For more than 10 years Tegan and Sara Quin have made music that, by their own admission, is more counterculture than pop culture. Steeped in acoustic and electric guitars and informed by punk and folk artists, the past six albums by Calgary’s famous sister act are classified by iTunes as alternative music. But after their 2009 album Sainthood, the 32-year-old identical twins decided to rethink their approach to songwriting. “We became known as kind of a Canadian cult band in some parts of the world,” Tegan says during a recent visit to Toronto, hours before hitting the stage to perform songs from the new album, Heartthrob. “It felt very limiting. The reality is indie rock just isn’t as popular anymore, especially in Europe. We used to be so opposed to sounding current. We were either a step behind or ahead.”
Save for a major international hit in 2004 called Walking With a Ghost (covered soon afterward by the White Stripes), their previous releases, which provided years of gigs and decent reviews, never had enough mass appeal to crown the Billboard charts or enough bass-line grit for major club play. The musical makeover began when the pair met the Dutch DJ Tiësto, whose beat-driven remix of Back in Your Head from their 2007 album The Con started reaching audiences they didn’t even know existed. “When he came along, he opened our minds and made us think about what kinds of opportunities we were shutting out,” Sara says. It led to another collaboration that produced an ear worm of a dance track called Feel It in My Bones—a song that ended up charting in Canada. The track pushed the duo to team up with electronic producers such as David Guetta for Every Chance We Get We Run and Morgan Page for a cut called Body Work. All three songs have received much more radio and club play than any of their rock singles since Walking With a Ghost.
Driven by this second wind, the sisters swapped their signature guitar-heavy riffs for piano-plucked and synth-pinched choruses on Heartthrob (scheduled for release Jan. 29). The disc of pop and dance—which includes the new, chart-climbing single, Closer—has some standout vocal moments. A track called I Was a Fool sounds like a song that could win Alicia Keys another Grammy. Sara has also written what she calls “my version of an ’80s power ballad” on a slow jam called Now I’m All Messed Up, which touches on her past girlfriends and her general fear of singledom.
“We’ve never been afraid of putting it all out there,” Sara explains. “We are both gay people who are now making pop for everyone. The music is still very personal though; it’s about our lives and our relationships, but finding someone to love is tough for all people. For the longest time, I had a hard time meeting someone,” she says, adding that both she and her sister have been in happy, long-term relationships for years now. “You have to understand, I’ve had a career since I was 17. I owned a house and paid taxes for it at 26. It was hard meeting someone like me with the same interests.”
What sets Heartthrob apart from their other albums was the way it was made and marketed. Typically, the sisters write songs separately at their respective homes (Tegan lives in Los Angeles and Vancouver, Sara in Montreal and New York), but many of the songs for Heartthrob were written together. And those who pre-ordered the album got a limited-edition magazine featuring Tegan and Sara on the Teen Beat-like cover, which promised “everything you need to know about Tegan and Sara RIGHT NOW.”
Their transformation and subsequent success has one famous fan, the Canadian pop darling Carly Rae Jepsen, who saw them 10 years ago at a folk festival in Courtenay, B.C.
“Hearing them has changed the way I’ve written songs,” says Jepsen, who recorded a song Sara wrote called Sweetie on her latest album Kiss. “When you see someone before they were big and then [they] get the recognition they deserve, you feel like you were behind them from the beginning. When I think of them, I feel like a proud grandma.”