“I recognize that this album is different, even a ‘departure,’ as some journalists are calling it, but I think we’ve done it without compromising or undermining our integrity and quirkiness,” says Sara Quin. “I want to believe that it’s still Tegan and Sara while being something completely unexpected.”
Tegan and Sara play the Beacon Theatre tonight and tomorrow night at 8 p.m.; tickets are $39.50-$75.
Sara’s talking about Heartthrob–the seventh album she’s made with her identical twin, Tegan, since 1999; their musical partnership stretches back to the mid-’90s, when as teens they started writing together in their native Calgary, Alberta.
Now 32, the pair has been steadily pushing the indie, guitar-centric folk-pop constructs they established early on toward a more electro-dance-y realm, and the new album (produced by Greg Kurstin, known for his work with P!nk, Kelly Clarkson, and Ke$ha) goes all-in with big, polished, uptempo synth-pop that clearly aims for mainstream domination but, like Sara says, without sounding like a bullshit sell-out move.
“Our ambitions for this album are large, but at the end of the day, what counts most is that we feel proud of these songs and feel they add a whole new depth to the body of work we’ve already got,” she says. “We forced ourselves to rewrite choruses or change keys and tempo just for the heck of it. Going in with songs that already felt super ambitious and big meant really pushing them to the edge in the studio.”
Heartthrob mainly concerns itself with love — love that starts out obsessive, wild and lustful, but inevitably deteriorates over time through self-doubt, screw-ups, or simply boredom — and its 10 songs are neon-hued even when the pain is acute. “Now you wanna cry/Call me a cheater/Left you to die/Though I did neither/Thought that it would/That it would be best for me,” the pair sings on “I Couldn’t Be Your Friend” amid the kind of sunburst synths and crisp mechanized beats that could probably even get a jaded, middle-aged dude jumping around the room singing into a hairbrush. “Sick inside, wondering where you’re leaving your makeup…sick inside wondering whose life you’re making worthwhile,” the duo harmonizes in the midtempo-but-shiny “Now I’m All Messed Up”; over twinkling synth burbles and skittering drums they vacillate between “go if you want” and “please stay” to underscore the lovelorn confusion.
Sara admits it’s taken some outside forces to nudge them in this sonic direction. “[Tegan and I] intrinsically know one another, and the gift of that closeness is probably felt better in our live performances. But I think our music has benefited from a producer in the way some married people thrive in couples’ counseling. Producers force us both out of patterns and habits that are easy to fall back on. We wanted some tough love, musically speaking, on this record, and bringing in skilled adults to help navigate some of that was essential.”
“Greg would leave my head spinning as I sat there listening to the songs’ sometimes meteoric evolution,” she says. “I couldn’t believe how many fantastic and inspiring ideas would pop out of him in an hour. He would do something miraculous to a track and then spin around and say, ‘Time for lunch?’ No big whoop.”
The pair has found that translating the songs to the stage, making them fit with their extensive back catalog, has been fairly easy, even if figuring out which songs to play each night proves more difficult. “It’s so long,” Sara says of the set list. “Sometimes I feel like we’re totally warranted in needing teleprompters. We don’t argue, but it can look like we’re trying to complete SAT-level calculus before a show when we’re trying to sort seven albums of songs into a manageable show.”
All those albums and more than 15 years in, it’s evolutions like Heartthrob — and its potential to rope in some new fans — that help keep Sara in the game. “I think we’re still challenging ourselves and fighting to get new opportunities and experiences, and that inspires me to keep creating songs and images that will draw audiences in. It’s an addictive lifestyle, and I occasionally stop or check out for a few months to remind myself that I prefer to be in the eye of the storm.”