Throughout the decade that gave rise to their joint career, twin sisters Tegan and Sara Quin became the unofficial queens of indie-pop introspection.
Packed with songs of strong — if not somewhat moody — folk imagery and strong pop accessibility, albums such as 2000's This Business of Art, 2002's If It Was You and especially 2004's So Jealous established an international following for the Calgary-born duo that came to be known as Tegan and Sara.
But an inevitable side effect to a career that achieves longevity is a creative, as well as commercial, restlessness. Breaking free of it almost always works against the component most essential to an extended artistic lifespan: audience expectations.
"I felt like we made a lot of sad and very introspective, very heavy records," said Tegan Quin, who joins sister Sara as one of the featured opening night acts at this year's Bunbury Music Festival in Cincinnati. "That's been great because that has helped us acquire an incredible audience of very passionate music listeners. Our souls are really intense and electric because of it.
"But, absolutely, we wanted to make a record that had maybe a bit more of a pop vibe, more of an upbeat feel. We just felt if we want to create a really interesting catalog and live show, we needed to move in a different direction."
With that, Heartthrob was born — an album that took Tegan and Sara's pop consciousness to the dance floor. The heavy electronica beats that fuel Closer, the album's leadoff single, might have caught the indie faithful off guard. But the pop mainstream was quick to react. Heartthrob hit No. 3 on the Billboard 200 last winter during its first week of release. It was the highest chart position, much less chart debut, of any Tegan and Sara album.
"I could talk for hours about why we chose to go in the direction we did for Heartthrob," Tegan said. "But the honest and most basic answer is that we've been making music for almost 20 years together. We've been writing since we were teenagers. In order to keep our band interesting and to keep Sara and I inspired and excited and challenging ourselves, we cannot make the same record twice. With Heartthrob, that is what we had to do. We had to make a record that was going to push ourselves outside of our comfort zone, push our audience outside of its comfort zone and push the industry, hopefully, outside of its comfort zone. We didn't really see anything like us in the mainstream, so we wanted to make a record that helped us reach the mainstream.
"We felt it was time to challenge pop radio and challenge commercial music. Basically, we felt like we had a lot of big challenges ahead of us and wanted to accept them rather than just make another Tegan and Sara record. The themes on this record are still very intense and personal and vulnerable and dark, in some cases. But we wanted to try juxtaposing those themes with more upbeat sounds to create a really interesting vibe for the record."
The success of Heartthrob is just part of what has Tegan and Sara so excited as they hit the road this summer. Artists with activist streaks, the twins are openly gay and championed the recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act.
"We were thrilled," Tegan said. "We were in Europe when that happened and, obviously, we were very excited. This is something that is very important to us. Aside from our political leanings and us just being gay and caring about it on that level, it is very personal for us. It was very personal as someone who was raised with very high self-esteem to feel very confident about who I was. I grew up in a very supportive community and lived in Canada to become really outspoken about being an equal citizen. There is a big fight still ahead and lots of ground still to cover. But I feel this is a huge step."
Adding to all that was a perk that might seem miniscule when compared to the commercial triumph of a hit album and the social milestone of marriage equality. The Quin sisters recently had the opportunity to meet one of their most formative — and, perhaps, unexpected artistic inspirations — members of the '90s boy band New Kids on the Block.
"People laugh about how excited we were," Tegan said. "But we were, like, really, really excited. We were literally part of the generation that was obsessed with New Kids on the Block. Sara and I were 8 years old when they put out their first cassette tape. I remember going to see to them perform in Calgary when I was 10. Speaking of Heartthrob, they were our heartthrobs. We loved them, and they were real. I remember sitting in my seat, watching them dance around and sing. I was going, 'Oh my God, they're real.' After that we became really obsessed with music. We performed in the choir in school. We were obsessed with Bruce Springsteen. We loved lots of other kinds of music, too. But New Kids was kind of the first music we picked that wasn't our parents' music. So meeting them was really exciting.
"We've had incredibly humbling experiences throughout our career meeting everyone from Paul McCartney and Neil Young (Tegan and Sara record for Young's Vapor label) and playing with them to meeting New Kids. As a child, that was the thing that kind of made us want to perform. I think they provided a very important steppingstone for a lot of artists."
Bunbury Music Festival
When: July 12-14; starts at 2 p.m. each day.
July 12: fun., Tegan and Sara, Walk the Moon, Tokyo Police Club, others.
July 13: MGMT, Cake, Divine Fits, Atlas Genius, We Are Scientists, others.
July 14: The National, Belle & Sebastian, Yo La Tengo, Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, Daniel Martin Moore, others.
Where: Yeoman's Cove at Sawyer Point, 705 E. Pete Rose Way, Cincinnati.
Learn more: Bunburyfestival.com, (513) 352-6180