How Tegan and Sara Became Bona Fide Pop Stars

10 minute read

Three years ago, Tegan and Sara transformed from indie rock mainstays to legitimate pop stars. Their 2013 album Heartthrob saw them crack Top 40 with synth-pop confections like “Closer” and share stages with the likes of Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. For the duo’s upcoming eighth album, Love You to Death, Tegan and Sara reunited with Heartthrob producer Greg Kurstin—a.k.a. the guy who went on to produce that inescapable Adele song—but they’re anything but complacent after ascending to the mainstream. The new record, out June 3, finds the band more or less leaving guitars behind for slick dance-pop on songs like the lead single “Boyfriend.” The twin sisters also push their subject matter to new territory, revisiting the darker moments of their sibling relationship on songs like the devastating piano ballad “100x.”

“Because our relationship is in such a good place, it’s easier to start to analyze and look back at just how bad it was at times,” says the band’s Sara Quin. Below, she fills TIME in on working with Kurstin, writing about each other and whatever happened to those Carly Rae Jepsen sessions.

TIME: This album continues the pop sound you introduced on Heartthrob, but it departs in a few radical ways. Namely, is this the first Tegan and Sara album without a single guitar on it?

Sara Quin: We had to actually go back to Greg and ask. We didn’t play any guitar, and there was definitely no guitar in our demos. Greg claims there is guitar on, I believe, “U-turn,” but I would never be able to pick it out.

It’s funny, there’s a little bit of tension when Tegan and I talk about this because, for her, this idea of fully departing from any lineage to rock or indie rock, she doesn’t want to completely cut the tie there. And guitars are just over for me. For me! I’m not making a statement like, “Guitars are dead!” I just haven’t thought about the guitar in terms of songwriting in a really long time. We still will play guitar for the old material, but I’m moving away from it in general. If it does become something that we use in a live show, it’s going to be used in a really different way.

I think I was already doing that as far back as the Sainthood era [in 2009]. A lot of the guitar I did in that era, I wanted it to sound like a keyboard. With Heartthrob and this new record, I haven’t even remotely thought about the guitar. It just doesn’t play any role in my songwriting or performances.

This album also explores queerness more than your other records have. On “Boyfriend,” it sounds to me like you’re singing about dating someone who’s in the closet. And on “BWU,” you address your disinterest in a big, hetero white wedding. You’ve never hid any of this in your songwriting, but did you notice yourself being more explicit about it on this album?

It’s such a complicated thing for me because the evolution of our band has happened over a 17 year period. Our vocabulary and understanding of ourselves and the world around us has had an evolution as well.

When I think about those early years of our career, sometimes I felt like, “Oh, the music doesn’t have a sexuality or an overt message of queerness.” When I think about it now, well, I felt so gay. I felt so exposed and visible as a queer person. We looked gay, we talked about being gay. We were part of a handful of people who were really talking about it in the mainstream at that time. In a weird way, it never occurred to me to write in that way. I think also as a songwriter, writing to the person as if I was singing directly to that person—that was very intimate to me. Now, it’s a part of [my] songwriting evolution and wanting to use a different voice.

Specifically with “Boyfriend” and “BWU,” I did want to be more explicit about the idea of gender roles and the queerness of my own life. But I also was really struggling with, “How do I do that without alienating another huge part of our audience?” The reality is, as a queer person, I can take any heterosexual song or artist and immediately make it fit for myself, but I don’t know if as a society we’ve been able to do the opposite. I still think when people hear something explicitly queer or “not for them,” it’s hard for them to imagine that the message is transferable.

I’ve had a lot of nervousness with “Boyfriend” as a single, because I hate the idea that it’s only for gay people. But I also think it’s the most digestible, accessible, conventional part of any relationship: the insecurity that every person has where you just want someone to stand up and declare that they’re with you. We all go through that. I was singing about who had yet to declare that she wanted to be in a relationship with me exclusively. She actually wasn’t closeted, but in a way our relationship felt closeted because I was ready to take it to the next level and she wasn’t. I’m playing with the idea of gender and sexuality, but I think everybody plays these roles.

There’s something subtly revolutionary about imagining a song with that perspective having a big impact on the pop world.

There has been queerness in the mainstream, but it’s usually from the perspective of Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” or Demi Lovato’s “Cool for the Summer.” It’s sort of this tourist, “Yeah, I’m cool! I’m open! Whatever!” We are offering a different perspective: that queer voice flirting in the straight world is missing. I worry the song could turn people off because they can’t see themselves within a certain identity. That’s what I really wanted to emphasize by simplifying the lyrics. I wanted them to be poignant for anyone for a relationship, even a guy and a girl.

I’ve been in situations when I was younger where I was really close friends with guys, and they would be like, “I have a crush on you.” I’d be like, “Did I do that? Was I treating this person like my boyfriend? Was I crossing a line?” As much as it’s easy for me to cast myself as this underdog who had these women with unrequited feelings, the truth is my own personal life over 17 years has been much more complicated. There have certainly been times where I’ve been treating someone like my boyfriend when they weren’t!

When Heartthrob came out, you spoke about how hard it was for you to write such direct lyrics and not dress everything up in a metaphor—you’d sometimes pretend you were writing for other artists. For new songs like “100x,” did that simplicity come any easier?

I forgot I had said that about writing for other people. I really like the songs for this record because I didn’t have to think so hard about trying to say things clearly. There’s always a trick to that, too, because it makes you really vulnerable, specifically on “100x,” because I was pulling from my relationship with Tegan.

I was actually in the room with Tegan when I was writing a bunch of that song. We were working with Jesse Shatkin, who had worked with Greg Kurstin on Heartthrob with us. Tegan popped in while I was writing the lyrics, and it was funny because she would pipe up and say, “What if you sing this thing? Or that thing?” And I was like, this is so awkward. I’m trying to use our experience as sisters and our conflict when we were younger. I’m not saying that in the room, but that’s what I’m doing. I’m almost creating the conflict anew. I’m like, “No, I don’t really like that line.” I can see her getting frustrated, like, “I’m just trying to help!” And I’m like, I know. But it was really helpful. I was really tapping back into how complicated our relationship is.

I knew you wrote about your sibling relationship more with this record, but I never would have guessed “100x” was one of those songs. It sounds like a breakup song.

Because our relationship is in such a good place, it’s easier to analyze and look back at just how bad it was at times. For a lot of career, we were really struggling with trying to get people to avoid innuendo about sexuality and our sibling relationship. I mean, there was stuff in the early days that was borderline suggesting we were incestuous. We really stayed away from talking about ourselves because we were like, “God, people cannot handle that we’re twin sisters who are gay.”

All these things were very institutionalized in my brain when I thought about our relationship. Even writing a song like “100x,” which everyone will think is about a romantic relationship, that would have made me so uncomfortable even five years ago. I would have been afraid people wouldn’t underestimate how truly intimate and like a marriage my relationship with Tegan is. I was afraid to talk about those things because of these horrible stereotypes and weird, f—ked up things that people think about gay people or gay siblings. But in a way the song sounds like it’s a breakup song because it was a breakup, it really was.

What ever happened to the songs you worked on with Carly Rae Jepsen?

Some of them are songs that we ended up taking back in and are considering shopping around or using ourselves. We knew during that entire process that she was working with so many people, and we had no idea what the record was going to ultimately sound like. What we did with her is definitely different. It makes sense that the material we worked on wasn’t a part of that sound. She is really devoted and dedicated to what she does. It was really lovely to see that record have such a wonderful place in music. Look, it’s not like a Taylor Swift superstardom that the record maybe world would have garnered for her in a different world. I mean, I think it’s a f—king amazing record. But it’s nice to see the career she’s having. I have a lot of respect for her.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Nolan Feeney at