Photo: Pamela Littky
Photo: Pamela Littky

Passion and Purpose: Tegan and Sara

Tegan and Sara have grown. The twin sisters look eerily similar to when they first burst on the Canadian indie rock scene in the late 90s, but their growth can be heard loud and clear in their music. What started as more of an indie folk sound supported by a backbone of acoustic guitar has now transformed into something a little louder, a little bigger and a little more vibrant. Their message has remained consistent over the years, but their voices carry more weight in the music industry now.

“I think that we’re kind of obsessed with mainstreaming ourselves because we’re not really visible in the mainstream,” Tegan says. “So we want to figure out what kind of cocktail we can shake up to get ourselves in the door.”

As gay performers in pop music, the 37-year-old sisters’ mission is to create a sense of community for their listeners, one that allows fans to form long-lasting bonds that connect and nourish.

“We want to bring people together that wouldn’t usually interact,” Tegan says. “The goal is to make the unrelatable relatable.”

Tegan and Sara will bring DC fans together on November 11 when their The Con 10th Anniversary Acoustic Tour comes to The Anthem. The duo’s new album, The Con X: Covers, commemorates the tenth anniversary of their breakthrough 2007 album, The Con. They worked with notable musicians like Cyndi Lauper, Ryan Adams, Chvrches, Bleachers, and City and Colour to reimagine the tracks while recording the album, but have ventured out on tour without their collaborators.

“We never really played the whole [album] live,” Tegan says. “We’re excited, and we’re donating the proceeds of the record and a dollar from every ticket sold for the tour to [the Tegan and Sara Foundation].”

A History of Activism

Not only have Tegan and Sara carved out a space for themselves in more mainstream pop, they’ve also used their fame to promote advocacy. Social justice is a legacy woven into the fabric of who they are, as both musicians and community builders.

They’ve always been strong activists, even before they were musicians. They grew up attending Women’s Day and Take Back the Night marches, and as gay musicians are looked up to by the LGBTQ community. Because of this, the transition to mainstream hasn’t always been seamless.

“I do think women who are queer have to work harder to sell that our music is for other people,” Tegan says. “I’ve been reading all this press from The Con era, and it’s incredible what’s changed in 10 years. There was a review that literally said, ‘If you aren’t a lesbian, then this record isn’t for you.’”

As their music career developed, they continued their social justice work by participating in fundraisers, charity events and rallies. It was always a component of their artistry, Tegan says, and remained a priority in recent years.

“Social activism, social justice, being outspoken, being political, being out – all of those things have fit nicely within the confines of our career.”

The Start of Something Big

This passion drove the musicians to start their foundation last October. The Tegan and Sara Foundation advocates for economic justice, health and representation of LGBTQ girls and women, and gives fans an outlet for their own advocacy by supporting causes like LGBTQ support circles, inclusive school curriculums and sexual health networks.

Women are the focal point because they are the most underrepresented, according to funding statistics. Last year, the federal government gave $160 million dollars to LGBTQ causes, Tegan says. Only $4.3 million went to women’s organizations.

“LGBTQ women are some of the most marginalized and in need,” says Kristen Plumberg, senior analyst at the Tegan and Sara Foundation. “We want their lives to be the same as everyone else’s.”

The foundation is also a gesture of gratitude toward supporters. Tegan and Sara wanted to create a place where fans could openly express themselves, and establish a sense of community.

“We’ve always felt incredibly supported by our LGBTQ fans,” Tegan says. “We wanted to make a statement that we’re behind them, too.”

Impact and Equality

Tegan recalls a particular performance where, speaking with the audience between songs, it hit her how personal their work is. Audience members shared stories of rejection and vulnerability surrounding their sexuality, and were received with cheers, applause and acceptance. The room was full of a positive, communal energy that moved her to the core.

“These are the moments that make me get on a flight for 15 hours,” she says. “Our audiences are changing things, and I feel so proud to be a part of it.”

The most important piece of their work, though, is the fight for equality. The duo has produced six out of eight of their records, insisted on female production directors and spoken out at festivals where women artists were underrepresented.

“Other artists started reaching out to us for advice,” Tegan says. “We’re really honored they’re using us as a resource.”

Looking Ahead

Tegan and Sara will continue the Con X tour through the end of November, visiting cities including Austin, Atlanta, Boston and Detroit. Afterwards, they’ll focus on writing and starting a new record, as well as developing their very first podcast.

“We’re not disappearing, but we want to take some time off the road so we can focus on next steps,” Tegan says. “We’re excited to dive into some new creative work.”

Their priority is to continue creating relatable music and mainstreaming their work so it’s accessible to people from all walks of life.

“We try to write in a way that’s available to a broad spectrum of people,” Tegan says. “We don’t want to put up any barriers.”

Their music is fueled by their desire to build an inclusive community, fight for equality and shape the future for LGBTQ women.

“Music is my passion,” Tegan says. “But when it comes to social justice work, that feels like purpose.”

Don’t miss Tegan and Sara at The Anthem on Saturday, November 11 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $50.50-$76. For more information on their Con X tour, visit www.teganandsara.com.

The Anthem: 901 Wharf St. SW, DC; 202-888-0020; www.theanthemdc.com

Trent Johnson contributed to this article. 

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Jamie McCrary

Jamie McCrary is a writer, musician, and educator currently based in Washington, DC. As a journalist, she’s covered everything from science policy to statistics—though the arts is her specialty. She is currently Communications Coordinator for American University’s Kogod School of Business, where she writes articles to promote the school’s faculty, students and events. Ms. McCrary is published in NEA Arts Magazine, Connections Magazine, and Eat-Drink-Lucky. She holds a B.M. in viola performance and also maintains an active performing and teaching career. Learn more at mccraryjamie.wixsite.com/writer-editor/