Why Tegan and Sara broke free of the ‘stifling’ indie scene and found freedom in pop

Beware the name tags: Tegan Quin, left, and Sara Quin of the pop duo Tegan and Sara.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Twin sisters Tegan and Sara Quin knew what they didn’t want to write about on their new album “Love You to Death”: Gender identity. America’s marriage-industrial complex. “The existential crisis of getting into a relationship over and over and over again.”

Those piles of textbook-appropriate words? For this smart, funny pop duo, they simply wouldn’t do.

“You can’t use language like that if you’re hoping to reach people as they’re jumping up and down on New Year’s Eve,” Sara said recently with a laugh. “You have to be a little more economical.”

She speaks from experience: When Tegan and Sara began making records in the late 1990s — first as a strummy folk twosome, then later with wiry indie-rock guitars — they rarely passed up the opportunity to flex their vocabularies.

With a shudder, Sara recalled finding a lyric that included the word “lampshade” as she went through songs from 2007’s “The Con” in preparation for the band’s upcoming tour.


“Lampshade!” she exclaimed. “Clearly that should be on the list of words never to use in a song.”

People were always nice to us, but it was kind of like, ‘Oh, our cute, quirky cousins showed up!’

— Tegan Quin on the indie scene

Starting with their album “Heartthrob” in 2013, the pair concentrated on sharpening their message — and their sound — to fit with the to-the-point pop songs that dominate Top 40 radio. Their ambition, in part, was to connect with a broader audience after years of mid-level success.

But as gay women in their mid-30s, they also saw an opportunity to bring a rarely heard voice into the musical mainstream. And the effort paid off: With “Closer,” the album’s sleek, neo-New Wave lead single, Tegan and Sara cracked Billboard’s Hot 100 for the first time.

What’s more, they attracted the attention of Taylor Swift, who brought the duo onstage to perform “Closer” at Staples Center in 2013, and Katy Perry, who tapped Tegan and Sara to open for her on tour in 2014.

Two years later, that need for pop economy is the only constraint the sisters say they felt while making “Love You to Death,” which comes out Friday and demonstrates how skilled they’ve become at fitting complicated ideas into tight packages. In the surging “Boyfriend,” Sara sings about being involved with a woman who treats their relationship like a secret.

“I let you take advantage ’cause it felt so good,” she sings over a fuzzy, synth-funk groove, “I blame myself for thinking we both understood.”

“BWU” wonders about the value of a “white wedding” at a moment when same-sex couples are prohibited in some places from having one. And the percussive “Stop Desire” boils an age-old condition down to its essential problem: how to “take this passion, turn it into action.”

Like so much of the best pop, from Prince to Madonna to Lady Gaga, the music balances universality and specificity. The songs are relatable to many, but seem to reflect the personal experiences of one, a combination that Tegan and Sara said they had trouble striking in the stifling indie scene, where notions of style and identity can be strictly enforced.

“There were all these rules, there, and everyone’s always judging you,” said Sara, who with her sister will mark the new album’s release with a performance Friday night at Space 15 Twenty in Hollywood. “But I feel like we’re allowed to do anything we want in the pop world.”

Tegan added that, despite indie rock’s reputation as a thinking-person’s form, she never felt taken seriously, the way she does now. “People were always nice to us, but it was kind of like, ‘Oh, our cute, quirky cousins showed up!’” she said. “I don’t feel like an outsider anymore.”

Among the restrictions they cast off for the new album was one they’d previously put on themselves. When Tegan and Sara made “Heartthrob” with Greg Kurstin, the A-list producer and songwriter known for his work with Perry, Sia and Adele, they were dogged about playing their own instruments and holding on to first-take vocals — even to the detriment of what might have been a stronger song.

“We were trying to ward off the assumption,” Sara said, “that if we didn’t do everything, then we must’ve done nothing.”

Reteaming with the producer for “Love You to Death,” the sisters were more confident in what they were bringing to the music. So they gave Kurstin a greater degree of freedom to come up with clever arrangements using his store of vintage keyboards.

With a laugh, Kurstin said he couldn’t have minimized the duo’s presence if he’d tried: “Their chords and their melodies are so unique to them. They just don’t sound like anybody else.”

Lampshade! Clearly that should be on the list of words never to use in a song.

— Sara Quin

Onstage, too, Tegan and Sara are experimenting with new methods. Though they came up as guitar players, the sisters spent much of a recent show at the Roxy standing behind two microphone stands, focusing only on singing.

“That was so hard,” Sara said. “It’s like someone took my baby blankie away. I can’t hide behind my guitar anymore.” Yet they felt the change in presentation was necessary to deliver the kind of vocal performances the new songs demand.

It also creates more room for the women to showcase their personalities — as much a part of any high-level pop show as the actual music. Even if you’ve never heard a Tegan and Sara record, you’ll likely recall their winningly goofy performance of “Everything Is Awesome!!!” from “The Lego Movie,” at the 2015 Academy Awards.

Xavier Ramos, who handles marketing at the band’s label, Warner Bros. Records, said the Oscars gig was invaluable in terms of the exposure it provided. But he also pointed to the costumed performance as proof that Tegan and Sara “are doing what they want.”

Well, almost. Though the twins said they’ve found discussions of sexuality to be far more open-minded in pop circles than they were in the indie scene, they’ve been forced to disappointedly engage a different set of stereotypes as their fame as grown.

“We’re getting asked all the time now if we sleep in bunk beds,” Sara said, scoffing. “I’m like, ‘You know we’re 35 years old, right? Don’t we seem like grown-up women?’ ”

Tegan and Sara

Where: Space 15 Twenty, 1520 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 7 p.m., Friday

Tickets: Available with purchase of “Love You to Death” album at Amoeba Music until tickets run out.



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Twitter: @mikaelwood