Love You To Death, self-doubt, and choosing to survive
Alexandra Pollard

11:33 27th May 2016

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There are a few moments on Tegan & Sara’s new album that are so brutally frank they’re almost difficult to listen to.

Or they would be, at least, if they weren’t presented in the guise of such shimmering pop. “Getting fed up with the way you love,” they admit plainly on Love You To Death’s opener, ‘That Girl’ - but through such luscious harmonies and blistering synths that the acerbic lyrics are easily missed. Later, on ’100x’, they sing, “I swear I tried to leave you / At least a hundred times a day.” Somewhat bittersweet, as consolations go.

It was a conscious decision, explains Sara on the phone, to take a sideways step from writing about the romantic wrongs done unto them. Or, in her words, “writing about what losers we are and how we're always getting dumped and nobody likes us.”

“I'm almost embarrassed by how lopsided it is,” she continues, referring to the band’s seven-album back-catalogue - a slightly unfair generalisation, given its breadth and diversity, but self-deprecation is in Sara’s DNA. “It's so easy to write about that. It's an easy character, it's an easy, connectible personality for people. With this record, we were like, ‘We need to look at the other side of it. We've also been the leaver, or the bad guy, and exploring that side of the conflict, and the tension that comes, was something completely unchartered - for me anyways.”

“It's a really uncomfortable position to be in,” she admits, “especially if you've become accustomed to being the underdog. It's kind of scary to be the person who's like, 'No, I just didn't love you. So yes I did leave you, and I would leave you again. A million times.' You know? There's something scary about being seen as the bad guy.”

If taking on the role of ‘bad guy’ was a risk, it was a risk the duo felt needed taking. As was their shuffle towards a more expansive, stadium pop sound. “I think it really was - without sounding so dramatic…” Sara pauses, weighing up whether to allow herself a moment of hyperbole. She decides to take the plunge. “I think it was a choice to survive.”

“I really had this feeling of like, 'Well it's too early into this career to feel like we've plateaued.’ I felt a thrill and a sort of fear when we said, 'OK yeah we've plateaued, and we're not gonna plateau. We're gonna step this up. We're gonna elevate the sound, the way we approach our touring, the way we approach our business side of things.’ That scared me and excited me, and I think it really did sort of inject this passion back into the project.”

It’s a passion that comes across in Sara’s every utterance. She’s excited about the new body of work she and Tegan have created - and proud too. Though pride in her own work isn’t exactly something that comes naturally. “I’m quite critical about things,” she concedes. “I'm always hesitant to play things for people, I always doubt myself. It's definitely something I've worked on as I've gotten older, this kind of central insecurity that vibrates through a lot of what I do. It's kind of painful sometimes, to never think anything you do is very good.”

Sara might struggle with her own self-worth, but it doesn’t stop her dreaming big when it comes to the band’s future. In a recent interview with Buzzfeed, she pondered their potential trajectory with refreshing candour. “By 2017 can we be one of the top headlining tours in the States or internationally? Can we be one of the top-billed artists at festivals in 2017?” How does she reconcile her inherent self-doubt with these lofty ambitions?

“It's awkward,” she says, wincing to hear her own words read back to her. “Even as you just said what you said, I wanted to interrupt and be like, 'No no no...' You know what I mean? I feel insecure hearing my own ambitions. I still feel really uncomfortable, but for so many years we didn't speak that way, and we didn't say those things, not even to ourselves, and I think you sort of have to aim higher than you really think you can go to get anywhere. If we say stadiums, maybe we'll end up in 5,000 seat venues. I have no idea, but I just know that at some point pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone was necessary.”

To be fair, I point out, she was also expressing those ambitions in the context of what it would represent to have two queer women achieve such mainstream success. She agrees. “I don't think it's a coincidence that some of our own ambition, and our visibility as queer artists talking about that, is sort of a parallel with what's happening in the general conversation in the music industry. You know, we've always been gay, and we've always been talking about some of the inequalities we've seen in the world. It's not that we just decided to suddenly pipe up and start talking about it, it's just that our conversation has somewhat aligned with what's happening in the broader social conversation… which feels awesome.”

It’s not just a conversation about queer women either. “Across the board, there's a discussion about, 'OK why are most music festivals headlined by a very specific kind of band? And usually that band is predominantly straight, and white, and comes from very specific cities’. You sort of have to actively, consciously and ethically look at what's going on, and sometimes you have to make different choices to make sure that things get evened out.”

This isn’t is an attitude that’s shared by everyone in the industry though. In fact, many view positive discrimination as something to be avoided at all costs. “We can't put a bill together based on gender,” declared Melvin Benn, for example, when it was pointed out that 90% of the acts at Reading & Leeds were male. “Tegan and I talk about this all the time,” muses Sara. “We have a predominantly male employment history with who we hire, and often we'll be challenged to talk about that. I'll think, ‘Does Radiohead get asked why they only have male technical people? Or why they've never worked with a female producer?’ So you know, I'll get defensive too. We actually do look at that every single time we hire anyone, but we still very often end up with a make-up that is fairly predominantly heterosexual and male.”

It’s difficult, I suggest, to reconcile a commitment to making space for people with marginalised identities with the belief that the responsibility shouldn’t fall on you alone. “I had this thought around the Grammys when Taylor Swift won Record of the Year," she says, "and everybody was like, 'Oh yeah, squad and girl power', but then there she is on stage with all of these men around her and like, why doesn't she work with female producers and female writers... and then I just thought, ‘Jesus Christ! Nobody is looking at Kanye West's credits and asking those questions’. I think sometimes the scrutiny on women is unfair. They're only having that conversation in relation to other women. It's like, 'No, no, no, we have to talk about it about men too.'”

And talk about it she certainly does - even if it’s occasionally to the chagrin of her bandmates. “One thing that I'm sure makes everyone in our group right now really uncomfortable is that I've become obsessed with, 'I wonder how much everybody's being paid'. If we're on the same line item with other people on a poster I'm like, 'Oh I wonder how much the guy bands are getting paid, and how much the girl bands are getting paid'. And everyone around me is like, 'Please be quiet.'”

“But I'm curious! I'm not even angry about it, I just wanna know! I just can't help but think about it. I find that whenever we offer support gigs to men, they want more money than women. You see it in everything. Girls are always second guessing whether or not they're qualified, or if they deserve it and men are like, ‘I've never done that before, and I want this much money to do it.’”

Despite over 20 years in the industry, Tegan and Sara still occasionally find themselves plagued by that very affliction - second guessing their own ability to negotiate, or even whether they deserve to do so. Before they made their forthcoming record, they were in negotiations to re-up their record deal. They decided, after years of avoiding the topic, to ask for the signing bonus that so many other artists are given. “We sat down with the president of our record label,” Sara recalls, “and it was like we were asking for more allowance or something. We were like, 'Do you think... that we would be eligible...for a... sort of... bonus?'”

“Here we are, 35-years-old, we're like, so bossed up, we know everything about what we do and our business, and we're still crawling over to this position and saying, 'Oh jeez, do we deserve to be here?' I feel grossed out by that sometimes because I'm like, 'Fuck, I know that none of my guy friends struggle to ask for those kind of things.”

“They demand it. And they don't feel embarrassed about it.”

Love You To Death is set for release on 3 June via Vapor Records. Tegan and Sara will headline two shows at London’s KOKO on 22 and 23 June. Get tickets and more information here.

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