In 2007, Canadian alt-poppers Tegan & Sara released The Con, a career-defining album and beacon of hope to thousands of misunderstood young listeners, many from the same LGBTQ community as the Quin twins. It came at a particularly tumultuous time: “I was going through a divorce, and my relationship with Tegan had become incredibly difficult partly due to the stress and anxiety,” remembers Sara, 37. “I felt actually sick onstage most of the time.”
Through its bite-sized hooks and jittery indie-rock salvos, The Con lays bare the dreams and demons of its creators, and now, some of their closest allies. They’ve commissioned 14 artists including Cyndi Lauper and Bleachers to interpret its 14 tracks on The Con X: Covers, due Oct. 20 on Warner Bros.
Why did you choose to commemorate The Con’s 10-year anniversary with a covers album?
Sara Quin: We talked about maybe just [playing] New York and L.A., but then we started talking about the tour as a way to bring the show to as many fans as possible and also raise money for The Tegan and Sara Foundation through ticket sales. Then we started talking about doing some kind of commemorative piece or memorabilia that we could also bring on tour to raise additional funds and mark the anniversary. The truth is we’ve already released all of The Con’s original demos, so we considered doing a book, like we’d done for our previous album’s anniversary. Tegan suggested getting other bands to cover the album instead of just dragging out all of whatever we could find in our closets — let people hear the songs through the lens of other artists and genres. It became a fun creative project for Tegan and I, but also a way to highlight up-and-coming artists we really believe in, and honor artists who supported us early in our careers, like Cyndi Lauper and Ryan Adams.
How did you go about choosing the artists to cover each song?
It was really important for us to not just pick 14 artists, like a free-for-all. For each song, we were really were specific in thinking which artists might be interesting from a narrative perspective and also just from a sonic, musical perspective.
What were reactions like when you reached out to artists?
I’m very grateful that Tegan and I have a really good reputation in the music business amongst our peers. We don’t ask people for things very often. So with a lot of the people we reached out to, even if they couldn’t do it, there was a really genuine enthusiasm and support around the project and also the Tegan and Sara Foundation we launched in support of LGBTQ women and girls [where proceeds go]. There were lots of people we reached out to that we were excited, but just too busy or in the studio or whatever it was… So to be rejected was this really good learning experience where I was like, “You just can’t take it personally, move on. Let’s just keep finding people that we love.”
When anyone said yes, it just felt ecstatic. By the time their contributions would arrive I’d listen and feel sort of giddy. I felt like we were playing matchmaker with our favorite artists and our audience. Our fans love this record so much and they’re really generous with how they show interest in things we’re interested in.
Why do you think The Con resonated with so many people and remained so popular over the past decade?
You know, I think about that a lot. There was a real synergy. We were 26 years old when we wrote that record, 27 when it came out. The majority of people coming to see us play at that time were really our peers. They were kids who just got out of college and I think they were having the same life experiences. We were writing about anxiety, death, loss, grief, divorce, disappointment… If you’re lucky when you’re younger, you’re somewhat sheltered from those things. Sometimes your late 20s is when you’re having this existential crisis, when you’re realizing life can be really difficult… I don’t know if at 37 I can write a song that connects to that time of my life again, you know?
Back in 2007, The Con was such a major turning point in your careers. Tell me about that; did you feel it was opening you guys to new horizons?
You know this isn’t going to be the answer you probably want, but the truth is we didn’t really know that was happening. We had been on a pretty even trajectory with each album cycle. We felt like, “Oh we’re getting a little bigger, oh we’re playing to 200 people, oh now we’re playing to 500 people, oh great we sold 200 more tickets in L.A. than last time.”
When I look back on [The Con era], that’s when I remember starting to get recognized places, like at the mall or in the airport. 2006, 2007, that was really the height of MySpace and also the beginning of things like Facebook. I remember people started to look at us and go, “Oh, I think I know you guys, I’ve seen you somewhere.” It sounds kind of antiquated now but the internet — that’s where they were seeing us.
What wasn’t well known or documented was how it was a very excruciating, challenging time for us. Our record label had folded after we finished The Con so we entered a very extended period of negotiation to be pulled from Sanctuary to Warner which protracted the momentum of making The Con. We were like, “Oh my god maybe we won’t ever find a label. Oh my god, should we just leak this on the internet?”
There was a lot of drama behind the scenes of that record. And then my relationship with Tegan had become incredibly difficult partly due to the stress and anxiety of all that was happening, but also I was extremely depressed. I was going through a divorce. My whole life had sort of crumbled after we made The Con and I was extremely… I was just really depressed. We toured for two years on that record and it was hard. The Con to me now is this really positive record that made all these great things happen, but when it was happening, I was like, this is miserable. I remember really feeling like, “This is the worst time of my life.”
What was the touring like? That was your first time touring in a bus, right?
We had toured a little bit in a bus before that… I remember it was a very exciting time because I got my own hotel room for the first time in my life. Like I didn’t have to share with Tegan anymore. But I mean, I hate to be a downer but no, I didn’t feel like it was cathartic at all.
I loved making that record. But my life completely exploded after it was done. It was actually the most difficult touring of my life because I felt actually sick onstage most of the time. Those songs were essentially representing how my life was about to fall apart. Now when I’m playing, say, “Knife Going In,” it’s like, “Nice song! Interesting chord progression!” But back then I was like, “I feel physically ill every time I have to play these songs.”
I’m very grateful that we’re getting this chance to re-experience The Con and go out and play these songs because the truth is, I didn’t really want to play them for almost 10 years because I felt like it was actually impossible to enjoy myself. I feel like the songs are having their second life and that feels really exciting.
The pop singer met the pair on the 2010 Lilith Fair revival tour. “I don’t exactly remember the joke, but Sara is still in my phone as ‘Sara from Tegan and Sara (Also a Heathen),’” says Bareilles. The Broadway-approved artist’s take on “Floorplan” comes off even more ominous than the original: “I love when they play against the sadness of a lyric by making it uptempo,” she says. “I mostly lean toward depressing things in my own life, but that’s fine.”
“We’ve toured with Paramore,” recalls Sara, who commissioned the trio’s powerhouse vocalist to cover “Nineteen.” Paramore, which released its spunky new wave LP, After Laughter, in May, got to know the Quins after inviting them out on tour in 2010. Four years later, the band secured the duo as main support on its inaugural Parahoy! cruise.
“When I was in seventh grade, my best friend’s sister had just come out to her family,” says Gunn, “and she was introducing my friend to Tegan & Sara.” Gunn, who at 18 came out to her parents on the eve of PVRIS’ first tour, flipped the anxious rock track “Are You Ten Years Ago” into a mystical synthscape. “I wanted to take its darker chord progression and roll with that [and] bring the PVRIS element to it.”
The English singer recalls figuring out her own sexuality in her early teens. “Growing up as a queer teenager, The Con was the most important Tegan & Sara record in my personal and musical upbringing.” Shura adapted The Con’s strummy title track into a spacey, electronic epic. “The whole record is perfect,” she says. “I just wanted to explore a different sonic landscape.”
Adams cameos on the twee earworm “Back in Your Head,” spinning it into a work of amp-rattling rock. His connection to the sisters goes back to when he took them on tour in 2002. “It was one of the first tours we did where the big headlining artist was coming to our dressing room like, ‘Do you want to hang out?’” recalls Sara. “We didn’t feel like we had a community then, but now that we have more power and leverage, we can create the community that we want.”