Turning back the clock
Turning back the clock

Tegan and Sara Quin love karaoke. Lately, they've been thinking about expanding their repertoire beyond the heartland rock safety net of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Bon Jovi classics to include some 80s and 90s pop hits from Roxette, Cyndi Lauper, Ace of Bass and New Kids on the Block.

"I know it sounds ridiculous and it dates me and maybe makes my credibility questionable," Tegan laughs from New York, where she is rehearsing for a North American tour, "but some of the people who wrote these pop songs were pretty amazing."

Yes, the 32-year-old Canadian pop twins behind the mid-noughties indie rock albums So Jealous and The Con, have indulged their inner teenager and gone back to the 80s for their seventh album, the poptastic Heartthrob.

"We grew up in the 80s and I feel more in line with Cyndi Lauper than I do with Foo Fighters," Tegan says, adding that current pop from the likes of Katy Perry and Alicia Keys also informs the new album.

"People write off a lot of mainstream pop music right now but I think, although the production is pretty icy and it's all pretty perfect, that if you actually break down the songs, some of the songs are pretty amazing.

"Sara and I became really excited and intrigued by pop production and trying to figure out how to write the perfect pop song.

"I thought to myself 'Jeez, wouldn't it be great if we could write songs like (2007 single) Back in Your Head but have the production level to get it on to radio.' That was literally our plan."

First single Closer, which comes with a fun clip featuring the Quins singing karaoke at a house party, is the closest they've come to a perfect pop song since they started making music at their Calgary high school in the late 90s.

"To me, Closer is no different to Back in Your Head, it's just produced to sound like it could fit on radio," Tegan says.

Aiding and abetting Tegan and Sara in their frontal assault on the mainstream is indie pop studio whiz Greg Kurstin, who produced eight songs on the record, with Justin Meldal-Johnsen handling duties on the other two.

Both are former band mates of Beck and both are accomplished musicians. In particular, Kurstin is a brilliant keyboardist, which was vital given the synth-pop sound dominating Heartthrob.

"For us, it was not just hiring a producer, it was like hiring a band," Tegan says. "All the demos . . . had piano on them but (Kurstin) just took whatever I recorded and made it so much better."

The lyrical approach on the album was also nostalgic, with the sisters challenging themselves to not be self-loathing or introspective, but try to recapture how they felt about love, lust and heartbreak when they were teenagers.

"When you go back and reflect on something that happened five or 10 years ago, you have a whole new filter and a whole new way of looking at it," says Tegan, who feels that Heartthrob puts a far more positive spin on their romantic failings than previous records. "The Con, we could've just renamed the record How F…ing Stupid Can You Be," she laughs.

The elephant in the room is the experimental 2009 outing Sainthood. Despite being nominated for Canada's prestigious Polaris Music Prize, the album failed to really gel with fans.

"I am proud of Sainthood and I think it's a great record," Tegan says. "But it didn't sell very well. Music has changed a lot and people, for a few years now, have been more interested in pop."

Tegan and Sara have never been afraid to go outside their comfort zone or try different things. They have recorded vocals with dance artists like David Guetta and Tiesto, as well as punk rockers Against Me!; collaborated with hip-hoppers before working with 90s singer Lisa Loeb; and tried to connect with new audiences supporting everyone from Lauper to the Black Keys to Paramore on tour.

"When we were really young, we cut all our hair off and only pierced one ear," Tegan explains. "We spent a lot of time in our life being told 'You can't really do that.' And it's like 'Yes, I can, I can do what I want.' With our music career it's been similar. Sara and I don't feel like we have to keep or stick to one genre.

"Can we challenge ourselves and make a record that still feels real and genuine, but also poppy?"

Heartthrob represents a challenge and a risk. Will they alienate long-term fans of the lesbian, indie-rock poster girls? And if they do, will enough pop fans latch on to their new glossy 80s hooks to make it all worthwhile? So far, so good, according to Tegan, who says that Closer is already a hit in Canada. They have performed the song on David Letterman and Conan O'Brien's late-night shows.

"Once people get over the initial shock of the first track, I think it's going to become a fan favourite," Tegan says. "I think (the album) will be a success no matter what because it's got great songs on it.

"I think Sara and I are ready to take a bite out of the mainstream. There's no reason why we should hold ourselves back. It just feels like the right time."


The West Australian

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