April was a special month for music lovers, filled with many amazing musical performances; including a visit from the Canadian duo Tegan and Sara. The twin sisters who first shot to our attention in 1999, have just released their 7th album Heartthrob, a collection of songs inspired by 80s synth, power hooks and big electro beats. For those who have followed Tegan and Sara over the years, Heartthrob demonstrates a new direction for the duo, shifting from guitar folk rock to a more mainstream record that mixes past with present. For a duo who made their following from heartfelt acoustic/piano folk rock, such a shift may initially seem a ‘sell-out’, however in many regards nothing has really changed when it comes to ‘who’ Tegan and Sara are. On Stereogum, Liz Pelly writes:
“Heartthrob might sound like a radio-ready dance album to newcomers, but knowing the band’s deep-rooted history in heartfelt folk-tinged ballads makes it a different kind of pop record for the ethos-first kind of music listener. Tegan and Sara…have successfully translated the emotional weight and humanity of their prior work to a mainstream-accessible electro-pop album.”
In an interview with Racket Magazine in 2008, Sara discussed her feelings surrounding the mainstream music scene and the lack of ‘heart’ within it, perhaps explaining the motivation behind Heartthrob.
“There’s nothing wrong with making music that people want to listen to, that sticks in your head, but there’s got to be some heart and soul behind it. There’s something about mainstream that just doesn’t feel like it has any heart behind it.”
Witnessing the duo performing at The Tivoli in Brisbane certainly proved to me that they had not forgotten their roots, with the sisters playing a sold-out set that jumped between folk-rock, acoustic ballads and synth pop. Even long before the support act Club Feet took to the stage The Tivoli was filled to capacity, and those hoping to nab a spot by the front of the stage in between acts were sorely disappointed. It was clear that no one was budging an inch just in case they missed a second of the show.
A brief glimpse of Sara walking around backstage during Club Feet’s performance set the whole right hand side of the crowd into a sea of screams, and we stood with our eyes fixed, waiting as patiently as we could for the duo to start.
Though it was hard to see at times (I’m not particularly blessed with tall genes), the frenzied screams around me revealed all I needed to know…the moment had arrived. Walking casually onto the stage in a lightning storm of purple lights, their silhouettes magnified against a giant prism bulging from the wall, Tegan and Sara opened the show with new hits Drove Me Wild and I’m Not Your Hero. In amongst electro beats and pulsing 80s hooks, Tegan and Sara’s unmistakable vocals cried out; echoing an ocean of beautifully crafted stories.
You carried romance in the palm of your hand
You called the plays for us
You clung to self-restraint, you followed the plan
You put the brakes on this
And it drove me
And it drove me
And it drove me wild…
Although starting the show with several new tracks, Tegan and Sara ensured we were treated to plenty of older material as well. Joking throughout the show, the girls teased us with promises of what was to come if we played our cards right.
“I assure you we will be playing a selection of old and new songs… But only if you’re good!” Tegan joked. “I’ve got a sharpie in my back pocket, so if you guys don’t behave I’m going to start striking songs off the list!”
True to their word they didn’t keep the audience waiting long, unleashing hits like Back in Your Head, The Con and Arrow early in the set, sending their fans into frenzy of adoration.
Many who have listened to Tegan and Sara over the years have described their music as having a special conversational quality. Spin Magazine once wrote, “Its strength remains in how much it feels like two people talking,” something which I can definitely relate to. The audience absolutely doted on every word they said, and I’ve rarely heard a crowd laugh louder than this one. The push and pull of their harmonies, their stories, is what makes their songs so likeable; and when the sisters weren’t singing they were busy talking to the crowd like old friends. Discussing everything from their love for Brisbane’s Fat Louie’s karaoke bar, to hilarious travel stories. there is always something to laugh along with at a Tegan and Sara show.
“There was this one lady in customs …I swear she was going to give me a cavity search!” exclaimed Tegan, igniting laughter all through the room. “She just couldn’t wrap her head around the fact that Sara and I didn’t live together. ‘You’re twins! I just don’t get it. It doesn’t seem right to me’”. Shaking her head from side to side, she continued with the story. “She was so suspicious! I was like, ‘Why don’t we live together? Well, number one… maybe because we’re ADULTS?’”
The duo also talked Aussie culture, and poked fun at their new favourite Australian phrase.
“I’ve decided on my new favourite/least favourite Australian phrase…’You’re alright’. I don’t quite understand it…people come up to me and say something like, ‘You have really nice hair’. I’ll be like ‘Oh thank you’, and then they say… ‘You’re alright.’” (Looks at the audience in confusion). “‘You’re alright?’ It makes me feel I was asking for the compliment!”
The audience burst into laughter as the sisters attempted their best impressions of an Australian accent, continuing the joke multiple times throughout the night. Like a pair of chattering children they laugh and banter back and forth:
“…It sounds like Vegemite…”
“Yeah…We’ll laugh about that a lot later…”
Although Tegan and Sara are well known for having a large following in the gay community, their show demonstrated to me just how powerful music can be in uniting people from all cultures and lifestyles. I was surrounded by both gay and straight couples, girly girls and tomboys, and in general people were just having a great time dancing, cuddling and enjoying music. I also had an amazing experience that proved just how selfless people can be. I had been struggling to take photos as there were a couple of really tall people in front of me, when all of a sudden a random girl wrapped her arms around me from behind and lifted me up! I then had a young gay couple lean over and offer me their spots by the front railing so I could take photos and enjoy some of the set without standing on my toes the whole time. I’m sure most would understand the magnitude of something like this…it just doesn’t happen! I was pretty blown away.
As my friend Lyndal will attest to, I am generally pretty nervous about standing too close to people at concerts because girls can be so damn rude – especially if you accidentally bump into them. The last time we went to a concert together I politely asked the Godzilla-sized girl in front of me if she’d be willing to let me stand in front so I could see, to which she turned her back on me and said to her friend:
[Girl 1] “This girl wants to know if she can stand in front of us”.
[Girl 2] “Ohhh hell no! I can tell you right now, that is NOT going to happen! Nuh uh!”
[Girl 1] “Did you hear that? There is NO way that’s happening okay! My friend is NOT happy about that.”
I stood there incredulously. “Are you for real? Are you ACTUALLY being serious?” I asked. At this point, I thought the gigantors in front of me would probably smash my tiny face in with their ridiculous skyscraper high heels, so I sucked it up and stood sardined with the rest of the shorties.
So yeah, the fact that someone would give up their spot for me, was something I felt worth mentioning!
I had many music set favourites during the night, but one of the newer tracks I particularly loved was Shock to Your System. Listening to the song live had an entirely different feel from the record; I felt as though I were spinning in a forest of synth pop, disappearing into the piano, drums and juxtaposing vocal melodies. I loved the structure, the way you can close your eyes and disappear into Sarah’s wailing, her direct vocal style interspersed with Tegan’s gentle breathy ‘oohs’. This balance between gentle and overt strength is an important part of Tegan and Sara as artists, and it’s really interesting to see how the duo, who have such a visually strong appearance, express vulnerability.
Why don’t you Want Me, is again another perfect example of this juxtaposition. Eyes closed, shaking her fist passionately we hear the pain and anger in Tegan’s cry, “Why don’t you want to win me back, why don’t you want to show me off!…Tell me why you couldn’t try!”; her directness complimented by the quiet, heartbreaking desperation of Sara…
“How come you don’t want me? Why don’t you wanna win me back?”
I love the vulnerability and honesty of their lyrics, the way they synthesize feelings of pain, longing and fresh beginnings. I find that their songs often have a youthful, sometimes even childlike quality; take for instance the song Alligator. The combination of simple xylophone notes, piano repetition and Sara’s almost ‘pouting’ vocal style makes me think of girlish emotion mixed with childlike phrasing.
Sensitive, it’s true
Alligator tears, cried over you…
Closing my eyes and listening to their harmonies I feel wistful… a sea of emotions flooding back and opening a vault of both painful and happier times.
Go, go, go if you want
I can’t stop you
You come back to me always anyway
Leave a mark
You said you never really loved her anyway…
-Now I’m All Messed Up
I felt you in my legs
Before I even met you
And when I laid beside you
For the first time
I told you
I feel you in my heart,
And I don’t even know you
Finishing the set with the dance anthem ‘Closer’, the girls waved their goodbyes, Tegan carrying with her a gift of Tim Tams. Of course, it wasn’t long before we all began screaming for an encore, and the girls soon returned to play an acoustic version of one of their most loved songs, Call It Off. As the familiar chords echoed throughout the room, the crowd gently began to sing.
I won’t regret saying this
That I’m saying
Is it better than
Keeping my mouth shut
That goes without saying…
..Maybe I would have been
Something you’d be good at
Maybe you would have been
Something I’d be good at
All around The Tivoli came the voices of women and men, paying tribute to these two amazing artists. Both Tegan and Sara were humbled by the experience, and to show their gratitude treated their fans to a medley of all their most loved songs, including We Didn’t Do It and On Directing.
“We want to do this as a gift for you, because we can’t play them all”, said Tegan.
Whether performing, conversing between each other or joking with the audience, the entire performance made me feel as though I had encountered something which was deeply intimate yet also comfortably casual. People were totally in love with Tegan and Sara, and I have to admit that after seeing them live, I too, am crushin’ more than ever!