Q&A: Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara on tapping into her activist voice

Twin sisters Tegan and Sara are putting their names behind social causes in a bigger way than ever this year.


TORONTO — Twin sisters Tegan and Sara are putting their names behind social causes in a bigger way than ever this year.

Whether it’s championing gender diversity in the music industry or LGBTQ rights, the Calgary-raised duo have turned their pop status into a way to push for change.

“In the early part of our band we didn’t necessarily want to mix those things,” said Sara Quin. “We didn’t want to overwhelm people with our own politics.”

With eight studio albums to their names — and nearly 20 years in the business — they’re now more confident in how they can make a difference by championing social causes.

Last December they formed the U.S.-based Tegan and Sara Foundation for LGBTQ women after Donald Trump was elected president. They’ve also taken on the Juno Awards and Canada’s music industry with a public letter decrying the lack of females in technical roles.

Quin says she grappled with when to speak out early in her career, until eventually she and her sister decided it was time to express themselves more freely.

“I just felt enraged by the indifference and apathy of so many people — not just in the music industry, but in general,” she said.

“At some point I had to dial that down because I was like, ‘OK, not everyone is apathetic. Some people … don’t know how to amplify their voice or they feel their voice isn’t necessary.’ I started to see there are many different ways we can all participate as citizens.”

Tegan and Sara will bring their music to a raft of music festivals this summer, including Ottawa’s Bluesfest on July 8 and WayHome near Barrie, Ont., on July 30. In August they’ll play both Montreal’s Osheaga Music and Arts Festival and the Regina Folk Festival.

Sara Quin spoke with The Canadian Press about how attention from hits like “Boyfriend” and “Everything is Awesome!!!” helped the pair reaffirm their social responsibility.


CP: You formed the Tegan and Sara Foundation to push for “economic justice, health and representation for LGBTQ girls and women.” What was the impetus for getting that program rolling now?

Quin: I like to think of it as when everything starts to become equal … there’s this wave of nationalism happening around the world. Whether it’s “Rolling back to a simpler time” or whatever people are using. This isn’t something just happening with Donald Trump in the United States. I think we’re going to see that artists and public figures should be required to talk about these things. We are not just puppets … we are human beings and these things can have impact on us, our families and our friends.


CP: Do you feel the need to write anything deemed an activist song?

Quinn: I don’t know that Tegan and I are going to release a Black Flag record — 10 political zingers for the airwaves — but I also think (we) see ourselves as smart pop songwriters. (We consider) ourselves as having a critical voice in a world that is often crowded with heterosexual perspectives.


CP: Your letter to Juno organizers over the lack of female representation among this year’s nominees — particularly in the technical categories — grabbed a lot of attention. But you’ve also stated that you don’t squarely blame the Junos or their organizer CARAS. Can you explain your perspective?

Quinn: There are systemic issues. I don’t think of it as being nefarious powers-that-be who are keeping women from producing and engineering albums. I think these are issues that in 20 years of being in the music business we’ve experienced first hand. It’s wide and far. Right now on tour we have a front-of-house sound (mixer) who’s a woman. Our monitor person, tour manager, lighting director and bass player are all women. It is incredibly challenging to find women in a lot of those technical positions. The same goes for women who are producing and engineering (albums). Our last couple albums have been mastered by this wonderful woman Emily Lazar and she’s literally one of the only women who is mastering records at the level she is.


CP: When it comes to seeing actual change, what are you going to do about it?

Quinn: There’s a bigger emotional, philosophical conversation that people in the industry need to have. For me this isn’t a campaign of making people feel bad … this is a sort of: “Hey, let’s all look at this because it’s obviously a problem.” The notion is that when we bring up gender equity the idea is “all or nothing” — and it shouldn’t be. Addressing some of these huge gaps … doesn’t have to be about hiring all women.

We’re starting a campaign that will hopefully address some of this stuff — and it’s not just going to be (directed at) the Junos. It’s everywhere. It’s at SOCAN (which manages performance rights for musicians), it’s the radio, it’s in high levels of record executives. It’s the fact that SOCAN and CARAS all have over 90 per cent men on their board of directors. CARAS has one woman of 13 (board members). SOCAN has only two women (of 18 board members). If you start to peel back the layers you’re going to see it everywhere. We should address it and it shouldn’t just be women addressing it.

— This interview has been edited and condensed.

By David Friend