In our series From First to Last, artists with deep discographies discuss the varying differences between making their first record and their most recent record. For our latest, KEXP's Jasmine Albertson chats with Tegan Quin of the beloved Canadian indie-pop duo Tegan and Sara about their latest record Crybaby in contrast with their 1999 debut Under Feet Like Ours, working with John Congleton, and how, despite world tours, pop producers, and major labels, they've continued to remain in control.
KEXP: Your debut full-length was 1999's Under Feet Like Ours. Tell me about the story and making of the record.
Tegan Quin: When we made Under Feet Like Ours, our first album, it was an independent album and it was paid for by my grandparents. We went to my grandfather and we asked for a loan. We signed a contract. It was a very professional transaction. And this guy, Jared Kemper, who was an engineer at a local studio in Calgary, he offered to make the record with us and since we had limited funds, we made it in my mom's living room and we made it on ProTools, which he explained to us was the future of recording music, and he had a bunch of milk crates and he put them on my mom's dining room table and had this little monitor and that was it, real board. And we used the living room to record, and he sat in the dining room and we spent a month making an album in my mom's house.
I love it. It's like the beginning of bedroom music.
Yeah. I mean, I think he understood that we were still figuring out our sound and we'd done a few demos with him at the studio he worked out, so he knew that we were pretty limited in terms of our ability to play to a click, for example. I have this very clear memory of him sort of suggesting that making the record at my mom's would also take the pressure off. You know, we wouldn't be in the studio paying a day rate and it would allow us to be really creative. And we co-produced, you know, we wanted to have a say in everything. So it was a really cool experience.
Do you recall what your musical inspirations were back then?
You know, it was the late nineties, so, you know, it was that weird time where pop music, you know, things like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera were dominating the charts, you know, Spice Girls, that sort of thing. But, you know, we had just graduated high school and we were really into grunge music, you know, but we also listened to dance music like we also went to raves. So we were a bit of a hodgepodge. I think, if I were to like go back in time and try to figure out what we wanted to sound like, we wanted to sound, you know, alternative. But I think we were still figuring out what that meant for us. So I think the record is a lot of different kinds of sounds.
I think what I like about the record when I listen back to it now is just I think we were writing really strong melodies. But, you know, the record is definitely more acoustic. In high school, we'd been in a punk band and we'd mostly played electric guitar. But I think in the late nineties, Ani DiFranco was really big. And there was a Canadian artist, Hayden, who was really big on the scene. So I think we started to see ourselves having a career if we followed more of that path. So you can hear those influences for sure, like more alternative acoustic music.
Absolutely. What went into actually releasing the record and how did you get people to listen to it?
Yeah, I don't know that that many people heard it, but I think in the end and I can't remember, but I think maybe the first pressing was a thousand copies of the record. We independently released it, but around the time that we were mastering it, I went to Toronto with Jared and I met with a management company there who managed a couple of Canadian artists, including Hayden, who was having this kind of big push in the States and they said they wanted to manage us. And so we sent it out to a lot of indie labels, but we ended up self-releasing it not long after and we went out and did a ton of touring and stuff and we got reviews.
We definitely got some pick up in the cities we were playing, you know, we were road dogs even then. We just immediately started booking gigs and playing anywhere to anyone that would have us. One time we drove literally across the country like 3000 miles to play a show and it got canceled before we got there.
So yeah, I think not that many people heard it initially, but then it got into the hands of Elliot Roberts, who managed Neil Young, and they had a little indie label on the West Coast called Vapor Records. And within about eight months, we had crafted a deal with them and signed to them and they wanted to rerelease that first album. When it came out, the first thousand pressings were under the name Sara and Tegan. But by that point, we decided we wanted to be Tegan and Sara. And so they were like, "Yeah, we want to put out Under Feet Like Ours" and signed us. But it had been eight months and you know, we were 19, so basically children and we were like, "Oh, we're so bored of this record. We want to make a new record." And so that's how we decided to go in and make This Business of Art. And that's that ended up being our first, I guess, major release, although it was an independent label.
Yeah, I was trying to find reviews of the record and all I could find online were retrospective things that were like ten years later. Looking back on it, I'm curious what people were saying, what the kind of reception was.
I know, that's one of the good and bad things about that time, like the first three or four years of our career is sort of a black hole because the Internet really wasn't that dominant yet. So most of our press just came out in print press and doesn't really exist, especially the smaller publications that didn't really go online and didn't archive. I figured that all out a few years ago when we wrote our memoir about the nineties, because I was like, "What did people say about us?" It was pretty limited, but we had sort of a box of press.
So, I think people...you know, there was a lot of misogyny and sexism and sort of thinly veiled homophobia in the press. And I don't think people meant it necessarily in so much of a mean-spirited way, but I think people just didn't get it. I think people were like, "This is a gimmick." You know, there's a new book about us, which is weird, called Modern Heartthrobs. And it actually sums it up pretty well. But I think most of the press were, you know, middle-aged men or men in their thirties and forties, and they thought we were a gimmick, you know? Queer twins, identical twins. And so there was sort of this, "What is this? I don't get it."
Even once we signed to Neil Young's label, there was a bit of like, "Oh, what's happening here?" A lot of comparisons to, you know, Anita Franco and the Indigo Girls, which is absolutely fine. But, you know, I think that was hard because it felt like basically people were saying this is for gay women of a certain age. That's it. And we were 19-year-old kids who'd been in a punk band. And so I think the press felt marginalizing in a way. But a lot of it did say, like, "There's something here." You know, people would pick up, like the fact that we were harmonizing and we used to leave our voices in a very specific way. There was a lot of interplay between our voices. I think people thought that was really interesting.
Let's jump to current day with your latest release, Crybaby. It's safe to say the record is a far cry from Under Feet Like Ours. How would you compare the songwriting and recording process on Crybaby to Under Feet Like Ours?
Well, I mean, it's been 23 years. So, you know, we've definitely grown a lot, thankfully. Evolved, developed. I think the spirit is probably the same though, you know, I think that's probably what keeps Sara and I somewhat relevant and inspired is that we are still very tapped into it and connected to the youthful sort of adolescent part of ourselves that's curious and questioning and willing to go inside and explore and assess and keep record of where we are at as adults and emotional human beings on the planet, you know, struggling and suffering, but also thriving, falling in love. And I think that exploration that we were doing on our first album is similar to what we do now.
I think one of the things that we've always done is write really strong melodies. And I think that we...you know, it's hard for me to look at my own music and analyze it. I think Sara's grown exponentially as a writer, but I think Sara's always been an incredible lyricist, and I think she has a knack for really clever, really beautiful, simple, but complex ideas. On our new single, "Yellow," she sings "This bruise ain't black, it's yellow." And it's this idea of getting hurt emotionally and it changing over time and using a bruise as a metaphor. I just think it's so brilliant and beautiful.
But I think over the years, like a song like "Back in Your Head," like it's so simple or "Walking With a Ghost." You know, the idea of going through a breakup and feeling lonely and wandering a city and feeling like a ghost, but also feeling like you're tracking and tracing this person that you used to love. She just has this really beautiful way of speaking and developing her ideas. And I think that that was there on our first record.
What were your source of sources of inspiration for Crybaby?
Oh, boy. Well, I mean, we're really at this point in our career where don't feel like we have to make albums. We feel like we should want to. You know, I don't think people need more music from us unless it's good. So there's no compulsive like "We must release music! We've got to get it out there!" You know, this new pop model with streaming where people are compulsively releasing music, I'm not sure that that's ever been our way. We're certainly open to exploring it. It is really cool to be releasing Crybaby and putting a song out every month until the release in October. Like that does feel really exciting and fresh and a different way of allowing people to digest the music in smaller morsels, which clearly people want to be doing so I think we were just inspired.
But in general, you know, we turned 40 during COVID. This is the longest stretch of time we've ever been off the road. You know, both Sara and I are in our own ways, family-building. I got a dog and my partner and I have been together for seven years. This is literally the most time we've ever spent together in our whole relationship. You know, the first four years I was on tour. And so I think that there was a lot of self-discovery and a lot of emotion.
We left a record label of 14 years who we loved and had a great time out, but we were ready to be independent artists again. We wanted to own our music. We haven't owned our music since we were 19 years old. We felt like it was time to try out a new management team. You know, there was just an enormous amount of shift and change happening, and I think it just really inspired this introspective record that still feels really high energy and adolescent in a way, but mature.
You brought in John Congleton to produce the record, which is very exciting to me personally. He's produced a lot of my favorite records. Why did you decide to work with him and how did he affect the sound?
You know, we just think John's brilliant. He, as you said, has made incredible music with a really eclectic and wide variety of artists. I think, you know, when we worked with Greg Kurstin, for example, on our last couple of records, it was because he'd worked with Foster the People, The Shins, and Beck, but also was making songs with Katy Perry and Pink and Adele. And it just felt like, "Oh, that's who you go to if you want to make pop music with some integrity."
But with John Congleton, he's just made dozens and dozens of classic indie records. I think indie records are smart and have pop leanings. I think he has a real pop sensibility to him, and he's also deeply, deeply invested in the process, which is super meaningful to Sara and I because we are very invested and all the producers we've ever used are very, very invested. You know, it's like you make a record with them and then you're friends for life. And that's just how it felt with John.
We worked on, I think it was three songs and then like day three, I was like, "We should make an album." And John, it was like he took the thought right out of my head. He turned around and was like, "So we're doing a whole record, right?" And it was like, "Oh, okay, let's make a record." I just think he's really funny and he was so collaborative. He was really open to collaborations and I hadn't co-produced our last couple of records. We'd really like kind of relinquished control and handed the reins to two really amazing producers, Greg Kurstin, and then also Alex Hope, who did our last album, but we really wanted to be back in the driver's seat and Sarah had a real blueprint for her production. Her demos were really, really, really established.
I mean, we put the demo up with "Yellow" on our Substack recently and people were like, "Oh wow." Like we really, really have our sounds figured out by the time we get the studio. And John wasn't weird or didn't have ego about that, he was like, "Let's just make this monster. Let's just turn this all the way up. Let's just make it bigger. Let's just build from there." It just felt really organic and collaborative. And he just I mean, I know everyone has ego, but he just doesn't seem to have an ego. And when we did, you know, have conflict - or I shouldn't even use the word conflict - but when we had differences of opinions on things, he's just so passionate about why he believes in something. I found that very intoxicating and just easy to be around.
There's also an interesting kind of connection web that I noticed between you and John Congleton, because he also produced the new Death Cab [for Cutie] record. And obviously, you've worked with Chris Walla as well as Jason McGuire for a long time over the years. I just find that kind of an interesting connective web.
Yeah! I know I feel like I want to take responsibility for this because we were in Seattle - basically, when we decided to work with John, COVID was still sort of dominating the news so we were like, "Rather than going to L.A., why don't you meet us in the middle? Let's go to Seattle." And we met in Seattle and we were there a week, and I think it was the third or fourth morning we were there, I came down to the lobby and John was having coffee with Ben from Death Cab and they'd never met before. I don't know if they'd spoken before, but I think they had been in touch. But for whatever reason, they just were like, "Hey, since you're going to be in Seattle, let's sit down and talk and meet up." And we had done a couple of songs with Jason with a different producer a month before that, and we were like, "Oh, we're going to work with John Congleton." And he was like, "Oh, he's so cool." They were working, I think, with somebody else or something on their new record and anyway, whatever happened, happened!
That absolutely sounds like your responsibility. You did this, you made this happen.
I'm taking credit for it.
You absolutely should. So I'm curious about the release process of this record now, because obviously now you're a long-established band with a built-in fanbase and have a whole team to work on promotion. Do you kind of feel like you're on cruise control as far as having to try to hustle to get people to listen to a new Tegan and Sara record?
Yeah, it's a great question. I mean, I think a couple of things are happening currently. One is that there's this built-in audience and we can continue to connect with them and play to them and we'd be very happy and satisfied with that. I think a lot has changed over the last 12 years. You know, when we pivoted to pop, it was like, we want to grow our band, we want to travel more places. You know, we'd never been to South America, we'd never toured in Asia. We were like, "We want to be bigger. We want to reach more people." There were just so few queer artists that ever seemed to break through and we felt like there was a lot of love and appreciation for us in the mainstream. And so we went for it and it was cool. It was really great. I don't regret anything. It was amazing. I think we're able to sustain our career because of so much of what happened during that era.
But yeah, we've definitely shifted our focus and pivoted again and we're definitely not interested in world domination taking over. If all of a sudden we had a massive single, sure, great. But I think there are certain compromises and there's a certain kind of release that we're not interested in anymore, which is why we went to an indie label. And I think that is definitely forcing us to think creatively about how do we reach Tegan and Sara fans and how do we reach people who are vaguely familiar with Tegan and Sara, and then how do we also still continue to drum up new fans?
You know, I'm the first to admit I'm 41. I don't go to concerts as much. I still love music but, you know, I think that there is a smaller percentage of people, as they get older, who passionately follow music and go to concerts and buy the t-shirts. And, ultimately, we all know at this point that's how bands pay the bills. That's how I'm going to continue to pay my mortgage, is touring and selling merchandise. And so we're definitely strategizing how to reach Tegan and Sara fans. How to reach people who are familiar with us. How do we engage radio and press in a way that they'll be like, "Oh, great! A Tegan and Sara record!" Not just like, "Oh, they're putting out another record." So how do we get people to be excited?
And I think a big part of that was taking...I mean, our last proper full-length of new music came out in 2016, so part of that was just being patient and not pressing a record out right away. I think we waited until we had the right collection of songs, and I think that we're building assets, as always, that really sell a story because our records are not just a collection of songs, they always tell a bigger story. And, also Amazon just made a show based on our memoir of our time in the '90s. And I feel like maybe that will help. You know, people can see our origin story and go, "Oh my God, right, Tegan and Sara! I love them! What are they doing? Oh, Crybaby, a new album!"
But I think at our core, Sara and I see ourselves as creatives and artists, and we're going to continue to make music no matter how much we sell of music. But I think we're always very patient and meticulous about what we release. And I think people who are fans of Tegan and Sara will love this album, and it's just kind of about just finding them in the typhoon of new releases and tours out there.
Is there anything you do now or know now that you wish you would have known when you were making Under Feet Like Ours? And is there anything you would change about that album?
Oh my God. I could write a memoir just about that. [laughs] I wouldn't change anything because ultimately, you know, we had to make the ten records we did to become the band we are. So I can't dismantle the past because it would change the present. But I think that we actually made less mistakes than most. I think we always followed our gut and our instincts.
I mean, that's why we called the album Under If You Like Ours. It was our way of saying we're in control and this is what we want. It's why we chose not to sign to a major, why we made the record ourselves, why we remained independent for such a long time. We understood our career to be ours, that there was no one else in Tegan and Sara but us, and that ultimately our triumphs and our successes, just like our failures and our mistakes, were going to be attributed to us. And we remain steadfast in that.
You know, even though there's a huge team around us, ultimately our successes or failures are attributed to us and the choices we make. And that's fine. I can live with that because that's what we're doing. So there are a lot of things about the record that I'm like, "Oh..." but we made those choices then, and I stand by young Tegan and Sara for making those choices.
For our inaugural edition of From First to Last, Jasmine Albertson talks with John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats about Taboo VI: The Homecoming and Bleed Out
Titled High School, the memoir is due out next fall
Tegan and Sara have been writing beautiful, heart-breaking music for quite a few years now. Different fans swear by them for different reasons, but a common thread runs through them all: Tegan and Sara evoke the dynamic emotion of real relationship better than nearly any other band. Ever. Fans used…