Tegan and Sara's call to arms: “The worst thing that could happen right now in the LGBT community is that we become apathetic”

Salon talks to Tegan Quin about LGBT politics, ambitious women, Justin Trudeau & the new album "Love You to Death"

Published June 2, 2016 10:58PM (EDT)

Tegan and Sara   (Lindsey Byrnes)
Tegan and Sara (Lindsey Byrnes)

On "Love You to Death," Tegan and Sara continue to offer up hook-rich songs exploring the complexities of relationships. This time, though, they’ve ditched guitars for a pure synthpop sound. And the relationship they scrutinize the most is their own. After literally coming to blows during an earlier tour, the Quin sisters realized that their music couldn’t survive their anger at one another much longer. Therapy and a lot of hard conversations led them to feeling stronger than ever, strong enough to write about the intricacies of twin-hood in new songs like “100X” and “U-Turn.”

Though their sound may have evolved considerably from their more folksy roots, the Quins still carry a full arsenal of creative control, queer pride, and intimate relationships with their fans. Tegan Quin spoke to Salon about performing in states with anti-LGBT legislation, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and why their swag is so cool.

As you’re on this very ambitious tour, how do you feel about performing in states where there is currently anti-LGBT legislation under consideration?

Unfortunately, if we didn’t go everywhere where there was anti-LGBT legislation, we would not be going very many places. Around the world there’s still so much work, to be done, and we still see it. There’re different things that different artists and corporations and people can do. For instance, the movement towards taking businesses and business out of North Carolina, like when you’re a big movie company or a big brand like Coca Cola or Bruce Springsteen, that’s awesome. That can make profound change and can affect change and can reach a lot of people. I think for an artist our size, where we’re still quite modestly sized, to pull out of playing a show in North Carolina would just be punishing a very small part of the population and probably a very queer-friendly part of the population, so I don’t know if there’s as much of a benefit.

We see going to countries and specifically states with anti-LGBT legislation in progress or on the books already as a celebration. Like we go there and we bring hope and we hopefully bring inspiration and rally the troops and keep everybody really focused. It’s actually insane—like you wouldn’t even believe it—in the last few months how much we hear in the press, like people saying, "Now that gay marriage is legal in America, what are you guys going to focus on?" First of all, people are trying to repeal gay marriage in America and obviously trans rights are up constantly right now. It’s so interesting how people just decide, "Oh, everything’s fine now. Gay stuff is totally normal and everybody’s fine." It’s one of those things where Sara and I feel we’ll spend the rest of our career talking about.

We had a big talk at the beginning of this record cycle; we want to go to all those countries, we want to go to all those states, we want to make sure we’re bringing hope and we’re keeping everybody motivated. The worst thing that could happen right now in the LGBT community is that we become apathetic.

Do you think as openly gay artists you’re expected to automatically be more political about everything?

Absolutely. I think it’s a personal choice, you don’t have to. I think that if we said, "Oh we don’t really want to talk about politics" or "Why do we always have to talk about being gay?" then it would come off as if we were ashamed of who we are or what we are. And that’s fine with us. I actually like talking about it.

We were raised very politically, and my mom was a feminist. I think we learned very early on that we should absolutely speak out about things that matter to us, and obviously LGBT stuff has always been our focus, but women are our focus, youth are our focus.

For me, being outspoken is a part of the band we are. Being onstage from night to night, our job is to put on a great musical show, and I think we’re very careful not to get up onstage and preach. I think we walk a very respectful line. I don’t assume that every single person in the audience has the same beliefs as me. I’m sure we’re probably fairly aligned. I don’t think that there’re probably many people that would be in complete disagreement with us. Our job onstage is to make music, but we certainly try to use our power in the world and in our industry to help as much as we can and raise awareness. I think if we just all of a sudden out of the blue were like, "We don’t want to talk about sexism or misogyny or homophobia anymore. We’re done! We’re done talking about that stuff. Let’s just talk about the music!" people would be outraged.

I’m not going to lie; when I see artists who I know are queer going, "I don’t want to talk about my personal life," it makes me feel weird. I think that inner homophobia kicks in and I’m like, "Why aren’t they proud of being gay? Should we not be proud of being gay? Is it hurting our career? Would we be more successful if we didn’t talk about being gay?" I slide into a dark place sometimes when people are experiencing their own inner homophobia in the public. I’m like, "Uhh, don’t make it weird."

As Canadians who do a lot of traveling, what’s your response when you see the way that Justin Trudeau is getting this whole Internet mythology?

Right now, in 2016, certainly in North America but, you know, Western culture, we love celebrity. Our world is transforming very quickly where we are able to follow people 24/7 and obsess over them. Obviously, when you compare our last prime minister of 11 years, Stephen Harper, to Justin Trudeau, it makes sense that people are really obsessed. He’s like our version of the Kennedys. He comes from a political family, he’s very attractive, he’s very articulate, he’s very educated, he’s very progressive. His politics—obviously I’m a liberal so I love his politics—but I think what he’s done with his cabinet and what he’s done with his time in office is incredible. I can see why it’s inspired so many people in Canada and outside of Canada. I also think we’re a culture obsessed with celebrity, so there’s a lot of focus on "He’s so handsome! He’s so this and he’s so that." It’s like following the royals or following the Kennedys. I get it. The truth is if it raises awareness around the world about Canada and about some of the awesome stuff that’s happening there, you can find the positive in that.

I think with increased celebrity comes increased scrutiny, and I think that’s always the fine line. On a very very very small scale, Sarah and I have found that the more popular we become, the more scrutiny we’re under, the more criticism, the more quickly people are to judge you and to rip you apart, and that sucks. You’re often doing the exact same thing you were doing when you were unknown and people loved it, and somehow when more people are watching, it’s all of a sudden like, "Meh!" I feel for him, you know.

It’s a very interesting situation, but I did see him speaking recently with Barack Obama. Watching the two of them speak made me very happy and very proud. I’m very proud of the political system in Canada, and that our leader is such an articulate and thoughtful person. Watching Barack Obama talk with him, I was reminded how incredibly intelligent and articulate your president is and how sad I feel that that might change. 

Moving onto the music, do you feel some of the songs you and Sara write end up being sequels to songs you’ve written before or continuing the same storyline?

To some degree, for sure. I will say that neither of us suffered fresh defeat or rejection or anything when we were writing "Love You to Death." We both felt a desire to go back and reflect on the past with new perspective. I think for both of us (we decided without really talking about it), we both made an effort to write more about our own relationship to relationships rather than writing about a specific moment. I know for myself, personally, I didn’t write about one person or a breakup. I wrote about how I behaved in relationships and how I feel like I treated people in the past and how I feel it’s affected relationships. I’m always looking backwards, I’m always having moments of like, "Wow, I can’t believe I did that!" And having ten years of perspective to re-see it and relearn some of the situations, I think it’s important. I use writing as a cathartic process to learn.

A lot of your songs are about different aspects of relationships. Do you think you might write about other things later, or are you already doing that on songs that don’t make the records?

I’ll be honest, every once in a while we get that question, and inside I’m always like “I can’t think of a song off the top of my head right now that isn’t about relationships that’s popular.” I guess there are certainly political songs that people have written. The other day I was listening to Lucas Graham talk about “7 Years” and he’s talking about his dad, but he’s talking about life and his relationship to his family and having kids. I was like, "I guess that’s not about love, but it’s sort of about love. Kinda." I definitely find it intriguing to imagine writing a song that’s not about myself or about a relationship. I guess it hasn’t really piqued my interest.

I’ve done a bit of songwriting for other people and even that doesn’t really keep my attention, because I really do feel that music for me is about Tegan and Sara, and I think that my main priority is to write from my perspective and what I’ve learned. I think I’m invested in my music so much because it’s mine. I think if I were writing about someone else or something else I wouldn’t be interested. Sara scored a film last year, and I was excited for her to do something on her own. I was asked to be involved, and I just thought it’d be really cool for Sara to work on her own, but I thought if it’s not about me, I don’t know if I wanna. Maybe this makes me sound insanely self-absorbed, but I was like, maybe I don’t want to spend a bunch of time writing about something that’s not about me. We don’t write a ton of things about things other than ourselves, our experiences, our emotions related to the industry. I guess on the last record, we wrote "I’m Not Your Hero" about how we feel that the LGBT community views us and some of the struggles we’ve had with representing them. We have written political stuff, but it’s still always sort of set in the tone of love and relationships. I think we’re always trying to write songs that most people will relate to.

I like also on the new record how the songs you’ve said are about each other could be interpreted to be about many kinds of relationships. You leave a lot of the songs open to interpretation.

I totally understand that there’s a desire to know what we write about, or what our lives are like. That personal nature to our music is important. I think it helps people connect and get to know us. It’s been a big part of our career and what Tegan and Sara is. I think ultimately what people are really doing when they listen to our music is thinking about themselves and thinking about their own relationships and situations. I’m always a bit reluctant to be too specific when I’m writing, because I worry it will inevitably remove certain listeners because they’ll be like "I can’t relate!" and that’s the worst.

Watching your videos, they’re awesome and fun, but the songs they go with, they’re about more serious things than dog grooming, the focus of “100X." I was wondering if that was by design, if you wanted to have videos that were more eye-catching and funny than the songs were?

Our idea with making video content to accompany each song on the record was from feedback that’d been given from our audience, which was that often it’s not the singles that are everyone’s favorites, it’s the deeper cuts on the record. It’s only singles that ever get videos, so we were like, Well, what if we asked our record company to take the budget for two singles we’ll have and actually spread the video budget over ten songs? Because we’re never going to put out a Taylor Swift $2 million video, we’re not going to get that kind of money ever. Our budget for all of the videos is probably the catering budget on one of those videos.

So we started to get creative and we looked at all ten songs and we were like, What’s ten interesting ideas? Who are ten artists that we’d love to collaborate with? We wanted to collaborate with women, with queer artists. We went down the list of ideas and things and started reaching out to people. We thought less about specifically what each song was about. Like instead of having a literal video, we thought it might be just cool to do something visually interesting. We think it’s really funny how popular dogs and cats are on the internet. We thought it’d be funny to do something with dogs since we’re known as cat people. I think Jes Rona is an incredible writer and an incredible comedian and an incredible woman who is working in three different industries, and she’s created this really hilarious Instagram page. But there’s something very sad about the dogs and we thought it would be an interesting juxtaposition with the music.

Music videos are also so tough because you’re competing with Rihanna, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, the ones who get millions of dollars for videos. We’re never going to have a video that looks like that or feels like that, so we’re always trying to come up with ideas that will be memorable, but can be done for $7,000.

Another thing you guys are known for is you put a lot of thought into your merchandise. Where does that spirit come from, or why you make that such a big part of your effort?

Straight up, we were such big music fans growing up and sometimes when I would go to concerts I was outraged at how large the sizes were, how cheap the shirts themselves felt, and how basic the designs were. When we started the early part of our career, I realized that’s because it’s expensive to make merchandise and it’s expensive to hire someone to design your merchandise. As soon as we started to do well—sort of in the 2003-2004 range—we hired Sara’s partner, who had just gotten out of design school. We were like, "You are our creative director, and you are going to come up with everything to do with our band."

We started to build what we felt was a merchandise company that would earn the respect of our audience. We’d always print on quality things, we would always have new designs, the designs would be hand crafted by our team, everything would be personalized and everything would be approved by us so they knew they weren’t just being sold a concert t-shirt. They were being sold a shirt that we would wear, too. Especially in the early part of our career, I mean fuck, man, we were out at the merch table selling those shirts. That was how we got from city to city. We were literally using merch money to fill the van full of gas and pay for hotels. It was such a personal part of our business. Plus, I just loved it.

We were trapped in a van alone with each other all day long. It was like nighttime came and I couldn’t wait to talk to strangers. I was like ‘I don’t care, I’ll talk to anyone.’ I just wanted to interact, and we started to hear these incredible stories. There was this amazing thing where buying a t-shirt from us became a point of pride from the fans because they knew they were supporting us. They literally knew it was a way to put $20 in our pocket. It became this incredible exchange between us and our audience. It was very personal. We try to retain that, even though we sell a lot more t-shirts than we did before, and even though we’re not out there selling them personally. We have the exact same process in place that we did when we were just starting out.

In reading other interviews you’ve done, something that kept coming up was you saying things like "I want to play the venues that Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend are playing." It’s very rare that you hear a woman being comfortable expressing ambition to grow and develop, and I wondered if you hear women in the music industry talking about wanting to grow and develop, or if you think it’s kind of taboo for a woman to admit she wants that?

There are obviously women with incredible ambition. I mean look at who’s selling records and who are the top concerts artists, like Rihanna, Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift. I mean, hugely ambitious artists who run their empires. Obviously, I don’t think we’re alone in our ambition. I do think women speak less openly, I think you’re right. I don’t know if I would go so far as to call it taboo. I think women tend to be less bombastic and direct about their ambition, and it’s rare that you see women talking about money.

I think, for Sara and I, it’s been since the beginning of our career. Obviously, our second record was called "This Business of Ours." We came from a single parent household; my mom went back and got a bachelor’s degree when we were kids and got a master’s degree when we were teenagers. She’s a social worker, but she flipped real estate our entire life, and did incredibly well for a social worker and is suddenly retired at 58 years old, and instilled in us an incredible desire to create our own path and to be in charge of our own enterprise. She didn’t let us sign a record deal until we were 18, even though we were approached before we were 18 because she said she would not sign for us. She wanted it to be our decision.

From the first contract we signed, from the first day of being 18 years old and being in this business, we were business owners. We took this business very seriously. For us, it’s been a point of pride to talk about our ambition. For us, it’s not about money either, right? It’s about agency. For me, I want to be in charge of the venues I’m playing, the audience that I’m cultivating, how I’m marketed to that audience. I want to write every song, I want to be in the studio for every single note that’s made. It’s always been about control and agency and I think in the last few years, it’s been about admitting out loud: Hey, we want to go everywhere, we want to reach as many people as we can. We want to effect change. In order to do that, we have to compete on a commercial level.

I think that there is a double standard. There’s a lot of acts that we’ve seen that put out a record and everyone is like, "Oh they’re so cool, that’s so amazing, and that’s so great they’re playing such huge venues. That’s so great." But the more successful we get, the more people push back and say things like, "Well, how come you can’t just be happy with what you have?" I think back to our mom loading us into the minivan in minus-20 [degrees] Calgary, Alberta weather while she went to drop us off at the daycare because she had to get to school early to get her master’s and I think, what if someone had stopped my mom and said, "Why aren’t you just happy making $30,000 a year, barely being able to feed your kids?" No one would have done that. People are proud of my mom for stepping up and giving us the life that we have.

Sara and I feel like we have an obligation to be successful. I want to reach more people because there’s no other queer artist like us. There’s no gay women in the mainstream, there’s no gay women on pop radio. We have an opportunity. It would be ridiculous to pass up the chance to make the mainstream diversified.

By Erin Lyndal Martin

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