Spotlight: Tegan and Sara + playlist

Tegan and Sara, photoshoot by Emy Storey

Tegan and Sara are an influential Canadian indie-pop duo with a unique approach to songwriting. They each write their song separately and begin the collaborative process only when they’re in the studio to record the album, by adding harmonies and often giving each other (hilarious) feedback. During live performances, they’re known for their banter and for delighting their fans with great stories – you could say that Tegan and Sara are also professional comedians (see “Ptosis explained by Dr. T. Quin” or their Lost Forest Fones webisodes if you don’t believe us).

The first song in their repertoire that caught this author by surprise was Speak Slow – a Tegan song with infectious energy and DIY punk sensibilities, accompanied by a video featuring all four band members rocking out. The duo’s cover of The White Stripes song Walking With a Ghost sealed the deal – Tegan and Sara were going to be the next big thing, and the emo-rock roots of their lyrics and imagery only meant that later, I would discover and also adore bands such as Lydia and Paramore.

The Con is an all-time favorite song and album, with its oh-so-relatable lyrics (“I’m capsized, staring on the edge of safe” and “Encircle me, I need to be taken down“). An album you learn inside and out, with a making-of process that eventually became a movie (it’s still available on Youtube) which was just mind-blowing back in 2007, as far as bands openly deconstructing their creative process went.

Every song from The Con is just utter perfection, with a dream-team supporting the duo: powerful drumming by Jason McGerr, delightful bass lines by AFI’s Hunter Burgan (many fans waited for that Tegan & Hunter project which never materialized, although Burgan returned for the following album), production by Death Cab For Cutie’s Chris Walla and guitar-work by the ever-reliable Ted Gowans – probably the touring band member which brought the biggest contribution to the T&S sound during the ’00s. The out-of-this-world harmonies, the nostalgic but witty lyrics, the minimal electronica touches and some of the DIY style from So Jealous still making it in, all of these aspects contribute to the album’s infinite replay value.

You wake up in the night
And refuse to be afraid of the now
Unfolding pieces of it faster
Don’t you waste your time
You’ve been planning to remember this
So nothing will be lost in the end
Then you burn, burn, burn your life down
Then you burn, burn, burn your life down

Burn Your Life Down lyrics

If Tegan can be counted on to write big “stadium” rock or punk-influenced tunes (Nineteen, Northshore), Sara’s output resists labeling, and that’s apparent in tracks like the above-featured Burn Your Life Down, Knife Going In and Floorplan. Her songs are more complex to me, even sounding like pop deconstructions at times, and they definitely require some getting used to. That doesn’t mean that Tegan is the only one writing the catchiest tunes – Sara’s Back In Your Head still remains one of the duo’s most popular cuts. The main difference is that Sara uses less guitars, relying on layered, subdued synth sounds, slightly odd rhythms and melodies, even portions which might seem a bit too simplistic at first. However, the dissonance of her compositions only make them stand out even more on subsequent listens.

The most striking videos from their indie-pop era can also be called minimalist, having a clear theme and often using metaphor (suffocation in Call It Off, teamwork, space and home in Alligator, the double/doppelganger in On Directing and seeing, navigation and the subconscious in Hell). However, in real life, both Tegan and Sara speak their mind on various topics, whether it’s recommending Augusten Burroughs’s book Running With Scissors, commenting on the sexism in Tyler the Creator’s videos or responding to Youtube’s “restricted mode” which removed LGBTQ videos in their usual hilarious manner.

The follow-up and spiritual sequel to The Con was Sainthood, with a more refined sound and a clearer direction. If before Sainthood, T&S were most famously remixed by collective RAC, after 2010 they started getting more mainstream attention, from DJs and producers like Tiesto, Morgan Page, Shura and Mija. Tiesto’s Back in Your Head remix features his usual knack for building atmosphere – later on, the duo even wrote a song together with the famous DJ, Feel it in My Bones, which ended up on his Kaleidoscope album.

While Feel it in My Bones definitely feels like a Sara song at first, both her and Tegan wrote different sections for the song. The massive synths by Tiesto contrast heavily with Sara’s more minimal brand of electronica, providing the usual dissonance, while Tegan just drives it home in the second half with her confident vocals over a rising wall of tidal energy.

Meanwhile, Morgan Page reworked Alligator into a massive house anthem, just like he did with Natalie Walker’s Over and Under, by adding a catchy arpeggiated lead synth and letting the composition breathe, explode and rewind over eight minutes. It’s Alligator with fresh beats, wave-like synth layers and Sara’s raw vocals gone ethereal. The duo even collaborated with Morgan Page on Body Work, another house track which brings the best of both worlds – singer-songwriter plus super-producer: Page’s punchy synths and syncopated beats feel like added urgency for the already memorable vocals (Sara’s enunciation!), in an infectiously energetic, anxiety-fraught club track.

We are born
We love this on our own
But any chance we get we run
Every chance we get we run

We are shown
We live this on our own
But any chance we get we run
Every chance we get we run

– Every Chance We Get We Run lyrics

While Feel it in My Bones and Body Work lean more on the “Sara side”, it was David Guetta and Alesso who made a “Tegan song” into a massive, Tomorrowland-ready EDM anthem. If Sara’s songs feature more subversive lyrics and can even cause a feeling of low-key anxiety, Tegan’s often feel like taking flight and crash-landing into the listener’s own golden teenage years. In an interview with Consequence, she cites Bruce Springsteen and the way he reinvented himself over different eras as a massive inspiration for the T&S sound.

The duo is no stranger to complete makeovers either. In 2012, the band surprised its fans with a brand new direction. With Heartthrob, Tegan and Sara went full synth-pop, collaborating with Greg Kurstin, known for producing indie acts such as The Bird and the Bee or Lily Allen, but also Adele, Kylie Minogue and Shakira. Heartthrob is less impressive from a production standpoint: the main gimmick seems to be adding as much “sound destruction” effect on the drums as possible. However, it sees the band brilliantly delivering more of what was already there, and Kurstin still deserves a lot of credit for the cohesive sound of the album. I’m Not Your Hero, I Was a Fool and Goodbye, Goodbye are simply masterpieces, while Closer saw the band receiving airplays on several popular music channels (and if you need another underrated track like Sainthood’s Arrow, there’s always Shock to Your System).

No, it’s not what we meant to say.
We don’t really love each other.
What happens when the summer’s over?
How long before distance becomes a chore?
I’m approaching with great, great trepidation.
I hope you’ll understand.

Too much momentum.
This room feels like it’s going to explode.
Too many angles.
Too many factors to cover.
Waiting for signal.
You’re searching for network.
You have to fight to stay in control of the situation.

Borne On The FM Waves Of The Heart lyrics

Tegan and Sara have collaborated and toured with a myriad of artists, including Hayley Williams, Kaki King, Matthew Dear, Shura, Theophilus London, The Reason, Against Me! and Alkaline Trio. Tegan’s collaboration with Against Me’s Laura Jane Grace on Borne On The FM Waves Of The Heart still holds a special place in my heart, the two often completing each other’s lyrics or acting as vocal counterpoints in a song about distance, pressure and miscommunication. Borne‘s lyrics can be interpreted as brilliant throwbacks to the early days of the Internet, dial-up modems and even the deadlock problem in computer programming. The same goes for We’re So Beyond This, Sara’s collaboration with The Reason, which uses split screens to convey distance, often feeling like a companion piece to Call It Off.

Tegan and Sara cite Emy Storey as their creative director. Storey, who appears in the making-of videos for The Con, has designed everything from merchandise to album covers and the website for the twins. She is the founder of Revel and Riot, “an LGBTQ-run non-profit company that used the t-shirt as a canvas to promote LGBTQIA+ equality, pride, visibility and justice” which halted its activity in 2021. She is also part of the Tegan and Sara Foundation, an organization whose aim is to improve the lives of LGBTQ+ women, “an extension of (the band’s) work, identity and longstanding commitment to supporting and building progressive social change” which also includes Elliot Page and Vivek Shraya as board members.

On their ninth studio album, Hey I’m Just Like You, the duo distilled their synth-pop sound, opting for a more organic feel, courtesy of producer Alexandra Robotham (Alex Hope). Some portions of the album feel like Sainthood seen through a ’90s nostalgia lens (where Heartthrob definitely sounded more like the ’80s). The video for I’ll Be Back Someday was directed by Natalie Fält and features styling from Toyo Tsuchiya, repeating a visual motif from Call it Off: the telephone wire.

The duo have performed at popular music festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza and played singles on late-night shows, with popular hosts such as David Letterman and Stephen Colbert contributing to their mainstream appeal. Tegan and Sara’s new album, Crybaby, to be released in October, is poised to hold even more surprises for fans, increasingly looking like a return to the sound of The Con and Sainthood – with Yellow an unmistakable Sara song and Faded Like a Feeling a classic, nostalgic Tegan ballad/

Tegan and Sara’s diverse and ambitious output is bound to keep you occupied until their upcoming album drops. We got you covered with a Tegan and Sara playlist comprised of our favorite studio, live, remix and collaborative moments. You can play it below on click on the link above. What’s your favorite Tegan and Sara song? Let us know in the comment section below.

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Featured Image is Moon Landing by Emy Storey

About the artist (source: alchetron.com)

Emily “Emy” Storey (Born March 31, 1981) is a Montreal-based art director, graphic designer and illustrator. Born in Kinderhook, New York, Storey moved to Montreal to study Design Art at Concordia University, where she received her Fine Arts degree in 2003. Storey’s company,Storey Elementary,produces graphic and website design, develops logos, ads, promotional items, band merchandise and album art for clients that include Showtime, Atlantic Records, Warner Music Group, Sanctuary Records, Vapor Records, Maverick Records and Superclose Music. Storey has also designed limited edition shoes for DC Shoes and Macbeth Footwear. Storey has worked with several non-profit organizations as an organizer and as a graphic designer. She is co-founder of Revel and Riot, an LGBT organization.

Other Works by Emy Storey:

First Aid Kit – Tender Offerings album art
Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs album art
Tegan and Sara Closer remix album art

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Reading Material: Five Women who Made the Moon Landing Possible

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