Tegan and Sara are no overnight success story: the twin sister pop duo from Calgary has seen their band grow over twenty-one years from indie favorites with a devoted queer following to full-on pop stars. The band’s new album, Love You To Death, might be their most personal and accessible one yet. Speaking on the phone, separately, while preparing for their North American tour this summer, Tegan and Sara opened up about writing their new album, what “mainstream” means to them, and the truth about success.
You’ve been going with a bigger pop sound the past few years, which initially seemed to have some backlash. Do you feel like everyone’s on board now?
TEGAN: We’re all still adjusting to the constant onslaught of opinions on things like Twitter, [which] when I think about it, skews toward negative, or inflammatory, or highly opinionated. When we announced [our opening spot on] the Katy Perry tour, there was this weird, instant, “NOOO!” An hour later was a sea of people being like, “Holy shit, this is so fun, this is so cool.” Who would’ve thought? There’s always a percentage of the audience that doesn’t connect with that new record. We were terrified when we put out Heartthrob. But the second it came out, we were overwhelmed by the positive response.
When we started writing Love You To Death, there were no conversations even about what [it] would sound like. It started similar to how we’ve written every other record, we just kind of went into this private artistic closet that we have, and we just started working and were like, “Hey we still really like upbeat pop music. Okay! I guess we’ll just keep going with that.”
It seems there’s been a big shift in your audience over the past few years, as you’ve found mainstream success. How has that affected your music?
SARA: We used to be really popular in big cities that had strong queer communities, or had college radio, and now we get to reach those same kinds of kids that came to our shows when we were niche and only able to play shows in New York and L.A.—now those kids come out to see us in Kansas City. So this idea that the audience is now, like, straight people from a Las Vegas bachelorette party, I don’t think mainstream necessarily means entirely different people. There’s certainly more diversity in our audience, but I think that’s also because our music has had more of a mass appeal. We’ve gotten better at making music that’s more accessible to more people.
TEGAN: It’s a strange thing, because sometimes the way that it’s described, the evolution we’ve gone through, and the transition to a much more mainstream band, there’s almost a sadness to it, like oh, we’ve left behind our old audience. Whereas Sara and I see it as, we still see all those same people, there are just now even more of them. The audience just grows bigger, but the original people are still there. I don’t think that there was like a day where everyone who liked Tegan and Sara left, and then new people came. We did change, I mean, it’s been seventeen years, thank God we changed. Can you imagine if we were still exactly the same people? It’d be so weird.
Back in the day, we really had to rely on a lot of other people to record music and release it, and now, there’s this incredible audience who helps us promote our projects, we know how to write, produce, record our own music. We’ve just grown up. If anything, we feel more in control and more empowered.
That’s what’s so great about the new album, it feels like you have these accessible, catchy pop songs, like “Boyfriend,” that still go to personal, emotional places. What was the process like in writing this album?
SARA: With “Boyfriend,” I wanted to play with the idea that some of us are in relationships with people, regardless of being gay or not, sometimes you start dating someone and feel like, “When do we make this official? When do we start telling people we’re dating? When do I meet your parents?” I liked the idea of using gender and sexuality to play with some of the stereotypes and some of the pressure associated with relationships.
TEGAN: One thing that Sara and I have consistently said is that we are willing to bare it all, we are willing to take our most personal and vulnerable thoughts and share them with people. With Love You To Death, there were definitely some strong themes of love, but Sara [also] wrote a lot about our relationship and the struggles we’ve had, sharing a band and an artistic career, while also being independent and being our own people, which can be very, very hard sometimes.
You’ve had incredible success in recent years. Is there anything about this level of success that feel might look differently from how people might imagine it?
SARA: Success doesn’t really make anything go away. Success doesn’t make how many days you have to work a year go away. For us, we tour more than we ever have before, I spend more days on the road and away from my friends and family than I ever have before. We make more money, but it also means that we have to pay more money to sustain an infrastructure that is appropriate for the size of band we are. It’s not like, “Now I made it, and now all these things that stress me out disappear,” that never happens.
TEGAN: I think the big one that we completely miscalculated was just how hard it is, how it never feels easy and it never gets easier. You never stop feeling anxious, you never stop feeling nervous. It sort of steals you, because you’re always exposing yourself—that is to say, if you’re doing it right. If you’re truly putting out music you believe in, if you’re staying humbled and grounded and connected with your audience, it’s terrifying.
It’s creating that perfect balance, because I don’t want people to know how hard it is. I don’t want people to know how not glamorous it is, because I want to step on stage and I want them to experience awe, because that’s what I like about music. Like when I saw New Kids On The Block for the first time, and could not fucking believe they were real. They took my eight-year-old brain on a journey. Or like, the Oscars. I wanted it to feel as incredible to everyone else as it felt to us to stand on stage and look into Oprah’s eyes. That is mental! I want you to feel awe! I don’t want to pull the curtain back.
The Oscars were a really good [moment], but it was terrifying. The weeks leading up to it were some of the most miserable weeks ever, because I was so fucking scared and nervous. I was like, “What have we done? We’re not meant to be like this. We’re supposed to just be playing bars.” I was so nervous, and then I also felt intense waves of guilt, because I was like, “What an asshole! Why can’t I enjoy this?” And then the second it was over, I was like, “Oh my God, that was so cool.” Then my fear just found something else.
Recently, you did an interview with MTV where you talked about your love of reality TV.
SARA: I missed out on a lot of reality TV touring, and I only got cable four years ago. When my girlfriend and I moved in together in New York, she was like, “Well, you’ve got to get cable.” So we got it, and I became obsessed with reality TV. I was watching Jersey Shore, and Laguna Beach, and Teen Mom, and it was as if I was getting to go back in a time machine. I sort of caught up on ten years of reality television. And I really appreciated it, because I can see how, with the best of intentions, so much of it was actually often about advocacy. Like, here’s a show about a bunch of people living together, but it was also an opportunity to cast a really diverse group of people and talk about issues that were sort of bubbling up from underground, whether it was AIDS, or queer people, or it was about racism or sexism or whatever. A lot of my favorite shows had that sort of political underlying tension.
I really appreciate something like Teen Mom. You know, my mom was a single parent mom, we were lower-middle class, and she worked her way up and went back to college when we were in elementary school. When I watch Teen Mom, even if it’s not exactly the way that I would frame it, or not exactly the way that I grew up, it’s nice to see visibility for people who so rarely are visible.
Do you identify as feminists? How do you feel like feminism plays into your lives and your careers?
SARA: Of course! Definitely a feminist. At the end of the day, being a feminist has just meant seeing myself as equal, and demanding that of the people that I work with, the industry that I’m a part of, and drawing attention to those inequalities.
TEGAN: I definitely identify as a feminist. When Sara and I were young, our mom went back to school when we were seven and got her bachelor’s in social work, and one of her first jobs was working at the sexual assault center in Calgary. We had a lot of amazing, wonderful, articulate, political women around our house hanging out with our mom when we were very young. We went to all the Take Back The Night marches, and all the Women’s Day marches.
One of my very early memories is marching in one of the Women’s Day marches and the guys on the side of street yelling profane things at these women, and Sara and I being like, “You’re talking about our mom!” The guys were like, “Your mom’s a whore!” We were really traumatized, but I think we understood the value very early on of being political and being proud of who we were, and as soon as our sexuality came into it, being proud of what we were.
Sara, your cats seem to be Instagram celebrities now. Do you feel like your cats have a fan base?
SARA: One of the things I find the most stressful is just coming up with enough shit to put online. When we’re on tour, there’s plenty of opportunities to put stuff online about us that feels really relevant to social media, but when I’m at home, I’m like, what, a live feed of me sitting on the couch watching nine hours of TV? So, the cat, in this weird, unexpected way, became something for me to put online. But yes, it has started to feel like they’ve actually become more popular than us. Sometimes I put stuff relevant to our band up and get like half as many likes as when I put Holiday sitting on her butt, and I’m like, wow. Cool. That’s social media for you, though.
As Canadians, how do you feel about American politics? A lot of people have been threatening to move to Canada lately—is Canada ready for that?
TEGAN: Yeah, we’re going to need to build a wall, too. No, just kidding. I have been following the election, and it’s so scary. Canadian politics are almost looking kind of cute comparatively.
Photo credit: Pamela Littky
A version of this article originally appeared in the June/July 2016 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
More from BUSTLIZ GALVAO is the Music Editor at BUST Magazine. Her writing focuses on humor, feminism, and pop culture.