Entertainment Music

Saturday 18 November 2017

Music: Sisters doing it for themselves

As Tegan and Sara head to Dublin, John Meagher finds out how critical and chart success came with a change in direction

Tegan and Sara play Vicar Street
Tegan and Sara play Vicar Street

Last Sunday, Adele won the Grammy for Song of the Year for 'Hello' and she collected the gong with its writer and producer, Greg Kurstin, in tow. Many would have been forgiven for not recognising the somewhat geeky figure in the suit next to her, but Kurstin is very much part of modern pop's songwriting and production royalty.

It was to Kurstin that Canadian twins Tegan and Sara turned to when they decided that they wanted to completely overhaul their sound and the Californian duly helped turn them from earnest, indie-folkies to synth-pop mavens. The resulting album, Heartthrob, was among 2013's most glowingly reviewed and it peaked at number three on the US Billboard 100 - a lofty place that Tegan and Sara Quin had never been close to in the past.

For those fans who had been with them over the course of six albums, including well-received fare like 2007's The Con, the new direction was quite a shock. But it was little surprise when they reunited with Kurstin for its follow-up album, Love You To Death, which was released last summer.

"People have this idea that Greg is a mysterious James Bond-like figure, emerging from a tunnel," says Sara Quin, speaking a few hours before she and her sister play Hamburg on their European tour. "Some might assume that a really big name writer-producer like him walks around with an entourage but that's not the case at all. We work very organically together and he's got such an amazing pop instinct.

"And he's a really brilliant editor. We put a lot of work into our demos and Greg was able to sift through them to find the really strong stuff that maybe we hadn't grasped. [Lead single] 'Boyfriend' was like that - there was quite a lot happening on the version that Tegan and I had done, but he stripped it all back and we could hear that there was a strong pop song there. Without him to do that, it might well have ended up on the floor."

Love You To Death is a remarkable album - and not least because the 10 whip-smart songs clock in at under 32 minutes. In a time where it's en vogue to release albums groaning under the weight of 'bonus' tracks and songs whose run time outlasts their welcome by minutes, there's something invigorating about musicians who are so ruthless in studio.

"I don't listen to albums that much any more," she says. "In this time of streaming, people tend to listen to individual songs and mixing it up a bit. To be honest, if it was just me - and a solo career - I don't think I'd cut back as much as this. My tendency goes the other way, but it has surprised me that it's possible to make really upbeat pop music that's as stripped back as this.

"Some people who don't like the direction we've gone don't seem to realise that the songs are so stripped back. There's maybe less happening on them than the music we were releasing 10 years ago."

The new album is a case in point: all instruments are played by Kurstin and there are no guest appearances. The vocals are shared by the siblings, who share songwriting credits, too.

Now 36, the Quins first started seriously writing together at home in Calgary when they were 14 and released their first album, Under Feet Like Ours, when they were still teenagers. "We've been in this band together for longer than we haven't been in the band," Sara says. Our entire adulthood has been about Tegan and Sara."

They are close, she says, adding that they would want to be considering they are spending so much time on the road in each other's company [the Hamburg gig would mark their fifth consecutive night on stage, with Paris to come the following evening]. "That's not to say we always see eye to eye - we don't, and that's very normal for any siblings, or any sets of twins - but we are able to work our problems out."

Relationships - sibling and romantic - inform most of the songs. "As songwriters, we draw from our own lives and I was inspired by memories of moving to Montreal 12 or 13 years ago. It was the first time in my life that I'd lived away from Tegan, and it was a time of insecurity and also one where I was seeing myself as an individual for the first time. "But there are other songs that are inspired by other people's lives and, as a songwriter, you're trying to get into their heads."

The Quins - both gay - have long put their sexuality to the forefront of who they are and were among the high-profile Canadians to advocate for same-sex marriage there. Recently, they established the Tegan and Sara Foundation which "works for economic justice, health, and representation for LGBTQ girls and women".

The pair have also been among the most vocal critics of the misogyny and homophobia that pockmarks so much hip-hop. In 2011, they issued an open letter rebuking those musicians and critics who chose to ignore the hateful prejudices in the new album of then media darling, Tyler the Creator. Tyler responded with a puerile tweet that served to prove how right the sisters were.

"We didn't want it [the debate] to be about us," says Sara, "but it was something that was really bothering us and it was something that just wasn't talked about. I love hip-hop, but really dislike that aspect of it."

The Quins who picked a fight with some of the giants of rap six years ago were still considered a bit off the beaten track, but Heartthrob changed everything two years later. "When we finished it, we knew we had some really strong pop songs, but you can never predict how it'll be accepted," Sara says.

Soon, Tegan and Sara were hoovering up celebrity fans, including Taylor Swift who invited them to join her on stage for a rendition of Heartthrob's big single, 'Closer'. Swift, it's said, was so taken with the album that it helped inspire her unashamedly commercial blockbuster 1989.

From start to finish, Love You To Death, confirms it was no fluke.

Tegan and Sara play Vicar Street, Dublin, tomorrow evening

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