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Tegan and Sara's pop flirtation

Sara Quin discusses the Canadian duo's latest album, new direction

By Litsa Dremousis
Special to MSN Music

Tegan and Sara / ©Lindsey Byrnes
Tegan and Sara Quin (©Lindsey Byrnes)

When Tegan and Sara sing, "So, let's make things physical/I won't treat you like you're oh so typical," on "Closer," the first single from the Canadian duo's seventh studio release, "Heartthrob," it makes you wish adults could play spin the bottle without risk of involuntary committal. The song's sugar-coated kineticism and playful sexual yearning trigger an almost neurochemical desire to brush lips with a stranger. Or maybe sing along into a brush. It's that kind of song, and it's emblematic of the entire record, much of which is a departure for the twin Quin sisters, long known for their indie-folk introspection and not necessarily their dance floor pull. "Heartthrob" is the rare example of an already successful band taking a genuine creative risk by sounding more accessible.

The only downside? They are in demand to an almost impossible degree, bounding from late-night television to rehearsals to interviews. As Tegan and Sara embark on a tour that will take them all the way to Australia, their immune systems have rebelled, forcing them to postpone both their January New York shows due to temporary illness. Ever the troupers, though, Sara recently answered questions for MSN via email.

MSN Music: "Heartthrob" could be the soundtrack to the last great film John Hughes never made. I kept picturing Molly Ringwald alternately pining for a misunderstood preppy jock or subsequently making out with him. But the songs still sound contemporary. How did you manage to create a record that is clearly influenced by Eighties new wave and poppy post-punk, but doesn't merely sound like a copy?

Sara Quin: The idea is to still be ourselves, while letting the music that informed our aesthetic and ideas about arrangement and melody in the Eighties and Nineties still inspire us and have a place amongst the new ideas and modern sounds from today. I didn't worry too much about having an Eighties vibe here and there because I knew we weren't going to end up with something retro sounding. There was just too much else going on and I wasn't afraid.

You and Tegan have each discussed feeling more confident on this outing. How much of this do you attribute to 13 years of a proven track record and how much is due to maturity?

I think a ton of it is about experience and ambition. Freeing ourselves to set goals well beyond the ones we've already accomplished and then try and write a record that matched in scope. It was exciting and far less risky or nerve-wracking than I thought it would be. It was so natural to shed some of that self-deprecation and shoe-gazing.

"Heartthrob" is less "indie rock" -- to use a bastardized and umbrella term -- than your previous records. For instance, Jack White once covered your song "Walking With a Ghost." It's impossible to envision him covering your new songs like "Closer" or "I Was a Fool" without completely smashing them open. If you could choose, which artist would you like to hear cover your new material?

I'd love to hear someone like Jack White do "Closer"! But, then, I'd love to hear an amazing singer like Alicia Keys sing one of these new songs. In a way, this album was my attempt at being a pop singer who is actually a shy strange indie rocker on the inside.

Bing: Hear music and watch videos from Tegan and Sara

Speaking of covers, you just covered the Rolling Stones' "Fool to Cry" for the Season 2 "Girls" soundtrack. You've talked about your abiding love for Lena Dunham's love-it-or-loathe-it series. How psyched are you to be permanently associated with it? And why do you think "Girls" provokes such strong reactions?

I feel honored. I love the show and think that Lena is so tremendously talented that I couldn't be more honored to be associated. I know the show provokes a lot of heated discourse, but I think that's a good thing. Its better to let it all hang out and push people's buttons than do something cute and easy. She rules.

You've had six songs featured on "Grey's Anatomy" over the years. Was this more of a tactical decision? I.e. if Tegan and Sara had existed before file-sharing, pervasive free downloading and when radio still had clout, would you have allowed your songs to be featured on a mainstream television show? Or do you even care about ostensible genres like "mainstream" and "indie"?

The idea that our music could cross-pollinate with a different medium was completely fine for us. I don't have any hang-ups or hesitations about allowing our music to be used in television and film. I think it's incredibly flattering. I remember seeing Juliana Hatfield on "My So Called Life" and hearing the Cranberries' "Dreams" on the show as well and flipping out. I think it's a wonderful way to discover new music and I was on board well before radio and Internet morphed our industry in the 2000s. I care about genres but find that we rarely fit in any of them and so I largely feel disconnected from placing ourselves in one, or allowing them to inform our identity too seriously.

Your mom is a psychologist. Has she ever playfully tried to decrypt your lyrics? Especially as she's the one who raised you?

Ha! We've never talked about it in great detail. I think most of our friends and family are up to speed on our lives so there is not much mystery to the lyrics for them.

At this point, you're road-tested veterans. What are some of your tips for staying sane as possible while delivering your music around the globe?

I think it's all about routine. Getting as much sleep as possible, taking care of your body, eating healthy, keeping partying to a minimum and working out helps. I like to travel with my own bedding for the bus, and I try and find as much alone time as I possibly can. I think being alone is soothing and helps me stay grounded amongst a dozen roommates.

You were out long before many of your peers. Do you feel a bit of pride in having made it even a little easier for other artists to come out?

I do! I feel proud that we came out and that we never wavered even when it became clear to us that we would face discrimination and homophobia because of it. It was worth it and I feel deeply grateful for the support of our friends and family and fans for the warmth and support we've had over the last 15 years. I try and be understanding of people who are closeted, but the older I get the less I can make sense of any argument against visibility. Unless you're in danger, in which case I think that's even more reason for us to be visible and active in making change happen now.

Litsa Dremousis' work also appears in The Believer, Esquire, Jezebel, Huffington Post, McSweeney's, New York Magazine, The Onion's A.V. Club, Slate on KUOW, NPR, and in sundry other venues. She is completing her first novel. On Twitter: @LitsaDremousis.

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