One of the most compelling elements of music is harmony, where voices blend together in unison, at once distinct but complementary. Everything about sibling act Tegan and Sara reflects the power of that. But while it’s striking just how much the 29-year-old identical twins look and sound alike, that impression is just as quickly counteracted by their markedly individual personalities.
Sitting across from each other in a tiny CBC studio dressing room the day after a triumphant pair of back-to-back sold-out shows in Toronto, the duo look, on first glance, like a matched set of china dolls, diminutive figures with fine-boned features and matching brunette pixie crops. But upon closer inspection, it’s obvious that the Quin sisters, already veterans of the music biz after a steadily rising 12-year career, are anything but a package deal. Tegan cuts a brasher, punkier figure, dressed all in black, impressive tattoos snaking down both arms; Sara sports some ink, too, but hidden underneath a long-sleeved scarlet cardigan that befits her serene yet slyly cheeky demeanour.
Lately, life on the road for Tegan and Sara has come with a schedule not unlike that of a head of state, but they’ve managed to squeeze in a chat between singing with a talking yam (CBC’s popular kids’ puppet Mamma Yamma), and taping a PSA for Haiti relief, among the many other commitments shoehorned into their supposed day off.
While the weariness is apparent on their faces, you’d never know it from their eager, engaged chatter—a conversation with both sisters is like a rapid-fire game of ping-pong, each batting ideas back and forth as quickly as the other finishes a thought.
“Sara and I never had aspirations of being rich and famous and selling millions of records, so when you hit the bar that you’ve set, it’s an interesting thing.”
They’re clearly riding high on the massive success of their latest album, Sainthood, which hones their spiky indie power-pop into a sleek package of infectious hooks and those trademark harmonies. It’s a sound far removed from the acoustic folk-rock that got the teen guitar strummers signed to Neil Young’s label, but that has since garnered them a rabidly devoted fanbase and sold-out shows everywhere they go, including a recent double-header at Toronto’s legendary theatre Massey Hall chased with a gig the next night in the less-sedate environs of the rock club Kool Haus.
“The Massey Hall show felt really special,” Tegan reflects, pausing to tease her sister, who’s attempting to eat a sandwich as quickly as possible so as to join in the discussion. “But it also felt a little melancholy to stand up there and know that you’ve hit a certain level. Sara and I never had aspirations of being rich and famous and selling millions of records, so when you hit the bar that you’ve set, it’s an interesting thing. So I thought a lot about that on stage, and then the next night we did Kool Haus and I just got up and fucking rocked it, and didn’t think about any of that,” she says, chuckling.
The duo’s steady trajectory has been anything but straightforward, although they’ve managed to stay true to their indie roots while on a major label. They have carved out a solid body of work with six full-length albums and challenged themselves artistically with each release. For Sainthood, produced by Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla, the sisters embarked on perhaps the biggest challenge of all: writing songs together. Previously the duo had always written their own tunes separately and then recorded their parts together in the studio, a formula which tends to work well given that Tegan calls Vancouver home these days, and Sara lives in Montreal when they aren’t on the road.
“It’s always interesting for me when I meet people who write in bands together, because I’m always curious about deconstructing that and finding out, ‘Okay, when you don’t like something, what vocabulary do you use?’ ”
Although only one of the tracks the two co-wrote during a 2008 session in New Orleans ended up on the new album (they’re hoping to release the demos as an EP in the near future), the endeavour was a fruitful one, and made their bond—both as siblings and artists—stronger.
“There’s an intimacy there, it’s a little bit more stream of consciousness; I can be more full-disclosure with Tegan,” Sara explains. “It’s always interesting for me when I meet people who write in bands together, because I’m always curious about deconstructing that and finding out, ‘Okay, when you don’t like something, what vocabulary do you use? What approach do you use with your songwriting partner?’ But for us, music is something we’ve always worked on together.”
Despite their success, which will see them join the highly anticipated return of Lilith Fair this summer, and includes a recent and memorable performance on The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, Tegan and Sara remain unlikely pop stars. They prefer to stay accessible and maintain a large degree of control over their career and public image. As early adopters of online promotion, the duo always tries to connect with fans directly, with refreshing candour.
“You want to give the impression you’re being intimate with people, and you’re sharing with them, but my God, your true self—that’s something I don’t necessarily even feel I’m comfortable showing to people I’m actually friends with,” Sara says. “I certainly would never get on the Internet and be blogging about my breakup and crying into my video camera, you know?”
“I think Sara and I are seen as those down-to-earth, ‘you could meet us on the street and be our friend’ kind of people,” Tegan chimes in. “We’re very aware that this is a blue-collar living—there are very few artists who make millions a year, with multiple houses and private jets. The rest of us just hopefully invest well and have a good, long career. We really like our fans—we just want to play to them and grow our audience, and our objective has always been to surround ourselves with those kinds of things.”
Photos: Pamela Littky.