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Tegan and Sara

How Tegan & Sara helped pop find power, purpose and pride

Tegan and Sara

We trace the enduring influence of the Quins, fearlessly bringing queer visibility, activist outreach and a DIY heart to indie, electronica, pop and beyond

In our Under the Influence series, we trace the ideas of underground artists, designers, labels and collectives and the impact that they’ve had on pop culture as we know it, examining how the revolutionary aesthetics and attitudes of outsiders make their way into the mainstream, and importantly, how much that should be valued and not forgotten.

2007 was a year of transition: Fall Out Boy and their beefed up song titles were streamlining a new era of syrupy emo in Infinity On High. Britney became a renewed, subversive pop boss to beat with Blackout and Rihanna’s “Umbrella” kickstarted her enduring legacy as a banger-making juggernaut. Then came Sound of Silver, James Murphy’s melodic, ennui-filled antithesis to bad pop-rock.

Tegan & Sara spent that year crafting songs back and forth over email. Sara was in Montreal, while Tegan bounced around the west coast, and both were still fresh from their last studio album So Jealous – their first significant crossover into a faction of pop-punk populated by Avrils and Ashlees, and one of their most financially successful to date. Instead of playing on the glittering grrrl rock of the previous record, they dove into deep, intimate anxieties. For the Quin sisters, it was a tough year, where they evolved painfully and personally, producing their darkest, most vulnerable and industry-shaking release yet: The Con.

“I think we were in the eye of the storm,” Sara tells me over the phone. “I don’t think we yet knew just how much damage there was. We were writing very authentically about some really big things that were happening in both of our respective worlds. I was in the beginning stages of what was gonna be a complete explosion of my own personal life.”

The sisters had recently lost their grandmother, and Sara was approaching the final months of her marriage before it broke down irrevocably. Tegan was also emerging from a longterm relationship. Not long ago they had come to physical blows on tour. The band that met in the womb, broke out of their teenage years in tour buses, and blossomed as artists navigating the uncharted abyss between queer DIY and mainstream neon-soaked pop, were treading uncertain waters.

Tegan is more frank and positive revisiting this era. “I remember Sara being very hard to tour with and be around,” she admits. “Her sadness permeated a lot of the time period. But, for me, it's been conflated and tangled up in feelings of falling in love, shaking off the deep anxiety of writing the record itself, seeing more of the world, and touring with a fun team of people I grew to love and care about very much.”

The success and triumph of this time, for Tegan, has reframed a dark period. “We were finally selling out big theatres and playing big festivals,” she says. “I thought we were truly being accepted and embraced. I was making friends with bands I respected and was finally making money, not just squeaking by.”

The Quins are back on tour with The Con, to celebrate its tenth anniversary and the release of The Con X: Covers, recruiting LGBTQ+ artists and allies including Mykki Blanco, Paramore’s Hayley Williams, MUNA, Grimes, and Hana to rework the album’s songs. “To go back and play the songs is actually reminding me of the time when things finally started to shift in my life,” Tegan says. “I see The Con as the completion of a long, arduous, anxiety-filled climb through the mountains only to be rewarded with a mountain top reveal – albeit a cloudy one – with a bit of sun peaking through. I felt hopeful. So going back makes me hopeful again. I'm thinking a lot about what comes next. Hoping it becomes clear to me similarly. There has been a lot of climbing of late…”

The Con was presented in a book format, with each song a ‘chapter’. The hopeful light of queer love story “I Was Married” bleeds into the tense, twinging “Knife Going In”, flowing into the broken but still beating heart of “Nineteen” and the melancholic power pop of “Dark Come Soon”. They split songwriting in half, showing the power and personality of each sister. Sara’s tracks are permeated by the more poppy beats that intertwine with her inner gloom, while Tegan draws from grunge and the gritty DIY scene they first sprung from. It was a moment where “we recognised the power of our vulnerability,” Tegan says. “The record itself just felt so raw. We've become stronger songwriters, and I think our music is a bit less chaotic and messy now. But I think we've retained a lot of the vulnerability and honesty in our more recent work.”

A decade later, The Con X: Covers carefully matches newer artists to a different song from the album. “Tegan and Sara’s music soundtracked my teenage years and beyond,” says Shura, who reboots The Con’s title track for the compilation. “As a young queer kid who played a guitar, it was inspiring to see two openly queer women making incredible music – and a dream come true to later on in my career to be able to support them. I owe so much to these awesome humans!”

For many, the band was their first experience of women in contemporary pop that were open with their queerness. Queer musicians have been particularly visible in 2017: St Vincent’s complicated, nuanced, sharp pop on MASSEDUCTION and Shamir’s stunning, self-evangelising Revelations owe a lot to the Quin sisters, who were building queer identity permanently into the pop spectrum years earlier. Tegan & Sara had to work harder than most groups to get the recognition they deserved, beating both against their identities as sisters and queer women, and embracing it to garner a legion of fans who felt alienated and unrepresented by a genre they consumed. From the fleeting references to makeup in “All Messed Up” from 2016’s Love You To Death to the romancing of a straight girl in 2013’s Heartthrob’s “Boyfriend”, the band shaped their lush, three-dimensional queer narratives over the years.

“I think we defy definition. We are songwriters. We do not belong in any genre. Nor are we limited by any characterisation of ourselves” – Tegan Quin

On the original The Con album, with Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla steering production, the band had what Tegan describes as “somehow a rebirth, and a new beginning, five records into our career”. They were exploring themes that were lightly peppered in their almost new wave-esque album If It Was You and the DIY aesthetics of their living room-crafted Under Feet Like Ours in 2002 and 1999 respectively – they demoed the hell out of The Con, sans drums and bass, before bringing it to Walla. A jar of chocolate covered seeds was used as a shaker for “Back in Your Head”, and Sara muffled her voice with her own hands across the record: it’s a punky, DIY way of recording predating the makeshift pop of Beauty Pill, Sky FerreiraGrimes and more.

“I think we defy definition,” Tegan affirms. “We are songwriters. We do not belong in any genre. Nor are we limited by any characterisation of ourselves. I feel we need no permission to do as we please in terms of production. The songs and the time frame dictate what happens, but any song of ours can be reinvented at any time. They are just vessels.” 

“This is the most authentic version of the band,” Sara previously reflected on Love You To Death. “Making another bunch of guitar songs because our fans really liked when we sounded like that – that would be faking it. It’s more authentic and more like Tegan and Sara to just do what we want to do.”

The musicians I spoke to for this article – as well as friends, and even myself – emphasise that Tegan & Sara held command over their teens, mostly because of their strong sense of self. The synths of Love You To Death soundtrack self-inflicted pain, while So Jealous’s swooshing guitar licks battle with the ‘what ifs’. “Discovering their music as a teenager had a profound impact on me, because it was refreshing to hear female voices saying and singing exactly what they felt,” says Lauren Mayberry, who fronts Scottish three-piece CHVRCHES.

But while teen queers and girls found solace and self in the band’s discography, the press were ruthless in their treatment of them. “Quite lovely, even if they do hate cock,” the NME wrote in their review of So Jealous, while another called them “twin airbags”. Pitchfork’s rundown of The Con began: “Tegan and Sara should no longer be mistaken for tampon rock, a comparison only fair because of the company they kept.” Rolling Stone decried that the lack of men meant their songs lacked emotional depth. The media ignorantly deduced the band to their sexuality or tenuous twin references – this was a homophobic, sexist popshere war that, for a long time, Sara and Tegan raged against alone.

“The thing I love about Tegan and Sara is how unique and unapologetically themselves they are. In their art and their activism, they are always authentic, through their lyrics and how they talk about the world” – Lauren Mayberry, CHVRCHES

Sara details how she was scared of the press run following So Jealous, and even more so with The Con, precisely because of how their identities became a point of ridicule, perversion or just another boring set question. “I remember having major arguments with our record label because of radio,” explains Sara. “It was my first sort of experience of having to do things that, to me, felt like exploitation. I was thinking... ‘No, I’m not gonna be degraded in this way.’ Like, excuse me? The last time we did that radio station they asked us on air if we were incestuous and if we fuck each other. The industry expected us to just laugh it off. We thought, ‘Fuck this, we’re gonna do this our way.’ I wish it hadn’t happened, but in another way, the silver lining was that we really became trailblazers in the sense, we refused to let our label demoralise us to introduce our music to people. It’s probably why we shaped our career the way we did.”

The way that they do things, from come up to now, has been fearless: “My misery’s so addictive,” Tegan regales on “Northshore”, from 2009’s Sainthood. And it was. But so their soaring, indie folk love songs has been too, and how they questioned their morality over dark electronica, and the wild, neon-soaked tales of ambition and teen obsession. The group has never been afraid of exploring one genre, shelving it, and trying on some new skin – before coming back to the first and ripping its veins open. Never keeping themselves cuffed to one scene meant they found themselves moving from indie on their first three albums to producing glitchy emocore on So Jealous, later crafting the stark, intimate moments on The Con that became rocking, sad bops on Sainthood, and the pulsating pop anxiety of Love You to Death. And despite their musical evolution, their core values shone out. They risked it all to great success with big synthy beats that came toe-to-toe with the pop machine on Heartthrob.

“You would go into the studio with an artist and you’d be like, ‘What are you into lately?’” Jack Antonoff of Bleachers told Buzzfeed earlier this year. “And they’d be like, ‘Heartthrob’. What kinda vibe do you wanna do? ‘Heartthrob’.” The album – a bit of a creative risk – massively paid off. It confidently fills stadiums, engulfs teenage bedrooms and beyond. The soaring beats and full-bodied voices of “Closer” and “How Come You Don’t Want Me” can be heard across the next five years of pop: from Taylor Swift’s 1989 to Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION and even Chairlift’s Moth.

When the Quins were first breaking into the music industry, the way people were consuming music was changing rapidly, with peer-to-peer sharing in its infancy and Spotify a few years away. Sara described the era in an interview with Billboard: “It was the kind of pop explosion of boy bands and pop stars wearing snakes and bathing suits and all that stuff,” she said. “I could see that was the beginning of the end… ‘The industry is grotesque, and it’s completely out of control!’ That’s what it felt like to me and I was like, even at 20, ‘There’s no way it’s going to stay like this.’”

This attitude saw them drive away from industry trends and beat their own path instead. This meant scoring a film, supporting pop stars like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, and covering everyone from Pink to Shawn Mendes and collaborating with Tiesto. Ironically by doing solely what was right by them, they were ahead of the curve on what’s since become the norm in the streaming era, with cross-genre collaborations permeating the charts. It’s an outlook that’s both chameleonic and, at the same time, completely them. 

“The thing I love about Tegan and Sara is how unique and unapologetically themselves they are,” says Lauren Mayberry. “In their art and their activism, they are always authentic, through their lyrics and how they talk about the world.”

This authenticity resonated with a community of likeminded fans, many of whom are members of the Superclose Society, a space for their fans to talk music, have access to exclusive merch and converse directly with their idols. The queer girl music forums where they fostered a vibrant, passionate fanbase predated Taylor’s ‘Swifties’ and Kesha’s ‘Animals’ – and with each of the band’s musical evolutions, their fans followed faithfully.

“I find it fascinating, as a performer, that I can look out into the audience every night and see people singing along or getting very emotional,” observes Sara. “It’s what it means to really listen to music and connect to it. It becomes their story. When I see someone singing along to ‘Nineteen’ and they’re crying, they're not thinking about Tegan, or what Tegan was thinking when she wrote the song. They’re thinking of them, maybe when they were brokenhearted, or someone left them, or they lost a parent. To me that's what a good song is, it allows you to completely embody it as your own story.”

This emotional integrity is important for their activism too. Long before protest became a recurring component of the modern pop machine, the band were unafraid of calling out homophobia, sexism, and the severe misgivings when it comes to diverse representation in the music industry. Pop has since caught up with the sisters – there’s the lyrical powerhouses Halsey and MUNA, the thoughtful political and social discourse of Years & Years and Troye Sivan, and modern political bops across the charts. Activism is now ingrained in the values of modern music, but was always a part of who the Quin sisters are. 

Last year, the band officially launched the Tegan and Sara Foundation for LGBTQ women and girls. It was a direct response to the political climate under Trump, and the homophobic, transphobic, and misogynistic legislation that has poured out of his administration. “A lot of artists get to a point where they find a cause to focus on and raise money for,” says Tegan. “Arcade Fire cares deeply about Haiti, Bleachers and Fun started Ally Coalition, while Cyndi Lauper has True Colors. We just think women and girls are underrepresented in the LGBTQ community.” She pauses, then adds playfully: “And hopefully we can make an impact before people forget all about us!”

Net proceeds of The Con X: Covers benefits the foundation. Kelly Lee Owens, who appears on the compilation, affirms that Tegan and Sara have always “gone out of their way to make sure they were representing women in music, people of colour, all sorts of sexual orientations – and the foundation reflects that… Artists are feeling more of a responsibility, just as human beings, to connect to issues that are really important. With Tegan and Sara themselves being queer, they wanted others to not feel as they felt, as outcasts or outsiders.”

Owens details that Sara and Tegan have discussed how conscious they are of representation on their tour, not just in performers but in sound engineers, tech, and other crew members. “As people with any kind of platform, big or small, it can’t just be about yourself, your project, your ego, whatever,” she relates. “That all has to go out the window. It has to go beyond that now. I fully support them.” 

The work Tegan and Sara have done resonates across the industry: the musicians they’ve influenced for the better, the way fans consume music, and even the way music criticism has evolved. In 2015, when Pitchfork reviewed the stunning Art Angels by Grimes – an artist who has namechecked Tegan and Sara in past interviews, and who covered “Dark Come Soon” with HANA as Trashique for The Con X: Covers – they described the album as “a gilded coffin nail to outmoded sexist arguments that women in pop are constructed products, a mere frame for male producers’ talents”. It’s a stark change to the way they talked about records by women in charge of their own autonomy in the past, and we have artists like Tegan and Sara to thank for the movement towards a more inclusive, thoughtful lens on music – even if they weren’t recognised for it at the time.

Across the last two decades, the band has grown up, painfully and passionately, with their fanbase and peers. They’ve provided pop, in its many hybrid forms, with a purpose.