 

“We are doing much better, but old habits die hard,” says Sara. They went to therapy at one point and are finally at a place where they can listen to each other before reacting. “There are days where I imagine opening the car door and pushing Tegan out, but I just think to myself, We’re 35 and grown-ups, and we’ve acquired skills, in our personal and romantic relationships as well as our professional relationships. Now that we’ve put that era behind us, I think it’s actually quite healing to talk about it.”

Their improved communication has also freed them to focus more on staking uncharted sonic territory. Just two albums ago, with 2009’s Sainthood, they inhabited a space in alternative music where people often crassly exoticized their otherness: “People asked us if we were incestuous,” recalls Sara. With that record’s follow-up, Heartthrob, they kept their approach to lyricism the same but shifted the tone, working mostly with Kurstin to tighten its pop structures and fold in synthetic sounds.

On Love they’re making a bid for a bigger fan base, something they’ve been edging toward for years. “We deserve to be there,” says Tegan. “We’re working just as hard as everybody else, and I want to blow that fuckin’ door open, just like so many artists before us did.”

Many have already embraced them. In 2014 they opened for Katy Perry on her Prismatic tour, and last year they performed their song “Everything Is Awesome” (from The Lego Movie) at the Academy Awards with Andy Samberg’s band, the Lonely Island, and Questlove. Their hummable, Windex-wiped new single “Boyfriend” is about dating a woman who’s never been with another woman, inspired by the beginning of Sara’s romance with her current girlfriend — and it’s just as capable of being slotted into a radio playlist as anything from Taylor Swift. While queer male pop stars like Sam Smith, Troye Sivan, and Years and Years’s Olly Alexander have seamlessly won over large swaths of pop fans with their confessional same-sex love songs, Tegan and Sara are hoping to level the playing field and do the same.

“If Katy Perry can open the door for artists like us, then we can open the door for some of those young kids to start to think about their gender and their sexuality,” says Tegan. “That feels really important.” 

Tegan and Sara will release their new album, Love You to Death, on June 8. 

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