Interview: Tegan & Sara — Sisters Making Pop Art, Standing Their Ground

Saran and Tegan Quin.

By Bradley Bambarger <2005>

Tegan & Sara are headlining a late June show at Central Park Summerstage, but the Canadian power-pop duo’s trailer is the one without air-conditioning on what must be the year’s hottest day. That doesn’t stop the disarmingly eloquent twin sisters from talking a mile a minute.

Pausing not so much to breathe as to shoot one another a mocking look or offer a bemused grin, Tegan and Sara Quin discuss the quantum artistic leap of their third album, So Jealous (Vapor/Sanctuary). Another topic is life on the road with the three boys in the band that backs the 24-year-old singer/guitarists.

But munching ice cubes doesn’t keep steam from coming out of Tegan and Sara’s ears when another issue comes up. Both sisters vent anger about recent incidents illustrating the Neanderthal attitudes that two young lesbian artists can encounter on their media rounds, even in relatively enlightened corners of the world.

A review in England’s venerable, tabloid-ish pop weekly NME said, in so many (far coarser) words, that So Jealous was pretty great even though its makers didn’t care for the male sexual apparatus. And a San Diego morning radio host asked the duo to their faces if they coupled with each other.

Regarding the NME, Sara says, “It wasn’t the review that upset us as much as the way everyone around us reacted. It was, ‘They’re jerks, just ignore it.’ Our label and management meant well, but that put it back on us, like it was our responsibility to just deal. Fuck that. What if they had written that Bloc Party is a good band even with a Black singer? Would people have said to him, ‘Just ignore it’? No, they would’ve been outraged with him.

“It’s not just the targets of misogyny and homophobia who should be offended,” Sara adds. “Everyone around us should be just as angry and horrified as we are — that behavior lowers things for everybody. And apathy contributes to the problem.”

As for the rabid radio host — a woman— Tegan says, “When she made that comment about us hooking up, you could probably hear me gasp. I didn’t know whether to cry or to bludgeon her.”

Sara adds, “Because we’re gay, somehow it’s a given that we’re perverse. Our managers turned white, but do you think that woman had to apologize on air for joking about incest? There is no accountability… It can be lonely out there.”

On a more quotidian level, the pair has asked club soundmen for years to turn their monitors up, Tegan says, only often to be given a “Yeah, sure, girlie” response. She adds, “It took our guitar player, a male, to get it done by hearing how low my monitor was and asking to have it turned up. Finally! Just because it’s rock’n’roll, people let attitudes like that slide.”

To be the best allies they can be, Tegan & Sara’s management and the guys in the band — who are “sweet and sensitive,” the duo insists — have vowed to read books on sexism and homophobia during their tour breaks.

Having just finished opening for The Killers, Tegan & Sara are now on their own U.S. club tour. The sisters have been performing and doing promotion together for So Jealous since last July. Yet, by evidence of the Central Park show, the pair’s onstage banter — almost more famous than their music for awhile — is as spontaneous and entertaining as ever.

Good Parents, Cool Kids

Tegan and Sara were born in Calgary, Alberta. Their working-class parents were “young and kind of cool,” Tegan remembers, with their mom listening to Sinead O’Connor’s The Lion & the Cobra when she drove the little girls and their friends to day care.

The Quins — particularly the girls’ mother, a social worker — raised the sisters to be “open-minded and sensitive to the world around us,” Tegan says. The male side of the family helped instill a self-possessed sense of entrepreneurship. The duo are “sober, coherent artists,” Tegan insists, involved in the business side of their music. Sara adds, “We were raised to get things done for ourselves.”

Tegan & Sara started out as spiky-haired teens singing Ani DiFranco-derived punk-folk. When Neil Young manager Elliot Roberts signed the sisters to Young’s label, Vapor Records, he saw them as budding voice-of-their-generation types, according to Tegan. Used to Young’s wandering muse, Roberts had a relaxed attitude to the duo’s development. Still, he was a little confused by the emo-rock songs and semi-’80s power-pop production (as in The Cars, Cheap Trick) they ended up pursuing.

“I think Elliot still sees the non-stop love songs and the weird pop sound of last two records as just a stage on our way to being socially conscious singer/songwriters,” Tegan says.

It was a callow Tegan & Sara that made 2000’s This Business of Art, an album that must seem like an old photo in which they hardly recognize themselves. Opening slots for Neil Young and The Pretenders were ear-opening experiences, and the duo grew up fast for the 2002 album If It Was You, the initial step in their power-pop evolution. It was produced by John Collins and David Carswell of indie-rock outfit the New Pornographers.

“The first time I listened to the New Pornographers,” Sara says, “I wanted to make music like that, music that made you want to just die when you sang along.”

Yet the second album’s charms — led by irresistible single “Monday Monday Monday” — only hinted at the melodic ingenuity and emotional depth that Tegan & Sara would achieve with So Jealous, which they co-produced with Collins and Carswell after crafting meticulous demos on their home computers. Every arrangement is a multi-layered attraction; there are hooks even in the way the two singers slur and slice their words. And those words, mostly about relationships, resonate in a way that feels both familiar and alien, like recognizing yourself in someone else’s journal entry.

Tegan and Sara write separately, with the songs differing like their looks — they’re obviously related but, on inspection, strikingly individual. The So Jealous title track and the disc’s first single, “Walking With a Ghost,” are typical of the edge in Sara’s songs — oblique, yet still catchy. Such songs as “Where Did the Good Go” and this summer’s single, “Speak Slow,” are characteristic of Tegan’s dynamic, more unguarded writing.

The sound of the songs mirrors their making. Tegan — who often seems like the younger sister, brasher yet slightly less confident — is the more facile, prolific songwriter, even if she’s fraught when in the recording studio (as is apparent from the refreshingly honest “making of” documentary included on the So Jealous enhanced CD). Although relaxed in the studio, Sara is a more fastidious writer.

Smiling warmly at one another (although not necessarily so that the other can see), Tegan and Sara are genuine fans of each other’s music, even if they have their differences. “I’ve loved every song I’ve ever heard of Sara’s, but she hates a lot of mine,” Tegan says. Sara replies, “I don’t hate them. It’s just that sometimes they seem unfinished — sounding like other songs or having stock lyrics.”

“They are never ‘stock’,” Tegan asserts. “Anyway, at least I don’t hold songs back like you. I’m brave enough write and play you 30 songs — and art’s about being brave,” Tegan says, smirking at her own comment.

Tegan and Sara are blunt with each other, often graphically so, but they are simultaneously thick-skinned and aware of filial limits. “We know that if we spoke to our drummer the way we speak to each other,” Sara says, “we’d have to find a new drummer.”

Tegan lives in Vancouver, across the continent from Sara in Montreal. “We like each other and would naturally hang out together,” Tegan says. “But we need the chance to tell the same road story five times without the other one around to roll her eyes.”

(Originally published in 2005 in The Star-Ledger of New Jersey.)

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to Medici.tv, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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