The world has not always known what to make of the now-iconic pop duo Tegan and Sara. Not until their fifth studio album, The Con, did many realize they ought to treat the queer Canadian twin sisters as, well, a band, just as great as their haircuts. Now, 10 years later, Tegan Quin talks about the duo’s new cover album, The Con X: Covers, their 20-year career, the evolution of queer women in music, and what’s to come for the band.
What’s it like to come back to The Con after all this time? I know it was a really intense time for you, with the passing of your grandmother, and you were going through a really intense breakup. What’s it like to come back to those emotional trenches?
Well, I mean, to be honest, we play that music all the time, so in a strange way part of that feels normal. I feel like it’s been really nice to go back and experience some of the songs we don’t play, to focus on some of the deeper cuts. But the music itself doesn’t conjure up those memories and those visions anymore. Over ten years, the memory has dissipated. Or the intensity’s there, but the emotional baggage, I feel like we’ve let go of some of that.
You get all of the nostalgia, without all of the cons.
Yeah, it’s wild how much stuff you forget. It’s neat to look through all of the old photos, and remember all the work that went into it. There’s just so much you put on the backburner. I mean ten years ago, I think we were just finally hitting our stride and figuring out what it is we wanted to do. It was such an amazing process to go into the studio just to record all the instruments we needed and then add drums at the end. We really had this huge say in everything. We were involved in those types of details in previous records but it was such a different experience. So even though it was a very anxious and kind of sad time, in a weird way it was also a very empowering time.
What kinds of things are you doing differently?
We hired a keyboard player that’s out on the road with us right now, Gabrial McNair, who played with No Doubt for 25 years, who’s just an amazing piano player. I’m really excited to approach the songs with more of a piano arrangement than a guitar arrangement. And Sara, her side of the record is quite complicated, and has a lot of really weird tunings, so we hired a guitar player as well, to focus on bringing a lot of those parts to life. There’s a lot of synths and a lot of keyboards on The Con, and when we perform it live, we probably won’t have as many of those, we’ll be in a more organic place.
But I don’t know, we’re sort of in just planning mode right now, and it’s been really neat having those 14 artists who covered the record send in their versions, because it’s really influenced my thinking like, “Oh, this one artist did like an old country version of the song on the record, maybe we should do an old country version.” I mean we want people to show up and recognize every single song, we want them to feel like they got to experience The Con, but we’re not trying to imitate the record. We want to create something super special. I don’t know if we’ll do a tour like this ever again.
How is it touring in the year of Trump? I mean, you’ve always been a politicized presence, but does it feel different?
Yeah, I mean, a couple weeks before we put our record out, the Pulse shooting happened in Orlando. The entire time that we toured last year since the record was election season, we were in Washington D.C. … We’ve always toured during political times and it’s never stopped us from speaking out. What I think is awesome about touring during anxious political times is that music is a place where people come to forget or to enjoy themselves or experience community.
I think it’ll be really fun to tour The Con, because it’s such an anxious record. It’s a very dark and intense record. Like this summer we were playing festivals and we had like, giant colorful inflatables, and we’re like, dancing and trying to have a good time. The Con X Tour will definitely not be a bright, happy tour. There’s just no way you could make it that. I think it’s definitely going to be interesting. We do intend on making this like “An Evening With Tegan and Sara.” It’s going to be a longer show, and there’s no opening act, and there will be a lot of anecdotal tales about the recordings of the songs and the meanings of them, so it’s going to be almost like MTV Unplugged style.
But we always aim to create a safe space and an open space, and a positive space for people when they come see us play live. So I think even in anxious, terrible times, we try to create an enjoyable experience. And if anything, people can come and be miserable together, in a good way.
Do you ever feel a kind of ambiguity—it must be kind of taxing to always have to be the queer icon, the placeholder for the community; you have to answer the queer question in all the interviews—I mean it must also be nice to be there for the community, but it must be hard to constantly be under that gaze.
You know, I think at the beginning of our careers, certainly for the first few years, it was such a different time. I mean, it was the ‘90s, early ‘00s, and we were in the indie rock world so it was just a less gay place, it was a less gay-friendly place. Talking about our identity was definitely more challenging, because we were educating more often than not. And that felt taxing, and that was definitely out of our wheelhouse, because we’d just come out ourselves. So I when I look back to the earlier part of our career, it was a harder thing. You know, at times, it did feel like a burden.
We were just starting to define ourselves, and we struggled with, “Why does every article have to deal so much with us being sisters, or being twins, or being Canadians, or being gay?” All of these things that people always focused on. And it was equal, it bothered me sometimes that we had to talk about being siblings, because it trivialized, or fetishized what we were. And we were just a band. Like Sara and I don’t even write songs together, like why do we have to talk so much about our relationship?
But it’s interesting, in thinking so much about The Con, it was our first record where people really gave us props for, you know, the music, the production. We produced the record, and played everything but the drums, and the majority of the bass. And then we got a lot of credit all of a sudden for being qualified musicians: qualified and strong performers. And it was sort of a turning point. There was less focus on us being gay. But then, Prop 8 and marriage equality and everything that happened at that time, it sort of empowered us to talk more openly about our sexuality.
… But I mean, we struggled. For years, we didn’t even feel like we were part of a gay community. There was this misconception of, “Oh, they’re lesbians, so everyone who likes them must be lesbians.” But we were out touring with a lot of indie rock, male-fronted bands like Ryan Adams, Ben Folds, Neil Young, The Killers, The Black Keys—we built up more of an indie rock/college crowd. And so the gay press actually ignored us for a really long time. So it’s sort of like a weird thing, when the press in the mainstream media would be like, “You’re gay icons, and you represent your community!” And I’m like, “I don’t even know if our community knows who we are!” It was sort of like, much later in our careers when we started collaborating with EDM artists and being more outspoken that that was when I felt like the indie community embraced the gay stuff and the gay community was like, “Oh! These guys.”
Fast forwarding to now … we do speak about our space in the gay music movement, and we wear that badge proudly. When I look out in our audience and I see how many LGBTQ people have flocked to us, it does make me feel really happy. I do feel our music has always been bigger than the music: it’s always been about community, it’s always been about stories. I’m glad that we can speak about that with such sincerity and openness.
I know other queer artists who are closeted or they just kind of refuse to talk about it, and I’m glad Sara and I, we aren’t playing any characters. We’re just being ourselves, and it doesn’t ever feel like a burden. It just feels natural and normal and it feels important.
I know on the flipside, there’s artists like Halsey who has talked about how, kind of how you talked about in the early part of your career, she feels accused of not performing queerness enough.
… I really sympathize with Halsey, because I know she identifies as bisexual, but she’s predominantly been seen as straight, or straight-identifying or straight passing, or really only had open relationships with men in the public. And then people in the community say, “Oh, you get to pass as straight, so it’s not hard for you.” Which is so stupid.
I think it’s been really important, something Sara and I say all the time, it’s been a lonely 20 years in the music business. We haven’t known very many queer women. And a lot of the women in queer bands were in bands much smaller than ours, so we were friends and we had support from them, but there weren’t very many successful queer women that were in our same age group and genre.
I’ve never met most of the trailblazers who worked in our music industry and were queer women. And there have not been queer women on pop radio and in alternative radio in the twenty years we’ve been making music. Well, there are, but they’re closeted. And Halsey is kind of one of the first prominent pop stars to identify openly as bisexual, and to comfortably talk about it, and we need to give her props for it.
That, or we have to make a new gay agenda, to get more lesbian pop artists into the scene.
[Laughs] Hey, I mean, I think one of the reasons we were able to calm the waters of our audience when we went into pop five years ago was that when anyone questioned us wanting to do that or accusing us of selling out, I’d just be like, “I feel like it’s our job!” It’s our job to expose ourselves to a wider audience! It’s my job to mainstream queer culture. In my opinion, I want to live in a world where meeting a lesbian is not abnormal. And that meant reaching more people. We were comfortable in the ground and reaching more indie scenes, but I wanted to queer the main scene. It was disappointing to me, and unacceptable that there were not queer voices on radio. I still feel that way.
But I agree with you, I feel the agenda should be that way. It’s really cool that like Sam Smith and Troye Sivan are doing really well, but that’s cisgender white gay men. And I think in terms of women, we see them relegated to the underground if they’re queer. … And even, just because it’s gay, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be an escape. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be sexy, or political, or desperate or intense, I think it can be all those things. That’s the point.
Do you know what’s coming after the tour?
Over the next probably two years, we are going to focus a lot on the Tegan and Sara Foundation. We are going to write a new record, but we’re not in a rush to put that out. But we both feel excited to take a break from the road for a minute, and just be creative. I think we’ll be working on some TV and film stuff, we’ve been throwing around the idea of a podcast—like 80 percent of the people who see us are like, “I really like your music, but I really come to see you to hear you tell stories!” So we’ve been throwing out ideas and spending some time at home, and really kind of amping up our focus on the foundation. It seems like the right time to use this heightened focus and visibility to raise funds for our community.
Catch Tegan and Sara on Sept. 15 at the Meadows Music and Arts Festival in Flushing, NY, Nov. 8 at Kings Theater in Brooklyn, NY, and Nov. 10 at Tower Theater in Upper Darby, PA. Their new album, The Con X: Covers will be available Oct. 13, and all proceeds from the tour and album will go to the Tegan and Sara Foundation. For more information, visit their site: teganandsara.com.