Canadian duo Tegan and Sara released their debut album, “Under Feet Like Ours,” in 1999, and eight have followed, most recently last year’s sensational “Love You to Death.” They’ll be in Portland on Friday night for a show at the State Theatre.
If you’re not familiar with Tegan and Sara but are looking at their photograph as you read this, you’ve already figured out that they’re identical twins. Tegan and Sara Quin are also both out lesbians, and this is worth mentioning because earlier this year they started the Tegan and Sara Foundation with a mission to fight for economic justice, health and representation for LGBTQ girls and women. In other words, they’re total rock stars in more ways than one.
I first got hip to their music when the song “Superstar” from their 2000 album “This Business of Art” was gifted to me by way of a mixed tape from a friend, back when we used to make mixes for each other. I’ve followed their career since then, sometimes closely, sometimes from a distance but always with a keen appreciation for their music. When their 2013 album “Heartthrob” arrived with a much poppier sound, followed by “Love You to Death,” I had to take a moment – OK, several moments, if I’m going to be honest – to decide if I could embrace these songs. I’m pleased to report that I’ve since had what I’m calling a “pop awakening” and can’t wait to sing along at the top of my lungs on Friday night to songs like “Closer” and “Drove Me Wild” from “Heartthrob” and pretty much every song from “Love You to Death,” which I’ve fallen madly in love with over the past two months. “Boyfriend” and “Stop Desire” are ones that I run to, “100x” is one that I get teary to and “U-Turn” is one that I dance around my house to. BTW, I just saw Tegan and Sara at the Boston Calling Music Festival over Memorial Day weekend, and the twins, their band and their inflatable set were all completely on point.
So when I got asked if I wanted to interview Sara Quin, I responded with childlike enthusiasm. Our conversation went a little something like this:
I know I’m a year late to the “Love You to Death” party, but I love several songs on the album. Do you have any favorites at the moment?
It’s funny, it does change a lot. When we were first touring the album, we were playing a lot of the songs off of it. Sometimes I think that the song you start the album cycle with, a lot of times they’re the songs that I like the recorded versions of so much, and then you’ll start to realize these songs don’t work as well live as they did on the actual album. So for me, a song that I wasn’t sure if we would even play live has become a highlight of our show, and that’s “Hang on to the Night.” It’s one of those songs that kind of has a nice open, anthemic feel to it, and I think on the album it sort of feels more intimate; a smaller kind of moment. Sometimes you have to get on the road and just try things. I can feel that about albums from our past, certain songs will just work better with certain bands or certain set lists. It’s just one of those mysterious things. You sort of do your best to build a show that’s gonna work. But, really, until you’re out on the road, you can’t really know how it’s gonna go.
The song “100x” is a pretty emotional one. Do you perform it live and has singing it ever been an emotional experience for you?
We do play it live. It’s really funny, you know, I don’t always emotionally connect literally to a song or to the words that I’m singing. I think sometimes shows can feel really celebratory, and sometimes shows can feel intense. I think the thing about that song is that the song is kind of about Tegan, but really it’s just a song about me, it’s a song about a period of my life where I was trying to figure out my identity as an individual. Even though it’s an emotional and intense song, the truth is for me, it’s sort of triumphant. It marks a period of my life where I took a lot of agency over my identity and my experience, and I moved and, it was the first time in my life that I was without Tegan and my family, and I really actually feel quite sentimental about that period of my life. I often feel it’s one of those “yeah, it was a tough time in my life but now look where I’m at” kind of songs.
I’ve read that some journalists have asked you some wildly sexist and homophobic questions, and you’ve been subjected to sexism and homophobia throughout your career. Does it still exist?
I definitely think it exists. Obviously, in society, I think things change and cycle and fluctuate. I definitely think that there’s a broader awareness, and there’s been a successful educational push within our own industry for people to be better. The fact is, we are definitely still living in a day and age where there is an inequality between what men and women are paid and how they’re billed and how high they’re billed on festivals. Tegan and I see this a lot. Technical positions are really challenging to find women for, so that was a big thing that we did for this album cycle. I think we realized that if we waited for things to change, it may never happen, and so we sort of see ourselves as being an example of how things can be different and then also encouraging people.
Have you experienced sexism or homophobia in terms of radio play?
Oh, yeah. I think if you were to think right now about the last 20 years in music, I can’t really think of an out queer woman breaking into the top 10 or being a significant headline artist. I think there’s been significant progress with queer men, like Sam Smith and Frank Ocean. There’s been a lot of men that have been able to tackle that, but I think that we’re still talking about a sort of institutionalized sexism and misogyny and homophobia that makes it very challenging for women, especially women who don’t look a certain way or act a certain way or present a certain way.
Can you talk about the Tegan and Sara Foundation?
This has really been something that’s been in the works in varying degrees of official status over the last couple of years. We’ve always been activists and somewhat charitable and philanthropic in our personal lives, and then we would, starting as early as 2003, always do some kind of fundraising on tour. For us, it came from growing up in the punk rock scene, going to shows and seeing tableing. It was a time for the bands to express their interests and concerns and, I guess, sort of linkup activism and music, and that came really natural to us in our own band. Over the years, we’ve had a discussion about, is there a way to be less reactive and more proactive? Also, we’ve become a bigger band and have a bigger reach and more success. The focus became more of “all right, how do we redistribute this wealth? How do we redistribute this to the community that has supported us for our 20 years?” For some of these organizations, even a small grant can really make a massive difference. So, for us, the foundation is a more strategic and official approach to what we’ve done over the years. It’s been a wonderful learning opportunity, and the educational piece has been amazing to us, but also to meet with all of these amazing organizations and then be able to do a little bit has been really wonderful, and especially after the election in November, I think it was rewarding for us to be able to actually do something instead of just feeling panicked. We were like, “OK, we’ve got this foundation, there’s an actionable item here, we can really do something.”
8 p.m. Friday. State Theatre, 609 Congress St., Portland, $30 in advance, $35 day of show. statetheatreportland.com