With the deplorables not only controlling the most powerful nation on earth, but setting the tone for a world that’s increasingly intolerant, these aren’t the best of times for the more enlightened among us.
Seeing as there’s no point sugarcoating things, Tegan Quinn doesn’t bother when she’s reached in Los Angeles. Along with her sister and bandmate Sara, she’s rehearsing for a fall tour to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Tegan and Sara’s breakthrough release, The Con.
That’s not the only thing going on with the twins, who both call Vancouver home. Determined to make the planet a better place, they’ve launched the Tegan and Sara Foundation, a charity devoted to improving the lives of the more vulnerable in the LGBTQ community. They’re also ramping up promotion for The Con X, a tribute album that sees artists ranging from Ryan Adams to Cyndi Lauper to Mykki Blanco cover songs from The Con, which arguably remains Tegan and Sara’s most beloved release.
And then there’s getting their live show perfected for the tour, which will have the duo turning the wonderfully weird electro-indie songs on The Con into stripped-down versions designed for maximum intimacy.
But despite everything on the Quinns’ plate, Tegan has had plenty of time to think about the state of things in 2017. Tegan and Sara spent the past year touring for 2016’s Love You to Death, a record that received strong reviews everywhere from the Guardian and Spin to Consequence of Sound. On many days, Tegan found herself wondering what she was doing talking about pop music when the world seemed headed to hell in a flaming handcart.
“Look, it’s terrible times that feels like the end of times,” the fantastically quotable singer says between sips of coffee from a sunny L.A. “I feel like, at this point in humanity, we deserve an asteroid—we’ve literally used up all of our lives. It’s been a really tough record cycle for us because it’s hard to self-promote when all I’ve wanted to do is talk about what the fuck is going on in the world.”
But there has been an upside, in that when things get really ugly, good people realize they need to stand up and step forward. Count the Quinns among them. At the age of 37 the proudly gay siblings are now established music veterans. Over the course of nearly a quarter-century together on-stage they’ve gone from a quirky Calgary-spawned indie-folk duo to legitimate pop stars, graduating from intimate club shows to soft-seaters and arenas. There have been gold records, radio hits, and a 2015 Oscar nomination for “Everything Is Awesome”.
Now that they’re swimming in the mainstream, Tegan and Sara Quinn have plenty to lose by letting a hopelessly divided world know which side they’re on. That’s not stopping them for a second, their activism including the Tegan and Sara Foundation, which couldn’t be more timely, considering the way President Donald Trump and his supporters have been openly hostile to America’s LGBTQ community.
“Not to make it all about us, but I feel gross self-promoting at this point, although I have to,” Tegan says. “But it’s also been great in that we’ve launched our foundation, so there’s a way for us to tie in something good even in the midst of so much that’s bad.”
For The Con X—proceeds from which will benefit the foundation—that meant approaching artists to reinterpret songs on The Con in whatever fashion they pleased. As a result, we get everything from a golden-era-of-lounge reading of “I Was Married” from Ruth B to a buzz-saw strafing of “Back in Your Head”, courtesy of former alt-country bad boy Ryan Adams. City and Colour’s Dallas Green turns “Hop a Plane” into a plaintive rainy-day ballad, while golden-throated wunderkind Shamir gives “Like O, Like H” an experimental alt-pop makeover that would wow the Flaming Lips.
When Tegan and Sara began thinking about who they wanted to contribute to The Con X, they went to those they admired not just for their work.
“We tapped 17 artists, and we went out of our way to approach artists who are very dark and sad themselves,” Tegan says with a laugh. “All of them had to be open LGBTQ allies, or LGBTQ themselves. All the proceeds go to our foundation, and a dollar from every ticket sold goes to the foundation. The foundation is going to redistribute that money to organizations that centre on women and girls, specifically trans women and women of colour in the LGBTQ community. It feels like we’ve covered all the bases so that we can go out on tour and feel really good.”
If Tegan and Sara are extra stoked, it’s partly because the tour transcends the music.
“It won’t just be ‘Look at us,’ ” Tegan says. “It will also be ‘Look at our community, look at these stories, look at these universal themes. And look at us all coming together and, I hope, feeling good about coming out and supporting each other.’ ”
The Con remains extra special to them, and not just because it was where they finally entrenched themselves in the mainstream. When the record was released, the siblings found themselves on Warner Bros. after the indie label they’d been signed to, Sanctuary, got into financial trouble. Initial reviews were sporadic and, Tegan says, peppered with statements such as “I guess they can play their instruments”—snipes, she notes, that were sexist and sometimes even homophobic.
“We’ve talked a lot about how Pitchfork and Alternative Press and NME were complimenting us, but how the language was coded in a way that felt really reductive,” she says. “But then something happened, and there was this groundswell. All of a sudden we started selling a lot of records, and thousands of people were showing up every night to see us play. It was a very strange twist in the plot. The language changed. All of a sudden we were ‘a beloved indie-rock band, a critically acclaimed indie-rock duo’. In a two-year period, we were suddenly loved.”
What Tegan and Sara took away from The Con—which followed 2004’s well-received So Jealous—was that anything was doable. That speaks volumes today about how they are determined to make a difference at a time when, increasingly, the battle seems like a futile one.
“We sold hundreds of thousands of copies of So Jealous and established ourselves on radio and then we made an antiestablishment record,” Tegan remembers. “We didn’t make a commercial record—we did the opposite. We rejected the traditional studio route—we went in and recorded ourselves first, and then went in and added drums and bass. We made it dense and at times unlistenable. We disregarded all conventional routes. And we couldn’t have picked a better time to go out and do that again.”
Tegan and Sara play the Queen Elizabeth Theatre next Saturday (October 28).