The PV Q&A: Tegan and Sara's Sara Quin on Heartthrob's New Sound & Past Heartaches: "We Can Both Re-Tell a Story Like Nobody’s Business!"

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Interview by Tom Lanham

A word of warning for any fans of folk-rocking Canadian kittens Tegan and Sara—nothing in their moody, ethereal catalog will prepare you for their upcoming seventh set Heartthrob. Nothing.

For starters, the 32-year-old Quin twins set aside their customary acoustic guitars for this 10-song, Greg Kurstin/Mike Elizondo-produced experiment, and switched to mostly keyboards and self-programmed synthesizers instead.

Some songs bubble and blip like long-lost Missing Persons outtakes, some slither icy-blue, a la vintage Depeche Mode. Then, there’s the seemingly shocking subject matter: romantic breakup of a most scarlet, soul-draining sort, in “Goodbye, Goodbye,” “I Was a Fool,” “Now I’m All Messed up,” “How Come You Don’t Want me,” and the sinister, thumping closer (and perfect album summary) “Shock to Your System.”

“But you know what’s so funny?” asks Sara Quin, chuckling. “We didn’t break up with anyone! My life was completely drama-free, I was really healthy, and I had a ton of time to myself to write, go to therapy, grocery shop. Things were just right in my world.”

Where on Earth did Heartthrob originate, then? She’s genuinely happy to explain….

PureVolume: So—despite what we hear on Heartthrob—you and Tegan are both still in rock-solid relationships?
Sara Quin: I am. The same one I’ve been in. And Tegan’s been in the same relationship for like seven million years now. But when I sit down to write a song—and it’s probably a good thing and a bad thing—and when I go back and start looking at relationships or break-ups and deconstructing that, it doesn’t matter if I’m in a happy place or a sad place. What fascinates me are the things that have hurt me, not the things that have made me feel good.
PV: But you also don’t want to script some self-fulfilling prophecy, either?
SQ: Well, I remember very specifically when I was writing the song “Now I’m All Messed up,” the girl that I’m dating, she . . . well, it was hard, because you can’t imagine that she’s not thinking to herself, "What the hell are you talking about? What are you talking about here?" So there’s a little bit of fiction in it, in that it’s not something that was happening in my life at that moment. But it certainly is something that has happened to me.

And I also remember when I was just getting into the relationship that I’m in now, I was feeling panicked, because it had been years since I’d been in a serious relationship. And I was feeling jealous and insecure, like "What if they were to leave me for somebody else? Or what if the same thing happened to me that the last person I dated did to me?"

I kept thinking that the worst thing in the world was imagining this person being with somebody else, and leaving some kind of evidence behind for the other person to sort of romanticize. So it’s weird to be in a relationship and you’re totally happy, but you’re like, "You know, loving you has made me incredibly fearful, and all I can think about is when you’ll inevitably hurt me." I was completely transfixed on how it would end, and how it would be really terrible.
PV: Fair enough. But on Heartthrob—aside from the sex song “Closer” and the optimistic ballad “Love They Say,” which actually features guitar strumming—you two sound like shivering little chihuahuas practically everywhere else.
SQ: I know! It’s true! It’s very dark, this record. But in terms of the melodies and instrumentation, we really wanted something that was upbeat. I wanted this record to be the kind that you would put on at a party, the kind of record you would love to hear at a festival. I think in the past, we’ve been very happy with the idea that our music was something you listened to alone, or something that you listened before you went to bed, or something that sounded best on headphones. So for the first time in our career, we really were saying, "Yeah, this music is still as dark and depressing as ever." But it’s the kind of dark and depressing that makes you want to dance.
PV: Did you two suddenly discover some old new wave records or something?
SQ: Both myself and Tegan didn’t do a lot of writing on guitar with this record. We just totally knew the record didn’t need a ton of guitars. And before we made Heartthrob, we were asking a lot of the same questions to a lot of different producers, and when we sat down with Greg Kurstin, his answers excited me the most. Because I didn’t want someone who was gonna come in and try and protect what we had done in the past or say "Well, this is how people know you, so you need to have a guitar in this song."

I wanted someone like him, who said, "That’s a beautiful song, and it could go in a lot of different directions. But if you want it to be a pop song, and you want it to be heard by more people than ever before, we’re gonna have to take some chances with the production, and we’re gonna push this song into a completely different emotional place."

And on our last couple of records (The Con, Sainthood), I probably would’ve said, "Absolutely not. That’s not what the song is about, so it needs to be preserved and protected." But with Greg, I didn’t feel any of those hesitations. I was just like, "Cool. Yeah. Let’s blast it off into space—whatever we need to do, let’s do it!"

And we’re very cognizant of the ‘80s influence that probably happened very early on in our development, when we were kids. And it’s certainly informed our music in the past, but never as much as it has with this record. But I also didn’t want it to sound retro—I really still wanted the record to feel very modern. So we talked a lot about Phoenix and Robyn and stuff that’s very contemporary and happening right now—where you can see the influence from the past, but it still sounds like a future band.
PV: And you understand, of course, that tons of tearful fans will come up to you now, going, "I totally understand the heartbreak you’ve been going through!"
SQ: But what’s funniest is, I’ve had my heart broken a few times. But I only had to have it happen once for me to be able to spend the rest of my life thinking about it and talking about it. And I don’t know if that’s consistent with everybody’s experience. But my sister has been in a relationship with the same girl for five or six years, and she’s the girl that inspired The Con for Tegan—they had a lot of drama, but eventually it ended up being a very happy, successful relationship. And now she’s totally thinking about starting a family.

But what I find so fascinating is, we’ll be hanging out with somebody who doesn’t know the story of Tegan and her girlfriend, and she will tell it as if it’s just happened. And she will tell the sad parts, and when you get to the point in the story where they finally get together, you really don’t see it coming, because she will drag out the beginnings of that relationship—and how tough it was, and how sad she was—as if it was yesterday. So I think that as storytellers, it’s not necessarily important that it just happened—the blood doesn’t have to be fresh, I guess is what I’m saying. Because we can both re-tell a story like nobody’s business!

PHOTOS: Lindsey Byrnes

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