Never content to be Calgary's answer to The Proclaimers, twin sisters Tegan and Sara Quin have steadily evolved over the past decade from spunky teen folk-popsters into top-tier indie-rock heroines — spunkiness still intact. This year, they're touring behind the most critically and commercially successful album of their career, Sainthood, and taking the main stage with the relaunched Lilith Fair tour. It's already sure to be a far cry from the Quin twins' last Lilith experience back in 1999, when they played the village stage to a handful of hippies in Edmonton, Alberta.
"Back then, when Tegan and I first started touring, we really didn't understand the music industry at all," says Sara Quin, 29, from her home in Montreal. "At 19, we were like wayward youth — teenage runaways on the Greyhound bus, going across Canada and playing to 20 people in a sports bar. It was a serious achievement if we managed to get to our Econo Lodge and check in. [Laughs.] We didn't have cell phones. And music websites and blogs and all that shit — it just didn't exist. But, you know, we made do the old-fashioned way, and we toured. And over the years, all these experiences started to define how we worked."
Of course, getting signed to Neil Young's Vapor Records at the age of 20 certainly didn't hinder the sisters' efforts, either. But it wasn't really until the 2004 release of their fourth LP — the dancier, more synth-heavy So Jealous — that Tegan and Sara's career truly shot into hyperdrive, creating an unexpected business venture in the process.
"We are still signed to a record label [Sire], but that's just a small part now of what it means to be a musician," Quin says. "Tegan and I have really built this whole little world — the Tegan and Sara business. We have our own touring company, our own merchandising company, various full-time employees and managers. And on top of that, we're trying to write songs and record albums! But you know, it's amazing. Every year our business grows and we branch out into new things. I mean, we basically just thrive on making shit [laughs]. We just always hope it's quality shit."
Last year's LP Sainthood, produced by Chris Walla (also guitarist for Death Cab For Cutie), would certainly seem to fall into Sara's "quality shit" category, as the album raked in a bevy of great reviews and landed at a career-best No. 21 on the Billboard Top 200. (Sainthood was also paired with the release of an exclusive book set called On, In, At.)
"I feel like since the first show we did on this album, the response to the new material has just been so awesome," Quin says. "With [2007's] The Con, I think there was some growing time needed to fully appreciate it. But Sainthood is much more immediate. I mean, years later, when I think about The Con — it was a really dark record, and a really intense time. Everything about the experience was positive, but there's definitely a heaviness to it. Whereas with Sainthood, it feels really light. It doesn't feel like I'm hanging onto it as much. Like, it happened, it was pretty positive, the record's out, and I don't feel like I need therapy [laughs]."
A key factor in Sainthood's immediacy was Walla's suggestion of recording the full band (with Walla on bass and Death Cab's Jason McGerr on drums) live in complete takes — thus cutting down on the number of overdubs and more closely approximating the feel of a Tegan and Sara concert.
"Chris really wanted to try and capture the performance as a band — not just taking the guitar from one take and the drums from another," Sara explains. "It was like, 'What takes do we really, really love as a band?' So it's exciting for me because it does feel like it's given the album this real intensity and this energy that I don't think our past records have had."
Another curveball tossed into the making of Sainthood was Tegan and Sara's attempt to write some songs together — something they have surprisingly shied away from in the past. Sadly, only one track from that experiment actually landed on the album, but a rather large leaf may have been turned over in the process.
"I think you sort of create a way of working. Like, Tegan and I always just gravitated toward working on songs independently. It's a pretty intimate process, so it's not always easy to bring someone else into it. Plus, when Tegan and I have time off, we're in different cities [Tegan lives in Vancouver, Sara in Montreal], so the process has just been pretty independent the whole way along. But I think that as we get older and are more confident in our songwriting and have more opportunities to expand that process, including each other more is kind of an obvious next step. It's like, 'Well, I've got this instrumental here, why don't you try writing something for it?' It changes things up, which is always a good thing."
Then again, the duo's time-tested approach may not need changing up: Across six albums, their respective solo songwriting efforts have produced a number of near-perfect pop songs, with Sara delivering perhaps their catchiest, best-known singles: "Walking with a Ghost" (from So Jealous); "Back In Your Head" (from The Con); and arguably the standout track on Sainthood, "Alligator" — which has a punchy piano riff reminiscent of ABC's "The Look of Love."
"I'm very obsessed with the idea of having a song that sort of bruises your brain," Sara says. "Like, I love it when people say, 'I can't get your song out of my head!' I want that! I like that feeling [laughs]. I know it sometimes makes people not like the song, but I feel like it's not an easy thing to write an earworm. And when it happens — when I do write one of those hooks — it's just like, 'Yes!' I feel like I'm writing for the Backstreet Boys or something!"
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