At 35, Tegan and Sara Quin are only just experiencing their first moment of spooky twin connectivity. The day before we meet, Tegan started complaining that her right ring finger was hurting. She shows it to me. It’s pretty blue, but the swelling is going down. Then Sara shows me her right hand. Her finger looks almost exactly the same.
“I couldn’t believe this. It was totally bizarre,” Sara says. “But if you’d asked me first if we have telepathy I would have said no, you’re annoying, don’t even ask the question.”
The duo from Calgary, Canada have been making albums for 17 years now. Their eighth, Love You to Death, arrived this month, and it’s a summery blast of electronic pop goodness. But after so long in the public eye, they’re understandably frustrated with being asked the same patronising things about life as identical twins. “So many questions feel like they infantilise us. ‘Do you live together? Do you read each other’s minds?’ No we fucking do not,” says Sara, the younger by eight minutes.
They’ll be more tolerant of a discussion on the subject with me today, however, as I have twin daughters myself (who are big fans, incidentally, and have drawn a picture for them). They sit helpfully left-to-right in the order that their names are written on their album sleeves, though it’s actually not so hard to tell the difference in the flesh. Tegan’s face is slightly squarer, and she has a mark where she used to have a piercing below her lip. Sara’s speaking voice is a little higher, her looks more pixieish. They gallantly offer to say their name each time they speak for the benefit of my dictaphone, but it’s not necessary.
They’ve come to accept that in any interview, only a certain percentage of the conversation is going to be about their songs and the rest will be about their identity: as women in music, as twin sisters in music, as gay twin sisters in music.
“I’ll be honest. If I were just straight as a musician, maybe I wouldn’t feel as though my life has as much meaning. Being in a visible minority and speaking about it, and having that connection with our audience, I feel like what we do is weighted a little differently,” Sara continues. And though people still ask stupid questions about twinness, there has been a positive development in the way that their sexuality is discussed. “The biggest shift is not that we get asked about it less, but the questions are more interesting. What people write is more thoughtful, and I think that mirrors what’s happening in the world.”
As I walk to meet them in the restaurant of their Marylebone hotel, I cross Oxford Circus and its vibrant display of rainbow flags for Pride Month. They’re here for two shows at Koko in Camden and are sad that they will have left again before the main Pride weekend. They’ve been out and outspoken about it since the beginning of their long career, a situation that seems less unusual today when artists such as Sam Smith, Years & Years, Troye Sivan and Frank Ocean aren’t trying to hide it either.
They’ve just been reading Ocean’s long, thoughtful post on Tumblr prompted by this month’s Orlando shooting, in which 49 people were killed and 53 injured in a gay nightclub. “I daydream on the idea that maybe all this barbarism and all these transgressions against ourselves is an equal and opposite reaction to something better happening in this world, some great swelling wave of openness and wakefulness out here,” he wrote. As a gay man in the macho world of urban music, Tegan and Sara wish there were more voices like his.
“I’m not saying it’s not important when we speak out about the LGBT community or our outrage and horror at this massacre, but we speak out all the time,” says Sara. “It’s nice to hear new voices. The voices that are absent are the ones that could really have an impact. In the music industry I think of hip hop, country music and certain rock music. Where are those people’s voices that could be dismantling certain types of masculinity and homophobia?”
Tegan adds: “I’ve been to a lot of gay clubs and they sure play a lot of hip hop. It makes me feel sad in the wake of what’s happened, that the people in the music that we as a gay culture are influenced by, are not necessarily the ones coming out in support. It makes me sad for the young people. They need to hear from their role models.”
The day after the shooting last month, they stayed at home in LA, where they live 15 minutes apart, watching the spontaneous vigils all around the world. The following day, they shot a video for their new song Faith of Heart in which all the lead actors were transgender young people. It will be revealed in August. “They were so inspiring, because they’re so young and excited and empowered. They’re this next wave of really articulate, interesting, very alternative voices. The timing of it was a real reminder of how strong our community is,” Tegan says.
Orlando has added a sharp stab of darkness to an otherwise largely positive conversation about gay progress in recent years. I have the space to edge relatively sensitively towards the subject over the course of an hour, but they’re blackly amused by the way others will approach it. During those 30-second red carpet interviews, the microphone thrusters will now leap straight from “What are you wearing?” to “Wasn’t it awful about Orlando?”
But the fact that Tegan and Sara are on red carpets at all is a sign of their remarkable infiltration of the mainstream pop world. They’ve moved from being punky-looking teens with guitars, signed by Neil Young to his record label Vapor, to synthpop queens who have shared a stage with Katy Perry and Taylor Swift and been Oscar nominated for their song from The Lego Movie, Everything is Awesome. At last week’s Much Music Video Awards in Toronto they performed for screaming 13-year-olds alongside “proper” pop stars including Nick Jonas, Fifth Harmony and Shawn Mendes. Aware that they wouldn’t be grabbing attention in the traditional manner – by not wearing many clothes – they arrived on an open top London sightseeing bus with 14 other sets of identical twins.
“I remember thinking that us standing out like a sore thumb, which should be making us feel weird and insecure, is actually helping. People are gonna remember our performance because it looks different and feels different,” says Tegan. “Most of our audience couldn’t give a shit how old we are and we need to stop worrying about that, because we’re relevant.”
Their transition from indie rockers, to manufacturers of bright tunes that sit comfortably beside Taylor Swift’s 1989, has been more gradual than it is sometimes presented. In 2009 they sang on Feel It In My Bones by Dutch superstar DJ Tiesto. Earlier songs such as Back in Your Head, from 2007, put keyboards and extreme hummability at the forefront. But it was their work with A-list songwriter Greg Kurstin, the man behind Adele’s Hello and Swift’s I Wish You Would among many others, that sent them crashing into the mainstream. Their song Closer, as perfect a pop song as you could find, became far and away their biggest hit and helped their 2013 album Heartthrob to become a must-buy for pop connoisseurs. The new album continues in the same vein, with the song U-turn in particular sounding born to top the charts.
The duo don’t feel they need to defend the shift. “We felt like we were ushered along that way because that’s the way music was moving anyway. It’s not like we were swimming upstream,” says Tegan. “Pop music feels cool now. As soon as it started to get really electronic and Eighties-sounding, we were like, ‘We’re in!’ All pop music means is you’re making music for everybody. I don’t want to be isolated in a genre.”
But there is a difference between what they do and what Katy Perry does. They still can’t afford confetti explosions, Sara insists, but also: “It’s different because when we go and see Greg, we come with 30 songs already written. With some pop music, it’s more like they’re plotting and strategising before they even start working on the record.”
Another difference is that, even as their sound becomes more accessible, their subject matter is increasingly less compromised. Their new song BWU is about how Sara doesn’t feel that marriage to her girlfriend of five years, Stacy Reader, is necessary even though it’s now an option. She thinks that its line, “All the girls I loved before told me they signed up for more” is the first time they haven’t avoided defining gender in their lyrics.
“We’ve had songs that have touched on it before, like I Was Married,” says Sara. The 2007 song was about her civil partnership with the band’s artistic director Emy Storey, though they split in 2008. “But this is the first time I’ve said ‘girl’.”
They’re not worried that this will dent their popularity. Nor should they be. “Kids are pretty cool now. They’re getting more advanced I think,” says Tegan. Having arrived in this business as kids themselves, now they’re the role models, and pop is a better place for having them.
Love You to Death is out now on Warner Bros.