Tegan and Sara Blow It All Up
Their new album is inspired by the “adrenaline and terror” of dismantling your life. To get here, they had to go back to therapy.
The pandemic turned everyone’s world upside down, but for Tegan and Sara Quin, it signaled the beginning of some life- and career-altering events. In 2020, the alt-pop sister duo started the amicable yet difficult process of splitting from their management team of 18 years as they further expanded into books and television. Then last year, they successfully asked to be let out of their contract with longtime label Warner Records, no longer sure of their place in the major-label system or the mainstream pop world they’d spent the past decade working in. The changes offered freedom, yes, but also uncertainty as they struggled to get on the same page about how to move forward. Did they even want to be in a band anymore?
“We were at a crossroads: Either we’re going to find management, or why can’t we find management?” says Sara, sitting next to Tegan on a couch in their publicity firm’s office in early September. “Is this another sign that there’s something really fractured about our band?”
To figure it out, they went to therapy together last year. The identical twins, now 42, applied the same questions many were asking of themselves at the start of COVID-19 — What does my life look like? What do I want more of? Am I happy? — to each other. Their therapist, who had a background in human resources and family businesses, made them write a contract with each other about their values and come up with job descriptions for the vacancies in their inner circle, which is uncommon in the music industry. (The therapist even helped interview prospective managers.) To move forward, they had to untangle their relationship as sisters from their relationship as bandmates.
That interpersonal reckoning fueled a musical one. Sara calls their 10th album, Crybaby, out Oct. 21 on new indie home Mom + Pop Music, the band’s own “breakup album.” They’re not actually splitting up, and for the most part, they’re not even writing about each other. (Though the tender “Yellow” touches on healing old wounds in their sibling relationship.) Yet the feeling that everything around them was starting over seeped into their creative process. “It’s that adrenaline and terror right before you decide to break up with someone or know you’re about to break up. I felt that from Tegan, even if Tegan didn’t always feel that about her own music,” Sara says. “It was all that energy and all that buildup that happened for so many of us when we were sitting still. That has to come out somewhere.”
So after a string of glossy synth-pop albums like 2013’s Taylor Swift-approved Heartthrob, they switched things up and hit the studio last summer with producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Regina Spektor). What started as a plan to record just a few songs turned into an entire album that fizzes and crackles with a newfound scrappiness on songs like the manic “I’m Okay” or the galloping “Pretty Shitty Time.” “If we are going to make albums,” Tegan says, “we’re going to make them in a way that we never have. There’s not a traditional model for us. It doesn’t work and it bores us, and I think that’s a good thing.”
Crybaby is the cornerstone, they say, of a new chapter of Tegan and Sara that includes more than just music. They served as executive producers on High School, the Amazon Freevee adaptation of their bestselling 2019 memoir of the same name, which stars TikTok personalities Railey and Seazynn Gilliland as younger versions of themselves and premieres Oct. 14 with its first four episodes. They’re also readying a pair of middle-grade graphic novel spinoffs of High School — the first of which, Junior High, comes out in May. (Crybaby also coincides with a new era in their personal lives: Sara and her partner welcomed their first child over the summer.)
Below, the duo talk with NYLON about learning to compromise, “grieving” big career changes, and whether they’ll ever make solo albums.
You put out an album in late 2019, Hey, I’m Just Like You, but the pandemic cut its lifespan short. How soon do you start thinking about new music and your next career chapter?
Tegan: When it became clear that there was not going to be a record cycle for Hey, I’m Just Like You and that COVID was going to last forever, that’s when we started to shift our creative focus: “OK, once the TV show’s done, once the graphic novel’s done, are we a band? What’s happening?” And I think Sara sent me “All I Wanted” and “I Can’t Grow Up” first of what [songs] made the album. Those songs were so well defined, especially “I Can’t Grow Up.” I just was like, “This energy, this enthusiasm, this excitement — we haven’t had this kind of frenetic energy in our music in a long time.” And it was so clear we were not going to make a slick pop record. I think those songs pushed over the dominoes that made us go, “I don’t want to make an album for Warner.” That’s when the wheels started to turn.
You started writing from very different places musically: Tegan, some of your demos began as plaintive alt-country tunes, while Sara crafted what she calls her “bedroom electronic record.” How do you find your way to each other?
Sara: The conversation happened in the form of me rerecording the demos Tegan sent me in my own voice with my own production. This was the first time that instead of trying to imagine it or explain it, I just was like, “Oh, I’ll do it!” We didn’t have to talk about what we were doing or what the process was. It was more like: “This is fun. Send me more things that you’ve done and let me see if I can frame them up the way that I’ve been doing my own music.”
Tegan: The most important records in our career, the ones that stand out to people, are the ones where we took a lot of risk. Crybaby was a huge risk because we leaned into a very specific kind of production. We chose a very different kind of producer than we normally do. We just made the record in a very different way. We finished it, paid for it ourselves, and then went out and sold it [to a label], saying, ‘No, thank you, we don’t want any feedback about it. We don’t want anyone to tell us what to do.” Not in a way that we’re like, “We’re brilliant and must be at the top.” It’s more: “Fuck, man. If we’re still doing this after this many years, it should be what we want to do and it should be really fun.”
To me, Crybaby sounds defiant. And when I listen to Sara taking my song and deciding to rerecord it herself and make herself the star of the song to show me what she wants, that feels defiant in a way. And then I would be defiant and rerecord it in my voice and put back lyrics and have this sort of creative tussle. But I think that the record sounds like that sort of final push through, and I like that.
Is that tussle the magic of Tegan and Sara? The best work comes when you’re fighting to meet in the middle?
Tegan: I think so.
Sara: The only way we’ll ever really know is if one of us makes a solo record.
Do you think that’s going to happen?
Sara: I don’t know. I am sitting on so much music that I’ve never put out, most of it’s just not vocal.
Tegan: So you should put out an instrumental record.
Sara: That’s what I was thinking. A lot of the things that really give me fulfillment are making music that I know absolutely has no ears for it. But lately I’m inspired by how release-happy everyone is: “I wrote this song last night, it’s up on my SoundCloud!” There’s less of this purity, of making sure that everything was really curated. And I’m like, “Maybe I should just put out something and not worry so much?” For the first time, I really think that’s on the horizon for me. And then I can answer the question: Was the magic always that there was a tension between us?
“There was definitely a moment where I was like, ‘Did we just break up with our life because we were sick of sitting still?’”
Sara, you called the album Tegan and Sara’s “breakup album” on your Substack newsletter.
Sara: I feel that. It’s weird. I certainly felt like this was the time in our career, not because we were fighting, but because so many of the people who’ve been so central to our career were suddenly not part of the project. It feels different. It just does. I just was like, “Do we just scrap it and start over?”
Are there songs on the record that most directly speak to that?
Sara: “Yellow” is kind of about it. But I was also really focused on fertility and my partner getting pregnant and the crisis of that. It spanned the last four-and-a-half years of my life. There’s this dismantling of our professional career, and then I was also on the precipice of, “Well, either this is going to work this time, or it’s not. And if it doesn’t work, does this relationship look the same? Does my future look the same?” That’s where a lot of the emotional energy of the album was coming from for me. But I think there’s some crossover.
It seems like you were writing a lot about your body, both your anxiety and your physical well-being.
Sara: Yeah. Oh my God. One of the things that is really coming up because of the combo of pandemic and then having a kid is that, [because I] was a touring musician over the last two decades, my body was totally fucked up. Periodically, for the last 10 years, I couldn’t point my left foot, and I just never went to a doctor. It just was like, “My foot is shitty, I don’t know.”
The pandemic made me realize that I didn’t want to feel like that anymore. I got over the initial paralyzing stress of, “Holy shit, everything is stopping,” and then I settled in like, “I am not tired. I am not deeply stressed. I’m not pumping out cortisol like a lunatic every day.” I’ve always thought about my body and stress and anxiety in songs, but very acutely with this era: “What kind of dissociative state have I been in that I could allow myself to get this damaged?”
Tegan, it seemed like you were reflecting on a lot of old relationships on songs like “Faded Like a Feeling” and “Whatever That Was.” What led you down that path?
Tegan: Well, it’s interesting because I wasn’t writing about anyone from the past, but I was doing the equivalent of what Sara was doing with her body: just feeling how I felt in that moment. I started to venture out emotionally. I’m not actually going to break up with my girlfriend, but in “Fucking Up What Matters,” I tempted myself to consider: Would I just destroy everything? Is that a path that I would be interested in going down? Usually, I’m here for a week and then I go [on tour] for two months so I miss my partner. And now I’m with my partner all the time. What do you do with that?
I have two very close friends who went through really rough ends to their relationship. One of them I was constantly mining for inspiration. Literally, her girlfriend dumped her through Zoom and she texted me, “This ain’t going well. Can you call me?” Everything she wrote after that basically became the lyrics to that song [“This Ain’t Going Well”]. I was like, “Can I borrow some of this?” I had to finesse it and make it work, but it’s this concept of: You think everything is fine, but is it? I started to look at [my partner] Sofia across the table at dinner like, “Does she love me?”
Sara: Maybe what Tegan’s trying to say is like everyone else in the pandemic, she was bored of living in her house. So she was on real estate sites looking at other houses a lot.
Tegan: Yeah, I was starting to look around and say, “Am I satisfied? Are these the things that I want?” Part of what Sofia and I did was build a plan for another 10 years. And Sara and I did the same thing: “What else is it that we want to do?” The tone of the record does reflect those questions I was asking myself and also asking within my relationship.
“The part that binds us together is that we’re family. And this work we do? We can leave it at any time.”
What was going to therapy together like?
Sara: The main takeaway for me in therapy was that Tegan and I were grieving the end of a lot of [professional] relationships very differently. And I do not think that it is unlike the way we have grieved our relationships to women. I don’t think it’s bad. I just don’t think that we’d ever really explored that. In understanding each other a little better, we were able to finally make a decision about a record label, a manager.
Tegan: Sara needs grieving time. Sara struggles with our career and elements of our success or choices differently than me. I tend to be like, “OK, let’s just keep going!” There was a point where [the therapist] would jump on me like, “Tegan, be soft! Be gentle!” And then half an hour later, she would look at Sara like, “Let it go, Sara! Do you hear Tegan say sorry? Move on.” It was harsh at first. One time, I called her and was complaining because I feel like Sara sometimes focuses on the negative and makes it not as fun. And she’s just like, “Oh, grow up, Tegan. Not everyone loves their job all the time.” But she also was just like, “I think you need to stop aiming for the best. Start with good enough. Can you find someone who’s good enough that you guys agree on and grow from there?”
Sara: I don’t know if our managers would appreciate that. [Laughs.]
Tegan: Well, you would be somebody who’s just reading the headline on Twitter and not listening to the article of what I’m saying, which is: “Start with good enough. What can you agree on? We’re not going to find everything Sara wants and everything you want in one person. That’s insane. Start with what would make both of you feel good enough and build from there.”
Every time we go into therapy, [our therapist] would be like, “Look at how hard you’re working to get along. Look how much sacrifice you’re making to do this together. That should count for something in these moments where you feel disconnected.” And that just was so meaningful to me, instead of looking at Tegan and Sara sometimes as a prison where I was stuck because we’re so bound to each other. It used to feel so heavy. There was something about the way that she reframed it for me that I started to feel like it’s choice. The part that binds us together is that we’re family. And this work we do? We can leave it at any time.
It sounds like these big changes have ultimately been really positive. But when you’re going through it, do you ever have a moment of, “Uh-oh, what did I do?”
Sara: There was definitely a moment somewhere down the road where I was like, “Did we just break up with our life because we were sick of sitting still? Could we have just ridden this out a little longer, and then we would’ve carried on with our managers and our label?” It was also around the time that I sold my house. I did all these things, boom, boom, boom. And I was like, “Oh God!”
Tegan: You see, this is very Sara — now after everything happened [she feels that way]. Sara instigated a lot of the change.
Sara: No, I instigated everything.
Tegan: She gets me to the point where I’m like, “OK, fine, you’re right, this is for the best.” And then she goes into extreme grief: “Holy shit, did we blow up our life?” She didn’t express it as a negative thing. But I’m like, “What? You’re upset?”
Sara: What I saved us from was a rebound. There’s nothing wrong with a rebound — I think rebounds can be very fun. I have never had a rebound. But I recognized when we changed everything that it was not the time to make rash decisions.
Tegan: Actually, because of Sara digging her heels in, that is when we went to work on a record. The one thing you can do without management is just write. We do talk about all the turmoil, but it also gave us time to talk about what kind of record we wanted to make, which we hadn’t gotten to do in a long time.
The last 10 years [performing as a pop act] have been the most athletic and most difficult onstage because we’re doing so much. We started to play to click tracks so everything was perfect. We became a better band, but you can’t make a mistake. So when we went in with John, we were like, “We want to make a record that feels really good to play live.”
Last night was our first performance of a song from the record. And it was really fun. I was just playing acoustic guitar — not doing anything out of the ordinary, I’ve been doing it for 25 years. But I was playing the guitar and singing into the mic, and I looked over and Sara like, “Oh, yeah, we’re just like a band.” And today everyone’s texting like, “God, you sounded great! You looked happy! You were smiling!” I could cry right now. [She tears up and her voice cracks.] We forgot the most important thing, which is we make art. I know our therapist told us it can’t be fun all the time, but my God, it can be fun a lot of the time.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.