Then came The Con, the album that undeniably blew up. You decided to bring several guests onto the album to collaborate, like Kaki King, Jason McGerr of Death Cab for Cutie, Matt Sharp of The Rentals and Weezer, and Hunter Burgan of AFI. What was it like opening up the songwriting process from just the two of you to other musicians?
Around The Con was when Tegan and I started to address the isolation we felt in our lives. Up until that point, we had been very incubated. We were in this band as the primary members with the creative labor entirely on our shoulders. Yet, despite this, there was an apprehension to open up the circle because, at that time, there were these inherent sexist assumptions made if you were a girl who didn’t do everything yourself. If you were not a superhuman, I can play all the instruments better than anyone has ever played them before, I wrote every single song, I took the fucking photos for the album cover, I drive the tour bus. If you did not literally do everything, people would be like, “I don’t know. Do they really write these songs? Are they even alive? I think they’re a product.” I know people laugh and think I’m being funny, but it felt like if we didn’t prove our authorship, then it was up for debate.
Around that time, we started to flirt with the idea that we had proven ourselves enough to bring in other musicians to play on the album, like Kaki King to play a ridiculous guitar part or have Matt Sharp write parts that inform other elements of the song. Why can’t we have other people collaborate [with] us? We started to ask those questions and build the community we had long for — something that had started to open on our tours, too, by choosing openers who we could bond with. To suddenly be the band going on tour with our friends felt like a significantly more fun experience and reaffirmed our work in a way, too.
This was the year you embraced pop wholeheartedly. While you obviously flexed those muscles on Heartthrob, you also put your pop hook skills to work by writing songs for musicians like Lisa Loeb and Carly Rae Jepsen. What did writing songs for other artists teach you about the flexibility of your songwriting?
It’s interesting. I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy those experiences, because it was cool getting to try using other muscles when writing pop songs, especially for those artists and the ones we collaborated with before then, like Tiësto and David Guetta. It boosted our self-esteem in that we saw ourselves traveling outside of the genre that had been designated for us. In indie rock, there are so many rules: do this, do that, don’t look like this. It felt scripted. Being welcomed into pop and electronic music felt encouraging. Popular artists being excited by our ideas felt like an enhancement of the community that we were trying to be a part of. That was the part of it that made me excited.
In terms of the actual music, though, I discovered a lot about myself as a songwriter. I prefer to write songs by myself. I’m an editor. I’m a perfectionist. I like to work on something for months and rewrite it. I think that’s why I loved writing our memoir because it required a certain type of rigor of the mind. Sometimes in the songwriting room, a person asks you to brainstorm ideas right there on the spot. Of course, I’m sitting there like, “Wait! Shouldn’t we think about this for a month?” It made me have to work a totally different side of my skill set, which was helpful, but I definitely prefer the loner songwriting style on my own.
You sang the vocals on The Lego Movie’s theme song “Everything Is AWESOME!!!”, which became a breakout hit — so much so that it earned you an Academy Award nomination. How is having a famous song in a movie different from having a famous song on the radio? Do they feel like different types of fame?
It was profoundly different. The ubiquity of that song and its use everywhere made me feel almost like it wasn’t us singing on it. Tegan and I wanted to see the film when it came out in New York City. We got there too early and were sitting on a bench outside of the theater waiting for the next showing. Suddenly I heard the song come on inside the theater, and then we watched as like 150 people streamed out of the theater while our song was playing. It was so weird. I almost felt dislocated, like someone else was singing the song and it was in its own stratosphere. I actually loved it. Sometimes when we have songs on the radio, I think we sound annoying or weird, or I pick apart the song. I’m too critical. But with the Lego song, it was perfect: we got to be a part of it while still being anonymous. That was a totally new type of fame for me.
Love You to Death saw you and Tegan write some of your most honest, transparent lyrics about queer relationships and what it means to be a part of the LGBTQ community. Did you see yourself becoming more confident in your sexuality as time went on?
It’s interesting having written the memoir and listened back to the music because, in a lot of ways, we were more explicit about our sexuality when we were teenagers. We were acting under that guise that no adult was really paying attention to us. There was a complete lack of self-awareness in that we weren’t wondering what people would think of us when they heard it. It was more about getting our thoughts and feelings out there. I admire young Tegan and Sara for that. We laugh about it because in our later years, we’ve had people ask us why we don’t use pronouns in our songs. We would say, “Who cares? Why does it matter?”
But then you start to think and realize, yeah, it does matter. When we went back to those early songs, though, we realized Tegan constantly uses “she” in them! I asked her if she was afraid of people thinking she was gay, and she didn’t have an answer for it. She was like, “I don’t know. I was into girls, so I said ‘she,’ and I didn’t even think about it.” There was such a lack of self-consciousness that it’s easy to envy now. The older we get, we think about it cerebrally and question our wording, especially its influence. I know the importance of sex in songs and what it can add, sexually and culturally.
Your new album, Hey, I’m Just Like You, is the byproduct of discovering the original demos you two wrote when you were between 15 and 17 years old. How did you feel when you stumbled across them? What was running through your mind the first time you played them back?
I really avoided it. We spent a few months looking for the tapes, the primary reason being that we wanted to listen to the tapes for the memoir. We had written about the songs at that point and wanted to make sure we didn’t capture them incorrectly. Tegan found the tapes and got them digitalized. I put it off and didn’t want to listen to them, to the point where it actually felt like a chore. There was a day where I was working in the library in Los Angeles and got in an Uber home, and Tegan texted asking if I had listened to it yet. So I figured, fine, I’ll do it. The first song I put on, I immediately started crying. I couldn’t believe how affecting it was for me to hear myself at 17 and the joyful emotion that was in my voice. It was like seeing a video or picture of yourself that you haven’t seen before.
Honestly, it was like I could physically remember what it felt like to be 17 and writing songs and the anticipation and terror of leaving high school. It all flooded back. The thing is, I didn’t cry because I was sad. I cried because I felt overwhelming pride and grief at how dismissive of that version of me I had been. All that work, all that art, I had decided it was crap. I ignored it, and it felt like I had ignored this whole story of myself. It came flooding back, and that made me so excited to work on it. The music felt very much like Tegan and Sara — it’s not like we discovered our childhood prog rock band or something — but there were still idiosyncratic quirks, like how often we sang together or things like that. It was somehow exactly what I needed to hear.