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Sonic switch

MUSIC: The world’s favourite twin lesbian band, Tegan and Sara, put down their guitars for a slicker pop sound There are both advantages and disadvantages to working with your family. There’s a level of understanding that can be easy and unspoken, a shorthand communication, a shared history, but the flip side is that no one else can irritate you or target your weaknesses so effectively.

So imagine what it’s like working with your identical twin—performing, writing, driving around in a van, spending endless hours together for months at a time and then being quizzed about it all in interviews. That’s what Tegan and Sara Quin have been doing since they first started writing and playing songs in Calgary when they were 15. Add in the extra attention that comes with the news that they’re both gay, and the fact that Tegan and Sara the band is still going strong 17 years later becomes even more impressive.

Being half of the world’s favourite twin lesbian band is definitely a double-edged sword, according to Sara. “For years I was uncomfortable talking about our relationship,” she says.

“We didn’t want it to be exploited for the wrong reasons, but on the other hand, we weren’t allowed a space to talk about all the benefits. It’s such a relief now to be able to say, yes, it is hard to be in a band with your sister. I want to open the van door and kick her out, all the time! But it’s about the way you unravel and negotiate that relationship contract.

I mean, Tegan and I could have a whole other career in conflict resolution. We’re really good at that now.

“The side of it that makes it so special is a lot harder to articulate,” she adds. “There’s a benefit to working with someone you’ve known since conception. There’s something intrinsically connected about what we do and who we are and how we see the world. It’s amazing, but it’s only now that I’m starting to really feel that. I think it took performing with other people to appreciate it. The second Tegan and I start to play and sing together, I feel what happens, the energy that changes. And that just doesn’t happen with other people.”

Clearly, the ups still outweigh the downs for the now 32-year-old sisters, who, since being signed to Neil Young’s record label in 1999, have released a handful of albums, been nominated for Junos and Polaris Prizes, and toured or collaborated with the likes of DJ Tiesto, Cyndi Lauper, Margaret Cho, Carly Rae Jepsen, The Killers, Augusten Burroughs and David Guetta, among others. Along the way they’ve managed to build a devoted fan base.

But for their seventh album, Heartthrob, released earlier this year, Tegan and Sara made a concerted effort to expand their horizons beyond the indie folk-rock of their past, putting the guitars down and taking up the keyboards to make the kind of shiny, commercial pop album that fits on the radio alongside tracks by Rihanna, Ke$ha and Kelly Clarkson.

It was a calculated gamble that’s paying off—Heartthrob debuted near the top of the charts in both the U.S. and Canada, and its hit single, “Closer,” has already spawned a remix EP. But Sara maintains the sonic switch was something that came about quite naturally. “I don’t feel there’s been a consistent aesthetic in our music. It hasn’t been able to be easily placed in any genre on any of our albums,” she says. “Some people call it folk, some call it rock, some call it indie pop, so even though this is the most dramatic and largest leap into something different, I feel like we’ve always been doing that. This time it was just a case of saying: ‘Now what? What albums are getting us excited in terms of production and sonic fidelity and that sort of thing?’ And it was pop music.”

It turns out that both twins were moving in that same direction. “For the first time, there was a lot more crossover in terms of what was influencing us,” Sara says. “Tegan has always been more interested in rock music, and I was always disappearing into whatever indie or avant-garde thing was happening. The result would be some sort of compromise. But this time it didn’t feel like we were compromising—we were just making something that felt good to both of us.”

The crucial choice of Greg Kurstin as a key producer—Mike Elizondo and Justin Meldal-Johnsen also produced several songs—came about after lengthy discussions between the sisters.

“We’d already started to write the music, but there was this ongoing conversation about where we wanted to go with it,” Sara explains. “We want to see ourselves in new places, and have new experiences. We don’t want to be shut out of radio or high fashion magazines. We don’t want to be shut out of headlining music festivals because we’ve done something too niche. But we also want to service what we love and want to hear in our music. So we had to find a producer who could help us build a bit of a bridge, and Greg was an obvious choice, because he’d had his day in weird avant-garde bands and worked with great indie bands like the Shins, but he’d also made fantastic records with Lily Allen, Kylie Minogue and Kelly Clarkson.

“We thought he was perfect, ’cause we’re kind of the same: We see ourselves in one world, but we know we can have a place in the other world, too. It’s kind of a weird fit, but it works. We had such a fun time, and it didn’t feel like we were reinventing the wheel. We were just there every day, having fun, taking the songs to a different level, and the result was this album. We couldn’t believe how effortless it felt.”

While they work together closely on their albums, Tegan and Sara make a point of keeping the rest of their lives their own. They live in different cities (Tegan in Vancouver, Sara in Montreal), and tend to write separately. “My instinct to move somewhere different had less to do with Tegan and more to do with my own interests and desire to travel, experience something new, be out on my own,” says Sara. “I desperately wanted autonomy, but I was embarking on this career that was binding me further to my sister. So at 22, I felt I had to do something different. And I found that I really loved Montreal, and connected to it in a way I never connected to Vancouver, culturally and socially. I was able to tap into my roots of wanting to be an activist and an artist. And Tegan had more of a business sense. She was much more structured, she was dating someone who was 10 years older than her, and Vancouver really fit for her. I think the separation allowed us to continue to develop naturally as individuals. But when we come together with different points of view in the music, something really special is created.”

Sara says she and Tegan didn’t particularly worry about how their diehard fans would respond to the new sound: “There’s something defiant about it, like a teenager who wants to dye her hair blue,” she muses. “In a weird way, I think it was a conscious rebellion against our fan base. Anytime I start to feel pigeonholed, my natural reflex is to say no and do something else. So there is a friction there, where I desperately want the acknowledgment of my peers and the media and my fan base, versus this natural thing where I want to do something different. If they don’t like it, I’ll be sad, but we have six other albums for them to love, and maybe there are other people who will like it.”

The LGBT community has always been a core part of Tegan and Sara’s fan base, ever since their early days in Calgary. “I came out first, because I was in a relationship with a girl so it was natural for me to declare that earlier than Tegan,” says Sara. “I was 17. For me it’s so important to be out and to be visible, to talk about it and to assert that it’s important for others to do it.

“From the very beginning, we could see the audience members were a reflection of us—they looked like us, they had the same lifestyle as us, they were influenced by the same things. But we didn’t think that was the only audience we should have. We knew early on that we needed to build an audience that liked our music. Now, we have a career and we can advocate and speak about our experiences in the LGBT community and ally with different groups, and there’s power in that. I feel like we can be the people we want to be and make the music we want to make.”

Tegan and Sara open for Fun. $51. 4pm. Sat, July 6. Downsview Park. 35 Carl Hall Rd. ticketmaster.ca.