Tegan & Sara

Sisters of Mercy

BY Amanda AshPublished Oct 23, 2009

"For people to trust you and believe you, they have to see you a little bit. I'm not afraid to expose myself in that way," says Sara Quin, of sibling duo Tegan and Sara. The petite brunette has just led me into the heart of the east Vancouver jam space where she and her identical twin Tegan are rehearsing for upcoming tours. The room we're in is expansive, chilly and draped in darkness aside from a single strip of light in the middle of the room; she drags a sofa under the wimpy illumination and offers it to me, taking a straight-backed chair opposite for herself. "If we were a genre film," she continues, "we'd be a documentary."

Formed in the basement of their stepfather's home in Calgary when they were in high school, Tegan and Sara's charming blend of garage rock and acoustic pop melodies have led to their slow-burning success in both the indie and mainstream spheres. Side by side, they broke through their local scene when they earned one of the highest scores in a Calgary battle-of-the-bands competition. By 1999, the teenaged Tegan and Sara were shoved into the spotlight when asked to play Sarah McLachlan's Lilith Fair. Soon after that, the Quin twins' witty personalities and musical prowess caught the attention of Neil Young who signed them to his Vapor Records label in 2000.

Since 1999, Tegan and Sara found themselves sharing stage space with each other and with acclaimed acts like Ryan Adams, Ben Folds, the Killers, Cake and Death Cab For Cutie. They've made six full-length albums: Under Feel Like Ours, released independently in 1999; This Business Of Art, produced by Canadian musician Hawksley Workman, came out in mid-2000; when 2002's It Was You was followed by So Jealous in 2004 it garnered much critical acclaim, as did The Con when it hit the shelves in 2007. Their new album, Sainthood, just arrived.

Today, at the age of 29, Tegan and Sara have become two of the most popular Canadian female musicians, spawning a handful of fan sites and YouTube cover songs in their honour. Tegan and Sara are a package deal ― they've accomplished everything together. But talking to the twins it's evident that underneath their joint "brand" and the many clichéd labels they've had to endure, Tegan and Sara haven't melted into a boring single commodity. They've held dear to their witty personalities and quirks; it's their character as individuals that make Tegan and Sara less bland twin punch line and more unique partnership. Like a good documentary, the twins prefer to illustrate the reality of their relationship over some cheesy, predictable narrative that screams "OMG, BFF!"

Tegan finally joins us but the twins opt to be interviewed separately. "We're more fun that way," Sara, the staid adult of the two, asserts. The similarities between the two (aside from looking identical) are striking: both sport a short, choppy cut that curls off to the side of their faces. Both speak in the same rushed, attitude-driven manner that makes their performance banter so entertaining (If you've ever seen them live, you're bound to hear Tegan cheerily chatter on about the precise evolution of her songs while Sara stares at her with incredulity, and vice versa.) But then there are the differences: Tegan prefers to wear her hair with that straight-outta-bed look. Sara's tone is a bit mellower. And Tegan has a small piercing in her chin, which is probably the best way to physically tell the two apart.

In the media world, it's been hard for the Quins to be distinguished as separate voices ― clumped together, they're "Tegan and Sara: the novelty," commonly referred to as "those queer twins from Canada," according to Sara. It's led to a lot of superficial questions, like "How do you manage to work with your sister?" and "Do you fight?" "If I didn't like working with her, I wouldn't be!" Sara exclaims.

"The first couple of years we were in the business, all people ever focused upon was that we were twins or that we were lesbians or women," Tegan offers candidly. "It's surprising how big magazines will still write stuff that's homophobic or sexist. Like, a woman was reviewing us in Pitchfork, and she said [the 2007 album] The Con was 'moving us away from the "tampon rock" we used to be.' And I was like, 'What, because we have lots of girls in our audience we're tampon rock?!' It was so offensive."

The Quins turned to a personal blog to ensure their true voices were heard beyond glossy print, constantly writing, uploading photos and recording video diaries, often about completely random subjects and squabbles, like how to pronounce "Moog." "The only way we could communicate with our fans in the beginning ― and by fans I mean, like, six people ― was to use the internet," Sara says. "The more press we got from TV and magazines and online, the more compelled I felt to put up my own views and opinions because when you let your band and your image and your words go through the filter of journalism, you're relying on a lot of people's hang ups and preconceived notions. The way to combat that was to continue to put our opinions and the image of ourselves that was more real and authentic so the kids out there had that to balance the views of Joe Blow who was writing for whatever."

Being twins, there's an assumption that Tegan and Sara's personal gossip gets turned into songs. In reality, they've almost always written separately; whichever twin pens the song performs it while the other supports her live. Today, Tegan lives in Vancouver while Sara's in Montréal, and the same solitary writing process holds true. Sonically, Tegan's songs tend to take on a rough rock edge, while Sara's maintain a silky pop aura, giving their albums a sense of variety and perspective while remaining thematically linked.

But during the fall of 2008, Tegan and Sara jetted off to New Orleans to attempt a songwriting experiment for their new album: writing side-by-side in the same room, at the same time, something they'd never really done. "It was messy," Sara laughs. "The music was way darker with just Tegan on drums and me on electric guitar."

They wrote seven or eight songs together, later sending them ― along with a handful of individual songs ― to their producer, Death Cab For Cutie's Chris Walla, back on board after producing 2007's The Con. He cut the list down to 17 and only one New Orleans track escaped the chopping block. "As an ensemble [the New Orleans songs] would work really well together, but trying to put [them] into the current record would've felt awkward," Sara says, while noting the possibility of an EP of the New Orleans songs.

When Walla produced The Con, the twins held the decision-making power. Tegan and Sara had a specific plan for The Con: the exact demo songs, even the precise track order, and it ended up a dark, dense and intimate headphone record that was also very formulaic. For Sainthood, Walla took control. He wanted the album to be more organic and collaborative, in the vein of their New Orleans experiment, retaining the intimacy of The Con but with an in-the-moment spark. He insisted Tegan and Sara play their demos with a band, live off the floor, 50-plus times, letting them evolve into true-blue band songs. It was the first time Tegan and Sara recorded as a five-piece, singing and playing on each other's tracks. Both twins coped differently. According to blog posts, it was common for Tegan to wear a bat mask and call herself "Bategan." One post had Sara discussing her latest read, J.M Coetzee's Diary Of A Bad Year, where she quoted a telling line: "Rene Girard's fable of the warring twins is pertinent: the fewer the substantive differences between the two parties, the more bitter their mutual hatred."

Walla wanted the lone New Orleans composition, "Sainthood," to be the title track. The problem was, it borrowed lyrics from a 1979 Leonard Cohen song called "Came So Far For Beauty" ― when they couldn't clear rights to the lyrics, they had to scrap the song. Walla suggested they name the album in its honour, seeing how the track's theme connected the twin's individual songs that would end up on the album. "['Sainthood'] resembled how we were both feeling about ourselves," Tegan says. She describes the idea of sainthood as embodying the secular themes of admiration, delusion and obsession we exhibit during the pursuit of love and relationships. According to Tegan and Sara, sainthood is romantic fanaticism, emotional longing, and the practice of being perfect so that we may be adored by the object of our fascination.

But Tegan makes a point of explaining that they haven't gone batshit religious. "We're really reluctant for people to mistake the title for a religious thing," she says. "We're not dictating what religion is. But there are parallels between faith in God and faith in religion and faith in relationships."

The decidedly un-acoustic Sainthood ended up becoming fiery, unhinged DIY pop rock with a stripped-down approach to unrequited love. "I feel like this record for me is analyzing the past," Tegan says, noting that some of her strongest Sainthood songs were written three or four years ago when she was writing for The Con. "For Sara, Sainthood is her present. This is her Con in a way, her very ripped apart analyzing record." For Tegan, most of The Con's material was about her pursuing a girl who didn't feel the same way.

For Sara, Sainthood became that emotional outlet, channelling a recent break-up that left her feeling hysterical. "I always say that anybody who's single ― like Sara ― their love is the most intense love," Tegan says. "The heartbreak they're enduring is the most intense heartbreak. We cannot understand what Sara's going through. When it's love, it's my love, you can't understand it. You can't compare. But I really related to where Sara was on this record. When she was writing these songs and coming to me like, 'You don't understand,' I was like, 'You're right, but I also do.'"

Looking back on the finished product, both Tegan and Sara are happy with Sainthood and the snapshot of crazed romanticism it captures. According to Tegan: "It can be psychologically abusive to yourself to recount the same fucked-up shit over and over again. That's music ― you can instantly tap into that feeling again. I have to be careful sometimes when I'm on stage that I don't go to my dark place and remember every detail." And, of course, Sara offers a whole other solution: "Xanax and whiskey work well," she deadpans.

Revealing personal truths in song is the bread-and-butter of many ― perhaps most ― songwriters, and given their "documentary" approach, it's natural that Tegan & Sara continue to be open with fans, as they have throughout their career. Just don't look for Sara to be doing it on Twitter, where she draws a personal line in the sand. "If I wrote [on Twitter] that my favourite colour was yellow, there'd be a blog about it and people would be like 'Can you believe she likes yellow? I can't even believe it!' And I'd have to be like, 'Oh my god, fuck off.'"

Tour Dates

Latest Coverage