Music Monday: A Conversation with Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara

Sara Quin on how doubt and non-conformity led to personal growth—plus the video premiere of "White Knuckles."

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I fell in love with Tegan and Sara during my freshman year of high school. My friend's cooler, older sister burned a copy of So Jealous, and as soon as I pressed play and heard the Quin sisters sing about heartbreak, frustration, and yearning, something stirred in me. During an era dominated by misogynistic narratives and indie ballads fostered by male fragility, Tegan and Sara's songs offered listeners like me a much-needed solace. Nearly a decade later they continue to inspire, soothe, and heal me. The acoustic drive of "Walking with a Ghost" remains as relevant as it was the first time that I heard it, while the pop-drenched pulse of "Stop Desire" and "White Knuckles" embody with rhythm what I often struggle to articulate with words. As the span of their discography grew, I kept finding myself through their songs.

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I was lucky enough to speak with Sara a few weeks ago over the phone about how the songs that she and her sister wrote shaped their lives and how their relationship to each other and their creativity is inextricably tied to change and growth.

Dianca Potts: When did you and Tegan start making music together?

Sara Quin: We started writing our own material spontaneously around the same time in tenth grade. It's a pretty standard story. We had a guitar lying around the house and we had both taken piano lessons, so there was some sort of songwriting ability built into us playing songs out of the piano book at lessons once a week. We were also really into punk and rock music, so we emulated that.

But going back even further, we had one of those Playskool recorders where you could sing or talk into the microphone and record onto the cassette tape when we were little kids. I'm sure that every child in the '80s had one of those. We were totally obsessed with recording ourselves, and my mom said that we were always doing that together. We didn't fight over it. We enjoyed the tandem experience of recording, singing, playing, talking, and interviewing each other [laughs]. We were already slightly narcissistic at five.

DP: Over the years, your aesthetic has gone from a sort of fusion between indie rock and folk to more of a pop sound. Was there a distinctive moment or experience that led to this?

SQ: We've been making music for so long. At any point there's definitely a noticeable influence that is linked to whatever we're listening to or consuming at the time.

I think that somewhere after The Con in 2007 I started to find myself not as attracted to what was coming out of the guitar-indie-rock scene. I remember very specifically hearing Alicia Keys's record and her song "Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart," and hearing Robyn and thinking, It's so nice to not hear guitar and layers and textures and sloppy organic instrumentation. It was like a light switch. It was a relief. I enjoyed hearing melodies. It started to alter and change the way that we're playing and writing our own music.

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DP: Love You To Death is your second album that doesn't heavily feature guitar. How did that impact your songwriting process?

SQ: I always write on the computer. In 2001 Tegan and I bought a desktop computer and a ProTools setup so that we could record. We eventually moved over to [using] Logic and GarageBand, and from that point forward I've pretty much never sat down with a guitar to sketch out things like that. I work almost exclusively in a recording program to build instrumentals. I started doing that fifteen years ago, and that's the way I always sit down to work.

It's kind of a depressing visual. It's funny because with this record and the last one, my managers would be like "Rolling Stone needs a behind-the-scenes shot of you guys in the studio, do you have anything?," and we'd be like, "Why would anyone want to see that? We're just sitting behind a computer." It looks like I'm at a desk job, like I work at Google or something. It's not the studio experience that you'd imagine.

DP: You've been recording albums for nearly two decades. How has sharing your emotions through songwriting impacted your interpersonal relationships?

SQ: It's a complicated answer because it's sort of evolving for me. I think that this is a clichéd thing to say, but when you're younger you're more open and more selfish or less embarrassed by all of that. I feel more self-conscious now than I probably ever did, so it's more challenging for me to open up about what is going on in my life than how I would when I was 25. I've seen the impact on the people that I've written about. It's weird to have yourself immortalized in a song when you don't really get to have a response. I feel bad now in a way, and I cringe a bit when I listen to the music.

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On the other hand, there's something really beautiful about music, because every night when Tegan plays the song "Nineteen," I almost forget what she wrote the song about. At this point it's really just about being totally present in the moment and letting the song have a different meaning. The story doesn't have to be the original story. Every time we start that song I see the audience flip out and sing along. They're not singing about whatever Tegan wrote the song about, they're just singing for themselves, and I think that in those moments I can be present and happy with the song again.

In the last couple of weeks we've been preparing a bunch of material for the tour in the fall. I'm listening to some of our older songs, and I feel like I want to protect that version of myself. When I listen to a song like "The Knife Going In," I'm like, Oh my God, why would you sing about that? But at the time it was probably really cathartic.

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DP: That's one of the things that I love most about your songs. That their meaning is never static.

Were there any moments in the past or while working on your latest album where you doubted yourself?

SQ: I feel like doubt is a key ingredient for my life. Doubting myself is sort of how I get myself motivated. It's the fuel for my self-loathing and self-doubt that makes me want to create and convince myself over and over again that whatever I'm doing is worth it, or viable, or important. I feel that every day. I worry — probably to an unhealthy degree — if we're relevant, or if we should still be doing this, and how does what we put out into the world compare with what other people put out into the world? But maybe that's part of being humble and realizing that what we do as artists is sometimes really silly.

DP: The representation of femininity within indie and pop music has changed so much since your debut LP. How has the cultural shift away from narrow narratives surrounding womanhood allowed for you to explore the complexities of your own identity?

SQ: It's a really exciting time. I think for us growing up in our family, music was everywhere. Our parents didn't have paintings on the wall, they had framed Bruce Springsteen Born in the U.S.A. posters. It was so influential. We grew up listening to Kate Bush, Annie Lennox, Sinead O'Connor, Prince, and Bowie. Everything was very gender-bending and queer. I didn't grow up thinking women behave this way and men behave this way. We always wanted to dress like boys and have short hair. I don't remember even thinking about being gay or sexuality, I just knew that I hated being a girl and I didn't want to be one, that I didn't want to wear dresses on picture day. I feel like the music and culture in the '80s and the early '90s really represented a lot of those things for us, so it's really crazy to think about how [much things changed during] our teenage years and the early years of our career. [Suddenly] the artists that were being represented in the mainstream were very gendered, like the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears, and Tegan and I suffered a little bit in the beginning of our career because we felt like we were too gay and too queer looking. We were struggling so hard to make a space for ourselves in the beginning of our career that I don't think that we were able to expand beyond that [for] the first ten years.

I think that at some point in our career being political for us was something that we were doing as a defense mechanism and not a choice. We had to do it because nobody else was doing it, at least not in our world. I remember thinking, My God, is this how it always is?, having to dismantle and acknowledge these infrastructures and these horrible practices in these institutions, whether it was in radio or a record label. I think that it's become so seamlessly part of what we do as a band that I just don't think about it anymore. We are just ball-busters at all times.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Dianca Potts is an assistant at Lenny Letter.

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