Tegan and Sara are still evolving the way they collaborate, even twenty years into recording together and twenty more as twin sisters. For their tenth studio album, Crybaby, they got inside each other’s songs in a whole new way. “This was the first time where, while we were still drafting our demos, we were thinking about how the songs were going to work together,” says Tegan. “It wasn't even just that Sara was making lyric changes or reorganizing the parts to my songs, it was that she was also saying to me, ‘This song is going to be faster,’ or ‘It's going to be in a different key.’ But Sara effectively improves everything of mine that she works on.” Sara adds, with a laugh: “Maybe I am the renovator. I’m the house-flipper of the Tegan and Sara band,”
The reality is that Sara did step up greatly in her role as a producer for this exciting, elevated collection of songs, which began with her glitchy lo-fi demos for “I Can’t Grow Up” and “All I Wanted.” She says: “I've been joking about making ‘my bedroom electronic record’ for the last twenty years. I’ll make these instrumentals with vocal ad libs, and I’m basically always working on it. When the pandemic started, I would go to my little studio and mess around – not really thinking about making an album for Tegan and Sara, just thinking about how to get through the day and not collapse under stress and anxiety about the pandemic. I started fooling around with a very simple sampling app called Keezy, using it to make all sorts of vocal samples, and that’s how those songs began.” Tegan remembers Sara sending her those demos and instantly feeling inspired by them. “They felt very new and fresh and really different from anything we'd been doing,” she says.
In August of 2021, they booked studio time in Seattle with producer John Congleton, whose previous works include albums they love by Sharon Van Etten, Angel Olsen and Future Islands. It was their first time leaving Canada since the start of the pandemic, and they thought they’d just be getting their feet wet at in-person recording again. At that point, the plan was to simply record a couple singles, and they truly had no intention of beginning their next album. They had, after all, recently signed on to make the upcoming TV adaptation of their 2019 memoir, High School, and were planning to focus on that first. High School is a new coming-of-age series that just finished production in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. It is co-created and executive produced by Tegan, Sara and Clea DuVall and produced by Plan B Entertainment and Amazon Studios.
But, within hours of their arrival at Seattle’s Studio Litho, they felt more new ideas coming, and an unexpected rush of enthusiasm when Congleton quickly suggested that they record an entire album together. “There was so much energy,” says Tegan, “and once we were in the studio with John and started adding layers, it started to feel alive, and it was like, ‘OK, change of plans! Let's not just focus on a couple songs. Let's actually make an album.”
They went back home and dug through their demos, looking for songs that echoed the spirit of those first couple songs. Sara came back with tracks like the dancefloor-ready “I’m Okay” and the sweet, anthemic “Yellow,” among others – as she puts it, “songs about change, and never changing, and the nostalgia aching in our bones.” And Tegan, who had been working on her own cache of songs during the pandemic, came forth with “Fucking Up What Matters” and “Smoking Weed Alone” and “Pretty Shitty Time” – or as she puts it, songs “about my body, about age, about love, about the loneliness I felt the past couple years, about how it feels to have everything you want and a desire to throw it all away.” Informed by some of the intense new experiences they’ve had the past couple years – the stress and trauma of the pandemic, the upheaval of changing their entire professional team including their label and management, and other personal trials and tribulations – the twins found some of their most potent inspiration yet, and a willingness to try doing things differently.
“With this album, I wanted there to be a dialogue that we could have about the songs,” says Sara. “Some of Tegan’s songs became almost like duets, because she allowed me to go in there and challenge her to rewrite lyrics. I wanted a narrative that could tie into our relationship and some of the things that were happening in our life, even if the song wasn't about that. And for ‘Smoking Weed Alone,’ there’s a chorus where we’re sort of singing to each other, and we haven’t done that before, in our career.”
When they returned to the studio – this time in Los Angeles, at Sargent Recorders – Congleton refined and elaborated on the production aesthetic Sara had conceived for the demos, while still remaining true to their sonic blueprint. “John was so generous in the way he honored the production decisions in these demos, and the fact that I’m also a producer,” says Sara. “But he also is a bit of a renovator, so some of the songs he was like, ‘I mixed everything up and added a bunch of shit.’ And he works so fast – he’s like a madman. I think that that's another thing that's helped inspire us in this period of our life. As you get older as an artist, you spend too much time thinking about yourself, and too much time thinking about what work you're doing. But for this album, we were not in a place where we needed to overthink our music, and John kept reinforcing that: ‘Does it feel good? Do we like this? Let’s move on.’ It was refreshing and fun and it didn’t feel so serious, like we were having to make our magnum opus.”
Although the source of the title Crybaby isn’t revealed until several tracks in, as a refrain in the bridge to the deliriously catchy “Under My Control,” the word is meaningful for the album as a whole. In the past, they had both tried to avoid using the words “cry” and “baby” in their songs (there are exceptions, of course), out of feeling that both words had become cringe-inducing clichés. But, similar to naming their chart-topping 2013 album Heartthrob to reappropriate the word from its masculine connotation, they wanted to explore new contexts for the words, both separately and together.
“One of the major themes on this record is the empowerment that comes with being vulnerable and accepting your feelings,” says Tegan. “The word ‘cry baby’ seems sweet and innocent and youthful, but there's also this other energy to it – like when you're in the airport, and you see a three year-old throw themselves down on the ground and cry. And you think, ‘I would love to be able to do that every once in a while. I'd feel better if I could just toss myself on the ground and have a good ol’ tantrum. And then stand up and be totally recovered, because they got it all out of their system. As adults, we suppress all of that tension, anxiety, sadness, disappointment and we're just a mess. So there's something powerful about ‘crybaby,’ because it’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna be a fucking disaster, and that’s great.’”
The twins say they’ve begun to feel a renewed sense of intensity around all of their creative projects, whether the upcoming album or the TV show or various other endeavors they’ve undertaken. “With everything we’re doing now, there’s a passion and urgency that I haven’t felt in a long time,” Sara says. “I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I’m very rested for once, and during a lot of the last decade, Tegan and I were really running on empty. And so right now everything feels really big and exciting and energetic. And I love the new album for that reason – it doesn't feel introspective, there's an activeness to it, and it feels like it needs to live in the world.”
“We dismantled the way we do things, and put ourselves in this place where we’re uncomfortable,” says Tegan. “And that makes good things happen, creatively. At this point in our career, we are so deep into our strength and our confidence that we were just like, we can fucking destroy absolutely everything because we know that we can rebuild. I think that's a theme of our band. We never play it safe. We're dismantlers. And I think this album is us power-tripping on the fact that we just lit fire to everything.”