Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara Talks Astrology, Addiction and The Con
Tegan and Sara Quin used to run on fear. Now the pop duo take risks at their own pace.
When a band seems to embody the zeitgeist perfectly, it’s impossible to parse where culture’s influence on the band ends and where its influence on culture begins; it looks symbiotic and inevitable. Only, that’s hardly ever the case. Like with raising a child (or electing a president), all sorts of factors combine over time to create artists who seem perfectly of the moment. It’s only in retrospect that you can see how it all happened. Take Tegan and Sara. While it seems obvious now that the world needs a pair of queer twins playing ’80s-inspired synth pop, shockingly that wasn’t always the case.
The Canadian wonder twins of pop are looking back over their career as this year marks the 10th anniversary of The Con (find tickets to the tour here), an album that kind of sits at the fulcrum between the early career of Tegan and Sara and the beginning of their new one. It’s apparent how the sisters have reflected on, and responded to, culture over the years. “To be queer back when we started—in the 1990s—you were fucked. Most people were just like ‘Say hello to the underground because that’s all you’ll ever have,’” Sara Quin tells me. “I think we’ve lived through that and we’ve seen ourselves break onto the pop charts and we’ve been to the Oscars and we’ve had lots of mainstream success.” But that mainstream success wasn’t an accident. Tegan and Sara consciously changed up their sound in a way that both required and encouraged the critical reappraisal of pop music.
Tegan and Sara couldn’t have happened at any other time, and these times couldn’t have happened without Tegan and Sara. We chatted with Sara about how they got there—but first we talked about caffeine.
Sounds like you’re making tea.
“I’m actually pouring myself a cup of coffee.”
Coffee, eh? I’m about to drink a Coca-Cola Zero.
“I got off Coca-Cola in my early 20s, and I’ve never gone back.”
Tell me more—this is important.
“It’s very important. It’s a part of my addiction trajectory. In our family, drinking Coca-Cola was like drinking water. It was not uncommon to run into someone from the family at the refrigerator in the middle of the night drinking directly from a two-litre Coke bottle. When I moved out after high school, I remember the woman I was dating was a dancer and a yoga teacher and whatever, and she was not shaming but she’d say ‘You’re drinking poison. Please, can you find something else to drink?’ So I got off it and I’ve never gone back. Just coffee and alcohol.”
I’m actually addicted to energy drinks. Most people are upset by the amount of caffeine I ingest.
“What do you do with all that caffeine? I’m just thinking about it because I only got onto coffee when I was 28, and it completely restructured my day. I was keeping a more stereotypical musician’s lifestyle. Then, when I started drinking coffee, it was like my whole body changed or something. I started getting up super-early, I wanted to go to bed early and then I became more of an active worker during the day. I like to work on music and write songs during daylight hours so I totally ride the caffeine wave in the morning now.”
It’s like you grew up.
[Laughs] “I did grow up—I mean, sort of. At the time, it felt like I was making an adjustment for the better. I know some people really hate astrological stuff. I find it all a bit ridiculous, but, unfortunately, as a Virgo, I do feel like what is said about Virgos is really true: We’re anal-retentive and structured and disciplined and organized. It’s like I’m only allowed to have one vice at a time—I can’t mix and match. When I did drugs, I did drugs. When I drank, I drank. I was never really all over the place. And now, for the most part, I feel like I’m pretty well behaved. But I need to have something I’m always worrying I’m doing too much of.”
I think that’s really important, actually. What’s one little vice?
“Watch how I tie this into something that is relevant. It’s interesting as I get older, too. I realize that there are these preconceived ideas about what it means to work in the arts. I always sort of envied my friends who were creative types who gave in to their darkest impulses: slept all day, did drugs and drank, didn’t have a home, didn’t have a moral compass. That’s probably what people imagine I’m like, so maybe I should try a year where I just give in to all that. But it goes against the grain. My life more closely resembles my friends who are teachers than my friends who are musicians.”
I like the idea of a structured year of rebellion.
“That’s another very Virgo thing. I can’t just let go and get out of control. I have to schedule it all.”
I’m half joking when I say this, but, while I always had my suspicions, the first time I knew my sister was queer was when we were on a road trip listening to Tegan and Sara and she seemingly knew everything about each song. You’ve become a kind of signifier. And I feel like that’s a good thing.
[Laughs] “I think it’s interesting. I’ve had different feelings about it during the past 20 years of being in the music industry. When we first started Tegan and Sara, we had to push back so hard against the natural instinct to label us or label our audiences or sort of put us in a box and make us unattractive to anyone but queer people. It was brutal. I send people articles that I can practically remember word for word, and they’re horrifying. Not just ‘Whoopsies, here’s a little bit of homophobia’—they’re full-on misogyny and homophobia and, in some cases, vaguely threatening. But there were lots of years when we really pushed back against this idea that our sexuality was relevant and that our music had some kind of categorization because of our sexuality. What I started to realize, while [we were] becoming a more popular mainstream band and seeing our audiences diversify, is that I really want to honour that element. As we started to see more dudes in our crowds, or gaggles of straight girls at a bachelorette party, I found myself wanting to be like ‘No! We’re a queer band. Look at all our cool queer fans.’ So I think there have definitely been different cycles. You know, for most of our career, Tegan and I weren’t just queer women; we were queer women who rejected the notion that we were hot lesbians. We didn’t wear makeup, we had weird haircuts, we didn’t seem to bother with attracting the male gaze—and I think that really pushed people away. It made us even more marginalized in a lot of ways. People always talk about how things have changed and how we’re so much more accepted, but there’s not queer women on the pop charts and there’s not queer women on rock radio and there’s not really any queer women breaking that glass ceiling that I think exists when you’re not something to be objectified by men and women. One of my favourite things about our band is that we can always count on the queer community. Where it once felt somewhat burdensome, I actually think it’s been a total gift and it’s why we continue to make music.”
Tegan and Sara are celebrating the 10th anniversary of The Con. One of the things I noticed when reading old interviews is that you always mention what a hard time you had when you released the album. What does that mean? What made it hard?
“I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot, because obviously we’re revisiting that time right now, too. We did feel like that was a hard time, but what’s interesting to me is that it’s not that the times have become less hard. At some point in your adult life—or, if you’re really unlucky, earlier—people start to get sick or die or relationships break up or the reality of life hits you for the first time. When we put out The Con, I was going through my first major separation. I had been partnered with someone—we owned a house, the whole thing—and it was really like a divorce. I remember it was when we had started to have a little bit of financial success in our lives—certainly compared to our earlier records. So, all of a sudden there was this weight of death and taxes. It was just like ‘Holy shit! This is life?’ I remember feeling an oppressive weight, wondering what this is all for. We’d already put out multiple records, and it was sort of the same cities, the same clubs, the same days, the same nights. And I remember everything sort of hitting me around that time. We were 27, and I think a lot of people talk about that being the first moment of realizing that’s just the rest of your life. And then you figure out how to deal with it. Nothing has really changed. I still have a lot of those same conflicts and struggles and existential worries, but I’ve learned how to cope with them.”
If you could go back, knowing what you know now, would those problems still seem as large or have you learned to deal with them?
“The one thing I wish I could change about that time—and it’s still something Tegan and I grapple with—is that we were ‘yes people.’ I don’t mean that in a martyrish way; it’s just the way we always were. Our parents had incredibly high expectations of us, and we embody that even as adults. I think we had this paralyzing fear that if we admitted to having a threshold, we would fail or lose momentum and disappear. We were running on that fear for a long time, and The Con was a climactic moment for us because we took on too much and started cracking under that pressure. It really jeopardized the band and my relationship with Tegan. There was a lot of conflict and fighting—physical fighting. We were just miserable. I really wish I could go back and tend to that person a little bit differently.”
You have always seemed very rational about your career and the degree of success you want for Tegan and Sara. That’s surprising for rock stars.
“It goes back to the whole idea that we’re Virgos. A lot of our friends who are artists don’t want to talk about the business—especially if they came out of the ’90s, when everyone still worried about the idea of selling out. Tegan and I came out of that scene. But early on, we became business people. At 20 years old, we would sit down and say ‘What are our goals? What do we want to do? Where do we want to be?’ And that wasn’t cool back then. I think it’s cooler now to be a business person, but I think back then…. We were talking about how much of what we were earning we would put into savings, how much we would reinvest, how much we would put into our RSPs. Those are the kinds of conversations we were having, and it was an alien language to most of our peers.”