Tegan and Sara have spent much of this summer working around cartoonish, candy-colored inflatable letters on stage — a “T” and an “S” with an “&” in between, naturally. These neon additions to their live show are a perfect visual foil to their poppiest effort yet, 2016’s Love You to Death, and the exuberance that the twins encourage onstage is every bit as buoyant as these balloon-y props, which feel like they could fly out above the crowd and up into the stratosphere should the right bass line untether them.
The joyful vibe is meant to bring balance to Tegan and Sara, intentionally in contrast with what is in many ways the most difficult and transformative work of their career. “We see ourselves as a political band and a serious band, but we also see music, spaces, and shows as places to go and escape and to have a good time,” says Tegan Quin, taking a breather in Los Angeles between weeks on the road. “We’ve crafted a pretty upbeat, big, fun live show for festival season, because we really do want to leave Love You to Death on a high note.”
This goes beyond balloons. Last year, the Quin sisters stepped up their activism to a whole new level when they launched the Tegan and Sara Foundation, an advocacy and fundraising organization focused on women in the LGBTQ community. As they gear up for their headlining set at NYC Pride on June 24 — plus the acoustic tour they’ll mount this fall to mark the 10th anniversary of The Con, the album that launched them to international acclaim — they’re reflecting on all that they’ve learned.
We spoke with Tegan about it all. Read on for our Q&A.
[ Editor's note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.]
This has been such a huge year for you two, between Love You to Death, the launch of your foundation, the upcoming anniversary of The Con, and more. It’s also been a brutal year — the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, the 2016 presidential election, the acts of terrorism and violence that dominate the headlines. How are you doing with all this crazy change?
Tegan Quin: No kidding! Sara and I never want to gloss over any negativity, but we’re action-oriented people, and we’re optimists. We’re the type of people that when things get bad, we get up and we fight. We fight hard. We’re taking some good breaks this year to focus solely on the foundation, so we’re working really hard to try to raise funds and fight back within our community against a lot of these awful rollbacks of rights, and attacks, and representation of LGBTQ people — especially women — in the mainstream.
This fall, going out with The Con, I feel like this was a really important record to us where we really caught our stride. This was really the record where we were truly in the driver’s seat. To bring that to life and celebrate it with the fans who themselves have attached such meaning to the record is going to be really amazing. We haven’t done a proper acoustic tour since I think 2004. It’s going to be really meaningful. I hope it is, anyway. I hope to end the year that way, to clearly create a community and a space for all of our fans to come and end the year on a high note.
It’s a stylistic shift from Love You to Death, as well: You’re going from your most pop-centric, electronic effort to date to an intimate, unplugged rendering of your indie-rock breakthrough. How does that return to an acoustic approach affect your connection to your music?
Tegan: When we started out in the late ’90s and well into the 2000s, I thought it was extremely offensive that people always wanted to categorize us. When they called us folk, we were indie rock; when they called us indie rock, I was like, “That’s offensive! We’re indie pop!” It wasn’t because I didn’t agree with the label. I was just like, “Why do we have to be one thing? Why must we be pushed into one category?” As we got older, stronger, more confident, and more capable, and we collaborated with all different kinds of artists — in dance, hip-hop, rock, punk — all of a sudden it was like, “The people holding us back and putting labels on us — we don’t have to accept the label. We can be anything we want.”
When we put The Con out, we played it with a full rock band. We’ve never sat in a theater with 2,000 people and had the opportunity to tell the story in a much more intimate way. It was such an intimate record for people and such a moving, emotional experience: To amplify it by stripping it down is kind of our goal.
Also, Sara and I never want to be comfortable. Now I’m super comfortable with pop, so I pretty much never want to do pop ever again. We need to make ourselves uncomfortable again. There’s nothing more uncomfortable right now than going out [with] no tracks, no backing vocals, nothing — just us again. We have to earn it back again, you know? That’s cool.
We’re a few months into a U.S. presidential administration that feels pointedly hostile to the LGBTQ community. Has this pride, and the sets you’ve played over the course of the month, felt different to you as a result?
Tegan: Pride has always been important, but because of the current administration, our elevated status, and the foundation, we see it’s more important than ever before to be outspoken and be advocates. Even at the start of this record cycle, I felt a little miffed — I would be talking to journalists, and they’d go, “OK, gay marriage passed: What are you going to focus on now?” Almost as if the fight is over. But typically speaking, in every country that’s approved gay marriage, in the years following, hate crimes and resistance to that comes out. The fight isn’t over. Just because they legislate something doesn’t mean that things magically aren’t homophobic or transphobic. While the marriage fight is really important, the T in LGBTQ has pretty much been abandoned throughout this entire fight.
We always joke that we, like so many who work in the arts, have imposter syndrome; we think that someone is going to come in and go, “No, no, no, no, somebody made a mistake. You aren’t good enough to hold this place.” We always do every available opportunity, and do all the good we can in the world, because maybe next year nobody will give a shit. This year, we’re trying to raise as much money as we can, raise awareness, and push as much as we possibly can. Certainly the momentum from the election and the Women’s March is really helping.
At Bonnaroo, Sara did a whole shout-out about pride, and it was amazing to be in a farmer’s field an hour outside of Nashville, and there was a massive cheer, and people were clapping and holding up rainbow flags. It’s amazing how far we’ve come, you know? We also really try to amplify a positive message, that we can all work together and push back. We’ve got each other’s backs. We have a strong community. Pride isn’t just about a parade: It’s about honoring those who have come before us and pledging to work together in the future, and looking at how strong we are as a community, because we are!
This year especially, there have been tons of vocal allies and artists in the LGBTQ community who have spoken out against hate and inequality — Laura Jane Grace’s protest of the North Carolina bathroom bill comes to mind. You and Sara have always worked activism into your music and your live show, but how do you think the rest of the music industry is doing?
Tegan: A lot of really important, iconic, mainstream artists have used their voices and their platforms for good this year. A lot of these artists who have a strong LGBTQ base, I’m glad to see them stepping up and fighting for the LGBTQ community. Statistically speaking, LGBTQ people buy more music, see more concerts. Community is really important to us, and music ... I’m profoundly disappointed by some people for not stepping up and not saying something. It feels unfair that people can just tap out, and not speak out. It sucks, because we need them. Every time Sara and I go and pitch our foundation, we open with, “I’m sorry that we’re literally it.” We’re lesbians and musicians, but [as for other] openly LGBTQ artists topping the charts — people will jump in now and tell me Halsey, and I’m like, “OK, but who else?”
But people are stepping up. Even outside of our industry, look at Jessica Chastain at Cannes the other day talking about how sad she was by the [lack of] representation of women in the arts. That’s tremendous, that’s huge! I love that. I really think that there’s a movement truly happening that’s not just a headline. Sara and I don’t see ourselves on a pedestal; we’re reeducating ourselves, working to understand our privilege, and looking back in our history to see where we could’ve worked better on representation. There’s always more for us to all do, and in light of everything happening in the world, there’s more of a reason to do it [now] than ever before.
Now that you’re a few months out from the launch of the foundation, what has the whole experience taught you? Are those lessons applicable to other aspects of your endeavors as Tegan and Sara?
Tegan: Similar to the music business, the social justice and activism world has all sorts of different levels, right? You’ve got your top tiers, like the Human Rights Campaign, but then you’ve got layer after layer of smaller, nuanced, more specific types of organizations. Sara and I have been trying to wrap our minds around that: Who’s doing what? Who’s working with who? Where are the gaps? When we started the foundation, the first thing that we wanted to ensure was that we were not duplicating work already being done. We weren’t trying to create programs we weren’t running ourselves. We are creating an opportunity for people who know who we are, but wouldn’t necessarily know who the Astraea Foundation is, or the Audre Lorde Project — two incredibly important organizations that are central to LGBTQ women and women of color in the community.
We took time this spring for anti-racism training, to do redistribution of wealth training, to go in and do media training in relation to transgender people and how to talk about some of these LGBTQ issues in the mainstream so that they’re understandable, but also not watered down so they become offensive and useless. It was weird, because I thought I would’ve known a lot of these things — but the truth is, I didn’t. I learned a lot of it when I got out of high school, because both Sara and I were quite political and ran in political communities, but things have changed in 17 years. The language we used, the terminology we used — it all changed.
A lot of people I know don’t want to speak out because they’re terrified of saying the wrong thing. Sara and I, we’re not terrified: We acknowledge that we’re probably going to mess up and say the wrong thing at some point, and we want to be there to take responsibility, to learn where we should be focusing our time and energy, and step up and do it. It’s been a lot of reading, a lot of meeting, a lot of listening. It’s fucking cool.
One of the most frequent adjectives your music inspires is “empathetic.” You’ve already established yourselves as women who champion connection and understanding onstage and off. How crucial is empathy right now?
Tegan: When I was saying we could do better, for so many years, really until recently, I felt like I had a connection to our audience, like we were really the same. Sometimes when people would experience or vocalize alienation from us, especially around the music changing, I didn’t understand — I wasn’t angry, but I was confused by that. I thought, We have such a connection with the audience, why don’t they trust us? It hit me a couple years ago that we aren’t always actually the same as our audience anymore. We have become the one percent within our own community. We have power, we have a platform, we have money, we have success. We’re white, we’re from Canada, we have health care. We have two loving parents. We had a decent public school education. A lot of people in our audience weren’t checking those boxes anymore, or never did. The music and what they were relating to about us, if we weren’t outsiders anymore, they didn’t feel like we were theirs anymore, and that we’d lost that friendship.
Sara and I are really committed to understanding that. Reconnecting with that part of our audience, part of that was educating ourselves. We really had changed, and I just thought it was about the music, but it’s not — it’s about us. It’s not enough to play shows. We’re giving back to our audience, but we need to go out and use the access we have to get money for our community. We have to get energy and people to care. We need to call on those people who are claiming to be LGBTQ allies in our industry, especially those with power at the top, to step the fuck up. That was what we could give back: to show that we hear them, we see them, and we care. It’s not just about who’s producing our records; it’s about who’s producing us, and where are we putting our time and energy. Without our audience, we wouldn’t be Tegan and Sara, I wouldn’t live the life that I do, I wouldn’t be the person I am. And statistically speaking, our audience, more than ever, needs support.