musicians on their own music

Tegan and Sara Quin Pick Their 10 Favorite Tegan and Sara Songs

Tegan and Sara. Photo: Pamela Littky

If you’ve been following Tegan and Sara since their debut album, 1999’s Under Feet Like Ours, you know they’re the type to make you love them to death. Even if you didn’t hear your first Tegan and Sara earworm until their 2004 breakthrough hit, “Walking With a Ghost,” by now, their canon of pop masterpieces has become even more inescapable.

With their eighth album, Love You to Death, out Friday, boasting at least one viable Song of the Summer contender — not to mention some of the the year’s best songs, full stop — the Quin twins find themselves in rare territory. They’ve graduated from emo heartthrobs to queer influencers to pop songwriting elite without ever losing momentum. Oh yeah, did we mention that one run-in with some LEGO-ized statue named Oscar? Since the secret to their longevity can only be found in their discography, Vulture asked Tegan and Sara to pick the 10 best songs they’ve written. As an added bonus, they’ve shared some advice for songwriters.

Tegan’s Picks:

“Nineteen,” The Con (2007)
At that point, Sara had written “Walking With a Ghost,” and that had done really well for us. But this was probably the first song that I wrote that had a connection with the audience, which I hadn’t yet had a song accomplish. It was sort of obvious right from the beginning that it was gonna be everybody’s sad, weepy breakup song. Even when I wrote it, I remember calling Sara and her girlfriend in the middle of the night in Montreal and telling them to wake up and go listen, and I was like, “I think I wrote something really sad, accidentally.” It was very cathartic, which throughout the early part of our career, I had rejected that word — like when people would be like, “Do you find writing cathartic? It’s like reading out of our diary” — because I thought it was really sexist. But that was the moment where I was like, no, no, this really is cathartic to sing this, to scream on stage every night, and watch everyone else scream along. When I say exactly how I feel, it really seems to connect. It still feels the same performing it now, though obviously, we’ve updated it. Our musical director suggested doing it on piano, and it really transports me back to the first few times we played it live. It feels very emotional — lots of tears in the front row. I have to kind of not look because it makes me very sensitive.

“Feel It in My Bones,” Tiesto’s Kaleidoscope (2009)
Even though it’s not technically a Tegan and Sara song, I chose this because it was the first time Sara and I collaborated on a song that got released into the world. This was also the first time we’d co-written with somebody, so it was the first time someone was giving us feedback on what we’d written, but it wasn’t in the studio. We’d send our ideas to Tiesto and he’d write us back like, “Sing it more like this” or “I don’t like this lyric” or “You need to generate more emotion on this section.” It was really cool, kind of like a songwriting class. Sara and I were both so obsessed with him liking the song enough to put it on his record that we both were writing on it. It was a true collaboration; there’s like two sections that Sara wrote, and three that I wrote. I was listening back to it, and it’s such a funny, weird song. But even though it’s EDM, it’s truly a Tegan and Sara song.
Our first four of five albums were really hard for me because I found it really difficult to be given feedback. I took any change as a criticism of the music I was making, so I found collaboration incredibly difficult, especially with Sara. But now I love it, maybe because we’re so far into our career or maybe because I have more confidence. Sometimes I just play songs for someone and I’ll ask, “Do you like the lyrics? If you could change the lyrics, would you?” I think I’m fearful of becoming too stuck in my ways and becoming redundant. I welcome collaboration now.

“I Was a Fool,” Heartthrob (2013)
It’s a strange song for me because I wrote the chorus in Los Angeles. I was killing time, my girlfriend was getting ready for lunch and she was taking a long time, so I was playing guitar and I came up with the chorus. I didn’t have lyrics, all I had was the “I did behave” part, but I remember we got halfway to lunch and I was singing it, and I was like, “Give me your phone.” I recorded a voice-note because the hook was in my head, which was very exciting. We’re not big, bombastic vocalists; coming up with repetitive vocal melodies is our thing. So when something sticks in your head, it’s like, stop the presses, you gotta get that down. I remember standing in the back alley in Echo Park singing the hook into her phone, and I was like, “Oh my God, either we have to go home or I have to keep this familiar.” I didn’t get a chance to record the song while I was in L.A., so I flew back to Vancouver and just would listen to the voice-note over and over. I then wrote the rest of the song around that voice-note. It’s a very unconventional way to write — I’d never done it before — but it actually started this thing for me where I would just work on one section and then build the song around it. I used to get a section going and then have to force myself to finish it. I think about all the songs that maybe got thrown away because I just became frustrated and couldn’t finish them.

“White Knuckles,” Love You to Death (2016)
Even though I didn’t write this song, I think it’s really funny that’s it’s about Sara and I’s relationship as siblings and some of the darker, harder parts of our career. I had no idea, so when Sara sent it to me, I was just like, Woooow. You know, marveling. Because Sara’s such a lyricist, she just has this way with words. The song’s so sad and I was just imagining Sara writing, feeling sad, and maybe thinking about some past relationship. Then I started relating it to me and what relationships I had been through. Then two months later, when we started talking about the meanings of the song in the press, Sara was like, “Oh yeah, I wrote this song about Tegan and I, the toughest part of our career, and how I felt trapped being in a band with her.” And I just thought, Wow, what an idiot I am. [Laughs] Like, okay, cool, no wonder it resonated with me so much because it was about me! You know, when we get into the studio, I don’t need to be sold on a song. So I never have thought to ask Sara what she’s writing about. I feel like I know what’s going on in her life, her relationships, how she’s doing. She’s happy, she’s in this committed, loving relationship of five years and they have cats, so I just assumed she was writing about the past — and I was sort of right. She was writing about our past. It’s weird, we’ve just never talked about it.

“That Girl,” Love You to Death (2016)
When I was writing this record, I was dating someone. So when I had dinner the other night, a friend asked, “Is that person weirded out that you wrote all those songs and then you guys broke up?” But I didn’t write about my current situation. I don’t want to be that person who writes about my relationships anymore, but I can write about my relationship to relationships. 
So with “That Girl,” it was awkward because I was dating someone but then I took two months to go to Palm Springs and write the bulk of this record. I really struggled with that song because it’s dark. It’s me writing about being treated a certain way and accepting that and, therefore, being okay with treating people a certain way. It’s hard at the end of a beautiful day in Palm Springs to be with person you’re dating at cocktail hour, and you’re like, “Oh, would you like to hear this incredibly dark song about me not putting up with bullshit?” It’s a downer. They’re like, “Cool song!” but you can tell they’re thinking, Is that about me? No, it’s about me and how shitty I am in relationships. Yaaay, enjoy your time here! And it was all Sara who got the song recorded and got it to open the album.

Tegan’s advice for songwriters: Be patient. Sometimes it takes time to hear the song for what it is. I’m also realizing how important it is as a songwriter to relinquish some control over your songs. I always thought, This is my baby, this is what came out of me, I don’t want to change it. But I’ve learned it’s good to be open to feedback.

Sara’s Picks:

“Walking With a Ghost,” So Jealous (2004)
This is a great example of every night when we’re trying to make a set list: Sometimes there are my favorite songs, and then there’s what I know the audience wants to hear. One of the songs I long, long, long ago wished I could stop playing because I didn’t like it anymore was “Walking With a Ghost.” But it’s one of those songs that I know people like, so I’ve tried to have an emotional change of heart about it. I recently reworked it and it’s allowing me to think a little bit more about what exactly makes it such a classic Tegan and Sara song, and one that a lot of people I really respect, musically, also enjoy. I will say, I don’t think it’s easy to write a simple song; sometimes songs that seem simple are actually deceptively hard. With “Walking With a Ghost,” the rhythm of the guitar part and the vocal part are against each other, so I’ve never felt very relaxed when I play it. There’s a lot of mental focus to play it properly. There’s also never really any release or climax, because the two parts of the song are both sort of choruses. It’s just kind of a big moment from start to the end, which I can appreciate makes it an interesting and complex song. One thing I like about it, too, is that I recently heard it in a Barney’s shoe department, and everybody was just kind of going about their day. It was sandwiched in between two mainstream current pop songs, and I just thought, This song is standing up. It’s doing okay, like no one was covering their ears and being like, What just happened? [Laughs.]

“Dark Come Soon,” The Con (2007)
I know Tegan thinks I wasn’t gonna pick one of hers, but I think “Dark Come Soon” is my favorite Tegan and Sara song. I remember receiving the demo, thinking it was really heartbreaking. Tegan does this better than I do — you immediately visualize a location, sort of like the beginning of a novel. You know exactly where it takes place, what’s happening; she’s very good at setting that tone. I always see this song almost as a set. Whatever she describes is what I see, there’s just something very noir about it. I’ve always loved it a lot.

“Alligator,” Sainthood (2009)
This was the first song I wrote for Tegan and Sara that didn’t involve guitar whatsoever. There were lots of songs I’d written where I took guitars out or fooled with the instrumentation later on, but “Alligator” was the first song that I sat down and wrote without even thinking of the guitar. I picked a piano riff that I thought was cool, looped it, and just started building from there. And that was really the beginning of the writing and production that’s really become my standard at this point.

“Now I’m All Messed Up,” Heartthrob (2013)
I was listening to a lot of Dolly Parton, and I don’t feel like I have a good enough voice to do what she does, but I was thinking of “I Will Always Love You” and how those songs work. It’s hard to articulate, but I wanted the song to be able to be stripped down to one instrument with the vocals, or it could be a big anthemic ballad. I know it’s not really a ballad, but it felt like a ballad. I wanted it to be really bulletproof, whether you were playing it stripped it down or a huge full band. This was also maybe the first time I’d given a gender identity to the person who I’m singing about. I don’t usually use pronouns or describe the person, although obviously most people know that I’m gay and will assume that I’m writing about a woman. I remember writing “where you’re leaving your makeup” — and obviously, men can wear makeup, too — and thinking that really feels like it’s purposeful. Most people would assume I’m a girl talking about a girl who’s leaving her makeup in someone else’s bed, and I remember it seemed really new to me to do that. It sounds so weird, but I’m not even sure that I’m doing it because I’m trying to break new ground. It was just discovering a new way to write — I like to write to the “you.” To me, it’s the most emotional way to do something. It sounds so simple to think why did it take so long to cross that boundary, and I’ve done it again with “Boyfriend,” but for me, it’s not that easy. That was the first time I really shed something about who I am and who the person is that I’m dating and writing about.

“BWU,” Love You to Death (2016)
This is maybe the second time I’ve written about marriage and taken a fairly political stance about it. I think given that most people assume everyone would want to get married, and given that we’re queer and with the Supreme Court ruling last year, a lot of people imagined we were celebrating and running off to get married. And I just remember, it was weird, I was really aggravated and sitting down and wanted to write a song. We were hugely invested in the marriage-equality movement, and I think it’s deeply important given all the rights that go along with marriage, but I also really feel like I wanted my voice to be heard afterward. I wanted people to know that just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean that I want to partake. I think there are troubling things raised when you talk about why marriage and weddings are so culturally important, and I wanted to address it. It’s a great, catchy song, but it also breaks new lyrical ground for me. I think I’ve [inserted my politics] in our songs over our career a bit more than Tegan has, but I do take a stance and it is
my stance. But unfortunately, it’s under the umbrella of our band and some people automatically assume that we both feel that way. I don’t think Tegan’s stance on weddings or marriage is as severe as mine, but I also think she’s happy to let me stand up on my own and talk about the questions and concerns that I have about that institution — or how people view my relationship as less than because I don’t want to have a wedding or get married.

Sara’s advice for songwriters: One thing I’ve learned is that you’re always learning. There is no, “I’ve got this now.” There are a few people out there that know how to write a very good song and can do that statistically more often than most people, but for me I’ve realized that the more I write, the better chance I have at writing something that’s actually good.

Tegan and Sara Pick Their 10 Best Songs