Tegan and Sara go pop on 'Heartthrob,' hope fans keep up with new direction
TORONTO - Outside of a certain skinny-jeaned teen from Stratford, Ont., there might not be a Canadian act that inspires a more feverish level of devotion from its fans than Tegan and Sara.
They flood YouTube with homemade, heartfelt covers of the Calgary twins' tunes, they create dozens of competing — and adoring — fansites and they pack the duo's lively performances, monitoring each word of the sisters' lengthy anecdotes and clever banter with the careful attention of court stenographers.
They're intense and they're invested. And so it might have made some sense for Tegan and Sara to adjust their sound in gradual degrees, perhaps worried about the opinions of such dedicated, outspoken fans.
Yet it's clear from the opening notes of their new electro-pop blockbuster, "Heartthrob," that Tegan and Sara haven't let any such anxiety impede their evolution into a top-rate purveyor of audacious, innovative pop.
"With every album, there's always a contingent of our fanbase that feels frustrated or feels like they're losing us," said Sara Quin in a recent interview in Toronto, seated next to her sister.
"When you invest so deeply in a band, it can start to feel like your feelings are getting hurt or you're being betrayed by them when they do something that makes you feel like an outsider. I think that's very true of our project."
And yet, "we have to keep pushing forward or else we become a parody of ourselves," she added. "I don't want to lose people in our fanbase but ... I don't want them to direct our career. I want to direct our career. And the right people are going to stay with us."
Plus, potentially, many new ones as well.
And make no mistake, that was part of the goal with "Heartthrob." Four years after the muscular, electronic-edged pop of "Sainthood" nudged them closer to the mainstream, Tegan and Sara have now just dived in. An act that started in the coffeehouse has found a bigger jolt in fizzy, fizzy pop.
Even their wardrobe has been quite obviously updated. On this day, Sara looks chic (and surprisingly office-appropriate) in a black jacket-and-blouse combo, while Tegan — once the tattooed punk most often seen in jeans, sleeveless tees and zip-up hoodies — wore a fashion-forward floral-print blazer on top of a polka-dot blouse.
It's common practice for musicians — especially those with indie roots — to shrug off any perceived play at broad success as a happy accident, but the ever-honest Quins won't play that game. They're up front about their ambitions here.
Although their last three records had gone gold while earning considerable critical acclaim (plus Juno, Grammy and Polaris nominations along the way), Tegan and Sara felt that they'd bumped up against a "glass ceiling" — and they wanted more.
"We love our career and we feel very successful or whatever, but I think there are times when even for artists like us, we say, damn, we know we could be reaching a broader audience if we changed a few little variables," Sara said.
"I've never understood why there's apprehension to admit that you've done something purposefully. There's always, especially with indie music, there's this idea that if you are ambitious and you do something with purpose, that you know — you should feel ashamed for being successful at it."
Added Tegan: "We felt so passionate about the songs, we wouldn't do it justice unless we took it to the extreme. We must push every one of these songs right off the edge. Because they deserve that."
Again and again, "Heartthrob"'s ultra-polished production pushes Tegan and Sara's songs deep into the red — observe the white-water throttle of opener "Closer," the mile-high chorus of piano ballad "I Was a Fool" or the ice-cold electronics of "Now I'm All Messed Up," which cuts a lot like the Knife.
At some point in the process, Tegan and Sara themselves even grew curious about how much they had changed. A night before sitting down for a packed day of press, Tegan found herself listening to demos she and her sister had recorded in high-school.
She discovered some things hadn't changed as much as it might have seemed.
"It was very obvious at that age that we were really interested in pop music," she said. "People are constantly bringing up this natural evolution — or in some people's minds this not-so-natural evolution — but ... we've been writing songs since we were 15 years old. We're 32. Things have changed, the world has changed, music has changed.... We've grown up.
"We didn't want album tracks," she added. "Sara and I were like: 'We want to put 10 classic tracks that every fan will love on this record.' So it's definitely been an evolution but this time it was a little more thought out."
As the sisters have grown up, so have their lovelorn lyrics.
Much of "Heartthrob" finds the Quins examining their earlier years with the benefit of hindsight, singing about nostalgia and unattainable objects of affection — "Love They Say," for instance, addresses a time when love felt all-powerful, capable of anything.
Trying to bring a degree of perspective to their songs, compared to the raw, of-the-moment confessionals of their past, has caused the perception of a more distant Tegan and Sara, an idea that's proved irksome for the pair.
"I listened back to records like 'Proud' and 'Frozen,' the songs that our fans are claiming are so vulnerable and so honest, and I'm like: 'What the hell are we talking about?'" Tegan said.
"If anything, 'Heartthrob' is our most emotionally vulnerable and lyrically vulnerable record. But I think it's our most empowered record. I think that empowerment and that strength that you feel in the performances and the lyrics make it feel a little bit more standoffish. But that in a sense is the evolution of our emotions."
"Heartthrob" arrives after the longest break in Tegan and Sara's recording career, and the hiatus was crucial in giving the twins time to craft a meaningful statement. The longest layoff they'd previously undertaken was just prior to releasing 2007's "The Con," another creative milestone.
The past years also happened to be quite a happy period for the Quins — a fact that, again, could become a point of analysis for fans.
"It was a few years ago that one of our diehard, longtime fans came up to me and was like, 'Straight-up, how are you going to write a good record? You're happy. You're in this long-term relationship,'" Tegan recalled. "I remember I was really offended by that because I'm actually much more productive when I'm happy than when I'm sad.
"I think we both actually feel pretty happy and pretty stable, which is why I think the music is really sad, introspective songs with very poppy music," she continued. "Because I think we are feeling very creative and energized but very excited to go back and look at the past.
"I'm 32 years old now. I can look back at 19 and see it in a while new way than when I was 25 and writing about being 19. So we're fine. Don't worry about us. We're good. We're doing really good."