Between 1999 and 2007, twin musicians Tegan and Sara had released four well-received indie albums with a heavy focus on acoustic guitars and lyrical love letters that served as a calling card of sorts. Fans came to expect a certain kind of folk-pop from the duo, whose on-stage sisterly banter was a bonus for the dedicated audience, many of whom were LGBTQ as both Tegan and Sara were out and proud members of the community.
That year, a decade ago now, the Quins released The Con, their darkest album which would also prove to be one of their best. Produced by Death Cab For Cutie’s Chris Walla, the 14-track collection was split down the middle with songs written by either sister, each as achingly melancholy as the rest with singable slow builds and chanty choruses that not only appealed to existing fans, but brought in new ones with singles like “Back In Your Head” and the title track finding more mainstream attention.
The album would peak at No. 34 on the Billboard 200 chart and get nominated for that year’s Polaris Prize.
The Con marked a sea change for Tegan and Sara, as it would be the last album they wrote songs individually instead of together, and also personally, as both were going through major relationship hardships and the loss of their maternal grandmother. Songwriting was a kind of painful excavation for them with The Con and so it might seem strange that the pair are resurrecting the album in its entirety for an all-acoustic tour, as well as releasing a covers album with friends like Ryan Adams, PVRIS, Muna and Paramore‘s Hayley Williams performing their own renditions of songs from The Con called The Con X.
The Con X comes out Friday on Warner Bros. with a portion of the proceeds from the tour and album going to The Tegan and Sara Foundation, their non-profit dedicated to economic justice, health and representation for LGBTQ girls and women. In advance, Billboard spoke with Sara Quin about the choice to bring back The Con and how Tegan and Sara have stayed ahead of music industry trends throughout their career.
First, congrats on your success and work with the new Tegan and Sara Foundation. You’ve done so much already for LGBTQ women and girls.
Sara Quin: It just feels like that community has supported us so much and it’s also, I don’t know, it’s the only thing that keeps me from turning into a nihilist and thinking an asteroid should hit earth is to give back to people who are constantly giving.
Why was the decision to resurrect The Con? Your previous album, So Jealous, was arguably as critical for your careers and fans.
I think for us The Con is kind of one of those albums that undeniably our fans talk about it all the time. It was a real pivot toward soft of being a mainstream act in terms of, like, all of a sudden the visibility of the band was really different. While we sort of coming off of the momentum of So Jealous it was really with The Con that we started to see opportunities like festivals — festivals were suddenly booking us and we were on MTV. It really was sort of a record where our visibility increased tenfold. And I think to go out and force our audience to listen to — if we had to go out and force our audience to listen to a full album, it felt like The Con was the best one to do that with. [laughs]
But I also think that on a personal note, I think that for us it was really the beginning of a totally different stage in our lives, both personally and professionally, and so it feels very significant to go back out and sort of talk about the album again and the songs. I know for myself, I hated The Con and touring it. It was a really profoundly depressing and sad time for me. I was going through a massive divorce. My life really exploded around the time the record came out. We had experienced some very substantial losses in our lives — some deaths that were really, really hard. And I think at 27 years old, it’s not an uncommon experience to feel sort of like everything is out of control and death and taxes and all of that. For me, the added stress of, while we were excited that our band was getting bigger, there was also sort of crippling amount of anxiety and stress and expectations that I had a hard time really coping with. And then on top of everything that was happening personally, I sort of retreated into a depression that was very challenging to get out of. I think it almost took three years for me to get back into a good place.
So, for me, as much as I had creatively felt really stimulated by writing and recording the album, almost immediately, the record became actually sort of a burden and I think now to go back and reflect on the songs and that period of our lives from the vantage point of not depressed, confident, life is in control 37-year-old, like, it’s way more fun. And for me to actually want to play the music again, for many years — well, for the time that we were actually touring The Con, I actually found it almost physically unbearable to play those songs. I was embroiled in personal drama that I was drowning in and it’s hard to get on stage and then be like, “And now, ‘Back In Your Head.’ Everybody, sing along!” It was like masochistic, you know? It felt horrible. And now it’s just such a gift to be able to go back and really actually be able to enjoy the music. And also the songs don’t really feel like mine or my story anymore — they feel the audience’s. There’s just been so many — I mean literally hundreds of thousands of people that have listened to those songs, that I feel like it’s more important to sort of let them have control over it, you know? Those are their stories and their memories — I’m just a jukebox, you know?
When I think about The Con, it’s hard to even remember what songs were singles because all of the tracks were so specific and nostalgic for me. Do you hear that sentiment expressed often?
Oh yeah. It was definitely one of those albums where — I mean I think actually we’ve had such a negative experience with having a single on So Jealous. Like “Walking With A Ghost” was sort of our first and, for many years, our last experience with radio and having a single. When it came to The Con, initially there was sort of an emphasis on, “OK, we’re going to take ‘Back In Your Head’ to radio,” and I very specifically dug my heels in and didn’t really want to take that approach because I had been so traumatized by my experience with “Walking With a Ghost.” We had really faced a lot of super-misogynistic, sexist DJs and radio programmers. We’d had this really humiliating experience at a big radio station near the end of So Jealous where we’d been asked live on air in front of all these contest winners if we were incestuous. I hated radio and I felt angry and the only way I could have any kind of control was to sort of deny that sort of machine from really taking affect. I pretty much made it impossible for anyone else in our career to kind of take us down that path for that album. Like I really, really strongly remember pushing back hard about it.
Coming off of So Jealous, did you have a plan to make The Con specifically more accessible to a broader audience?
I mean I don’t think we used language like accessible or mainstream. I think we were really just — I keep sort of talking.. I think it’s important to remember the context of where we were at in 2007. There was no social media really. We had MySpace, but it was so flat. It was like, ‘Here’s some comments and a couple photos.’ Everything still felt physical and analog. You had to tour and every interview felt like it had to be in person. Everything was just like — I don’t know, there was just a real physical element to being in a band and being on the road and touring and marketing and making things and whatever.
I think for me what happened between So Jealous and The Con was that we almost really knew what we liked and what we didn’t like about making music. I hated the studio, but I loved writing and recording. And so for me, after So Jealous, with that momentum, and with that kind of like empowered feeling of like, “Hey, we’re getting bigger; we have a bigger recording budget. We have access to different types of people and opportunities,” I remember being very drawn to Chris Walla because he seemed to, both as a producer an artist, he really seemed to understand our frustration and sort of discomfort with the studio and he really encouraged us to focus and really dig into the things that we liked about recording and writing and not get so burdened by this idea of like, “And now we go into the studio, and now we have a drummer come in, and now the drummer plays, and now the bass player plays, and now Tegan and Sara try to play to the bass player and drummer.” I hated that and he was like, “Yeah, fuck that! Let’s just do it your way.” So we sequenced the album before we even made it and then we worked in sequence. We started with “I Was Married” and we finished three months later with “Call It Off.” We didn’t bring in a bassist and drummer before we put all our parts down, we played the songs how we wanted to play them and then the drummer and bass player came in and played to us.
I think that sort of empowered kind of confidence coupled with my cyclone of depression really made us difficult, in a way, on The Con. And I don’t mean difficult like divas; I mean we were like “No, we’re not just gonna jump at a chance to be more successful and play the game the way everyone else wants to play it. We’re gonna set boundaries and we’re gonna set expectations and we’re gonna try as much as we can to protect ourselves from things that make us feel bad, or people that make us feel bad.”
So you know, it was a tumultuous record. There was a lot of conflict with our managers, with our label — and I mean that in a respectful way. It wasn’t like we were trapped animals or anything but it was like, there was a lot of head-scratching like, “We know you’re really upset, but why can’t you just ignore it?” Like no, we’re not gonna ignore it. No. And there was a lot of conflict between me and Tegan because suddenly we weren’t both just saying yes all the time. Suddenly one of us was sometimes saying no and it was like, man, that record was the beginning of that change; that real shift into, “Hey we want to be successful and we’re more ambitious than anybody, but I’m not gonna do it at the cost of my mental and physical health.”
It seems kind of crazy that The Con would be the album you’d want to relive then!
I think that that’s what makes it such a great album to bring back because it’s not an easy album. It’s more complex emotionally and physically than probably some of the other stuff that we’ve done. And I think that maybe it sounds sort of cheesy or something, but it’s actually been deeply healing to go back to this record, because I’m an entirely different place. Even just personally, for example, that record was so challenging for me because I was separating from my long-term partner — we divorced and separated everything and our world just kind of exploded. That is my best friend in the world who has worked with Tegan and Sara as our art director since 2003. I love her to death, we talk every day, she’ll be on most of the tour — there’s been a healing that’s happened in the 10 years that feels to me — it feels like I want to go back out and tour The Con because I don’t want my lasting memories to be that I was devastated and sad and fighting with Tegan and hating everything. I want to go back out and say, “Man, this record is great.” You know what actually really is striking to me is that probably most people who connected to that album, their lives were falling apart and shitty, too. And I think to myself, “Let’s all be together now and hopefully all be reflecting on a time that sucked but is now nostalgic for us.” Cuz we’re all like, “Oh shit, everything was so bad. And now it’s not so bad!” I think that is part of what draws me to this album, is sort of being able to say, “Look how far we’ve come. Look how much better things are.”
I don’t know how into astrology you are, but 27 is when you’re in the thick of your Saturn Return.
My Saturn Return was so fucked. It was just a nightmare. Actually, I remember the day I turned 30, and I just was like “Everything is going to change.” Anytime I meet anyone between 26 and 30, I’m like “Welcome to a nightmare. The nightmare that will stretch on and on, but you will come out of it and it will be much better in your 30s.”
Besides the lack of social media, what else was going on in the industry in 2007 that affected Tegan and Sara or your career trajectory?
I’ll be honest — I think we’ve always been sort of right on the edge of when dramatic things are occurring in the business. Really when I think about it, we started our career when the Titanic hit the ice berg. 1999, 2000 there was already at least from our perspective, the industry as completely changing. The world of selling $28 compact discs to 25 million people was over and that kind of pop explosion of boy bands and pop stars wearing snakes and bathing suits and all that stuff, I could see that was the beginning of the end. People were really — it’s like Caligula or whatever: “The industry is grotesque, and it’s completely out of control!” That’s what it felt like to me and I was like, even at 20, “There’s no way it’s going to stay like this.”
I actually feel like we have thrived in the sort of catastrophic collateral damage of things changing. Like, “Oh my god — no one’s buying music anymore — we’re all going to starve to death!” No, in my mind, it was like, we never sold anything so now we just have to figure out another way to make money and pay the bills. And so when music became about streaming, its was, “Oh my god, let’s all run and capitalize on selling people digital music. Oh wait, nobody wants to pay for digital music, they just want to stream it? Great.” Every big change that kind of happens, we’re sort of going “I don’t know, none of that really affected us.” Like we weren’t making gazillions of dollars off digital sales so when our records didn’t sell any digital copies, for the most part, we were like, “That’s OK — millions of people are listening to music for free online. How do we engage those million of people? Do we tour our asses off all the time and play shows everywhere all over the world? That’s what we do.”
We know there’s an audience and we know they want something — what is it? I’m not saying that’s a model that is transferable to every artist, but at least for us, we were able to kind of turn inward and say, “Let’s not follow trends; let’s not listen to what’s happening for other bands, because I don’t want to be following someone else’s lead. I want to be thinking intuitively about the audience that already likes us. What do they want? What kind of stuff are they interested in? What do they need from us that we can give them? And how can we make that creatively satisfying and exciting and pay our bills?” For me, all of those changes in the music industry have been exciting. Like right now, I have absolutely no idea if anyone really wants an album anymore. I think most people just want noise and songs and playlists and streaming and whatever. And I feel thrilled by that because I’m not like, “Oh no, no one wants albums anymore!” I’m like, “OK, cool. I can’t wait to see what this kind of morphs into.” Like I can’t wait to see what kind of weird collagey music installation universe we all fall into. Like that actually really excites me.
You’ve scored a film, collaborated with DJs and other artists — what else do you hope to accomplish either as Tegan and Sara or Sara Quin?
You know, I could totally be — this could be complete bull shit and six months from now we’ll be releasing an album, but I will say this– what we haven’t done yet is not make music. We have constantly made music. I think we need to just shut up for a minute. I think we just need to take the bench for a second, let some other people go out on the field and maybe we’ll figure out that what we have to offer looks and sounds completely different than what we’ve done before. I don’t want to disappear — I don’t want people to think we’re retiring. You know what I don’t think Tegan and Sara fans need right now is another 14 songs. I really don’t. Like I said, I could be totally full of shit and we could be putting out another album in six months, but what I really think could be interesting is to see what can we give to our fans, what can we put out, what can we create that maybe isn’t musical? Maybe there’s some other part of our vision and creative collaboration that might be exciting for people, and it doesn’t come in the form of an album.
Why did you decide to make The Con tour all acoustic?
We talked about doing full band — we actually talked about just me and Tegan going out and doing it solo. This is sort of a happy medium. I think both of us were feeling like after essentially what has been seven years of playing arrangements — running MainStage and backing tracks, and we have count-ins and click track — it’s a very pop and modern electronic show. And I think both of us were feeling if we’re reading the room right now, I feel like maybe what people want from us is a little bit more organic and a little more persona, and I feel like The Con is the right album to do that with. I don’t think you release Heartthrob or Love You to Death, our pop albums, and say “And we’re doing it acoustic.” It would feel kind of weird. “Surprise everybody!”
We’re also at a peak in our touring career where we are getting offered 5 or 6 o’clock slots on music festivals and we’re having the opportunity to play in front of like 40,000 people and I think we were there with our biggest megaphone saying, “Hello, we’re here! We can entertain you!” And I think as a result there was a desire to say, “Now can we go off and play in these theaters and just play more organically and make mistakes and start and stop and tell stories and not worry that we’re gonna lose people in droves?”
I think this is an opportunity for us to go back to our roots. And what’s been really fun for me in rehearsals is The Con was actually a really challenging record for us to put up on tour. There’s a lot of parts and a lot of ideas, and it can be pretty messy. We were at a stage in our career where it wasn’t easy to kind of deconstruct a song and say “What do we really need here?” We were always like– everyone was playing with both hands and both feet. Like it was chaos. Now I think we have an understanding of music — our own music — that you can take away 55 ideas and only have five and the song will sound just as good and just as big. And I think that 10 years ago, we’d be like, “No way! We need them. Every idea has to be in the song!” It’s comical to me now, but that’s just the gift of experience — sometimes less is more. It’s actually been really fun to strip back the songs, and play them in a really stripped down way.