By Lawrence Ferber
Photo by Pamela Littky
Are Canadian synthpop wonders Tegan and Sara trying to tell us something with their catchy new single, “Boyfriend”? Has one of the openly queer Quin twins switched teams since their multiple award-winning 2013 record, Heartthrob?
Tegan, older by eight minutes, assures us that the answer is no, and that the song and its title was inspired by her sister’s epiphany during a noncommittal dating situation with a woman.
“We always joke that with lesbians, you go on one date and are monogamous and moving in together,” she shares. “Neither Sarah or I are like that, so she was dating someone and this person was zeroing in on someone else she’d been seeing as long as Sarah. So Sarah was like, ‘You’re treating me like a boyfriend here, you’re calling me every night, we’re going out all the time, let’s lock this down.’ I love that Sarah used the term ‘boyfriend,’ because I felt like I say that in my relationship, too. Totally, my girlfriend treats me like a dumb boyfriend all the time.”
The twins’ new album, Love You to Death (Warner Bros.), can only be interpreted as sparkling ’80s-inspired contemporary dance-pop, a synth-rich marriage of New Zealand’s Ladyhawke, Sweden’s Lykke Li, and Katy Perry, the latter of whom they opened for on the 2014 “Prismatic” tour. “Boyfriend” has already been followed up with a bouncy, bona fide earworm, “U-Turn,” that seems to owe as much of a tip of the hat to Tom Tom Club’s iconic ’80s ditty “Genius of Love” as Norway’s electro-diva Annie.
Every one of the album’s 10 songs will be accompanied by a video created in collaboration with “directors and artists who are queer, or transgender, or women, or people of color,” Tegan shares. Gay artist/musician Seth Bogart, of Hunx & His Punx, directed the colorful, part-animated “U-Turn,” while actress-turned-director Clea DuVall helmed the humorous, quirky “Boyfriend” clip (Sara composed the score for DuVall’s directorial debut, The Intervention, which bowed at 2016’s Sundance Film Festival).
“We’re putting our money where our mouth is,” Tegan explains, “because it feels like in the past we had been like, ‘Diversity! Enough of misogyny, sexism and homophobia in the industry!’ and then we’re hiring white heterosexual males all the time. So it was like, if we’re going to do a video for every song, we should try to collaborate with artists like Jess Rona, who has this insanely popular and hilarious dog-grooming Instagram, @JessRonaGrooming, for [our song] ‘100x.’”
Relationships—and the way they have power to either cripple, transform, or both—is the overriding theme of Love You to Death. Not just relationships with girlfriends—Tegan has been going steady for six months and counting, while Sara is approaching the six-year mark with her girlfriend—but also their connection with each other.
“Dying to Know” is the fruit of two separate songs the pair was writing separately. “We only had room for one more track, and producer Greg Kurstin made the genius suggestion, ‘Tegan, you sing the verse and three chords of your song, and Sara, you sing the chorus of yours.’”
“That Girl” represents Tegan’s revelation that she was the thing going wrong with her previous failed relationships.
Of course, Tegan and Sara’s relationship with their fans has also stirred up some complicated feelings the past few years, as evidenced by the comment threads on their Facebook page. When Tegan and Sara’s first release on a label, 2000’s This Business of Art, came out, their music had a sort of Indigo Girls-meets-Le Tigre indie sound. Over the years and albums, the guitars were increasingly joined by synths. When 2013’s Heartthrob came around (which featured the Billboard #1 Hot Dance Club Song “Closer”), they enlisted producer Greg Kurstin (who brought us Adele’s “Hello”) and became a downright synth-driven outfit with irresistible hooks and zeitgeist appeal. “Yeah, it’s been a shift,” Tegan admits, “but over a long period of time, and it feels natural. I think if you heard us in 2004 and tuned out until Heartthrob, it gave you a bit of whiplash. But we’re stoked.”
Tegan and Sara 2.0 rose to international stardom, global tour dates, and, most important, played music more in the vein of the ’80s bands they grew up loving, like New Order, Cyndi Lauper, and Depeche Mode. Tegan also confesses that guitar was never the easiest instrument for her to connect with or handle—both she and Sara were classically trained on piano between the ages of five and sixteen.
In September, Tegan and Sara embark on a three-month U.S. tour that includes a stop at Asheville, North Carolina’s Orange Peel on November 10. That famously progressive city—some would say the Portland of the Southeast—has nonetheless suffered because of the controversies and boycotts resulting from the state’s reprehensible HB2 bill, which dictates that men and women must use the restroom corresponding with their birth-certificate gender. (North Carolina’s legislation goes way beyond other transphobic “bathroom bills” sweeping the country with the inclusion of measures that cap the state’s minimum wage and strip workers of the right to sue employers for discrimination.)
The pair has kept an eye and ear on this wave of transphobia, and will be donating a dollar from every tour ticket to charitable organizations with a focus on transgender rights and protections. However, when asked if they will boycott the North Carolina appearance if HB2 isn’t repealed by then, Tegan replies that they would not. Instead, they feel their appearance would in fact serve as a joyful meeting place that could unite those who are opposed to the bill.
“If Sara and I chose not to play the Orange Peel, it would make zero impact. It’s sort of what we did when we toured countries in Central Europe and Asia that have really f–ked-up [anti-LGBT] laws, and that is try to bring hope, be a meeting place, and say your fighting is worth it. Everything that’s happening now—all the major boycotts like Springsteen’s—are important, but as gay artists we’re going to go there and reward the people of North Carolina. We’ve had the most amazing shows there. Things are changing, and this is just a bunch of old, f–ked-up people acting as if they are protecting [people who don’t] need protection. This is just the next fight.”
Speaking of fighting, one aspect of relationships not addressed on Love You to Death is whether either of the twins has a predilection for chick magnets—the type of girl who makes them beat off competitors with a bat when out in public. What does it take to catch the eyes of Tegan and Sara, anyway?
“Our girlfriends are very different,” Tegan laughs, “and we always dated very different people. We have different taste in women. The person I’m dating is a total babe. I constantly find myself out and I’ll see her but don’t know it’s her, and check her out and be like, ‘Oh my God, that’s the girl I’m dating!’ And I think Sara’s partner is wonderful—she’s a total babe and so smart and so ambitious and hilarious. But we both date pretty private people. That’s the price you pay for dating Tegan or Sara. You’ve got to lock down your life. Our fans are hungry for details, and we’ve been hacked a few times and had breaches of privacy. When you enter our closed circle, even the people who work for us, it’s like, ‘Okay, everything goes private, you can’t post anything about where we are or what we’re doing. No photos of us with you.’ It’s not that fun, honestly. We’re not a good time.”
Love You to Death was released June 3. For more information on Tegan and Sara, go to teganandsara.com.
Freelance contributor Lawrence Ferber is co-writer of the award-winning 2010 gay rom-com Bear City and author of its 2013 novelization.