It's early in 2013, but not too early to say we don't expect to hear too many albums this year better on the topic of love than twin sisters Tegan & Sara's latest album, the heavily pop-leaning Heartthrob. In the LP, romance gets tangled up with lust, nostalgia, hurt and desperation for one of the most evocative and relatable albums that we've heard in a long time, and anyone who's ever been in a relationship should find something in one of the ten songs to hit pretty damn close to home.
Clearly, the girls know a thing or two about writing a love song. So with Valentine's Day rapidly approaching—oh crap, it's really tomorrow, isn't it?—we caught up with Sara Quin, eight minutes the younger of the duo, to ask her a couple questions the art of the love song, both as she writes in her own songs and as she hears in those by others. Her answers were nearly as vivid and emotional as the songs on Heartthrob—though not as catchy or immaculately produced.
POPDUST: What was the first love song you ever wrote? What, if anything, inspired it, and what's it like to listen to (or think back on) it today?
SARA QUIN: When I first started writing songs at 15, they were mostly about fictional characters doing abstract things—"Johnny had a Friend" is an example—or very literal, like "Tegan Didn't Go To School Today." I remember that changed after the first half dozen songs, and I started to write more directly about the girl I liked. The lyrics were still fairly opaque, but I remember getting a thrill out of playing [the new songs] because they felt much more revealing and risky. I still feel that rush today, which is why I struggle to write about anything other than desire or rejection.
When writing a love song, how important is it that you have real-life experience that corresponds to the song topic? Have you ever written a love song that was completely, 100% removed from your own personal experience?
I haven't written anything entirely fictional. I have combined moments and experiences from different relationships or experiences in order to complete a story. The facts are true, but the over-arching story might be slightly Frankenstein. I still feel deeply connected to those songs though, just in a more "life flashing before your eyes" kind of way.
Do you ever try to avoid actually using the word "love" when writing a love song? Does it feel cheap to use it, or is it sometimes necessary to get a feeling across?
I try very hard not to use words like "baby", "love" and "heart". Only when absolutely necessary! It's not cheap, but I do think it's worth digging deeper into the intention and finding different ways to convey it.
Have you ever written a love song that was so personal you decided not to record or release it? Any that you prefer not to play live, for similar reasons?
I have written songs that felt too painful, yes. I generally know it in demo form if I'm going to be able to dissociate enough to perform a song. I think some songs are too confessional, and they don't heal over the way other songs do. So they stay in the vault.
When writing a love song about or inspired by a specific person, do you ever consider them listening to it when writing it? Like, "uh-oh, maybe I shouldn't put that in there, that's too obvious or revealing?"
I'm fairly good at keeping things broad and vague enough that I don't generally feel I'm exposing anyone unfairly. I do worry about exploiting my personal life and remain quite vigilant about revealing personal details artfully and respectfully.
Is there one thing that popular love songs tend to do that drives you nuts? Something you try to avoid in your own writing?
I tend to gravitate to love songs that portray the darker side of love. I feel a little indifferent about gooey happy love songs. I don't think happiness is as unique as pain and rejection.
What's the most romantic line or couplet you've ever heard in a love song you didn't write?
There are so many! I love Bruce Springsteen, and songs like "I'm on Fire." Those will never lose their impact.
Do you ever get emotionally exhausted from writing songs about love? Would you ever consider going an entire album without writing one?
I can't fathom what I would write about!