Drinking Arnold Palmers in an upscale Los Angeles burger joint, Tegan and Sara Quin have just been slipped a love note: a folded napkin delivered by the waiter, from a trio of young fans sitting nearby. It’s a fitting tribute to the Canadian sister duo ahead of its eighth studio album, Love You to Death (Warner Bros., June 3), a synth-pop confection produced by Greg Kurstin (Adele, Sia) that is the perfect soundtrack for a crush. Billboard talked with the 35-year-old twins about “femotional” music, their sexuality (both identify as gay) and why they should be taken as seriously as Kanye West.
Tell me a little about the new album, Love You to Death, the people and conversations that inspired the songs. What was the process this time?
Tegan: We reference a lot of ‘90s stuff—it’s funny because everyone’s picking up on the ‘80s vibes, but we actually used a lot of ‘90s keyboards. We did a little more collaborating in the studio than we’ve ever done. For me it was nice, because Sara has a very different way of writing lyrics and it was nice to get her voice on my songs.
Sara: I think new things either really excite people or they really stress them out. Once you know and like something, it’s hard to force yourself to change and accept whatever come with that change. It’s our job as artist to make the change as pleasurable as possible. It’s not just about dumping new music on people. It’s about finessing them so that before people ask themselves if they’re okay with it, they’re finding themselves really enjoying it. That’s a skill set we’ve built over our entire career and we can now work with people who can help us change without alarming anyone. It takes a little bit of extra work but for us, if we didn’t change it, we’d be so bored. I don’t know how I could bear getting onstage and playing some of those songs the way we’ve played them for 14 years.
What is that “very different way”?
Sara: With Tegan it’s usually clarification: she’s like, “This is too busy” or “Get to the chorus, don’t bore us.” Whereas I think more about what is the song saying and is it a new message.
Tegan: There’s a huge chunk of our career where we felt like the way people would write about us was, “It’s a page out of their diary, it’s chick music, it’s so femotional,” and it annoyed us. So I think we both took different paths to try and set ourselves apart from that and there was a moment when I was like, why is it so bad to talk about your emotions? Isn’t that what music is? Guys do it all the time, why does it ultimately make us “chick music”? We’re loving making pop music, but we wanted more of the emotion and depth and intensity. We noticed that some of the diehard fans who initially had been like “Heartthrob, ugh,” came around. But one complaint that stayed consistent was “We missed the vulnerability.” And lyrically we wanted to tear open the wounds and make sure we were giving [fans] enough to hold onto.
I was just talking to another singer-songwriter who said she was so aware of how a woman singing about her emotions was received as opposed to a male artist. Women are whiny, men–
Tegan: Oh, they bare their souls so hard!
Sara: To talk about being gay still feels very sexual to people. They don’t think of me and my girlfriend watching the Vanderpump Rules show with a bottle of wine. I’m interested in why, when women talk about sex and their feelings, it’s embarrassing. When men talk about sex or feelings, they’re Drake or Kanye and they’re geniuses. They never get tired of writing think pieces about them. Why is my sexuality so less interesting and mysterious and cool?
Tegan: There’s a huge chunk of our career where the response to our music was “It’s a page out of their diary. It’s chick music. It’s so ‘femotional.’ ” It annoyed us, so we tried to separate ourselves from that. But there was a moment when I thought, “Why is it so bad to talk about your emotions? Guys do it all the time. Why are we ‘chick music’? ” Love You to Death was a return to being clear, but emotional — not masking anything we wanted to say.
Does that relate back to what Tegan was saying regarding critics of your shift to pop music?
Sara: It’s amazing we’ve arrived in a place in 2016 where me talking about gender roles and being queer in a pop song on radio — that’s so “surface.” I sort of resent that people don’t think that’s textured or interesting.
Tegan: Staring with Heartthrob, mid-record we said, “You really should go back and listen to that record and really uncover what’s there. You’re writing it off because you’re hearing the pop machine. But the depth’s there.”
Do you ever get sick of the questions about being gay women in pop?
Sara: No. I think we spent so much of our career having conversations that felt somewhat confrontational or at best, educational. It’s like we were these exotic things and I’d be like, this is the worst. But now it’s such a nice time to talk about our identity and how that parallels with the change happening in music and internationally and legislatively. There’s a lot of interesting elements to our identity and how that intersects with what what’s happening. It’s a nice change. For a lot of years we didn’t want to talk about it. It felt like such a slog to start from a basic place.
Like it was on your shoulders to represent all gay, politically active artists.
Sara: It’s kinda like how we don’t like to talk about being twins if the only questions is “Can you read each other’s minds?” Yeah, we’re super telepathic. It’s a miracle. So if that’s the only question you have about the complex nature of our sibling relationship, then no. But if you have other questions, yes, we’d love to talk about it. Same with being queer and being women in the industry. If you have thoughtful questions, I’ll answer a million. But if you’re just asking if we have weird fetishes and like the same girls? Fuck you.
You both are so politically active and socially aware, and over the past year there have been so many watershed moments. Which resonated the most with you?
Tegan: It’s really exciting to see acceptance of transgender people. But just like gay marriage, there’s that immediate backlash and pushback that immediately makes you feel self-conscious about being different, even though we’re not trans. There are still so many people in the world who are so ignorant.
How are the challenges in the music industry different now than they were five years ago?
Tegan: After the first meeting with the company we definitely made a lot of jokes over wine. But don’t be a dinosaur. Figure out apps, streaming. We don’t really care about being cool, but we care about being relevant. Our audience tends to be younger, they wanna communicate with us. We were so against Snapchat and then we got it and were like, “This is the best social media because there’s no comments!”
An edited version of this article was originally featured in the May 28 issue of Billboard.