Tegan & Sara explore pop ambitions on Heartthrob
Sara Quin is impressed with herself. More accurately, she is impressed with the way the songs she and her sister Tegan wrote for their new album Heartthrob (out January 29) sound when played live in a stadium.
“It is obvious to me, when we stand on stage and play those songs every night, they get the biggest response,” she says during a recent promotional stop in Toronto. “We sound massive. I’m thrilled.”
The Calgary-born Quin sisters, a.k.a. Tegan and Sara, spent part of last December playing that new music – testing out their new sound, really – as the opening act for The Killers. If everything goes according to plan – and there is a plan – a summer or two from now they will be playing those same songs in venues of a similar size.
“I want it to grow our touring career by double,” Sara says of what she wants Heartthrob to do for them career-wise. “I want to sell ten times as many records as we’ve sold in the past. I want to build a show that doesn’t just satisfy people; I want to be leading in that field. I want to be competitive and be able to say I know we’re putting on one of the best shows out there, right now.”
However un-Canadian it may be, the ambition in Sara Quin is palpable. She feels confident that Heartthrob, which marks a turn towards radio-friendly pop music only hinted at in their past records, will be well-received. She is also sure that making another record of earnest, guitar-oriented indie rock like their last two records, 2007’s The Con and 2009’s Sainthood, would have been the wrong move creatively.
“When we finished Sainthood we really had these eye-opening conversations with people at our label, with our management, with ourselves, where we talked a lot about what we felt was preventing us from accomplishing some of the things that we hoped to accomplish with that record. And what started to become very clear was that this glass ceiling, for all intents and purposes, was less about other people and more about ourselves.”
To change things up, the Quins took some time off. They collaborated with DJs and producers like Tiesto, David Guetta, and Morgan Page, making inroads into the dance music community. They also took a year to write the “really immediate, confident, anthemic material” that fills Heartthrob. And they mostly did it together, co-writing being something they had only dabbled in previously.
Then they interviewed a “ridiculous” number of producers, settling on three: Justin Meldal-Johnsen (M83, Neon Trees), Greg Kurstin (Ke$ha, P!nk), and Mike Elizondo (Fiona Apple, Kimbra), all of whom they praise for taking them outside of their comfort zones in order to help them create a big pop record.
“It probably felt easier actually than making our last records,” Quin says of recording Heartthrob. “There was a lot of labour involved in Sainthood and The Con, and [2004’s] So Jealous in particular. We played a lot of the instruments. We were very serious about doing everything ourselves; co-producing and being there every second of every day.”
They especially credit “getting caught up in Greg Kurstin’s world” for making Heartthrob as slick-sounding as it is.
“There was this crazy momentum, and it felt like it was really whipping us through the stages in a much faster, more efficient way than we’ve ever worked in before, and I loved it.”
As to how well the new Tegan and Sara will be received by critics and fans, Sara says that it is “early days” yet, but she is confident. Certainly she does not see Heartthrob as any sort of gamble.
“And I’ll tell you why, because a lot of our career has been a gamble, and the association I have with what it feels like to be gambling something, I don’t have that about this record. I just don’t. I just feel so confident. And not only do I feel confident, but I feel so excited because we’re so excited about it. If it does even half of what we hope it will do, I will be really proud.”
While Tegan and Sara’s willing immersion into the world of pop music may seem unusual to some fans, especially considering their roots in folk and alt-rock, as a musician Sara does not see a huge difference between their past and their immediate future.
“The worlds aren’t that dissimilar,” she says of pop and rock. “We’re all out there vying for people’s attention and trying to play music and get our message across and be accepted and acknowledged.
“So far, you know, I don’t know if it’s because we’ve had so much experience and there’s a little bit of credibility and story behind what we do and what we’ve done, it’s all been very welcoming and nice. It’s just refreshing to go to radio stations and play shows where people are just almost, like, learning about us for the first time.”
Tegan and Sara’s new album Heartthrob is out Jan. 29 through Warner Music Canada.