Tegan and Sara look back on the 'mayhem' of making The Con: 'I was a disaster'
When alt-pop duo Tegan and Sara released The Con 10 years ago, they felt like outsiders. They didn’t belong to a particular scene. They lacked a mentor. They couldn’t find a peer group of like-minded artists. Mainstream music publications also had some regrettable things to say about their work and identities as queer women. “We never really fit in for whatever reason,” the band’s Sara Quin tells EW.
But you wouldn’t know that just by looking at the The Con X: Covers, a 10th-anniversary tribute album (with an accompanying tour) that shows just how beloved the band — and their 2007 LP — really is. The project features covers from some of the band’s musical heroes (Cyndi Lauper, Ryan Adams), artists that came up in the industry shortly after them (Paramore’s Hayley Williams, Bleachers), and a crop of new artists that count Tegan and Sara as major influences and inspirations (Shura, MUNA). The album, whose proceeds will go to the Tegan and Sara Foundation benefitting LGBTQ women, celebrates the community of artists Tegan and Sara have been trying to build throughout their career — the one they didn’t think they had a decade ago. “Some of these bands are people I hope would count on us if they needed something, bands we believe are positive and interesting voices in the industry right now,” Quin, 37, says. “That stuff is really important to us personally.” Below, Quin talks about assembling the covers album, the band’s current The Con anniversary tour (buy tickets here), and what shocked her the most about looking back on this era.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you first started reaching out to artists about covering The Con, how did you pitch them and what guidelines did you give them, if any?
Sara Quin: When we started talking about making this album, we had a hit list of people we knew would probably do it no matter what their schedule was, and we wanted to get them on board first. We went to Hayley from Paramore and Lauren from CHVRCHES and let them have first dibs on whatever song they wanted to do. From there, we took a more curatorial approach. We would select a song and say, “Who would do ‘I Was Married’? What kind of artist would be interesting?” We asked Neil Young — “I Was Married” would be cool performed by a straight guy. We really talked about the concepts of the songs and what would be an interesting perspective or voice, and then we would work through a list of artists until we found someone who was available or interested. And obviously, the criteria for anyone was that they would be either LGBTQ or a great LGBTQ ally. We wanted to make sure we were acknowledging the philanthropic part of the record and the proceeds that were going to be raised for the Tegan and Sara Foundation.
In terms of what we told people, we said they could do whatever they wanted. In the spirit of the original, you can do something lo-fi and demo-style, or you can blow the motherload and go into the studio. All we asked is that people either donated their time or kept the budget to a minimum because we wanted as much of the proceeds to go to the foundation as possible. It was actually a very slim budget. People were amazing. We were able to get most people in for under $500 a song.
Did any covers in particular shock or surprise you?
I wasn’t shocked by anyone, but my expectations were high, and every time something would come in, I would just be amazed at the choices people made. Hayley’s cover of “Nineteen,” Ryan Adams’ version of “Back in Your Head,” and Sara Bareilles’ version of “Floorplan,” stand out to me because they made lyrical changes where I was like, “We should do that! That’s way better! What an interesting way to do that!” Hayley specifically, at the the last chorus, instead of saying “I was 19 calling,” she says “I was 19, can you blame me?” It made me feel like crying. That’s the gift this project gave me as a songwriter: “Wow, this person made that part better.” Or, “Wow, what an interesting perspective.” I felt very humbled having all these other artists work on something that we had written.
In the run-up to your last album, Love You to Death, you talked about your growing disinterest in playing guitar.
Hate it! Still hate it!
Even though you started experimenting a lot with keyboards on The Con, when you hear covers that reimagine your guitar songs with synths and pianos, do you feel a little jealous?
Oh, yeah. Tegan is so annoyed at me right now. We’ve been doing rehearsals for the tour, and I am not playing any guitar right now. I have a piano at home, and I’ve relearned every song on that album and many from our other albums on piano. I’m a pretty basic piano player, but I can’t stand the guitar. Yesterday I started trying to figure out the guitar part for “Knife Going In” and two of the strings broke, and I swear to God I almost smashed it. I might go back to a guitar stage, but in terms of sitting down and recreating some of these songs on acoustic guitars, I’m just not interested. I also think that no one needs to hear “Back in Your Head” on guitar. I’ve played that song for 10 years on acoustic guitar. How do I refocus the song so that it’s still recognizable but doesn’t have me strumming these double-time downstrokes for two hours on stage? I’ve given up on thinking that’s interesting.
It’s funny, then, that Ryan Adams’ version of “Back in Your Head” was so guitar-heavy and took the song in such a power-pop direction.
Ryan’s version is at least filled with what feels like rage, and I’m like, “Yeah, I feel you!” When I heard that, I was like, “Oh, I think I want to make a rock record again.” But the truth is, the original song was totally sad, and we did make a certain off-kilter pop song out of it. That should not be what people expect from The Con anniversary tour. Currently I’m playing it in a way that’s really sad-sack. I wanted to reframe it that way because that’s what it was — an incredibly sad song. It’s been fun trying to play it as an upbeat pop song for 10 years, but there’s a relief for me when I play it now because I’m like, “Oh, yeah, this feels more real and authentic.”
I’m sort of joking about how much I hate the guitar, but I like how much theory I understand about the piano. I like being able to say, “I want to play ‘Back in Your Head’ in the original key but I want to change some of the chords and voicing to make it sadder.” I can do that! With the guitar, I don’t really have the skill. My skill level was based on doing these weird tunings and coming up with these weird songs. [Reworking them for piano] has given me a lot of power back over those songs. Part of why we played so many of Tegan’s songs from The Con is because they’re more straightforward. It’s not a diss. “Call It Off” is very simple. “Nineteen” is just a very straightforward chord progression. They were easy to figure out and change. My songs would come up and everyone would be like, “What the hell is this tuning? What is this part?” And I’d be like, “Nevermind, I’m not playing it!” Now I can fix all of that.
What’s it like having some of your musical heroes, like Cyndi Lauper and Ryan Adams, contribute to this project?
It’s very satisfying, actually! [Laughs] It’s not a bit when Tegan and I are self-deprecating. We were always apologizing for the space we took up, and I think we doubted ourselves. Part of our evolution into pop was, “Hey, we’re not bragging, we feel good about ourselves, these are great songs, we’re talented, we stand out, we’ve worked for this, we deserve this, this wasn’t an accident.” And I think part of our understanding of that [comes from] your peers saying, “Yeah, I would love to cover that song, it’s not a waste of time to me. I can do something interesting with it.” It’s fascinating when someone you’ve listened to since you were 4 sings your song. It’s totally surreal.
You also have covers from artists like MUNA and Shura, who were teenagers when The Con came out and have talked about looking up to you. Do you and Tegan feel like proud moms, seeing the next generation of artists that you’ve paved the way for? I mean, not that you’re retiring or anything.
That’s exactly it! “It’s so cool that you guys retired and are gonna die now!” [Laughs] I don’t feel like a proud mom, I feel like Tegan and I have made a massive effort over the last 10 years to create a community that we didn’t feel we had in the first 10 years of our career. I’m not blaming any one person, but I just feel like we were isolated from the queer scene, we were isolated from the indie-rock scene. We never really fit in for whatever reason. I deeply, deeply desired a mentor who would show us the way. There were plenty of bands that would take us on tour, but I don’t think there is a culture of people mentoring each other when it’s a man and a woman. I’m not trying to indict any of the bands we’ve ever toured with. But as amazing as Ryan Adams was — and he was so generous and kind and wonderful — I didn’t feel like I could call Ryan up and ask for his advice. He was totally in his own career and had his own sh– going on. I felt like all I wanted was an older brother or sister, someone in the scene who would help us or be our buddy or stand up for us if people said sh–y things about us in the press.
Some of [using our platform] is about visibility and queer people and people of color and social justice. And some of it is just, “Hey, I saw you put a record out, you’re young and this industry can be crazy, here’s my number, call me anytime.” In a way this record is an extension of that. Some of these bands are people I hope would count on us if they needed something, bands we believe are positive and interesting voices in the industry right now. That stuff is really important to us personally.
I think you can see that work in action — I’ve discovered so many artists, like Alex Lahey, through your Twitter account.
Even if it means nothing monetarily or numbers-wise, it’s a gesture. All I care about is the gesture. I love Alex. She came backstage in Australia with a guy we used to work with really closely. He was like, “You need to check her out.” We spent 15 minutes talking and I was like, “Yeah, I love her.” I hadn’t even listened to her music! I just wanted to support this person. She is an awesome, confident, outspoken queer person who is ready to kick down some doors in this world and in the music industry, and I’m going to help her do it.
I’m looking at this not like, “Oh, Tegan and I are done, we need to start making space for other people,” but the truth is, we’ve spent a long time making choices and doing things to increase the band’s visibility and take up as much space as we can. We don’t need to be in a constant cycle of self-promotion. In our community, people are often so threatened: If this band is getting too much attention, then I’m not getting enough attention. You know what? We get too much attention! Tegan and I have no problem getting headlines on all the big blogs and all the websites — sometimes for things where I’m like, why? I don’t know how long that will last, but while we’re getting that attention, I’m going to help give visibility to other artists and issues we care about. Easy. Why not? It makes me feel good to see the bands we’ve toured with or the organizations we believe in succeed. It inspires me and makes me feel like there’s some reason for all of this.
Did any of the covers flip the mood of a song in ways you weren’t expecting? The original “Burn Your Life Down” is sad, but on The Con it feels almost hopeful and determined in a by-your-bootstraps way, while Bleachers’ version is way more depressing.
It’s interesting, because a lot of songs like “Back in Your Head” and “Burn Your Life Down” were profoundly depressing demos. The songs were so sad. It was a choice we made in the studio to pop them up. It was like, “Oh God, I don’t want this record to be a f—ing funeral march.” There was already some pretty dark sh–. The choices back then were thinking in terms of an album and sequencing and what the emotional arc of the record was going to be. I never liked playing “Burn Your Life Down” live, which is funny, because when I sit at home and play it by myself, I always play it sad and slow. So when I heard Bleachers’ version, I was like, “Yes, this is closer to the song’s literal meaning.”
There are a couple clarifying moments in the other arrangements as well. Sara Bareilles’ take on “Floorplan” is like that for me. My original version is pretty ornate and can be a little tricky, and maybe there’s an emotional dislocation there — maybe the song doesn’t come off as sad as it really is. But for me, Sara’s voice is so haunting, and the stripped back nature of the song and the key she put it in is really wow. There’s anguish in her version of “Floorplan” that is maybe missing from mine on the record. Not that I want to tear our versions apart! But it was nice to have these artists push into the emotional core even more. We were 26 when we made The Con. And what I found really interesting was the approach of some of the older artists. Sara and Jack, they’re closer to our age, so maybe they have a different experience compared to Shura or MUNA or Ruth B, who are ten years younger than us. Maybe they’re approaching it from the perspective that we had when we wrote the songs, which is very interesting.
This album meant one thing to me as a teenager, but as I’ve gotten older it means something else — I think I relate more to the original meaning of the songs and what you were going through at the time when you wrote them. Do you relate to the album differently now than you did 10 years ago?
Oh my God, absolutely. I feel that way about my own music and about music I listened to when I was younger. The thing that’s most shocking when I think back about The Con now is it felt like we hid some of what was really going on in our lives because we didn’t want to seem like we were whining. There was a protective nature to it. I could say, “I lost my grandmother, that was sad,” and it was. But the effect of that was far more complicated and difficult than I ever would have felt comfortable talking about publicly.
People were dying. I was going through a divorce. We were dealing with the fact that we had made a record for Sanctuary Records and, upon completing The Con, found out that they were folding. We spent six months being being sold to another company and being involved in these crazy negotiations. The price that Sanctuary was trying to sell the record for was insane. We were writing letters and taking meetings and having discussions and didn’t even know how The Con was going to come out. At one point we talked about just leaking it because we didn’t think it was going to get put out. Then we went on tour, and Tegan and I were at blows with each other and got into bus accidents. When I think about the mayhem of that record, I think, oh my God, I was just trying to figure out how to live and be an adult.
Being an adult is death and taxes and leases and existential crises. But at 26 I had been insulated from that, and it really just came on strong during this album cycle. Now I listen back to the songs and wish I could get in a time machine and go back and hug myself. I was a disaster. Now when I listen to the songs I don’t necessarily always relate to the original sentiment, but I can recontextualize so I’m not just lip-syncing a song. And I guess that’s the joy of a good song: You can find a new entry point, and it doesn’t have to be about the original thing.
That’s a real full-circle note to end on! I’m excited to do this again in 2019 when Sainthood turns 10.
We have some big plans! Big plans for that one!