Musical twins Tegan and Sara stay true to themselves

Tegan and Sara with the Courtneys

When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.

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Where: Royal Theatre

Tickets: Sold out

Note: Tegan and Sara also perform a sold-out show Monday at the Port Theatre in Nanaimo.


Career decisions have never been a source of stress for Tegan Quin.

If anything, planning is the fun part of being a professional musician.

“We have to take risks,” Tegan said this week from Los Angeles. “My worst fear is that people will think, ‘It’s just another Tegan and Sara song.’ I don’t want people to think that.”

The try-anything mindset has defined Tegan and her twin sister Sara during their 15-year career. The Calgary-born siblings who now split their time between Vancouver (Tegan) and New York/Montreal (Sara) are known for their radical reinventions, having switched from alt-folk to indie rock to dance pop over the course of seven acclaimed albums.

There is a sense of safety in knowing what lies ahead, Tegan said, and there are times when taking the safe route is the best option. They are more inclined to favour a calculated risk, however, as evidenced by the stylistic about-face that is Heartthrob, the 33-year-old sisters’ most recent recording.

“We’ve never gone the mainstream, traditional route, and that has allowed us to develop,” Tegan said. “But we have been playing the game a lot of the time, too. There are moments where we have to take big, huge steps and jumps and risks, to see how it turns out.”

Heartthrob definitely qualifies in that regard. The record, produced with help from Kelly Clarkson and Lily Allen producer Greg Kurstin, doesn’t try to hide its stripes. The sisters were going for big, shiny pop on Heartthrob, the type that wouldn’t sound out of place on Top-40 radio.

Making a record of mass-appeal pop ran the risk of alienating Tegan and Sara’s loyal followers, no matter how well-written or expertly performed. That wasn’t an overbearing concern for the sisters, Tegan admitted. They felt confident entering the pop stratosphere, having flirted with the form at various points on their previous album, 2009’s Sainthood.

“The reality is that every single one of our records has been called a departure from the one before it. That’s a sign of success for us. We’re not boring. We don’t put out the same record.”

The success of Heartthrob proved their instincts were on point. The album debuted at No. 2 on the Canadian sales charts and No. 3 on the U.S. charts last year, buoyed by the rapid success of the hit Closer, which broke into the Top 40 on U.S. radio. Heartthrob also cleaned up from a critical standpoint, earning a spot on year-end lists from NME, Rolling Stone and Spin, among other publications.

Listeners south of the border understood what they were aiming for right out of the gate, Tegan said. It was a more difficult road to travel in their home country, despite plenty of critical acclaim, ranging from four Juno Award nominations (pop album of the year, single of the year, group of the year and songwriter of the year) to a spot in the Polaris Music Prize finals.

There was “so much hoopla in Canada” about the change in sound, Tegan said, but the storm has since passed.

Their upcoming local performances (Monday in Nanaimo and Tuesday in Victoria) are both sold out, proving that their popularity on Vancouver Island — a satellite hometown of sorts, given that their managers and bandleader all live in Victoria — remains intact.

Victoria, Vancouver Island or Vienna — regardless of where they are playing, Tegan and Sara want only to communicate.

“When I look out at our audience, my biggest excitement is seeing young people really responding to the music. That is our purpose now.

“It’s not to be famous, or to keep our old fans, it’s to make great music that attaches to a whole new generation.”

They have had help in that regard.

In August, Taylor Swift, an admitted fan, brought the sisters onstage to sing Closer during her sold-out show at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. It gave the sisters a rare glimpse inside the hurricane of a pop star, and Tegan remains impressed at how well both Swift and Katy Perry — another pop powerhouse with whom they have become friends — handle themselves on a daily basis.

“Both Taylor Swift and Katy Perry I have found to be quite articulate and in charge,” she said. “They are bosses for sure. They are present in their careers.”

Tegan and Sara will join Perry as the opening act on an upcoming leg of her North American tour, which stops for two dates at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena Sept. 9 and 10. The sisters already know what to expect: They joined Perry onstage in October to sing Perry’s massive hit Roar during a benefit concert at the Hollywood Bowl.

“At some point we’ll be able to look back at things and say, ‘We toured with Katy Perry.’ That’s pretty cool. Plus, we had to do it. As if we would say no.”

Early fans clinging to Tegan and Sara’s early folk-based music are liable to be long gone at this point in their career, Tegan admitted. Recording the hit theme song for The Lego Movie all but sealed that deal, she joked. The old versus new argument notwithstanding, it’s hard to argue with Tegan and Sara’s pop-making track record at this point: The Lego Movie theme song, Everything Is AWESOME!!!, on which they collaborated with The Lonely Island, has already cracked the Top 10 on three U.S. charts.

Things somewhat return to normal when Tegan and Sara are playing headlining shows of their own, but the sisters stopped long ago trying to please everyone. Tegan and Sara value their audience, without question, but can only be true to themselves. Tegan hopes that is reason enough for fans to keep listening.

“We’ve lucked out because we’ve had enough success and it has been timed out properly, in that we’ve had time to feel success and failure. We’ve had time to look at our mistakes, we’ve had time to look at ventures that didn’t work, and take from it what did work. There is this idea that bands don’t get time to grow and evolve. We really carved that out for ourselves.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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