In 2013, former indie rockers Tegan and Sara dropped a glittery bombshell in the form of Heartthrob -- a cotton-candy, synth-pop teenage dream of an album that propelled them to near the top of the charts, debuting on the Billboard Top 200 at No. 3. On the strength of massive singles Closer and I Was a Fool, the Quin twins claimed their rightful place in the Top 40; this summer, they'll open for pop-radio queen Katy Perry on her Prismatic tour.
Critics crushed on Heartthrob, too, the Polaris Prize-shortlisted album offering proof positive that commercial success doesn't have to come at the expense of artistic compromise.
And, this weekend, Heartthrob may well nab Tegan and Sara a fistful of Juno Awards -- honours, unbelievably, that Canada's most famous twins have yet to receive. They're nominated in four heavyweight categories -- Single of the Year, Group of the Year, Songwriter of the Year and Pop Album of the Year -- at this year's Junos, which will be handed out on March 29 and 30.
But Tegan and Sara's break into the mainstream wasn't an accident; it was calculated. And it was time; the 33-year-old sisters have been working hard for more than a decade and seven albums. They've paid their dues. And they aren't coyly downplaying their mainstream success, either. Tegan and Sara are unapologetically ambitious.
"One of our talking points was that we weren't going to hold back," Sara tells the Free Press. "There was a little bit of, I don't know, embarrassment at first about being ambitious. We came from a DIY, indie-rock scene and it wasn't so cool to say, 'I want to be really successful.' It's insane to me now that I allowed that to get in my brain."
While the Quins have shucked their image as "self-loathing, self-deprecating 20-something indie rock twins from Canada," as Tegan put it in a Spin interview last year, no one could call them sellouts without sounding petulant. Since the release of This Business of Art, their Hawksley Workman-produced 2000 debut on Neil Young's Vapor Records, these gay, feminist twins from Calgary have become bona fide pop stars by being exactly who they are.
"We have a well-deserved credibility," Sara says. "We're not turning our backs on our values or our legacy. It would have been a shame to do something safe. Ultimately, the response has been one of positivity. There will always be spikes of criticism, but overall, people received the record with excitement."
Some fans of the twins' earlier work might balk at the idea of them sharing a bill with Katy Perry, but Heartthrob wasn't really the hard left turn it appeared to be on the outset. Tegan and Sara have been steadily heading in a more melodic, hook-based pop direction, most obviously on 2009's masterful Sainthood.
"I loved Sainthood; it was such a companion piece to (2007's) The Con," Sara says. It also represented a turning point for the band. "It was a record we had to make, in a lot of ways. After Sainthood, we realized there were a few directions we could go."
Around the time of that album's release, the sisters began dipping their toes into the world of EDM, first collaborating with DJ Ti´sto on the 2009 single Feel It in My Bones then later with David Guetta on the 2012 single Every Chance We Get We Run. They found themselves writing more dance floor-friendly tunes that begged for high-gloss production. Or, as Sara puts it, "We wanted to make a pop record and we didn't want to mess around. We wanted to take our strongest songs to producers who could say, 'This has a great hook but the rest needs work.' We wanted to go hard on the material and make something bulletproof." (Eight of the album's songs were produced by Greg Kustin, whose credits include Pink and Kelly Clarkson.)
Heartthrob is the beginning of a new chapter in the Quins' career. "It allowed us to have an amazing year of firsts," Sara says. "We got to travel all over Asia and part of Europe we hadn't been to yet. We had two big singles in the U.S. There have been all these cool career highs. On a personal level, it's exciting. Even though we're 10-plus years in, we're not losing steam. If anything, we're picking up steam."
Indeed, opportunity has kept knocking; comedy-rap crew The Lonely Island and Devo co-founder Mark Mothersbaugh called upon Tegan and Sara to sing on a little ditty called Everything is Awesome, the relentless earworm from this year's box-office smash, The Lego Movie.
"It was so fun to do and we were delighted at the opportunity. We didn't know how our version would play in the movie. When we demoed it, we were in Warsaw, Poland, in a cold basement, singing into a crappy microphone. We didn't know if we captured the essence," she says with a laugh.
"It's another way for people to find out about our band. It's not totally representative, but there's a real fun and charisma to it. For us to be associated with the movie, it's an honour."
Heartthrob is barely a year old, but Tegan and Sara are already contemplating what's next. It's a terrifying, thrilling prospect.
"I feel like can do whatever we want because our fans are so loyal. There's a real freedom of expression we're afforded by that," Sara says. "But there's also an overwhelming part of me that feels like, 'Oh my God, what will be do now? What if this was it? What if everyone goes away?' It's this combination of tremendous confidence but still shaking in your boots. But I think it's the human condition to doubt yourself. It's a cycle of self-confidence and self-loathing. We spin through all those feelings when we're writing. I think that's what makes our music so approachable."