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Catching up with Tegan and Sara, post-'Heartthrob'


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The last time we caught up with Tegan and Sara, the duo was preparing to release Heartthrob, their first straight-up pop outing - and quite a sonic departure for the beloved indie folk-pop performers. When we had the chance to catch up with the sisters again (speaking with Sara, not Tegan, this time) I 
wanted to know how a year and some months later, these new songs have evolved. Here's a segment from my conversation with Quin, who will perform with her sister and their band at a show on Saturday at Old National Centre. 

Quin: Maybe most surprising of all is how [our new songs] are still evolving. That's even right down to technical things. We're doing rehearsals before the tour starts and resampling a bunch of stuff from the album for the drums. We want to get even closer and more dialed in to the album sounds. I think that more than any other record, we're sort of obsessive about wanting this to sound as close to the album version as possible. I don't think we've obsessed as much on other records. There's been more flexibility, for songs to change each night; which I think is really fun, and there's still so many songs in our set that aren't under the same scrutiny as the Heartthrob songs. So the set still has a wonderful dynamic.

For example, Tegan, on the fly, will decide each night if she wants to play "Call It Off" from The Con acoustically, or with the band. She'll just give everybody a signal, like, "Get off the stage, I'm doing it alone," or "I want everybody to be here." There's still spontaneous moments, but when it comes to the Heartthrob material, pretty much nine out of the ten songs, we're doing as close to the record as possible.

NUVO: And do you think you feel this drive to obsessively perfect the live performances because of the increased electronic elements on this record?

Quin: I think that it's accurate the way you're talking about it. I think the songs demand a certain level of production and performance. For me and Tegan, we've always been ... "sloppy" maybe diminishes our talents too much, but we'd probably be self-deprecating and say that. I think we've always sort of had the opportunity to be a little more spontaneous, and this record has demanded that we are disciplined, that we warm up, that we warm down. These songs are not easy to sing, and in a lot of cases, what I've learned from making pop music where everything is synthetic, is that your voice  ... we couldn't nail it every time. It was like, "Wow."

On previous records, the guitar might be a little out of tune, we could just slide around a little bit and it's okay, because everything is doing that. With this record, everything is so dialed in that we have to be dialed in and we have to be our best every night. That, as an artist, is incredibly exciting and challenging. It is kind of like I used to be a recreational jogger, and now I'm training for a marathon. I feel like I'm better. I actually really look forward to how that might impact the next record, how our writing will have changed. Because I think we have a better grasp of our tool, of our ability to sing, our ability to play tempos. Everything is on a click track. It's really like we've been training. I know that probably doesn't sound appealing to every person, or maybe people don't associate that kind of discipline with making art, but I've spent 16 years not having that, so this is new, fresh and exciting for me. To basically be in the military. I love it.

NUVO: Let's talk about a couple of your older songs that you might not necessarily perform live (or maybe you do) that stand out in your mind as particularly meaningful to you. Like you said, you're 16 years in, now. 

Quin: Well, it's interesting. A lot of the songs we play live, I love them and care about them so much. And I also feel like there's a desire from the majority of people to hear those songs. Obviously there's a lot of songs that we don't include in our setlist [and] that frustrates especially the die-hard fans. It's interesting, because there are songs I absolutely love from our back catalogue that I don't necessarily think are popular songs with anybody. Occasionally, when I'm getting ready for a tour and refreshing myself so I can remember the songs, it will turn over to the next song, and I'll be like, "Oh my god. What was I thinking when I wrote this one?" It can be really intense and moving for me sometimes to hear those, because i'm hearing them the way other people hear them. When it comes to the songs we play every night, I'm like, "God, if I have to play that one again!"  "Walking with a Ghost," for example.

But it just happened to me, I was going through So Jealous, because it's the 10 year anniversary of that album and we're trying to include more songs from that in our set list to honor that anniversary And I listened to "I Can't Take It," which is the album closer. I was completely struck by how sad it was. I don't feel like I'm not a sad person now, or that I was a particularly sad person then, but there is something incredibly potent that is captured in that song. It's amazing, for me anyway, how I was listening back to that song and remembering how intense my life was at that moment when I was writing it. I had just moved across the country to Montreal and I didn't know anybody. I was leaving a very significant relationship. I was just listening to the song and remembering what a shit storm my life was at the moment. It was amazing how it could just come back just from hearing the music.

NUVO: You are heading off on tour with Katy Perry this fall, correct?

Quin: Yes, we're going to do a month with her in the fall.

NUVO: That is exciting. You're rising to a new level of popularity and profile right now, and working  with this accessible pop sound. And your tourmate, Katy Perry, is covered every time she colors her hair, every time she wears something a little strange, every time she walks her dog. People are just watching her. Are you ever concerned about crossing that line in popularity, where your entire personal life becomes fair game? At what point would you start to pull back? Is there any way for a pop star to put the breaks on that?

Quin: I have deep, deep admiration for what people like Katy Perry and Justin Beiber have to put up with, because, I, on a 1 percent level deal with some invasion of privacy from people, and I can't stand it. Not that I want this to be a, "Oh, everybody should feel sorry for pop stars," but I think that most of us are very aware and can manage and negotiate the trappings of success. But there are certain things that just feel so wrong, and it makes me sad that on some social conciousness level, we don't see that.

And we do it on a smaller level to each other; I don't think it's an exclusive issue to people who are famous. I think that a lot of things that are really treacherous about the Internet and fame and success and envy, or whatever it is that pollutes so much of our media and coverage of stars and musicians, I think that's happening on a much more basic level between just normal human people, too. There's so much scrutiny and negativity and it really, really bums me out. That's what worries me about our career; the anonymity and the agency over my life and where I go and what I do has been a true privilege. And we've always been able to keep the two things separate from each other. I think that I would want to put the breaks on it, if it changed. If that equilibrium really changed, I would want to stop it. But I don't think that you always can, or you always should. I just know for myself that's a mitigating factor in a lot of the choices that we make.

NUVO: I've a huge fan of music journalist Jessica Hopper, who did the Spin cover story on you guys. She had a great interview - someone was actually interviewing her  - and was talking about her book the Girls Guide to Rocking and about how she feels that young girls feel this barrier about getting up on stage because they don't see a ton of people like them in front of them. I read her piece about you guys, and you mentioned that it took seeing Feist on stage for something to click for you - to realize that normal women could make music. Do you feel like that's changing? Do you feel like you would feel differently now?

Quin: I feel panicked because I think it's such an interesting and complicated question and answer. Sometimes I think I could write a book about it. There's this interesting wave of new artists that are talking about the idea of a post-gender, post-sexuality [music scene]. I'm sort of inspired by it. As someone who has never experienced the privilege of passing as straight - and purposefully. I wasn't going to pass as straight. I was gay and I was going to be not an invisible minority, but a visible one - I have found such strength in being a role model, in talking about it, in providing some example. Whether or not I was the example everybody needed, I still wanted to be some kind of example, because I had lacked an example. That's my mission; that's not everybody else's mission, and I totally get that.

It is still sort of shocking to me, that with such a confident, strong feminist mother, a wonderful, supportive group of friends, and so many cool interesting women in music when I was a teenager, it still blows my mind that I had such apprehension, fear, insecurity and doubt about whether or not I could actually be in a band. I know for a fact that so many of my friends who were male and were in bands, they didn't hesitate. They weren't as afraid to fail, to be not good. So I am very interested in what makes women so much harder on ourselves, why we as a society are so hard on women. So it's interesting, and I'm still very much a part of the school of thought that thinks it's important to talk about it, not pretend it's not happening, thereby ignoring it and making it go away. Which could be fair, and that might be true. But for me, it's been a comfort and an added bonus that we get to be role models. And I like to be a role model.

NUVO: I'm always a bit nervous about asking the question - it's not my intention to tokenize, just to gain perspective. I'm obviously a female music journalist, and there's not too many of us. I'm interested in talking about women, as a whole, in music.

Quin: It's got to be kind of intimidating for you guys, for the music journalists, too. How do you know? Some people like to talk about these things, they find it inspiring and empowering. And other people don't. They want to move past it. And I try not to be too grumpy about it, because there are times that I think, "Oh my god, what a privelge to not want to talk about it. What a privilege to not feel like you have to give a voice to yourself." I think for me, I just felt so underrepresented and voiceless for so long, that the fact that anybody wanted to talk to me about those things seemed so exciting. And to finally give [those thoughts] a narrative in the music industry, I thought, "Well, who's going to turn that down?" And then I thought, "Well, it's got to be intimidating for music journalists, too, because so many people are like, "No, thanks. I'd rather talk about my music." And I get that.

NUVO: Do not worry about us, though. Believe me, music journalists are fine.

Quin: I light a candle for you each night.


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